By Mary Kusek
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Superior leadership is an indispensable ingredient for the most determined and diligent of teams to reach the highest of goals. For senior linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, leadership on the 2011 Texas Longhorns football team carries connotations of both great privilege and great responsibility.
“Now the fate of the team lies on us, lies on our shoulders, specifically the defense,” Acho said. “Now it's not only our job to play well, but it's our job to lead well and to get the young guys to play well also.”
The environment that Acho and Robinson have stepped into as leaders along with their fellow seniors in 2011 is somewhat unique. Typically, seniors have had the opportunity to develop, learn and perform in a system for three years before they are expected to guide younger members. With new faces on both sides of the football this season, Acho and Robinson have been charged with the task of learning a new defensive system while also working to foster an identity around which the entire team can contribute and play to the best of its ability.
Fortunately, Acho and Robinson are specially qualified to not only accept this role, but also thrive within it.
Through the Longhorns’ first three victories of 2011, Acho is the team’s leading tackler with 33, and Robinson’s 12 solo tackles rank third on the squad, behind Kenny Vaccoro’s 16 and Acho’s 13.
In three seasons as linebackers for the Longhorns, Acho and Robinson have experienced the full breadth of highs and lows as college football players. Both have experienced the thrill of a BCS bowl victory and the journey to the national championship game. Both had the opportunity as upperclassmen to grow and learn from last year’s 5-7 campaign.
This experience has allowed Robinson and Acho to embrace the unique circumstances shaping their role as leaders by adopting a strategy of perpetual presence among both their younger as well as their more experienced teammates.
“In the past we have been lead-by-example guys, and now it's more vocal so that everybody sees us and hears us,” Robinson said. “One thing we do every day before practice is we make sure the guys are ready, make sure they're ready for practice, make sure they're not slacking, make sure that we come out here from period one and just have a great day at work.”
A large part of their development as leaders has been due to the philosophy of new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
“You want guys to have that responsibility where they say, ‘Put it on me coach’, and not just mean that I'm going to make the play, but I'm going to bring everybody else along to understand their role,” Diaz said. “We're trying to really sell our younger guys to play for our seniors and our seniors to be guys that I'd want to play for. Part of being a leader is that someone has got to want to follow you. We want those guys to excel in both those dynamics.”
Diaz has imparted his attitudes regarding leadership upon his seniors throughout the offseason and during preseason training. On the field, Diaz’s schemes have given the two linebackers greater latitude in their play by offering them more opportunity to make their own adjustments and decisions within his defensive system.
This element is something that Acho appreciates as a payoff for his effort and commitment during his first three years as a Longhorn.
“We're allowed to see some things we couldn't when we had younger eyes and he has allowed us to play at an older and wiser level,” Acho said.
Perhaps just as importantly, Robinson has recognized the significance of maintaining a leading presence among his teammates when practice is not in session.
“[Coach Diaz is] always telling us if something doesn't go right – special teams, offense, defense – if something goes wrong, in the locker room he tells us to make sure that the older guys are taking charge,” Robinson said. “It's our team.”