How Texas Will Improve, Part One

Everyone knows about Garrett Gilbert's struggles this past year. But there's also plenty of historical precedent for why people shouldn't give up on a signal caller too soon.

Take into account the following three players:

Player A — 59.0 percent, 2,744 yards, 10 touchdowns, 17 interceptions

Player B — 51.9 percent, 1,780 6 touchdowns, 15 interceptions

Player C — 47.3 percent, 1,831 yards, 9 touchdowns, 15 interceptions

If Player A's statistics look familiar, they should. They belong to Gilbert, who had a rough go of it in his first season as a starter. But so did Player B and Player C, both of whom arguably had worse first years as starters. Both went on to be first-round draft picks. Player B is Kansas State's Josh Freeman. And Player C is Notre Dame's Brady Quinn.

Now, let's look at the second season as a starter for each player.

Freeman — 63.3 percent, 3,353 yards, 18 touchdowns, 11 interceptions

Quinn — 54.1 percent, 2,586 yards, 17 touchdowns, 10 interceptions

So even though both players were worse than Gilbert the year before, they both put up much better numbers in their second seasons as starters. I'm not saying that Gilbert is going to be a world-beater in his second year. But the game slows down considerably for quarterbacks in their second seasons after going through the wars. Freeman was additionally aided by a healthy Jordy Nelson and a transfer named Brandon Banks at wide receiver, upping the play of that unit. But we'll get to that in a minute.

Here's another nugget for consideration:

Carson Palmer Year Three — 54.9 percent, 2,914 yards, 16 touchdowns, 18 interceptions

Carson Palmer Year Four — 58.6 percent, 2,717 yards, 13 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

That shows how much Palmer benefitted in his first season with Norm Chow as offensive coordinator. While he wasn't perfect, Palmer's completion percentage went up nearly four points, and he had a positive, if not good, touchdown-to-interception ratio. The season after, Palmer won the Heisman Trophy. Quinn saw an even bigger jump with the addition of Charlie Weis as coach, completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 3,919 yards and 32 touchdowns to seven interceptions.

So not only do many quarterbacks improve in their second year as signal-callers, but quarterbacks can also see an immediate impact from the addition of a strong offensive coordinator, which the Longhorns appear to have in Bryan Harsin.

Sure, Gilbert might not win the job. But there's evidence to suggest that he could improve from last season, and if somebody were to beat him out, all the better, right?

Whoever wins the job should have a better supporting cast. In 2010, Gilbert was on an island, trapped behind a shaky and somewhat rotating door on the offensive line because of injuries, having to be one of the team's top rushing threats while also dealing with an underachieving receiving corps that struggled to get open. With the re-introduction of Jeremy Hills and the signing of Malcolm Brown, there shouldn't be as much pressure on Gilbert to tote the ball. And the receiving corps should be much better, and deeper.

After all, the Longhorns return three players who started at least five games for them a year ago. Mike Davis missed the Red River Shootout and parts of other games with an injury. But that didn't stop him from setting a Texas freshman record with 47 receptions. He had a huge spring and looks to be the playmaker the unit lacked a year ago.

Texas also returns Malcolm Williams for his senior year after he grabbed 24 passes for 334 yards and two touchdowns in six starts, while Marquise Goodwin had 31 catches for 324 yards and a touchdown in seven starts a year ago. But both of those players will likely have to fight to get the same kind of playing time in 2011.

That's because of the emergence of players like Darius White and John Harris. The former caught one pass for five yards last year, and was set to break into the rotation at mid-season before he was derailed by a family accident. He should give the Longhorns another factor they lacked a year ago: a player who can make plays on 50-50 jump balls. He won one of those in the spring game, coming up with a 24-yard play on third-and-22, while he scored a touchdown in one of the other scrimmages on another jump ball. Harris is a long, athletic player who should find himself on the two-deep.

Meanwhile, Desean Hales had a strong spring after grabbing 10 passes for 75 yards a year ago, and could see his role increase. But whoever wants to play in the slot will have to fight off ace recruit Jaxon Shipley, while Miles Onyegbule is also coming in with the intention of playing early.

That's a long way to say that the receivers will be better, and deeper than a year ago. For Freeman in 2007, that made all the difference. In fact, the year after Jordy Nelson left, Freeman's completion percentage (63.3 to 58.6) and yards per game (279.4 to 245.4) both dropped considerably. His touchdown-to-interception ratio did improve slightly. Missouri's Blaine Gabbert saw a drop in yards per game (276.4 to 245.1) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (24-9 to 16-9) after Danario Alexander left.

So why will Texas the passing game be better than a year ago? A more experienced quarterback (or a better quarterback, should one beat him out), a strong, new offensive coordinator and a better supporting cast, especially at receiver.

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