Spring football 25: Texas Longhorns

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Notre Dame

What happened in 2012
The 2012 season wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either and it certainly wasn’t what Texas fans were hoping for when the season began. If there was one positive during the 9-4 season – other than the fact that the Longhorns won nine games for the first time since playing in the BCS National Championship in 2009 – was that the Longhorns finally settled on a starting quarterback after nearly three years of rotating, shuffling and bad quarterbacking. David Ash had some missteps throughout the year, but in the 31-27 win over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl, he solidified himself as the leader of the offense and the strides he made in that game should have Texas folks excited for the future.

What makes them interesting in 2013
As noted above, the way Texas ended its season – with a fantastic comeback against the Beavers – creates intrigue, especially offensively. The Longhorns, behind new offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, are moving to a fast-paced no-huddle offense that relies on a handful of key players. Under former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, the Longhorns were using personnel groupings on offense because it seemed like the best way to make progress. Unfortunately, it might have stunted Texas and now, it has a chance to catch up to the dynamic offenses that are already present in the league. Will Texas be Oklahoma State or Texas Tech next year? That might be ambitious, but it will be a far different team than the ones we’ve seen since the Longhorns were in the national title game in 2009.

What needs to happen this spring
Learning a new system isn’t easy, especially one that requires the offense to go no-huddle and snap the ball every 15 seconds. It’s not just going to be about learning the plays, Texas seemed to have a lot of that down already, but it’s going to be about conditioning, both mentally and physically. And while the offense will be the focus of the Longhorns’ changes, the defense will have to be in better shape than it's ever been just to be able to keep up with the pace. One of the biggest failures of teams converting to the spread offense is on defense. Because the offense moves so quickly, the defense doesn’t get as much rest, especially if the offense goes three-and-out. So Texas is going to have to step up its conditioning and get its defensive players to get on board to play a more demanding style.

Game changers

It’s time to embrace Texas as a spread passing attack and to do that, veteran receivers Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley have to become the stars of this offense. Davis seemed to develop a good report with Ash as he led the team with seven touchdowns and 931 receiving yards. Shipley finished with 59 catches for 737 yards and six scores. And that’s in Texas offense that ranked sixth in the Big 12 in passing, which is far lower than where Applewhite would like to be in 2013. So look for both of those players, and the host of sophomores and freshmen behind them, to see a lot more passes coming their way.

Defensively, the Longhorns must find a replacement for Alex Okafor, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss. Cedric Reed will move into that position opposite Jackson Jeffcoat, but who knows whether the two will be able to replicate Okafor’s production, especially since Jeffcoat missed last season with pectoral surgery (he will miss the spring). The Longhorns also have to find some playmakers on the interior to shore up what was a mediocre run defense.

Wild cards
Honestly, the biggest wild card for Texas right now is coach Mack Brown. For the past two seasons, there have been many calls for his head and the Texas administration has stuck by him. But for how long? He’s taking a little risk by changing his offense, but it should be a gamble that will pay off. However, if the Longhorns don’t get back to double-digit winning seasons, Mack Brown might be packing up for retirement.

Key games
Aug. 31 at BYU
Oct. 12 Oklahoma (Cotton Bowl)
Nov. 16 Oklahoma State
Dec. 7 at Baylor

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