How Texas Will Improve, Part Two

For story two of how Texas will be improved, we'll focus on the return game.

There were several areas where the Longhorns fell off from 2009 to 2010. The most obvious, when talking about the Longhorns' offensive woes, focused on replacing Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley. But the Longhorns saw a huge drop-off in another area in 2010, a second phase of the game that Shipley aided.

In 2009, the Texas punt and kick return units produced seven touchdowns. Two came courtesy of blocked punts. Two came from Shipley punt returns, two came from D.J. Monroe kickoff returns and one came from a Marquise Goodwin kickoff return.

So it stood to reason that the Longhorns would again field a strong kickoff return unit in 2010, with both Monroe and Goodwin returning. But for whatever reason, that never happened. A year after averaging 26.0 yards per kickoff return, good for second in the Big 12, the Longhorns plummeted to 18.5 yards per kickoff return, the worst mark in the conference.

The punt return didn't quite see the same drop in average. The Longhorns were second in yards per punt return with 11.6 yards per return in 2010, a slight decline from the 13.2 yards per return that Texas averaged in 2009 (also second in the league). In fact, Curtis Brown's 14.9 yards per punt return was actually better than Jordan Shipley's 13.0.

But neither the kickoff return nor the punt return unit produced a touchdown for the Longhorns in 2010, and both groups were plagued by turnovers that turned the tide of multiple games, including tough losses to UCLA and Oklahoma.

The turnover issues became so bad that the Longhorns dropped Brown's playmaking ability for then true freshman Adrian Phillips' sure hands with four games left. Phillips' nickname might as well have been "Fair Catch," as he returned just one punt, for nine yards, in the final four contests.

So why — other than the earlier referenced ball-control issues — did the Longhorns struggle in the return game? Other than Shipley, Texas returned its playmaking returners, and Brown actually averaged more yards per return than the Cincinnati Bengals wideout.

The answer can be summed up with two words: jumbo athletes. Other than the fumbles, the returners weren't the problem. Instead, it was often an issue with special teamers, many of whom were true freshmen a year ago, failing to make their blocks.

And therein lies the best potential for improvement. Not only do the Longhorns return a key special teamer in Malcolm Williams, but players like Demarco Cobbs have another year under their belts. Add in the addition of jumbo athletic players like Steve Edmond, Miles Onyegbule, Joe Bergeron and others, and there's a bigger pool to choose from.

The returners should also have that luxury. Darius White saw some time at kickoff returner in the spring, and he has the strength to break tackles in the open field. Texas coach Mack Brown has said that Quandre Diggs, a true freshman who enrolled early, has explosive return potential as well. And Jordan Shipley's younger brother, Jaxon Shipley, has shown that Jordan's punt return ability might just be genetic.

So take a unit less likely to cough up turnovers, add in more potential big athletes to serve as blockers and sprinkle in a few big-time returners who weren't available a year ago, and the Longhorns should spring back in the return game in 2011.

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