The least you should know about the 2011 Longhorns. Part of Big 12 Week.
• You're not the Bevo I once knew. After eleven consecutive seasons in the top ten of the preseason polls, there's a very strong urge to write "This is Texas" and assume the various calamities of last year's descent to 5-7 are just going to sort themselves out. How could they not? Before 2010, Texas was the nation's winningest major program over the preceding decade, and never finished a season in that span ranked lower than 13th in the final polls. It hasn't endured back-to-back losing seasons since 1988-89, and even then rebounded to win the Southwest Conference title in 1990. Its last three recruiting classes have all been ranked among the top five in the country. Seriously, Texas is going to be fine. Right?
Maybe. But if the standing assumption is that things can't possibly get any worse, there aren't many specific reasons on paper to assume they're actually going to get better. The big questions at the start of the season — about the lack of viable options at quarterback, the offensive line and the absence of a reliable every-down back — are the same ones that plagued the Longhorns to the last whistle in 2010. Most of the potential answers involve guys who are still a lot longer on potential than production, a group that arguably includes new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The only remaining assistant coaches who had a part in the glory days are quarterbacks coach Major Applewhite and secondary coach Duane Akina. The schedule offers just as many realistic opportunities to lose.
Hyped recruiting classes and envy-fueling television networks notwithstanding, the best thing these Longhorns have going for them right now is still the logo on the side of their helmets. But in terms of personnel, the only other recognizable feature of the elite program it represented is head coach/CEO Mack Brown himself.
• I'm still here. Uninspiring as he was as a first-year starter, hometown hero/goat Garrett Gilbert couldn't be budged from the top of the top of the quarterback depth chart, where he still resides despite the giant target tattooed on his back. Through the spring, summer and two full weeks of preseason practice, the only member of the fledgling trio gunning for Gilbert's job who appears to have gained any ground at all is David Ash, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound true freshman whose demeanor in practice has bordered on "bravado." But if you read the tea leaves ($) after Friday's all-important scrimmage, GIlbert is still at the head of the pack with the finish line in sight.
If so, it saves the offense from another year of growing pains at the most important position, which if nothing else ought to bring last year's embarrassing interception rate back to earth. As for the guys on his own team, though, it's an open question: With the premature departures of vets Marquise Goodwin (redshirting to pursue long-jumping on the U.S. national team) and Malcolm Williams (dealing with "family issues"), the only somewhat proven target if Gilbert can get the ball in the right place is sophomore Mike Davis.
• Ready or not... From the sounds of practice reports, the most reliable receiver may already be a true freshman, Jaxon Shipley, a sequel from the same critically acclaimed bloodline that brought you All-American Jordan Shipley a few years back. At the same time, a lingering hamstring injury hasn't dampened enthusiasm that sensationally hyped freshman Malcolm Brown (right) can revive the dormant running game. With Mike Davis and three sophomore starters up front, if Ash or Case "Yes That McCoy" McCoy manages to unseat Gilbert, the offense is going to be so green you'll barely able to distinguish it against the FieldTurf.
• Seriously, we got this. Youth won't be an overriding problem on defense, thanks to solid senior anchors — defensive tackle Kheeston Randall, linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho and safety Blake Gideon — on all three levels, holdovers from a unit that's led the Big 12 in total defense three years in a row. (Yes, last year, too, though no one noticed because the inept offense kept the D's back pressed permanently against the wall. The opportunity to coach in his hometown wasn't the only opportunity defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was seizing when he left for the top job at Florida.) Incoming coordinator Manny Diaz shares Muschamp's flair for the aggressive, and Randall, Robinson and Gideon all showed up as preseason All-Big 12 picks according to conference media.
But even here, the difference between a merely decent D and a dominant one hinges on an assortment of blue-chip talents coming into their own. Returning defensive ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat and linebacker Jordan Hicks all arrived as five-star prospects; linebacker Steve Edmonds and cornerback Quandre Diggs joined as borderline five-star types in the incoming recruiting class. If there's a breakout star or two in that group, all the offense will have to do to get the 'Horns back into the polls is stop turning the thing over.
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