Postmortem: Texas staggers off the mat

A season in review.

buffett.jpg

Be careful what you ask for. The general consensus on the starting quarterback in August was "Anyone but Garrett Gilbert," and the wish came true: Gilbert was benched in the second quarter of the second game, never to be seen again after being ruled out with a shoulder injury. (He eventually settled on a transfer to SMU.) Immediately following Gilbert's exit from the lineup, the Longhorns a) Rallied from a 13-0 hole against BYU behind sophomore Case McCoy and true freshman David Ash, b) Trounced UCLA in the Rose Bowl, 49-20, on a 13-of-15, two-touchdown effort by McCoy, and c) Won comfortably at Iowa State to extend their record to 4-0 heading into the annual date with top-ranked Oklahoma on Oct. 8.

Five turnovers and three defensive touchdowns later, any illusions about the "chemistry" of the Ash/McCoy ticket had been permanently shattered. The back half of the season was a chaotic pas de deux that resolved nothing and repeatedly answered the question "Have the Longhorns found the quarterback of the future?" with a firm "Not really." In five losses, Texas had more than twice as many turnovers (17) as offensive touchdowns (7) and barely averaged 14 points per game; in late wins over Texas A&M and Cal, two of the 'Horns' three touchdown passes came via the arm of freshman receiver Jaxon Shipley on trick plays. After the Holiday Bowl, they ranked eighth out of ten Big 12 teams in scoring and ninth in pass efficiency, leaving UT no closer to a permanent answer at the most important position than it was in August.

I complained about the passing game, until I met a man with no healthy tailbacks. The book on first-year offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin suggests a heavy dose of misdirection, throwbacks and other hocus pocus he imported from Boise State, and the tricky stuff was certainly there. When the offense was working, though — that is, in back-to-back midseason blowouts over Kansas and Texas Tech — it was a smashmouth affair: In those two games alone, the 'Horns kept it on the ground an incredible 126 times for 880 yards and 11 touchdowns, outscoring the Jayhawks and Red Raiders by a combined 75 points. They also went over 200 rushing against UCLA, Oklahoma State and Baylor.

buffett.jpg

Of course, all five of those defenses ranked 90th or worse against the run, giving up somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 yards on the ground as a matter of course. (Considering they play in the most pass-happy conference, Texas Tech and Kansas were arguably the two worst run defenses in the nation.) But if anyone has a future on the offense, it's freshman tailback Malcolm Brown, who was well on his way to fulfilling the five-star hype before he was struck down with the dreaded turf toe on the heels of back-to-back 100-yard games in October. He was joined shortly thereafter on the injury list by ailing backfield mates Fozzy Whittaker and Joe Bergeron, and UT limped through the last five games — losing three — with no offensive identity and virtually no firepower to speak of.

Something old, something new. Reviews were considerably better for first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who kept the torch lit by Florida-bound predecessor Will Muschamp burning at the top of the Big 12 rankings. Texas led the conference in total defense for the fourth year in a row and slung the moribund offense on its back for the late wins over Texas A&M and Cal, thanks in large part to four seniors — defensive tackle Kheeston Randall, linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson and safety Blake Gideon — whose steady presence belied the overall youth movement. Make no mistake: With four other players back next year who qualified for a first or second-team All-Big 12 nod — defensive ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, cornerback Quandre Diggs and safety Kenny Vaccaro — this unit isn't going anywhere in 2012.

Return of the Mack. The quarterback situation is still in flux, there are no reliable playmakers at the skill positions and almost half the starting defense will be new. The only certainty in 2012: Head coach Mack Brown, who's about to get another contract extension to fend off rumors of his imminent retirement, locking him in (on paper, anyway) for the foreseeable future. After 13 wildly successful years, Brown was forced to overhaul the entire operation after the 5-7 disaster in 2010 with two new coordinators and an almost entirely new coaching staff. Their first campaign together was a small step forward, and recruiting is still going like gangbusters, as always. If McCoy or Ash (or an as-yet unidentified blue-chip) develops into a reliable starter, the overall talent level is where it was when Colt McCoy was leading the Longhorns to BCS bowls in 2008 and 2009.

As of right now, there is no indication that Ash or McCoy is going to raise his game to that level, and the only candidate for the title of "rising blue-chip" — incoming recruit Connor Brewer, a four-star prospect from Scottsdale, Ariz. — would force the offense to spend another year in the development phase. At age 60, Brown insists he still has the patience to see the rebuilding cycle through. Until they find a way to upgrade under center, Longhorn fans should probably follow his lead.

- - -
Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.