In preparation for the 2013 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: 22
2012 NFL Draft picks: 3 -- ILB Keenan Robinson (4th round, 119th overall), OLB Emmanuel Acho (6th round, 204th overall), DT Kheeston Randall (7th round, 215th overall).
Entering the 2010 season Mack Brown had enjoyed a winning record in each of his previous 20 seasons as head coach, going back to his time at the University of North Carolina. But key injuries and youth led to the Longhorns falling to 5-7 in 2010 and although things certainly improved a year ago (8-5, including a win over Cal in the Holiday Bowl), there were plenty of fans in Austin grumbling whether Brown's time as the head coach at Texas should be drawing to a close.
Youth will again be served on offense for the Longhorns in 2012. Quarterback David Ash, running back Malcolm Brown and wideout Jaxon Shipley, all true sophomores, have the talent to be stars. But if Mack Brown (no relation to his running back) is to guide Texas back to a BCS bowl in his 15th season at the university, he'll do so riding what could be the best defense in the conference ... and perhaps the nation.
Brown boasts as talented a trio of defenders as any coach this season in defensive ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat and free safety Kenny Vaccaro. Junior Jordan Hicks, who signed with Texas in 2010 as the top-rated prep prospect in the country according to some recruiting experts, could emerge this season as the next great Texas linebacker. As you'll soon read, all five of the top NFL prospects for the Longhorns, are on defense.
Some have questioned if Brown has lost his touch. After all, from 2001-2010, 14 players were drafted in the first round from Texas, and the Longhorns did not produce a first-round pick in either of the past two years. The first Texas player selected last year (Keenan Robinson) was taken the 4th round -- the latest the Longhorns had to wait to hear one of their players selected in the NFL draft since 2000.
Rest assured though Texas fans, plenty of talent remains in Austin. Okafor, Vaccaro and Jeffcoat have demonstrated the traits scouts are looking for in potential first-round prospects. Should they continue to improve, and stay out of trouble, 2012 could prove to be the turnaround that Brown and Texas fans have been waiting for.
Top-five prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft
1. DE Alex Okafor (6-4, 260)
Like many Texas players, Okafor (pictured above) signed as one of the more highly regarded prep prospects in the country and saw immediate playing time, registering 22 tackles, including two tackles for loss and a forced fumble while serving as a backup defensive end and special teamer. Despite his size, Okafor was moved inside to defensive tackle as a sophomore. Although this transition didn't help his stat-line (30 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, FF), it did force Okafor to improve his strength, hand usage and ability to keep his feet in traffic -- skills he used to great effectiveness in a breakout 2011 campaign back at defensive end in which he earned consensus First Team All-Big 12 honors by the league's coaches and an All-American nod by the AFCA with 58 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, eight sacks and two forced fumbles. Okafor is a good athlete capable of improving his sack total in 2012, but his most impressive attribute is his power. Okafor can knock opponents onto their heels on his way to the quarterback and also sets the edge nicely as a run defender. Okafor's ability to make plays against the run and pass makes him arguably the most well-rounded senior defensive end in the country.
2. DE Jackson Jeffcoat (6-4, 250)*
Like his battery-mate, Jeffcoat signed with Texas as a hotly recruited prospect and emerged as an immediate standout, starting two games as a true freshman and finishing the year with 15 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Operating with his hand in the dirt as well as a stand-up pass rusher in defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's aggressive scheme, Jeffcoat exploded a year ago to register more tackles (71) and tackles for loss (21) than Okafor and tied him for the team lead with eight sacks, but was recognized with "only" second-team honors from the league's coaches despite his big statistics. The son of former Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills' standout Jim Jeffcoat, Jackson has greater upside as an NFL pass rusher than Okafor but remains a bit hit or miss, at this time. He relies on his get-off and lateral agility as a pass rusher and too often is controlled by his opponent when his initial burst isn't enough to beat them. Possessing the lanky frame to add more muscle mass and remain at defensive end in the NFL or remain at a similar size to project better as a stand-up outside linebacker for the 3-4 scheme, Jeffcoat has the natural pass rush ability to earn first-round consideration of his own ... and the scary thing is he's only entering his third season of college football.
3. FS Kenny Vaccaro (6-1, 215)
With as talented a pass rush duo as the Longhorns boast, one can expect the television announcers this fall to focus on Okafor and Jeffcoat. But NFL scouts will be eyeing Vaccaro just as closely, as he offers the blend of size and athleticism that has helped six former UT defensive backs earn top 50 selections in the NFL draft since 2006. Like Okafor and Jeffcoat, Vaccaro saw playing time immediately, registering 19 tackles, a blocked punt and a forced fumble while serving as a backup safety and playing on special teams. Vaccaro emerged as a starter as a sophomore, registering 56 tackles, four tackles for loss and continued his big play ways by posting an interception, a forced fumble and another blocked kick. He also earned the team's special teams MVP award. Vaccaro emerged as arguably the best safety in the Big 12 a season ago, earning First Team all-conference honors by the league's coaches with 82 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks, eight passes broken up and two interceptions. Possessing the prototype combination of size and athleticism to man the free or strong safety position in the NFL, Vaccaro strongly considered leaving Texas for the NFL after last season. Based on feedback I've received from league sources, Vaccaro likely would have earned a second-round selection had he left early and will compete for a spot amongst the top 32 this year.
4. CB Carrington Byndom (6-0, 180)*
Considering the pass rush in front of him, as well as the strong coverage over the top typically supplied by Vaccaro, it might be easy to chalk up Byndom's breakout 2011 performance to his riding the coattails of his talented peers ... if this corner didn't demonstrate the speed and fluidity to intrigue NFL scouts on his own accord. Byndom saw time as a true freshman (20 tackles, one pass breakup), but some close to the program were nervous whether he'd be able to handle operating on the edge against a Big 12 schedule that ultimately featured three quarterbacks (Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden) selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Byndom's lean frame allowed him to be pushed around by some of the bigger, more physical receivers in the conference, but his agility and hand-eye coordination quickly established him as a cornerback to think twice about challenging. Starting the first 13 games of his college career, Byndom had 58 tackles, 15 passes broken up, eight tackles for loss, and two interceptions -- including one returned for a 58-yard touchdown against Tannehill and the Aggies to earn him the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Week. Byndom was named first team all-conference honors by the media.
5. DT Brandon Moore (6-5, 335)*
It's said that everything is bigger in Texas. That certainly holds true to former Alabama defensive tackle Brandon Moore and what he might accomplish inside for the Longhorns this season with Okafor and Jeffcoat manning the edges. Moore, a Montgomery, Ala., native, spent two seasons with the Crimson Tide, redshirting in 2009 and registering six tackles in four games as a backup to Marcell Dareus and Josh Chapman in 2010. For violating unspecified team rules, Saban placed Moore on indefinite suspension in March 2011 and the big man elected to transfer to East Mississippi Community College, where by posting 38 tackles, including four tackles for loss and three sacks, he helped EMCC win the NJCAA national championship. With his size, experience and the fact that he potentially has another three years of FBS eligibility, Moore was highly recruited again and signed with Texas in large part due to the fact that the Longhorns' defensive line coach is Bo Davis, who had worked as part of Saban's staff at Alabama when Moore played there. It remains to be seen what Moore can do with the Longhorns, but the early returns have been promising as he's reportedly been a terror on the inside during spring practices.
OG Mason Walters (6-6, 315)*
OLB Jordan Hicks (6-2, 235)*
WR Marquise Goodwin (5-09, 178)
OL Trey Hopkins (6-4, 298)*
OT Donald Hawkins (6-5, 310)*
For all of NFLDraftScout.com's team by team previews of the top prospects to watch in the 2012 season in preparation for the 2013 NFL draft, click here.