Buried beneath the endless stream of Longhorn Network jokes and sharpened pitchforks ready for another fall of unmet expectations is cautious optimism for Texas football. The problem, however, is that the expectations for perfection remain, despite a drastically different national landscape and an overall lack of star power.
Spring football is underway in Austin, and this might be one of the toughest teams to figure as we sludge through the offseason.
When I released my Spring Football Top 25, Texas was the team discussed and debated most, which is far from surprising given its tradition and recent results. I had the Longhorns ranked at No. 16, behind only TCU in the Big 12, but right around the likes of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
Those arguing against this rating—and this was far and away the most popular response—were doing so because of hype, name and another year of us waiting for Mack Brown to live up to his hefty salary. Given the team’s 22-16 record since losing to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game, it’s a fair stance to take.
With as many football resources as Texas has, the record should be better. Moving toward the 2013 season, it has to be better or Brown will be out of a job.
If the Longhorns don’t exceed expectations in 2013, which have shifted in recent years, there will likely be a change at head coach. If it were up to many of the proud donors and Bevo message board contingents, this change would have already taken place.
How has it gotten to this point? And more importantly, to those waiting for that charge back into the national spotlight, can it revert back to the Texas we grew accustomed to seeing?
Well, there’s good news and bad news.
The Offense is Trending (Back) Up
The good news...
2012 was a colossal step forward for the Texas offense, which has been publicly pinpointed as the team’s Achilles’ heel. Although replacing the likes of Vince Young and Colt McCoy has proved to be a challenge—and they were prolific college quarterbacks after all—last season was a dramatic improvement when it comes to sustaining drives and finding the end zone.
Texas averaged 35.7 points per game in 2012, good for 23rd in the country.
With a no-huddle offseason in the works and a plethora of returning talent (likely 10 starters), things are once again looking up on offense in 2013. Better yet, Texas enters with some stability at quarterback as David Ash enters spring growing comfortable in the position.
We won’t mistake Ash for Colt McCoy, but he proved that he could win games for Texas when called upon. His performance in the team’s come-from-behind bowl win against Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl could prove to be a stepping stone of sorts.
While he’ll lose speedster Marquise Goodwin to the NFL, wideouts Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis return. Both caught at least 50 passes last season.
At running back, Texas is loaded. If the team is going to take that next step, it’ll likely start here. More specifically, it will start with Johnathan Gray, who could be special.
Gray led the team with 701 yards last year, while Joe Bergeron added 16 touchdowns as the team’s go-to goal-line guy. Malcolm Brown is also back, and he averaged 5.31 yards per carry on only 61 rushes.
As diabolical as these three can be, they have to become more consistent. With an experienced offensive line in place, they likely will be. Although it seems odd given the narrative of offensive woes, Texas has weapons on this side of the ball, and things are very bright.
As for the other side, well…
What Happened to the Defense?
Ah, yes, the bad news...
And seriously, what the hell was that?
A year ago, we were touting the Texas defense in the same breath as Alabama, Florida and LSU when talking about the best defensive units in the country. Given the talent they had returning in 2012, we stressed the offense as the area of concern.
That was not the case. Manny Diaz’s group in his second season was a complete and utter mess.
In 2011, Texas gave up an average of 306.1 yards per game. In 2012, that number jumped all the way up to 403.4 yards. That's a massive jump. Granted, the defense endured a handful of costly injuries, but this regression was much more than that.
From a scoreboard perspective, they gave up nearly 30 points per game, a staggering number when looking at recent history.
The trend is clear, and it didn’t take much to see how it spiraled out of control last season. If you watched much of Texas last year, one thing was obvious: The middle of their defense was soft, slow and easily moved around. Teams were able to run right up the middle, as the Longhorns allowed nearly 200 yards rushing per game.
Not only was the middle of the field an issue, but as a whole, this was a bad tackling group. The tackling is far from efficient across the country. But when you’re not stout up the middle and can’t bring ball-carriers down once they get through, you’re in trouble.
That’s exactly what transpired.
Not helping this outlook is the fact that Alex Okafor, the team’s best defensive player, is off to the NFL, which means they have another hole in that defensive line to fill.
There are, however, a few bright spots. Linebacker Jordan Hicks and defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat should (hopefully) both be healthy for the start of next season after going out last year with injury, and their presence alone should bolster this group in a big way. This team needs them badly.
The secondary wasn’t superb last season, but Quandre Diggs—who led the team in interceptions—is solid, and most of the starters will return.
And, of course, all eyes will be on the defensive line, which has to improve.
There’s nothing that screams dramatic improvement on this side of the ball. But then again, we saw how preseason perception translated a year ago. Also, sadly, it can’t get a whole lot worse than what it was.
Stability Surrounded by Change
This is not the Texas team from 2009. There is not a surplus of talent, despite the fact that they have some players with tremendously high ceilings. With that said, the Big 12 is a complete and utter mystery, and this could well work in the Longhorns’ favor.
Only three teams in the conference return their starting quarterbacks. TCU is hopeful that Casey Pachall can stay on the right track, and if so, the Horned Frogs could be one of the surprise teams in the country.
Oklahoma State has three quarterbacks who could start, all of whom proved their worth at times last season. Then there’s Texas with David Ash, which suddenly feels stable compared to the rest of the conference.
Oklahoma will have to replace Landry Jones, who, despite the occasional “oh no” moment, threw for a lot of yards. Kansas State will lose Heisman finalist Collin Klein. His presence changed the overall outlook of that team. West Virginia has to replace quarterback Geno Smith in what will likely be a rebuilding year.
As Texas continues with spring practice, they do so with 19 returning starters At a time when more talent is needed, experience will have to suffice, and it very well could. In a year when Mack Brown is likely BCS-bound or bust, earning a BCS berth isn’t a scenario you can cross out.
The 2013 schedule, however, is far from easy, and out-of-conference games against BYU and Ole Miss will be telling early on next season. Games at TCU and Baylor also present unique challenges, and then, of course, there's the Red River Shootout. After being outscored 118-38 the past two years, this one could be very telling.
The team is still flawed, the hype will be excessive (as usual) and the team of 2009 may still feel like a distant memory. But the team of 2013 might just be good enough to take that next step in a conference where nothing is a given.