Texas played for the national title after the 2009 season, but the past two campaigns have left the Longhorns labeled as underachievers.
They went 13-12 in 2010-11, the most losses in a two-season stretch since 1996-97, when the Longhorns were 12-12. John Mackovic was fired as coach after the 1997 season and replaced by Mack Brown, who is entering his 15th season at Texas.
Texas was 8-5 last season, which doesn't sound all that bad until you consider that the Longhorns were 4-5 in league play. That came on the heels of a 2-6 finish in Big 12 play in 2010. That's the first time since 1937 and '38 that Texas has finished below .500 in conference action in consecutive seasons.
Offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin did a good job improving the rushing attack last season, his first with the team. Now he must turn his attention to the passing attack. The Longhorns threw for more than 171 yards just once in the final eight games, and that was against Baylor, whose defense routinely was strafed. In those eight games, Texas quarterbacks threw 11 picks and eight touchdowns; three of the TDs came against Baylor.
Case McCoy and David Ash shared the quarterback duties down the stretch, and it appears Ash will be the starter this fall.
Defensively, the one issue is at tackle. Still, the defense should be one of the top dozen or so nationally.
Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-5 in Big 12 (tied for 6th in league)
Coach: Mack Brown (141-39, 15th season at Texas; 227-113-1, 29th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – T Josh Cochran, WR Mike Davis, C Dominic Espinosa, WR Marquise Goodwin, T Trey Hopkins, G Mason Walters. Defense (6) – CB Carrington Byndom, CB Quandre Diggs, LB Jordan Hicks, E Jackson Jeffcoat, E Alex Okafor, FS Kenny Vaccaro. Special teams (0) – None.
Fast fact: Texas has lost seven home games in the past two seasons; that is one more home loss than in the first 12 seasons of Brown’s tenure combined.
One positive aspect for Ash (or McCoy or whoever the quarterback is) is that Texas became more of a downhill running team last season, and that should continue; the offensive line returns four starters and should be a strength just two seasons after it was a big weakness.
Texas averaged 202.6 rushing yards per game last season; that was the best yards-per-game average since 2007 (207.5). The Longhorns ran the ball 156 more times and averaged 52.1 more rushing yards per game last season than they did in 2010.
There is a deep group of tailbacks. Sophomore Malcolm Brown ran for 742 yards in an injury-plagued season and occasionally flashed the talent that made him a five-star recruit. This season, he is joined by five-star freshman Jonathan Gray, who ran for an incredible 205 career touchdowns in high school. There's also sophomore Joe Bergeron, who ran for 463 yards as a backup last season; included in that total was a 191-yard outing against Texas Tech.
Ash has some running ability, too, but coaches want him to focus on improving as a passer. He threw four TD passes and eight interceptions last season; to be fair, he was a true freshman and really wasn't expected to play. McCoy, whose brother Colt is a Longhorns legend, tossed seven TDs and four picks, but doesn't have Ash's upside. Texas doesn't need superstar play from its quarterback; it merely needs competent performances.
The receiving corps was underwhelming last season, but that can partly be blamed on the shaky quarterback play. Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley look to be the top targets; there's also Marquise Goodwin, who currently is at the Olympics as a long jumper and will going to miss some of preseason camp. He has great speed and can be a deep threat. One or two other receivers need to emerge; it also would help the offense if a consistent tight end steps up. Harsin made great use of the tight end at Boise State.
Junior G Mason Walters, who has started every game the past two seasons, is the standout on the line. He joins holdover starters Dominic Espinosa (center), Trey Hopkins (guard) and Josh Cochran (tackle). Cochran and Espinosa were among the better freshmen offensive linemen in the nation last season. The one new starter is T Donald Hawkins, a junior college transfer who went through spring practice and wowed the coaches. Hawkins' nickname in junior college in Mississippi was "Franchise," and if he lives up to billing, he will challenge for all-league honors this fall. Depth looks good, too.
Manny Diaz was in his first season as coordinator last season, and his first go-round in the Big 12 went well. Texas led the league and was sixth nationally in rush defense; it also led the league and was 11th nationally in total defense. Texas also led the league in pass defense and pass efficiency defense.
This fall, Diaz will have the services of what might be the best end duo in the nation in junior Jackson Jeffcoat and senior Alex Okafor. They combined for 14.5 sacks, 29 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hurries last season. Both are considered possible first-round picks in the 2013 NFL draft.
Neither starting tackle returns. Juniors Ashton Dorsey, Brandon Moore (a junior college transfer who began his career at Alabama) and Chris Whaley (a converted running back) and sophomore Desmond Jackson seem likely to form the four-man rotation. The squatty Jackson (6 feet 1, 285 pounds) seems primed for a breakout season.
Also appearing primed for a breakout season is junior Jordan Hicks, the only returning starter at linebacker. He had a big game in the Holiday Bowl win over California (seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, a pass breakup) and seems ready to live up to his five-star recruiting ranking. Sophomore Steve Edmond looks to have the required physical nature to be a solid linebacker, and the other starting spot should go to speedy junior Demarco Cobbs, a converted safety. There appears to be good talent in reserve, but it is inexperienced.
The secondary should be one of the best in the nation. Junior CB Carrington Byndom is a big-timer who should vie for All-America attention. He had two interceptions and 15 pass breakups last fall. His running mate will be sophomore Quandre Diggs, a freshman All-America performer who had four interceptions and 13 breakups. FS Kenny Vaccaro is a vicious hitter who had 67 tackles, two interceptions and seven breakups last season. The one new starter in the secondary will be SS Adrian Phillips, who was a part-time starter as a sophomore in 2011. He also had two interceptions. Depth looks OK.
Texas benefited from Penn State's situation when K/P Anthony Fera transferred to the Longhorns. Fera handled both duties with aplomb for the Nittany Lions: 14-of-17 on field goals and a 42.0-yard average on punts last season. Fera is a Houston native.
Fera might end up as just the kicker for Texas. Alex King, a transfer from Duke who has immediate eligibility because he graduated, could be the punter. He averaged 42.1 yards per attempt for the Blue Devils last season.
Backup RB D.J. Monroe is the likely kick returner, while Diggs is expected to handle punt returns.
Texas' coverage teams were embarrassingly bad for a team with this many top-level athletes. The Longhorns were 100th in kickoff return defense and 72nd in covering punts.
The non-conference schedule, which includes a trip to Ole Miss, isn't tough at all. But the early part of the league schedule more than makes up for that.
Game 4 is at Oklahoma State. Game 5 is a visit from West Virginia. And Game 6 is the annual showdown with Oklahoma in Dallas. Yikes.
The back half of the schedule eases considerably, though there are trips to Texas Tech and Kansas State and a visit from TCU. It will be Texas' first meeting with the Horned Frogs since 1995, which was the final season of the Southwest Conference.
There aren't any concerns about the defense, which is good enough to win the Big 12. The offense, though, has some questions.
The game with Oklahoma State is huge for both teams. Texas needs to win to show it is all the way back and a legit contender for the league crown. A loss to the Cowboys could mean another four- or five-loss season.
What seems most likely is a nine- of 10-win season. That's assuming the pass offense makes the jump to adequate; the Longhorns can't rely strictly on their rushing attack and the defense.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 5th nationally
The buzz: Despite two subpar seasons in a row by Texas standards, the Longhorns have continued to be able to sign almost every in-state prospect they offer. Texas finished No. 2 in the country in the 2012 team recruiting rankings. But another subpar season could change things a bit for coach Mack Brown. With recruiting starting earlier and earlier every year, the top 2014 prospects aren't mentioning Texas nearly as much as players from past classes. A strong season on the field likely changes that, but another disappointing one could help other schools gain stronger footholds across the state. – Rivals.com
LB Jordan Hicks. The Longhorns were led at linebacker the past few seasons by Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, but both were seniors last season. Hicks has battled nagging injuries and a sometimes-limited role, but the expectations are huge for the former five-star recruit from Ohio. If his performance in a win over California in the Holiday Bowl is any indication, the 2012 season could finally be the kind of breakout campaign everyone has been expecting. Hicks is a three-down, sideline-to-sideline player, and the Longhorns need Hicks to make plays all over the field if they are going to emerge as a nationally elite defense. – Geoff Ketchum, Orangebloods.com
For more on Texas throughout the season, check out Orangebloods.com
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