AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -Blake Gideon's shaggy beard is just the start. Everything about the Texas sophomore safety seems older and wiser.
The same goes for the rest of the Longhorns secondary.
A unit that was the weak link for the Longhorns last season is now expected to be one of its best. There's still just one senior, but there's plenty of talent and game experience to face the gunslinging quarterbacks of the Big 12.
``A difference from last year,'' Gideon said, ``is we have an idea of what direction to run.''
There were key moments last season when that wasn't the case. The Longhorns ranked No. 104 in the nation in pass defense while breaking in safeties Gideon and Earl Thomas. Texas gave up 3,372 yards passing, the second highest total in school history, although it was a slight improvement over 2007.
le-up on Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree, and the receiver scored the winning touchdown with one second to play. One play earlier, Gideon dropped what should have been a game-clinching interception.
Painful but powerful lessons learned about making plays when it counts most.
``I've said before, 'We're not freshmen anymore,''' Gideon said. ``We don't have that excuse anymore. It's not acceptable for coverage busts this time around. We believe that we should be one of the strengths of the defense, and that we've been there together.''
Gideon shouldered the biggest burden last year when he was given the job of calling defensive signals in the secondary and getting his teammates lined up in the right spot. It was especially hard considering Texas was learning a new defense installed by first-year coordinator Will Muschamp.
``This year we just know the defense better,'' Thomas said. ``We're comfortable out there. You can disguise more. You can play ball now, you don't have to worry about messing up.''
Gideon's dropped interception against Tech was a glaring example of a big problem in 2008: the secondary struggled to create turnovers all season and had just six interceptions. Two went for touchdowns.
``We're going to try to get as many as we can, as many as we get our hands on,'' Thomas said.
and White scrimmage and returned it for a touchdown.
With Thomas and Gideon supplying the big hits across the middle, Aaron Williams, a former high school All-American, is expected to emerge as the Longhorns' shut-down corner. Chykie Brown, who started eight games last season, on the other side.
The next four defensive backs include senior Deon Beasley, whose 11 career starts are the most of any Texas cornerback. The Longhorns believe they can go eight or nine players deep in the rotation, which will be critical in the Big 12 where defenses often use five and six defensive backs at a time.
``The best motivator in the world for a coach is competition,'' Muschamp said. ``They know the depth chart could change every day.''
The Longhorns coaches say this unit could be as talented as the 2005 national championship team that included Michael Huff and Aaron Ross, both Thorpe Award winners, and Michael Griffin. All were first-round NFL draft picks.
``It's so much fun to watch those guys,'' coach Mack Brown said. ``They know they can't miss a step. They're fighting every minute for playing time.''

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