By Jimmy Burch
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
AUSTIN -- Jeff Madden, Texas' assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning, had yet to meet his new players, much less oversee his first "Mad Dog" session to hone their bodies. But he knew the challenge that awaited.
Asked if he considered it possible to shave one-tenth to two-tenths of a second off the 40-yard dash times of every football player on the Texas roster, Madden never blinked.
"I'd better," he said upon arrival in Austin after the 1997 season. "That's what I came here to do."
Fast forward two seasons, adding a dash of young talent, and the result of Madden's handiwork is evident. No. 12 Texas (9-3), a team mired at 85th in the national defensive statistics when coach Mack Brown and his staff arrived, will take the nation's seventh-ranked defense to San Antonio for Saturday's Big 12 championship game against No. 3 Nebraska (10-1).
Check the respective rosters and you'll find familiar names in identical spots on depth charts from 1997 and today, especially in the defensive line. But you won't find identical players, said defensive tackle Casey Hampton, a 305-pound junior.
Hampton is one of those players who has bettered his 40-yard dash time under Madden, clocking in these days at 4.8. He's also in position to become the first defensive lineman to lead Texas in tackles since 1986. Hampton has a team-high 92 stops, 15 more than the next-closest Longhorn, and ranks second on the team in tackles for losses (17).
But that's not the thing that impresses strong safety Lee Jackson.
"I've seen Casey run down receivers that should have been run down by linebackers," Jackson said. "It's happened more than once on those short screen passes. Our whole line really gets to the ball quick. If a quarterback is the least bit indecisive, they're on top of him."
Across the board, the numbers back Jackson's claim. The only player on the team with more tackles behind the line than Hampton is fellow tackle Shaun Rogers (25). Defensive ends Aaron Humphrey (15) and Cedric Woodard (12) rank third and fourth, respectively.
All felt frustration as part of a 1997 defensive unit that struggled to stop thin air. All have benefited from increased speed -- through prodding from Madden -- and enhanced confidence, as provided by defensive coordinator Carl Reese's aggressive, blitzing scheme.
"Being able to run has changed the mindset around here. That's the biggest thing coach Brown has done," Hampton said. "Guys can make a lot more mistakes, but they've got the athletic ability and speed to make up for it."
Some prime examples occurred Oct. 23, when Texas knocked off Nebraska, 24-20, in a regular-season matchup. Three times, Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch fooled Texas defensive backs with play-action fakes and connected on deep routes to open receivers. Each time, a Texas defender closed a 10-yard cushion while the ball was in the air, saving apparent touchdowns. Although the completions averaged 40 yards, the drives wound up producing a combined three points.
The bottom line shows a defense that surrendered 33.3 points per game in 1997 is allowing just 20.5 points per outing this year. Texas ranks seventh in total defense, allowing 286.5 yards per game. Two years ago, the Longhorns were 85th, at 399.3 yards per outing.
That's why Brown said the Texas defense "has come a million miles" in two seasons under Reese, who marks progress in terms of big plays and turnovers. Texas is making headway there as well. In 24 games with Reese calling the shots on defense, the Longhorns have forced 53 turnovers, recorded 81 sacks and made 225 tackles behind the line. In the final 24 games under former coach John Mackovic, Texas managed 30 turnovers, 32 sacks and 126 tackles for losses.
To those who have witnessed the turnaround from the inside, such numbers are staggering.
"Since I've been here, Texas has always been known for offense," said Woodard, a senior. "That's all you ever heard. I always knew we had to play defense, too. But I never imagined it would be like this."
The kicker, said Brown, is that this unit remains a work in progress. Woodard and Humphrey, the defensive ends, are the only seniors in the starting lineup. Hampton, a first-team All-America selection by the Football Writers Association of America, said the Longhorns "are right there" in terms of overall athletic skills with a top defense such as Florida State.
Brown, who coached against the Seminoles while working at North Carolina, knows better.
"We're still not close to where we want to be in terms of speed," Brown said. "We've got a long way to go, especially with our backups. We're in the neighborhood with our starters. But we can't be a great, dominating defense until we get to where everyone on the depth chart runs fast. If you're only one-deep, you're an injury away from being average."
In the next breath, Brown pointed out that his defense wasn't even one-deep at some spots as recently as the middle of last season. Now, they're running in fast company and playing for a Big 12 title.
Big 12 championship
No. 12 Texas (9-3) vs. No. 3 Nebraska (10-1)
When: 2:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Alamodome, San Antonio
TV/Radio: WFAAh. 8; KLUV/1190 AM, KSKY/660 AM
Tickets: Sold out
Jimmy Burch, (817) 390-7760
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