State of the Horns heading into the opener

What does <B>Mack Brown</B> want from his football team Saturday night? "The only thing I want to do is have a win because with a win you can come home and correct the rest of it," Brown said. "In opening ballgames, and I've been in enough of them now, if you lose it changes your outlook for the entire season, so you just need to win."

"We've worked so hard in all areas, you never know what's going to pop up as a sore spot in the first ballgame and all you can do is hope you get a W, get out of it," the head coach said. "And then on Sunday try to coach it the best I can."

In '98 against the same team that the Horns will line up against Saturday evening, Brown and his staff had a whole heck of a lot of coaching to do on the Sunday morning after that season opener, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Texas totaled 66 points, but New Mexico State hung 36 on the Longhorn D, 33 of those in an interminable second half. This fall, in year four for Brown at Texas, with four of his recruiting classes already on campus, the Sunday morning situation in two days should be substantially different than the one three years ago. Just yesterday, the Texas head coach mentioned that there is "less drop-off this year between the ones and the twos" on this team than there was even last fall. That is a reflection of depth, something in short supply in '98. Brown's first squad had stars at several positions -- Ricky Williams at tailback, Wane McGarity and Kwame Cavil at wideout, Aaron Humphrey at defensive end, Casey Hampton and Cedric Woodard at tackle -- but it also had Tony Holmes and Joe Walker at corner and Donald McCowen at one safety spot and Chris Smith at defensive end. And those four guys were starters! Great guys, all, who gave their all to the Texas football program, but none of the four would be on this '01 team's two-deep. So with elevated talent and depth should come less Sunday worries. But as Brown pointed out, you just never know what's going to pop up as a sore spot in the first ballgame.

So what are the potential "sore" spots tomorrow? Well, Brown sees two. "The two things that affect openers the most are turnovers and kicking game mistakes and it's always because you haven't been able to do as much of it full speed as you'd like." The last part of that statement is particularly true this week. The persistent rain in Austin (FYI, the weather forecast calls for more of the same through the weekend -- bring your foul weather gear to DKR) forced the Horns to the top of Moncrief-Neuhaus and under the tent for Wednesday's and Thursday's workouts, limiting not only the speed of the practice but the size as well. The space issue and the split workout schedule (offense and defense practicing at different times) create a bit more concern in an area that already has produced its share of nail biting: special teams. The Horns could be a great return team, particularly on kickoff returns, but just about every other aspect of special teams is worrisome heading into the opener and could be a "sore" spot. You may remember that, because of a certain special teams breakdown, the Horns lost an opener two years ago that they totally dominated otherwise. Don't look for anything approaching that to happen against the Aggies -- Texas now works two deep on its special teams, which was not the case in '99 -- but one blocked punt or field goal would not be the least bit shocking given the spring and summer performance of those units.

But aside from special teams, is there a "sore" spot that could cost this team the game? No, not this game. But this game may reveal if there are any "sore" spots that could cost this team a game later in the season. The areas to watch: defensive tackle, linebacker, and offensive line. With its option game, NMSU will test both the DTs and the LBs. Although the Horns won't face another team like New Mexico State during the regular season, the tackles' ability to dominate in the middle and the linebackers' ability to make the right decisions (and to play with greater toughness, as the coaches desire) will be on display tomorrow and may give us a glimpse of what to expect from those spots this fall. And though the Aggie defense won't be mistaken for any unit in the Big 12, the game will be the first indication of whether the individually talented Texas OLs will develop into a unit where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For two years now, the opposite has been true.

You've probably noticed that I didn't mention the running backs above in the "sore" spots category. That's intentional, because I believe the Texas running game is going to be solid (and possibly even spectacular) tomorrow and throughout the season IF the OL becomes a unit like I describe above. Although I see Cedric Benson destined for stardom, Ike, Benson or Williams won't matter as much as what the OL accomplishes up front.

Across the rest of the field, this Texas team is salty. We all know what to expect from the QBs and WRs and TEs and DBs. We've seen it before from those spots and we should see plenty more tomorrow (and boy is it gonna be fun to watch). Along with Brown's ultimate goal, a simple W.

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