New position, coordinator but Okafor still ready to wreak havoc

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Most Important Longhorn

Alex Okafor (No. 80) chases down Baylor’s quarterback Robert Griffin III in Texas’ 30-22 loss in Austin.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Editor’s Note: The Daily Texan’s series of the top 10 most important Longhorn football players continues with No. 4 Alex Okafor.

Alex Okafor and Keanu Reeves might have more in common than you might think.

Even though the Big 12 lost two schools last season and may lose another soon, it’s still loaded with some of the best quarterbacks in the nation. That’s why having someone like Alex Okafor on your team is such a great luxury. And if first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has his way, Okafor could be poised for a monster junior season.

“I call it the Matrix Moment,” Diaz said as he made the connection between the defensive end and award-winning actor. “When does the competitive greatness come? Like when Keanu Reeves in the Matrix starts seeing all those little green circles and numbers and stuff and [Okafor] says, ‘You know what? I can play. I’m at a different level out here.’”

The junior defensive end had made 30 tackles last season, notching 2.5 sacks and a staggering 13 quarterback hurries. Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden and Baylor’s Robert Griffin are three of the most formidable signal-callers college football has to offer. But if Okafor, arguably the Longhorns’ most fearsome returning pass rusher, can turn those quarterback hurries into sacks this year, it would go a long way toward helping the Longhorns have the successful season that eluded them in 2010.

“There’s no star players when you go 5-7,” Okafor said. “We’re dying right now to prove ourselves. We know what we plan on doing. We plan on winning games this year. We come to shock the nation.”

Okafor is among a handful of Longhorns who will be switching positions this year.

Last year’s center, David Snow, will play at offensive guard. Demarco Cobbs has made the move from the secondary to linebacker and Dravannti Johnson goes from linebacker to defensive end, where Okafor will play after a couple of seasons at defensive tackle.

“It’s been a great adjustment,” Okafor said. “I’ve got an extra bounce in my step going back to end. Playing tackle, you don’t get to use your speed as much, so you might have thought you lost it. But I feel like I’m still athletic. I feel like I can still get off the ball and rush the passer.”

A change in position will also be met with a switch at defensive coordinator. Manny Diaz takes over for Will Muschamp and is leaving his own mark on the team, moving everyone around.

He wants 22 players on the field by the end of the season’s first quarter and is sending members of the secondary into the backfield while occasionally dropping his defensive linemen into coverage, which Okafor even admitted “was a little unnatural.” Bringing quarterbacks to the turf, however, comes second nature to the junior from Pflugerville.

“He’s really hard to block,” Diaz said. “He has a rare combination of power and speed. In pass terminology, he can rush from power to speed or from speed to power. He can set it up both ways, almost like a pitcher with a good fastball and good off-speed stuff. So he can really keep an offense off-balance.”

Okafor may be playing a different position and for a new defensive coordinator, but he’ll still be the same aggressive pass rusher that will keep opposing offensive coordinators up at night. The Big 12 has its fair share of elite quarterbacks, but if Okafor can keep them uncomfortable in the pocket, Texas has a chance to field an elite defense.

“He has to step up,” said head coach Mack Brown. “We need him to be a dominant player in this league and be one of the best defensive ends in the country.”

Printed on August 30, 2011 as: Homegrown Okafor has perfect blend of quickness, strength