It's scary to think what kind of defense Texas could have. If you thought Manny Diaz did a good job turning this group of rag-tag novices into the Big 12's best defense, just wait to see what he might be able to do with next year's. Running down what may be the Longhorns' defensive lineup in 2012 could end up being a lot like going over next season's all-conference squad. But the lure of the NFL could put a couple dents in the Longhorns' defense as juniors Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro face difficult decisions - whether to come back for their senior season and continue to rebuild the program "brick by brick" or to take their chances and bolt for the pros. Here's a look at the 2012 version of the Longhorns defense


Defensive End: 1st string – Jackson Jeffcoat, Alex Okafor; 2nd string – Cedric Reed, Reggie Wilson; Others - Caleb Bluiett, Hassan Ridgeway

Again, this is a tentative projection because of the possibility of Okafor declaring for the NFL Draft. The junior made 54 tackles and 14 for loss, along with seven sacks and 17 quarterback hurries, good enough to land him on the AFCA All-American team. His partner in crime, sophomore Jackson Jeffocat actually racked up more tackles (63) and more tackles for loss (18) than Okafor, to go along with six sacks. If they both came back next season, they would make for one of the country's best pair of pass rushers - a useful thing to have in a Big 12 conference that always boasts several of the top quarterbacks in the nation. If Okafor decides to go pro, then either Reed or Wilson - both talented but young players - would have big shoes to fill. 


Defensive Tackle: 1st string – Calvin Howell, Brandon Moore; 2nd string – Ashton Dorsey, Desmond Jackson; Others – Greg Daniels, Chris Whaley, Malcolm Brown

This position was thought to be one of the most unreliable coming into this season, even with the sensational senior Kheeston Randall leading the way. Randall earned second-team All-Big 12 honors this season but won't be around next year. Thanks to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and defensive tackles coach Bo Davis, guys like Calvin Howell, Ashton Dorsey, Desmond Jackson and (especially) Chris Whaley (a former tailback who is learning the position on the fly) have made significant strides. Howell made six starts and Dorsey made four this year and would both project to be starters if it weren't for junior college transfer Brandon Moore - a member of the 2009 national championship Alabama team that beat Texas in the title game. He's listed at 6'7", 335 pounds and should provide a big boost to Texas' run defense next season. Five-star defensive tackle Malcolm Brown comes in for next year and will be one of several young studs on this Longhorns defensive line.


Outside Linebacker: 1st string – Jordan Hicks, Demarco Cobbs; 2nd string – Kendall Thompson, Tevin Jackson; Others – Aaron Benson, Paul Boyette, Jr., Peter Jinkens, Alex De La Torre, Timothy Cole

Linebacker was one of the most productive units on the entire team this season but without Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, who have combined to make more than 400 tackles over the past two seasons, they could take a step back next year. Jordan Hicks will be the lone returning starter among Longhorns linebackers but with someone as talented as Demarco Cobbs, who missed this season's first six games with a broken arm, lining up opposite him, Texas should be in good shape. Peter Jinkens and Timothy Cole are two of the most highly touted linebackers of the Class of 2012 while Alex De La Torre gives the Longhorns a good chance to land teammate and No. 1 overall prospect, according to ESPN - Denton Ryan defensive end Mario Edwards.

Inside Linebacker: 1st string – Steve Edmond, 2nd string - Chet Moss

Robinson played outside linebacker as a junior but moved to the middle for his senior season. But while a broken thumb kept him out of most of Texas' 17-5 loss to Missouri, Texas fans got a glimpse of what they'll be getting a bigger dose of next year at middle linebacker. When the Tigers blocked a Longhorns fan and recovered at Texas' 1-yard line, Missouri got stuffed on three straight plays, the last of which saw Demarco Cobbs keep the Big 12's leading rusher, Henry Josey, out of the end zone. It's plays like that that have Longhorns fans excited about the prospect of Cobbs starting in 2012, even if they'll miss Robinson.


Cornerback: 1st string - Carrington Byndom, Quandre Diggs; 2nd string - Josh Turner, A.J. White; Others - Leroy Scott, Bryson Echols, Orlando Thomas

Like defensive tackle, cornerback was a position that many were unsure of coming into this season but one that grew into a strength. Even after losing three guys (Chykie Brown, Curtis Brown, Aaron Williams) to the NFL Draft, Texas' secondary grew into one of the conference's finest with Byndom becoming an elite corner and Diggs proving to be a problem for offensive playmakers across the Big 12. Both garnered postseason accolades with Byndom being named first-team All-Big 12 and Diggs earning conference defensive freshman of the year honors. With both of these guys and all of their backups returning, including DeSoto's Bryson Echols coming in and Orlando Thomas, this will be a strength for the Longohrns once again.

Safety: 1st string – Kenny Vaccaro, Adrian Phillips; 2nd string – Mykkele Thompson, Sheroid Evans; Others – Kendall Sanders, Adrian Colbert, Kevin Vaccaro

Both of the players listed as starters here might not make any starts at safety next season as Vaccaro (who tweeted "Dang my time with my boys is winding down" this Thanksgiving) has yet to decide whether he's coming back for another year or declaring for the NFL Draft. Whether or not his brother Kevin Vaccaro recently committing to play for Texas next fall will have an impact on his decision remains to be seen. As for Adrian Phillips, he could play either corner or safety but the Longhorns might need him more at safety with Blake Gideon (who, once he starts against Cal in the Holiday Bowl Dec. 28, will become one of only two players, the other being Colt McCoy, to start at least 52 consecutive games) and Christian Scott playing their final year this season, especially if Vaccaro isn't around. Each of three incoming freshmen at this position - Vaccaro, Kendall Sanders, and Adrian Colbert - have committed this month and should provide the position with some much-needed depth.


Kicker: 1st string – Ben Pruitt, 2nd string – Nick Jordan, Others – William Russ

Justin Tucker took over all three kicking duties (kicking, punting, and kicking off) this season and will be sorely missed in 2012. With four different players that can contribute to the kicking game, it's very unlikely Mack Brown will let someone take on all three duties next year. Ben Pruitt is one of the likely candidates to take over Tucker at kicker, although whoever does take over will have big shoes to fill. After punting 10 times against Texas A&M, Tucker forever cemented his name in Longhorn lore when he nailed a 40-yard field goal as time expired to deliver the game-winning blow and give Texas a 27-25 victory at Kyle Field in the last scheduled meeting with the Aggies before they leave for the SEC. If there's an NFL team in need of a kicker, they would do well to consider signing Tucker.

Punter: 1st string – William Russ, 2nd string – David Ash, Other – Ben Pruitt

Tucker averaged over 40 yards per punt on nearly 150 career punts, with 21 going for more than 50 yards and 54 ending up inside the 20-yard line. Like the kicker spot, whoever fills Tucker's shoes will have a high standard to meet. William Russ could be the man for the job, although quarterback David Ash, a first-team all-district punter as a senior at Belton High School, might contribute as a punter as well. Nick Jordan, an incoming freshman, could help Texas on kickoffs. 


Kick Returner: 1st string – Marquise Goodwin, D.J. Monroe; 2nd string – Quandre Diggs, Jaxon ShipleyWith Texas' receiving corps depleted with injuries to guys like Jaxon Shipley and John Harris, along with departures by others such as Malcolm Williams, Gregory Timmons, Brock Fitzhenry, and Chris Jones, Mack Brown didn't let his wideouts return kicks during most of the second half of the season, even after senior running back Fozzy Whittaker, who had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in back-to-back weeks against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, was lost for the season with a torn ACL and MCL suffered against Missouri. But with Shipley fully recovered from his knee injury and Harris likely to be over his broken foot by the time next season begins, Brown should let dynamic guys like track star Marquise Goodwin and Shipley to contribute in the return game once again. Another member of the Longhorn track squad, D.J. Monroe, should be a big part of the return game.

Punt returner: 1st string – Jaxon Shipley, 2nd string – Quandre Diggs

Shipley's older brother, Jordan, averaged 12.5 yards per punt return during his Longhorns career, good for fourth all-time in the school's record books and returned three punts for touchdowns. He even returned a momentum-changing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown as a junior in a 45-35 win over No. 1 Oklahoma. Jaxon Shipley returned eight punts for just 42 yards this past season but should get many more chances in 2012. Quandre Diggs led Texas with 181 return yards on the same number of punt returns (eight), including an 81-yarder that set up a crucial touchdown against Texas A&M this Thanksgiving.