* Bennie Wylie
One-by-one, the Texas players at Big 12 Media Days raved about the workout programs engineered by new strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie. They said the players would enter the 2011 season stronger and faster than they were in 2010, and with a harder edge. That's good news for a team that was tortured in those spots last year, out-athleted by teams like Oklahoma State and Baylor and flat-out outmuscled by Kansas State.
But as for who people should watch as an indicator of the new program's success, look no further than the defensive line. Texas coach Mack Brown said depth at defensive tackle was a concern, though linebacker Emmanuel Acho said he had been impressed by the offseason of Taylor Bible and the work Bible had put into Wylie's program.
Bible was the most highly touted defensive tackle in the Longhorns' 2010 class, but came in overweight and was lapped early on by Ashton Dorsey and converted defensive end Greg Daniels. Still, if Bible is willing to put in the work to get into shape, he could really help out a tackle group still looking for answers, especially in the long term.
* Defensive back becoming a strength?
Cornerback was another position cited by Brown as one of the team's biggest concern, by virtue of losing the team's top three cornerbacks and losing a fourth, who was on the two-deep late in the year, to injury. That forced Texas to move second-year player Adrian Phillips down from safety, and he immediately grabbed a starting spot in the spring. The other projected starter was Carrington Byndom, another true starter, while true freshman Quandre Diggs worked his way into the No. 3 spot after enrolling early.
The Longhorns were also slow at safety a year ago, often leading to big plays. But safety Blake Gideon thinks that fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro could be among the Big 12's best, citing Vaccaro as the team's best man cover guy and potentially its biggest hitter.
Gideon also said the most impressive players in workouts had been the young cornerbacks, who had put in the work to hit the ground running once practice kicked off next week. Gideon especially singled out Phillips, who he said was a natural safety, but who was the type of player to work at any weakness until it became a strength.
* Quarterback Race
We've said all along that Garrett Gilbert will likely win the job to start off the season. And while the players weren't letting anything slip this week — all said they had confidence in whomever won the job — Gilbert's spot might be inferred by reading between the lines. First, there was Brown at the podium, telling people that the main thing the staff wanted from the position was leadership and swagger. Then, there was running back Fozzy Whittaker, who said that Gilbert had emerged as one of the top leaders offensively.
That would represent a big step up from what people felt about Gilbert last year, when — fairly or not — he was cast as an underclassman somewhat reluctant to boss around his elders on offense. In fact, when David Ash reported in the spring, one of the most glowing sentiments came from the players who said that Ash, upon arrival, was unafraid to get into a player's facemask if he made a mistake.
Gilbert makes sense as the choice if for no other reason than his level of experience. No other player has "been through the wars" as he has. No other quarterback on roster has won a conference road game, as Gilbert did twice a year ago, nor has any QB trotted out to start a Red River Shootout. There's certainly a value to that, as there is to the statement that quarterbacks typically make large leaps in their second seasons as starters.
So if Gilbert does trot out for the first snap against Rice, it's important to note that his experience and his improved leadership, probably did a lot of the heavy lifting getting him there, though it's worth noting that some others, including former Florida coach Urban Meyer, were impressed with the way Gilbert looked on the field in the spring as well.
* Best place to see a freshman?
Talking to the players, it seemed like a freshman was competing for a spot at every position. And several players said that this was one of the better classes they'd seen both from a talent and a work ethic standpoint.
Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive tackle, linebacker and defensive back could all see freshmen on the two-deep. At quarterback, Ash has been good enough that he's considered to be in the thick of the race for the job. Both Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are talked about as early contributors in the backfield, while Jaxon Shipley could be good enough to start right away. The Longhorns are looking for four tight ends to use, which means M.J. McFarland, after enrolling early, could see his way onto the field. And there's plenty of room on the offensive line two-deep for players like Garrett Greenlea, Josh Cochran and Sedrick Flowers. Defensively, the players were bullish on tackle Desmond Jackson, nicknamed "Tank", who was immediately one of the strongest players on the team. At least one of Steve Edmond, Chet Moss and Kendall Thompson will factor in at middle linebacker, while Tevin Jackson could play at outside linebacker opposite Demarco Cobbs. Diggs and Josh Turner will compete for time at corner, while Mykkele Thompson is drawing rave reviews at safety.
Last season, Mack Brown cited the 2010 class as one of his strongest, stating that he didn't think there were any busts. And with the early reviews on the 2011 class being what they are, it isn't hard to picture the back-to-back classes helping to push the Longhorns back to prominence.
* Best backcourt in the Big 12?
And on to basketball, where the Longhorns have a chance to make a major dent in what appears to be a somewhat watered-down Big 12. Based on returning starters, you'd have to give the edge to Baylor and Missouri, though the former team has been somewhat soft, and the latter team has a new coach and hasn't shown an ability to win on the road.
Which, of course, brings us back to the top two teams from a year ago. The Jayhawks have won or shared seven straight titles, and should compete for another with arguably the league's top post player in Thomas Robinson and a high-level point guard in Tyshawn Taylor, who came on at the end of the year. The Longhorns don't return as much after losing all five starters from a year ago.
But that can be somewhat deceiving, as J'Covan Brown actually played more minutes than starter Dogus Balbay did, and has to be considered among the most offensively gifted players in the league. And this year, he won't have to bear as much of the burden in terms of handling the ball, thanks to the addition of ace point guard Myck Kabongo.
That duo should be among the Big 12's best, and could be just what the doctor ordered in terms of propelling the Longhorns near the top of the league standings. Brown and Kabongo might be the best guard group not named Taylor and Elijah Johnson in the league.