What questions do the 'Horns have to answer this Fall?
Fall camp is well under way, as fans have gotten to see the return of the veterans and the baby-faced newcomers of the freshmen class.
The Texas Longhorns enter the 2012 season with plenty of questions left over from last year when they finished with an 8-5 mark following their 21-10 win over Cal in the Holiday Bowl. Still, with a number of concerns heading into the campaign, there are huge bright spots that many hope will catapult the Longhorns into contention for a conference title.
With less than 30 days before the college football season begins, let’s dive into five questions heading into the year.
Where do the Longhorns stand at quarterback?
The quarterback position for the Longhorns was a question of incredible concern in 2011, and it is no different in the 2012 season.
First, it was Garrett Gilbert—who is now a signal caller at SMU—then it was David Ash, a true freshman who received virtually no reps before the season started and was thrust into an offense with few tools to work with in year one of a new system. Then, it was Case McCoy—the younger brother of a Texas legend in Colt McCoy. Then, it was Ash again. Then, it was McCoy again. You get the picture.
In 2012—the Longhorns’ second year under the Bryan Harsin and Major Applewhite offensive scheme—the expectations should be cautious optimism. The reality should be to look for improvement, given the alleged strength gains and familiarity with the offense for both quarterbacks.
But at the same time, neither player demonstrated enough consistency last season to warrant out-of-the-box expectations for this season. Whichever quarterback earns the starting job—which hopefully will not turn into another carousel—the plan should be to manage the game and prevent mistakes.
If the Longhorns are to make it back into the BCS, a definite lofty goal, then they will need some big plays from the quarterback position.
Having said all of that, Texas has the pieces surrounding the signal caller to be very successful offensively. The offense line—at least the starters—appear to be a solid group and perhaps the best since Texas’ national championship run in 2005. The running backs look to be one of the top corps in the Big 12. The receivers are young, but they have the talent to make impact plays if the ball gets to them.
Effectively, the Longhorns still have a big question mark lingering over the quarterback position. But there is room for optimism because of the type of offense that Texas is set to establish.
How good is the Texas defense?
In two words, really good.
But hold on, can the Longhorns’ defense under second-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz be “really good” after losing four great pieces that held together the unit over a lengthy stretch?
Texas lost safety Blake Gideon, who started 52 games for the Longhorns. It lost two linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, two players who collectively provided stability and leadership from the middle of the defense. It lost Kheeston Randall at defensive tackle who quietly put together a couple of great back-to-back seasons to finish his career in Austin.
But despite all of those departures, the Longhorns could still be one of the country’s top performing defenses.
Let’s take a layered look.
The defensive line has some questions about its depth, but at the top are a couple of top-notch defensive ends in Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor, two upperclassmen who could have both of their names called on the first day of the NFL Draft next year.
The interior issues some concern with the lack of proven depth, but the position is loaded with talented youth. Headlined by JUCO transfer Brandon Moore and junior Ashton Dorsey receiving the brunt of snaps in the trenches, the Longhorns can offer up a wealth of talented underclassmen in their rotation, freshmen included. Expect to see quality players like frosh Malcom Brown and sophomore Desmond Jackson enter the fray quite often. Do not sleep on former running back convert Chris Whaley, either.
The linebackers have experience concerns, but all signs are pointing to the trio of Demarco Cobbs, Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks picking up right where Texas left off last season. With a true middle linebacker in Edmond who simply eats up space and plays well in both dimensions, the Longhorns can present a strong front in the middle of the defense, allowing Hicks and Cobbs to roam freely and quickly, two things they do very well. In fact, for a position that graduated Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, the linebackers could easily become a unit of strength as the season wears on.
The defensive backfield will be a huge strength for the Longhorns this season. All-Big 12 candidates Carrington Byndom, Quandre Diggs and Kenny Vacarro only scratch the surface of what Texas will field in 2012. Throw in a do-it-all athlete in Adrian Phillips, who should line up opposite Vacarro at safety, and a deep set of Duane Akina-coached underclassmen, the Longhorns should easily boast the best defensive backfield in the Big 12.
The strength of Texas’ 2012 season looks to ride with its defense, and it should provide a security blanket for the offense to find a groove.
How heavily can the Longhorns lean on the running game?
We know about Malcolm Brown and Joe Begeron. We know that the Longhorns have a deep stable of running backs to throw into the backfield, and we know that the Harsin-Applewhite offense can pull the strings to throw opposing defenses off-balance on the running game alone.
But at what point will Texas have drop back in the pocket and set up to throw the rock? Will a dominant running game be enough for the Longhorns to traverse through a competitive Big 12 with reasonable success?
Mack Brown has publicly stated that he wants a 50-50 balance between his running game and passing game. Obviously, the ground game is quite a bit ahead of the aerial attack, but while the Longhorns figure out just where the weapons are at receiver and how much progress there has been at quarterback, we could see the Horns state their claim as the Big 12’s best running team.
That being said, there is definitely a point on the schedule where running the ball 65 percent of the time just will not get it done. Like in 2011, injuries crippled what was a one-dimensional offense, and any repeat of that in 2012 likely would put the offense in a similar rut.
Expect Texas to gather momentum and rhythm on the ground while it continuously evaluates where it stands in the passing game.
The Horns open their 2012 campaign with home outings against Wyoming and New Mexico before heading out to Oxford, Miss. to play Ole Miss. At first and second glances, none of these opponents look to truly challenge the Longhorns, meaning they likely will be using the run to set up the pass and determine progress from there.
In its next four games—at Oklahoma State, vs. West Virginia, vs. Oklahoma in Dallas, vs. Baylor—coincidentally its first four conference matchups, Texas better have figured out how to move the ball through the air.
So how heavily can Texas lean on its ground game?
The answer is plenty, but it comes with the condition of developing chemistry in the passing game. Texas will survive its non-conference battles just on running the ball and its defense alone, but against higher quality opponents in the Big 12, complimenting the ground game with a solid passing attack is an ultimate goal.
Will Texas survive on special teams after the departure of Justin Tucker?
There are new twists in the tale of Texas’ special teams unit, additions that could flip the outlook from just a few weeks ago.
The Longhorns received two transfers over the summer: senior punter Alex King from Duke and junior specialist Anthony Fera from Penn State, two experienced special teamers who will provide a great lift in production and optimism.
Things could change, but King looks set to handle the punting duties, giving Fera the kicking game. Mack Brown has publicly stated the issues with letting one guy handle all of the assignments, and with the type of numbers that the Longhorns have at those positions, it would make a whole lot of sense to split the obligations.
For a program that has had some phenomenal legs in the past, Texas looked to be in deep trouble heading into the season. But the additions of Fera and King could pin the Longhorns with one of the better units in the conference.
How much depth do the Longhorns truly have?
For the most part defensively, the Longhorns appear to be set. There are question marks along the interior defensive line, but virtually every position is covered with talent on the two deep.
Offensively, apart from running back, depth is a worthy concern.
If the season started today, here is a projected depth chart for the game against Wyoming.
- QB: David Ash (So.), Case McCoy (Jr.)
- RB: Malcolm Brown (So.)/Joe Bergeron (So.), Jeremy Hills (Sr.)/D.J. Monroe (Sr.)/Johnathan Gray (Fr.)/Daje Johnson (Fr.)
- WR: Jaxon Shipley (So.), Marquise Goodwin (Sr.)
- WR: Mike Davis (Jr.), John Harris (So.)
- TE: M.J. McFarland (Fr.)/D.J. Grant (Sr.)
- LT: Donald Hawkins (Jr.). Trey Hopkins (Jr.)/Luke Poehlmann (Sr.)
- LG: Trey Hopkins (Jr.), Sedrick Flowers (Fr.)
- C: Dom Espinosa (So.), Garrett Porter (Jr.)
- RG: Mason Walters (Sr.), Sedrick Flowers (Fr.)
- RT: Josh Cochran (So.), Luke Poehlmann (Sr.)/Trey Hopkins (Jr.)
- WDE: Jackson Jeffcoat (Jr.), Reggie Wilson (Jr.)
- DT: Brandon Moore (Jr.) , Desmond Jackson (So.)/Chris Whaley (Jr.)
- DT: Ashton Dorsey (Jr.), Chris Whaley (Jr.)/Malcom Brown (Fr.)
- SDE: Alex Okafor (Sr.), Cedric Reed (So.)
- SLB: Jordan Hicks (Jr.), Kendall Thompson (So.)/Peter Jinkens (Fr.)
- MLB: Steve Edmond (So.), Tevin Jackson (So.)/Aaron Benson (So.)/Dalton Santos (Fr.)
- WLB: Demarco Cobbs (Jr.), Kendall Thompson (So.)
- CB: Carrington Byndom (Jr.), Duke Thomas (So.)/Josh Turner (So.)
- CB: Quandre Diggs (So.), Josh Turner (So.)/Bryson Echols (Fr.)
- Nickel: Kenny Vacarro (Sr.)/ Adrian Phillips (So.)
- S: Kenny Vacarro (Sr.), Mykkele Thompson (So.)
- S: Adrian Phillips (So.)/Mykkele Thompson (So.)
- K: Anthony Fera (Jr.)
- P: Alex King (Sr.)
- PR: Quandre Diggs
- KR: Quandre Diggs, Marquise Goodwin
The offensive line depth has to worry even the casual Texas fan, as beyond six men deep, there just isn’t much going on. Linebacker has similar questions, but there could be some pleasant surprises hidden in the depths at the position.
Overall, the Texas defense should be fine. The offense should warrant the most concern if the injury bug bites hard. If it does, it will be hard for the Longhorns to overcome.
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