When the dust settled on Saturday from the NFL Draft, eight LSU defensive players had their name called. An impressive haul to say the least. After the eighth player was taken a graph flashed on the NFL Networks coverage - LSU's eight defensive players were second to the University of Texas and its nine defensive players taken in 1984. Nine from Texas. Impressive has that haul was, it was not nearly as impressive as the run those nine players put together as part of the 1983 Longhorns squad.
You won't hear much about that 1983 Texas squad in part because the stories are now thirty years old and in part because they didn't win college football's ultimate prize. The '83 Horns entered the season ranked number three in the country and ran roughshod over an impressive schedule, leaving top ten squads in their wake. They went to the Cotton Bowl on New Years Day 1984 to take on Georgia with a chance at a National Title. They did so by riding the strength of a defensive unit that was without peer. The Longhorns were so good that they were within minutes of a national title and played an entire season with their second and third string quarterbacks.
They lost to the Bulldogs 10-9 in Dallas that day. To make matters worse, later that night in an epic Orange Bowl, mighty Nebraska would fall to Miami on a failed two-point conversion, thereby handing the number 5 ranked 'Canes their first National Title.
Texas finished 1983 ranked 5th in the country, Southwest Conference Champs, with an 11-1 record. Little consolation for a team that was defensively dominant for twelve games. In many ways, the 1983 Longhorns deserved more. Certainly, their defense did.
To Hell With 'Em
Fred Akers was a good coach. He's been overlooked and underrated, but Fred Akers was a good football coach. He was asked to follow a legend in Austin, Darrell K. Royal, and he did so. In ten seasons at Texas, he won 73% of his games, three conference titles, and took his teams to 9 straight bowl appearances when bowl appearances mattered.
Akers did all this in the middle of a Southwest Conference that featured a pre-death penalty SMU, Grant Teaff and a stout Baylor program, Bill Yeoman's Houston veer, always tough Arkansas, and a rising Texas A&M. In those ten years, the old Southwest Conference placed thirteen teams in the final top 10 rankings.
He was against the wall seemingly from the start. Replacing a legend like Royal was difficult, replacing him after Royal openly lobbied AGAINST his hiring was a rock and a hard place. Royal wanted one of his lieutenants to succeed him, defensive coordinator Mike Campbell. When Royal stepped down, he lobbied for Campbell in a meeting with Allan Shivers, chairman of the board of regents. When the powers that be passed over Campbell, Royal made a return trip to voice his opposition to the hiring of Akers.
Royal became the athletic director, and the animosity of the situation led Shivers to tell Akers to report directly to him and not Royal. For Akers part, he didn't exactly grease the wheels at the end of his tenure. After a number one ranking for two weeks in 1985 led to a 7-4 season, Akers famously said before the '86 season; "We're going to do the best we can with what we've got, and if that isn't good enough for 'em, the hell with 'em."
Before the hell, with 'em Akers' teams dished out a fair amount of hell to opponents if never to the degree acceptable in Austin. As Akers, and as his successors David McWilliams and John Mackovic, found out the degree of acceptability in Austin is high.
As Akers, and as his successors David McWilliams and John Mackovic, found out the degree of acceptability in Austin is high.
Fans disliked his defensive approach and conservative offensive mindset. They pointed to his lack of success in bowl games and lost ground to OU and A&M. They also looked at a general lack of discipline on and off the field as the key to his undoing. Ultimately Akers won, just not enough. The running joke around the 40 acres was the Fred ate his Wheaties on a plate because he didn't like bowls.
Texas fired Akers after the 1986 season that saw the Horns dip to 5-6 and in the midst of a football emergence in College Station and a widening gap with the Sooners. Before that Texas was, well Texas. Akers was also smart enough during his tenure to surround himself with great coaches and better players. In '83 he had both and the perfect storm defensive prowess.
26 Trim Cover One Banjo
David McWilliams coordinated the 1983 defense. A defense so potent that it rarely abandoned its 4-3 base or as the staff called it, 26 Trim Cover One Banjo. In 1983 his defense returned nine starters, eight of which were seniors who, the season before, had allowed a stingy 14 points a game. McWilliams had a concrete belief that 1983 would be better. It was.
Texas had a monster or rather four of them up front, plus a few extra in reserve. John Haines and Tony DeGrate formed moving a wall of havoc and strength that more often than not met at a predetermined point on the quarterback's chest. Haines was six feet six inches of hard to handle, and DeGrate was easily the most physically gifted of the front. He would win the Lombardi Award in 1984. They allowed Texas middle linebackers to roam unimpeded on the field. Outside Eric Holle was a devastating and ill-tempered six-foot five-inch end and was joined by speedster Ed Williams. A teammate that like Holle described him as “the most brutal physical individual I had the displeasure of meeting.” Williams was fluid and athletic and often forced opposing tackles to look as though they were chasing a ghost at the line of scrimmage. Add to that plug and play reserve Ray Woodard and the Horns were stacked up front.
Holle was described as “the most brutal physical individual I had the displeasure of meeting” and that was from a teammate who liked him.
At Texas, linebackers are just linebackers until they are asked to wear the number 60. Tommy Nobis made it famous and, before the number was officially retired, it was only inhabited by All-Americans. Britt Hager, Brian Jones, and Derrick Johnson all pulled it over their pads but for the 1983 Longhorns Jeff Leiding, a Tulsa native who chose to attend Texas over that college in Norman had the honor of the 60. Leiding may or may not have shot out street lights from his dorm room window with a rifle, driven over a Burger King bench after the fast food establishment neglected to put onions on his hamburger and had a reputation for getting frisky and fisty on Sixth street after a decent night out. While those things may or may not be true, what is true is that Leiding was a 6-4, 240 pound, All-American tackling machine. Mark Lang and June James joined Leiding at linebacker. Future NFL pick Ty Allert was a young buck on the team and saw significant action.
As great as the front seven was, they took second billing to the greatest assembly of talent in a college defensive backfield. Start with safety and two time All-American Jerry Gray. Gray's ability cured a number of sins in the defensive backfield. Add to that All-American corner Mossy Cade and his partner in coverage, future third round pick, speedster Fred Acorn. Strong Safety was manned by a committee of excellent, well-experienced ball hawks in Craig Curry and Richard Peavy. Curry played five seasons in the league and Peavy is famous for a shot he delivered to Marcus Dupree in the 1983 Red River Shootout. (Yes we call it a shootout here at the bud.)
When Akers and McWilliams surveyed there defensive two-deep roster, they saw what was the equivalent of a coach's wet dream. Hard, driven, disciplined, smart and fundamentally sound hunters who wanted to inflict pain and destruction on opposing offenses.
What Bo Knew
Remember Bo Jackson? New York Yankee target, Heisman trophy winner, wall running, NFL freight train, bat breaking, don't know Diddley Bo Jackson? 26 trim cover one banjo paid a visit to Bo and the rest of the Auburn Tigers to kick-off the 1983 season. Bo, his running mate Lionel James and the wishbone carved up yardage against SEC opponents in 1983. The Tigers went 11-1, won the SEC title and beat Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. That one loss was to Texas as an Auburn offense that averaged 25 points a game was held to seven.
Auburn was the fifth ranked team in the country, and Texas held the sophomore Jackson a whopping 35 yards. James would muster 33. Jackson would go on to be average almost eight yards a carry, be named an All-American and lead the SEC in rushing. After the Texas game, Jackson said he felt like he'd been "run over by a herd of cows."
Bo Jackson was held to a whopping 35 yards.
Bo found out that afternoon in September what everyone else would find out soon enough, that this Texas defense special. Thanks to the gift of youtube you can watch the destruction inflicted by the 1983 Texas defense. What strikes you is the amount of pressure and penetration the Longhorns brought to bear, made more impressive by the fact that they brought that pressure with four men up front. The line of scrimmage moves backward at the snap and just when some poor running back or quarterback broke contain a trio of hard charging linebackers or a gazelle from the secondary swallowed him.
After holding North Texas and Rice to six points, each the Horns traveled to Dallas for the annual shootout with the Sooners. OU was ranked eighth in the nation and boasted the now titled "Best That Never Was" in Marcus Dupree. In the locker room, Akers stoked the fire; "We like the slashing and banging and blows delivered in a tough football game. This is your kind of game. You're going to love it." Fred was chumming the waters, he opened the locker room door and essentially opened a can.
The Sooners scored 16 that day and lost by 17. Dupree ran for 50 yards on 14 carries and suffered a concussion thanks to Richard Peavy. Dupree went home to Mississippi after that game and some folks say that after Peavy's hit he was never the same. He wasn't the only one. Texas held OU to 197 total yards and 1 for 13 on third down. It just wasn't fair.
Rolling the Southwest Conference
To say that Texas ran through a depleted SWC is an oversight. Texas ran through it alright, but the conference was hardly on a downswing. They beat a Lou Holtz coached Arkansas squad in Little Rock allowing only three points. They beat a top 10 SMU squad that was a year removed from an undefeated season and year away from a 10-2 SWC title season. The 'Stangs would finish the year 10-2 and ranked 12th in the country. They would also be over the current salary cap structure. That day in Dallas the Longhorns would hold SMU to 12 points. The Mustangs converted all of 2 third downs that day.
Texas would allow twenty total points in wins over Tech, Houston, and TCU. The Bluebonnet bound Baylor Bears would score the most against the Longhorns in 1983 mustering 21 points and lose by three. (The Bluebonnet was a bowl game played at the Astrodome kids. Perhaps I should mention as well that the Astrodome was a large indoor football venue.) Cody Carlson led the Bears, the Commander and Tom Muecke combined to throw the ball an unGodly 54 times that day and scored 14 points in the final five minutes to put a scare into the Longhorns.
Giving up 21 to Baylor at home pissed the Horns right off, and they headed into their annual rivalry game against A&M with a number two ranking and reputation to uphold. (I should say this used to be a rivalry, in the 70's and early 80's it wasn't and now they don't even play anymore.) The Aggies would score 13 unanswered before giving up 45 straight. Thanks for playing.
One Point Away
Georgia entered the 1984 Cotton Bowl with a 9-1-1 record. Their one loss was to the aforementioned Auburn Tigers. The Bulldogs were all that stood between Texas and a chance for a National Title.
It wasn't to be. Texas allowed a whopping ten points but could only muster nine. Texas led 9-3 late in the fourth when Georgia capitalized on a muffed Texas punt and a short field. The normally reliable Jeff Ward missed two field goals in the game and Texas fell victim to its two quarterback system that was unable to muster drives. Miami raised the trophy, Texas fell to number five in the final rankings, and the signature win eluded Akers.
The season ended - the numbers live on.
The Longhorns allowed 9.5 points a game, good for second best in the country behind Virginia Tech's 8.3. On third down opponents were successful 27% of the time.
In 1983 the Longhorns defense allowed 212 yards per game. A paltry 3.3 yards per play. If you threw on the Longhorns, you completed 40% of those passes. Running the ball wasn't much better. The Longhorns defense allowed just 2.3 yards per rush in 1983. Run it four times and your still almost a yard shy of a first down. 183 plays resulted in a loss of yardage for the offense.
By comparison, Texas's offense averaged 330 yards in 1983 and 25.5 points a game. Only 30 times all year did the Texas offense get tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
Fred Acorn, Mossy Cade, Tony Degrate, Jerry Gray, Eric Holle, and Jeff Leiding would all be named All-SWC. Cade, Gray, and Leiding would be named unanimous All-Americans. Degrate would end the season with 22 tackles for loss. Holle had 42 quarterback pressures. Almost 20% of the time, if you dropped back, Eric Holle would be there to screw with your plans.
Nine From Texas
All this gets us back to the 1984 NFL Draft and the 9 Texas defensive players selected. The picks were as follows:
Mossy Cade CB 1st San Diego Chargers
Ed Williams DE 2nd New England Patriots
Fred Acorn CB 3rd Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Craig Curry DB 4th Indianapolis Colts
Eric Holle DE 5th Kansas City Chiefs
Jeff Leiding LB 5th St. Louis Cardinals
John Haines DT 7th Minnesota Vikings
Ray Woodard DT 8th San Diego Chargers
Mark Lang LB 11th Kansas City Chiefs
By the end of the 1985 draft, every starter on the 1983 defensive unit had been drafted and a backup as well. Their success at the pro-level would vary. Gray would be a four time pro-bowler. Holle would be a grinder player four seasons with the Chiefs. Degrate wouldn't see the field after an illustrious college career.
Results may have varied after 1983 but one thing is for certain, the Longhorns defense was one of the best in college football history.