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July 6, 2011

Okafor ready to lead Texas ... by force

On the spot
It's rare for a coach to come out and say, "For us to be great, he has to be great." But that's what new Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said about Alex Okafor. In that vein, here are five other players who must play at an extremely high level if their unit is to reach its potential. If any of these guys play poorly, it's extremely likely his team is going to suffer for it.
North Carolina CB Charles Brown: He played well in 2009, finishing second on a talented defense with 66 tackles, along with three picks and nine pass breakups. But he missed last season as part of the NCAA's investigation of the Tar Heels. Now he's back, but his former running mates in the secondary (Kendric Burney, Da'Norris Searcy and Deunta Williams) are gone. While UNC's front seven looks good -- really good -- the secondary is a huge question. Brown looks set at one corner spot, but the other three starting slots appear open headed into fall drills. The offense is breaking in a new quarterback, so the defense may have to carry the team, especially early in the season. As good as that front seven can be, UNC will struggle defensively if the secondary doesn't play well. Given that Brown is the most experienced member of that secondary, he must play well and be a team leader.

Iowa WR Marvin McNutt: Iowa is breaking in a new quarterback and a new tailback, making McNutt the only proven skill-position player. The defense has some questions, too, in the front seven. That could lead to a few shootouts, and to win shootouts, you have to have a solid passing attack. The Big Ten race could be a jumbled one, and for the Hawkeyes to legitimately contend, McNutt has to come through.

Georgia QB Aaron Murray: Murray should be the preseason All-SEC quarterback. But he will lead a unit with a ton of questions. Who's the go-to receiver -- and who will be the No. 2 receiver? Can true freshman TB Isaiah Crowell carry the load? Does Georgia have enough talent -- forget depth -- along the offensive line? Murray was quite good as a redshirt freshman last season, but other than TE Orson Charles, his skill-position help is frighteningly unproven this season. A cool-calm-collected quarterback can help in those situations, and Murray needs to show that he is, indeed, one of those quarterbacks. The SEC East is as down as it has been, so despite the questions, the Bulldogs have a shot at the division crown -- but only as long as Murray plays well.

West Virginia QB Geno Smith: Smith looks like the perfect fit for new coach Dana Holgorsen's version of the spread. Smith played in a pass-happy attack at Miramar (Fla.) High -- a suburb of Fort Lauderdale -- and Holgorsen's attack places a premium on a quarterback who can throw the ball. WVU's receivers have been underutilized the past few seasons, but that won't be the case this season. Smith was high school teammates with WRs Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney, and that trio should lead to WVU having a potent attack, an attack good enough to win the Big East. But if Smith struggles, the offense as a whole is going to bog down.

Arizona CB Trevin Wade: Wade was one of the nation's best corners in 2009 but had a difficult 2010 season, losing his starting job at one point. It's vital that he regain his '09 form. Arizona has what could be a good offense, but there are questions about the health of star WR Juron Criner and about the line, which will have five new starters. Defensively, Arizona has to replace both starting ends, and projected starting FS Adam Hall suffered a severe knee injury in spring practice, making his health for the fall a question. The secondary didn't play all that well last season, and that was with two pass-rushing ends. If Hall misses considerable time -- or the season -- more pressure will be on Wade to make plays behind a rebuilt line.

At least one skill most would not expect from an imposing 6-foot-4, 260-pounder is proficiency with a yo-yo. Yet Texas junior defensive end Alex Okafor is quite skilled at it.

"You've got to throw it down with force," he says. "You can't just let it drop down slowly."

Okafor would like to take the same approach to sacking quarterbacks -- throw them down with force. Indeed, that's what the Longhorns were counting on when they signed Okafor as a five-star prospect in 2009. Since then, though, Okafor may have felt like a yo-yo himself: He was recruited as a defensive end, was moved inside to tackle last season, then moved back to end during the spring.

Now that the moving has stopped, new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz says Okafor could be the difference in Texas fielding a good defense or a great one.

"He's an imposing guy out there at end," Diaz said after spring practice. "If Alex just plays so-so for us, then we'll just be so-so as a defense. For us to be great, he has to be great."

With sophomore Jackson Jeffcoat on the other end and tackle Kheeston Randall able to get a push inside, the Longhorns have a potentially overpowering pass rush. If Okafor has a strong season, he can rack up sacks and also open opportunities for other linemen and blitzing linebackers.

Still, saying he's the key to the defense puts a lot of pressure on one guy.

"I think a lot of people took that quote out of context," Okafor says. "Each position is key. Every player is key and needed to make plays. But in this defense, the ends will have to make a lot of plays. I think that's what he's saying.

"But I like the pressure. It brings the best out of everyone. I don't like to disappoint. So I love the pressure whenever something is on the line."

At 260 pounds, Okafor is a big end but an undersized tackle. He's glad he's back on the outside.

"It's a good feeling," he says. "I'll do whatever it takes to help the team. But I came here as an end, so I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel good to be back there."

Texas is trying to bounce back from a disappointing 5-7 showing last season. Most of the Longhorns' problems were on offense, but the defense had its issues, too. Even though Texas was ranked sixth in the nation in total defense, the interior was vulnerable and the Longhorns gave up far too many big plays on long runs.

Players say those problems will be solved. Okafor says Calvin Howell, who is coming back from injury, and sophomore Ashton Dorsey, among others, are capable of taking over the tackle position next to Randall and fortifying the run defense.

"We're bringing back a lot of key players," Okafor says. "We're more mentally tough. Going through a 5-7 season and with a lot of teams running on us made us tougher because we don't want to go through that again. You go through the steps to make sure that won't happen -- the physical work in the weight room, the seven-on-seven drills ... things like that.

"With the tradition of our program, we always have high standards for ourselves. We understand it's a step-by-step process. That doesn't mean you automatically step on the field and beat teams. We're going to put the work in. We do plan on having a great season this year."

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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