Texas players talk about new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp as if they've seen a ghost.
They struggle to get the words out. They're not quite sure how to describe the experience. But they know it's something powerful.
"Everything he says, we're just like, 'Wow,'" said senior defensive tackle Roy Miller. "There's just a sense about him that when he talks he's telling you something you can't live without."
Added senior middle linebacker Rashad Bobino, "He has us believing we can do anything. And that feeling is spreading like wildfire throughout the team. What does he bring? He brings confidence."
All Muschamp is being called upon to do is resurrect a defense that ranked 109th last season against the pass. It's a unit that has virtually no experience at safety and must now prepare for the likes of Missouri's Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and DeMarco Murray and Texas Tech's duo of Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree.
Muschamp is always in the conversation about best defensive coordinator in the country. If he can turn Texas around this season, he will slam the door on the argument.
"We were absolutely awful against the pass last year," Mack Brown said. "And now we're inexperienced at safety. It's not good to be starting over in an area where you were weak. That's Will's task: to make us complicated enough back there to give offenses problems and make it simple enough for our young guys to handle."
When asked if he's ever faced a situation like this before, Muschamp is undaunted. He drops the name LaRon Landry. Landry started for LSU four games into his true freshman season in 2003, when the Tigers won the national title.
"That worked out pretty well," Muschamp deadpanned. "Sixth player taken in the (2007) draft."
Few could blame Muschamp for feeling like he can do just about anything. On an Auburn team that seemed to set offense back a few thousand years each of the last two seasons, Muschamp helped the Tigers win 20 games and beat Florida twice. There was a 7-3 victory over LSU in 2006 and a 9-7 victory at Arkansas last season. That will forever be known as the game Muschamp solidified his nickname "Coach Boom!" with some sideline color caught on ESPN that is now achieving cult status on YouTube.
Auburn went 11-2 in 2006 despite being ranked 76th in total offense. The Tigers went 9-4 last season despite finishing 97th in total offense.
"Greg (Davis) has promised me he's going to score some points," Muschamp joked at the Texas Gridiron Kickoff luncheon last Friday.
Muschamp has been calling key leaders of the defense into his office for one-on-ones. He demands the most from those he expects the most. Miller has been in Muschamp's office a bunch.
"I tell the guys, 'If we're not coaching you hard, we're not coaching you,'" Muschamp said. "So we're going to coach the guys Texas football is important to and putting those Horns on every Saturday is important to. Those are the guys who are committed to doing it, and we're going to coach those guys hard."
Muschamp can't stand idle chatter. His father, Larry, a high school football coach in Georgia used to tell him, "Your actions speak so loud, I can't hear what you're saying."
"I understand it now and I tell it to our players here at Texas," Muschamp said. "You talk about being a great player. You talk about being committed. You talk about being a great teammate, a great student or a great son. Your actions speak so loudly I can't hear what you're telling me because your actions aren't exactly what you're telling me you want to be. Your actions are what make your character. That's something that I live by daily. Am I exhibiting the right actions for the kids, doing the right things for the kids or making the right decisions? Are we coaching something and not acting something out? I think that's a saying I always remember my dad saying."
BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT
Players walk into Muschamp's office and see the framed, autographed pictures of Cowboys linebacker Zach Thomas and Redskins defensive end Jason Taylor. Both were coached by Muschamp with the Miami Dolphins in 2005.
"Texas got a guy who knows what he's doing," said Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears, who returned an interception for a touchdown for LSU against Oklahoma in the 2003 national title game. "Nothing fazes the guy. He gets more hyped than the players, but he knows exactly what he's doing. A lot of coaches jump around and get distracted or fail to connect with their players. Will jumps around because what he's telling you is working."
Spears said one of the hardest hits he ever experienced was from Muschamp as Spears came off the field after the defense made a critical stop. Muschamp jammed Spears in his chest and yelled, "That's what I'm talking about!"
"Nick Saban even yelled at Will not to hurt me," said Spears, who weighed 265 pounds at the time.
None of Muschamp's five college defenses at LSU (2002-04) and Auburn (2006-07) have ever finished outside the top 10 in total defense. Those defenses have never given up more than 18.3 points per game in a season. The 2003 LSU national title team was No. 1 in scoring defense, giving up just 11.0 ppg. Texas gave up 25.3 ppg last season.
In many ways, Muschamp, at just 37, is on the same trajectory as Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, a former defensive coordinator who won a national title at Florida in 1996 under Steve Spurrier. Stoops has followed Muschamp's career with great interest.
"I'm a defensive guy. That's my baby, so I've followed him and watched his teams, and Will is an excellent coach," Stoops said. "He does an excellent job of teaching, and his teams play aggressively. I'm sure that will continue. Hopefully, we'll be able to handle it when we play him. But he does an excellent job."
Muschamp calls himself the ultimate overachiever and wants his Texas defense to play the same way. Muschamp was a highly decorated high school safety growing up in Rome, Ga. He was recruited by the entire SEC and USC before shattering his right leg playing baseball his senior year. Muschamp was playing outfield and thought he called off the shortstop for a fly ball. But the field was wet, and his teammate's shoulder went into Muschamp's calf, snapping his fibula. The bone popped out of his skin.
"My dream was to play major college football growing up," Muschamp said. "I didn't really care where. I just wanted to play on Saturday. And all of a sudden it was sort of taken from me."
Three surgeries and a 17-inch steel rod with three screws caused schools to back off. He had appointments to Army and Navy, but he decided to walk on at Georgia, where the in-state tuition was reasonable and his family could see him play. His freshman year, he broke his collarbone diving for a ball.
"It was another setback," Muschamp said. "But it goes back to what my dad always told me: 10 percent of life is what happens to you, and 90 percent is what you do with it. So we can think life is not fair or you can roll your sleeves up and go to work. That's what I decided to do."
Within a year, Muschamp was on scholarship. He was named captain his senior year.
George Wynn, Texas' assistant athletics director for football operations, was a senior cornerback at Georgia when Muschamp was a freshman.
"Will's first day in pads in tackling drills we knew he was going to be a physical guy," Wynn said. "He would put his face on you. He's still as intense as he was his freshman year. It's a direct correlation. We have this quote in-house that says, 'Players are a reflection of their coach.' Not to knock anyone else. Everyone has done a great job here. But because I had the pleasure of playing with Will, these players are a reflection of him, and the way he played."
Muschamp was recruited to Georgia by Texas offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, who had the same job at Georgia. Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis was also on the Georgia staff when Muschamp was there.
"When the opportunity to come to Texas presented itself, I leaned heavily on (McWhorter, Davis and Wynn) and their idea of Coach Brown and the university and the kind of job it is," Muschamp said. "They were very instrumental in me being here."
A CONSTANT REMINDER
Muschamp had the 17-inch rod and three screws holding his right leg together taken out a while back and framed it. It hangs over his desk. He looks at it every day to remind him that he works best with a massive chip on his shoulder.
He created the Hard Hat Award while at Auburn on a jog one morning when he observed a construction crew working on the campus. The award goes to the player with the hardest hit in practice each day.
"I looked at the blue-collar attitude of that construction crew and how they worked a lot of hours," Muschamp said. "They bring the lunch pail to work every day, and that's the mentality I want us to take."
Bobino was the first to win the award.
"It's a huge source of pride the way Coach Muschamp hands it out," Bobino said. "Now, everyone is trying to get it."
Muschamp also keeps a production chart listing everyone on defense for each practice and every game.
"You see exactly where you stand," Bobino said. "It's not in your group meeting room tucked away. It's on the wall for the whole team to see. If you're not producing, everyone sees it."
The word Texas players ultimately settle on when describing Muschamp is intense.
"It's what we need," said senior cornerback Ryan Palmer.
Added Mack Brown, "We think Will is a star in this business."
Muschamp is making few promises about this year's defense. He wants only one thing from his players - everything they've got.
"I'm not smarter than anybody else," he said. "I don't have the experience a lot of coaches have. So I've got to outwork the opponent, and that's what I want our team to do. I want our team to be a blue-collar, overachieving defense.
"I think if they buy into that, and I think they have, and we mix that with some talented players, we can achieve some special things. But it takes a blue-collar attitude. That's what I am and what I want them to be. I want them to overachieve what they think we can do. I think that's the approach you have to take in life to maximize the ability God has blessed you with."