After the most dismal stretch in Mack Brown’s tenure as head coach, things are beginning to look bright for the Texas football program. Despite a 13-12 record over the past two seasons, the coaching staff have put together consecutive top flight recruiting classes – the most recent being ranked as high as #1 in the nation (depending on which recruiting service you frequent). With that being said, talent was never the issue underlying Texas’ woes; rather, it was a weakness in philosophy.
There is no doubt we have been spoiled as Texas fans. Accustomed to success achieved through the abilities of all-time greats like Vince Young and Colt McCoy, the 2010 season was a rude wake-up call that exposed some fundamental flaws with the existing system. Let us not forget that before Vince Young’s immaculate stretch of games as the Longhorns’ signal caller, Mack Brown found himself under fire for consistently underachieving (0 Big XII titles) and an inability to top arch nemesis Bob Stoops. It was not until after Garrett Gilbert’s inept 2010 campaign, where Texas went 5-7, that these concerns were re-addressed. Rumors of player complacency, as well as locker room altercations between coaches began to surface. Both of these coaches are now gone, with Will Muschamp leaving to accept the head coaching position at Florida, and Greg Davis “resigning”. After a string of additional firings and subsequent hirings, the Longhorns went into 2011 with a new scheme, some new players, and unsure expectations. The result was an 8-5 season, including a bowl win and a victory over A&M in College Station that belongs in Texas folklore.
So where does that leave us now?
We head into 2012 following the departure of two Big XII conference foes: Missouri and Texas A&M, who elected to take their “talents” to the SEC. Instead, we have two new faces on our schedule: TCU and West Virginia, who will both be traveling to Austin this season to take on Texas at DKR. It’s hard to say with any certainty now whether this move will prove beneficial to the conference, but it looks like a fair swap on paper. It’s unpredictable as to how this transition will affect either squad; all Texas can do is focus on improving themselves. The good news is that there is plenty of room for improvement at key positions, which will ultimately be the difference between a respectable 9-3 season, and a potential BCS bid.
Where we need to improve on offense (from most to least):
Quarterback: “Inconsistency” would be putting it mildly when addressing our issues at the quarterback position. Our only two returning players are David Ash and Case McCoy, with the former being the frontrunner for the starting job next fall. As a true freshman, Ash completed 99 of 174 pass attempts for 1,079 yards and four touchdowns, to go along with eight interceptions. He added another touchdown on the ground, while rushing for 103 yards on the season. McCoy finished the season completing 88 of 144 passes for 1,034 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions. His physical limitations are the likely reason that Longhorns fans have seen the best he has to offer. Standing roughly 6’1” and 190 pounds soaking wet, he simply doesn’t have the arm (or mechanics) to be a viable option as the long-term solution at QB. While I applaud his effort against A&M, he’ll be spending the vast majority of his tenure at Texas sporting a visor with clipboard in hand. A dark horse candidate for the starting job is 2012 recruit, Connor Brewer, who enrolled in the spring semester to get a head start familiarizing himself with the system, as well as to compete for the job. He won three high school state championships in Arizona, and was an Under Armor All-American.
Ash has all the tools to be successful: the arm, the size, the mobility; it’s simply a matter of whether he adjusts to the speed of the college game and mentally grasps offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin’s scheme. If Harsin’s confidence is any indication, expect to see a much improved passing game in 2012.
Offensive Line: After an unfortunate string of “busts” and disappointing development under former offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, the Longhorns may finally see a competent, cohesive unit under 2011 hiring, Stacy Seareals. While 2011 wasn’t a perfect example of smashmouth football, it’s clear where our bread and butter is heading into next season: the running game. Strength & Conditioning coach/World’s Strongest Man nominee Bennie Wylie isn’t one to mess with. If the reports are accurate, you should expect to see a bigger, tougher group of players on the line next year. With the addition of junior college recruit/offensive tackle, Donald Hawkins (6’5″, 320), you’ll see stability at a position where it’s sorely needed given the lack of experience (and overall uncertainty) of the quarterback position. The offensive line is the key to our success on offense, because it dictates the effectiveness of the running game, which in turn leads to an effective play-action – something that Harsin’s system relies on. If the running backs have holes to run through, and the quarterback has time to throw, all that’s left is execution.
You sure we can't suit him up?
Wide Receivers: This position is a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s difficult to tell how much this group was impacted by the porous quarterback play the previous two years, and how much of it was a result of their own mistakes. From what I’ve gathered, it’s a combination of a both.
First off, our receivers need to get stronger. Some of these receivers (Mike Davis) seem to have trouble putting on weight, but these receivers need to have the strength to beat the man press off the line of scrimmage, and conversely, need the strength to hold their downfield blocks to assist in the running game.
Secondly, route-running was apparently a huge issue. These guys were simply running lazy routes, or finding themselves unable to beat man-to-man coverage. Timing is a huge aspect of quarterbacking, so it becomes nearly impossible hit certain routes when your guys are blanketed or in the wrong area altogether.
Thirdly, HANDS. There were a ton of drops on catchable balls last year that you wouldn’t expect to see at a top-tier program with high-profile recruits. There is absolutely no excuse for dropped balls. You can’t expect to move the chains if your guys aren’t doing their job – and catching the ball is the literal expectation for receivers when it comes to execution.
Former All-American WR Darius White transferred to Missouri this semester, but the Longhorns picked up solid commitments at this position in the 2012 class. I highly suggest you take a look at the film for this group: Cayleb Jones, Kendall Sanders, Marcus Johnson, Daje Johnson.
Running Backs: The rich get richer. A backfield that was already bursting at the seams in talent tack on another: Johnathan Gray. Who is this guy? Well, the fact that you’re asking this question tells me you’ve been living under a rock for the past two recruiting cycles – but I’ll play along. He’s the unanimous #1 running back in the nation coming out of high school, breaking the national record for rushing touchdowns in a high school career, as well as most consecutive 100+ yard games. He led Aledo to back-to-back state championships, embarrassing every defense he faced along the way. As if this Greek myth wasn’t enough, the Longhorns return their two leading rushers in Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. This three-headed monster is sure to give defense fits, and barring health, could be the best backfield in all of college football. Brown ran for 742 yards and five touchdowns in a shortened season, and Bergeron added another 432 and five touchdowns before he was also hampered by injury. If you’re wondering who is the heir-apparent to the “Wild-Fozzy”, it’s Johnathan Gray. Harsin absolutely loves this guy, and you’ll see him get his fair share of carries even as a true freshman in an already loaded backfield.
Gray is even better at running than Forrest Gump.
Overall, the offense is less developed than the defense at this point going into next season, but should see a significant improvement at just about every position with another year in Harsin’s system (and Wylie’s S&C program). It’s hard to believe that this offensive slump from the past two seasons will persist with an all-star coaching staff and all-american talent. Color me optimistic, but I’m expecting big things from this unit with a chip on its shoulder.