The P-Word

New-Look Longhorns Have Potential To Go To New Orleans

As the kick-off to the 2003 season grows ever closer, the Longhorns emerge from a very successful pre-season with their eyes set squarely on their first Big 12 title of the Mack Brown era.

Watching the Horns gear up for the season, it was obvious that the Longhorns have the potential to end their three-game skid against Oklahoma, win the Big 12 Championship and contend for the Sugar Bowl. In Roy Williams, Derrick Johnson, Cedric Benson, Nathan Vasher, B.J. Johnson, Kalen Thornton and more, they have some of the most talented playmakers in the nation on both sides of the ball. They are deeper and more talented than any other Brown team, and they’ve upgraded the coaching and personnel at several past trouble spots. Most importantly, they are a team unsatisfied by back-to-back 11 win seasons, displaying a much more hard-nosed, aggressive attitude than previous squads. All signs point to an improved Texas team, but nagging questions at key positions could determine whether the Horns finally break through, or find themselves bowling once again in Dallas or San Diego.

Now, in homage (that’s nicer than saying "blatant rip-off") of CNN’s Peter King, let’s look at the five things I think I think about 2003, and the handful of major question marks that still remain.

Without further ado…

Five Things I Think I Think

1. Texas will be far different, and maybe even better, at quarterback. I was probably the biggest Chris Simms booster out there, so this is in no way a slap at him or what he accomplished on the Forty Acres. It is just that the added dimension Chance Mock and Vince Young bring to the table will help the Longhorns get the tough extra yards they need in a couple of ball games where every yard counts. Neither quarterback is even remotely as accurate as Simms, which will obviously affect the passing game at times, but their mobility and elusiveness in the pocket — and the improved health of Texas’ tight ends — should lead to more big plays downfield and over the middle. They should also benefit from an improved offensive line and running game. Oh yeah, and they have a certain fella named Williams that has something to prove.

2. Speaking of Roy Williams, he will be a finalist but will not win the Heisman Trophy. The superstar receiver will re-write virtually every Longhorn receiving record, have a huge, All-American season and win the Biletnikoff award, but won’t be able to overcome the bias against receivers among Heisman voters. I don’t think he will have a big enough impact on special teams (as a punt blocker), which every Heisman-winning wideout has had, to get over the hump.

3. The changes instituted by Mac McWhorter and Michael Haywood will significantly improve the running game, but the results may take a few games to become evident. The blocking scheme has been streamlined and the running backs are attacking and cutting rather than waiting for a hole to open. Cedric Benson in particular has shined under the new scheme and looks poised for a tremendous season. Look for Justin Blalock to be freshman All-American and get All-Big 12 consideration. He is that good.

4. This Texas defense could be stronger than the 2001 team that finished No. 1 in the nation. Defensive coordinator Carl Reese has more quality depth at every position than ever before and has at least six players— Derrick Johnson, Nathan Vasher, Kalen Thornton, Dakarai Pearson, Marcus Tubbs and Rodrique Wright — that could vie for All-Big 12 honors. The pass defense, in particular, has been extremely impressive and looks to be a dominating unit that will shut down opposing offenses.

5. Garnet Smith will be a star at middle linebacker. His speed, instincts and aggressiveness will give the Horns a true force in the middle for the first time in years. Playing behind a truly awesome defensive tackle rotation, Smith should be able to tee-off on opposing running backs and be a real difference-maker on the Texas defense.

Question Marks

1. Offensive Line

There’s really no need to beat around the bush on this one. The difference between another trip to the Cotton/ Holiday Bowl and a journey to New Orleans rests on the big uglies up front.

Not to put too much pressure on new offensive line coach McWhorter and new starters at potentially four positions but, more than anything, less-than-championship caliber play from the offensive line has cost the Longhorns perhaps nine games since 1999. Obviously, the losses haven’t been completely the fault of the offensive line, but its inability to protect the quarterback and/or provide a consistent running attack in big games has kept the Longhorns from controlling the clock and grinding out victories. To most observers, the lack of a trusted, consistent running game has been the chief reason the Horns have fallen short in the past three Red River Shootouts. In those losses, the Horns have managed an anemic 74 yards rushing on 77 carries, forcing everything onto the shoulders of the quarterback and the defense.

During August workouts, the 2003 line showed flashes of dominance, but is not yet where it needs to be for the Longhorns to be considered true national title contenders. The center and right guard spots will continue to be question marks until Will Allen and Mike Garcia are fully healthy. McWhorter has simplified the blocking scheme and has done much to protect incumbent starter Jason Glynn, but it will be very difficult for Texas to beat a truly dominant defense like Oklahoma’s if it has to divert personnel to cover for someone else on the line.

My gut tells me that the line will be much improved this season and will help Texas get over the hump. The eventual starting line-up of Jonathan Scott, Tillman Holloway, Allen, Garcia and Blalock has enough size, talent, athleticism and aggressiveness to become a truly dominant force, but until they actually put it together on the field, Texas fans will have to worry that the problems that have haunted them in the past will continue to hurt them this season, particularly the second weekend of October.

2. Kicking Game

Pardon me while I pat myself on the back, but two weeks ago I predicted that Richmond McGee would win the starting punter’s job and, since it happens so rarely, I have to point it out when I’m right. Now that McGee has won the job, all he has to do is keep it and that is no sure thing. Simply put, none of the Texas punters (save Vanderbilt transfer Greg Johnson who must sit out this season) has shown the type of consistency that will put fan fears to rest. McGee clearly has the best leg, but he has never punted in a real game at Texas and no matter how much coaches do to make a scrimmage more competitive, it just ain’t game day. I have the feeling that Texas fans will be able to breathe much easier after the New Mexico State game, but a shaky performance from McGee could mean an entire season of questions at punter and a lot of sleepless nights for Mack Brown.

The place kicker position is only slightly less tricky. Incumbent starter Dusty Mangum has simply not shown the consistency he needs from 40 yards and in to make Texas coaches and fans comfortable. In fact, after beginning his career 7-7, Mangum has only gone 25-42 since, and has connected on less than 50 percent of his field goal attempts from between 30 and 49 yards (14-29). That’s just not going to get it done.

David Pino, whom Mangum beat out in 2001 for the starter’s job, has shown a great deal of heart and stick-to-it-iveness to come back and make a serious run for the job two years later. Pino has made great strides, becoming much more consistent and, by far, has proved to have the better leg in camp but he still has not done it in a game.

Look for this battle to continue through the first four games of the season and for Brown to truly settle on a kicker by the Kansas State game. My gut tells me that this job is really Pino’s to lose. If he shows consistency during the first third of the season, he will end up the starter.

3. Health at DE

One would need a Ouija board to make a prediction on this. All that separates Texas from being a very good defense from a truly elite, game-breaking defense is the health of the defensive ends.

If healthy, the Texas defensive ends can match up with any unit in the nation. Senior Kalen Thornton appears fully healthy for the first time in two years and is ready to tear up the Big 12. Bryan Pickryl has put on weight and also appears healthy, and true freshman Tim Crowder looks like he will be this year’s Rod Wright, a freshman who comes in and dominates on a very good team. Back-ups Chase Pittman, Austin Sendlein and Kaelen Jakes all showed flashes of becoming complete defensive ends. The problem is that both Thornton and Pickryl have had such a history of injury problems that believing they will make it through a whole season healthy and playing at a high level might just be wishful thinking. Pittman, Sendlein and Jakes, while all solid players, do not possess the game-breaking ability of Thornton and Pickryl.

If those two can stay healthy, the Horns will have at least three defensive ends that can wreak havoc in the offensive backfield and help force turnovers. If one or both go down with an injury, Texas will have to rely heavily on blitzing linebackers and will be much more susceptible to the big play. My gut tells me that at either Thornton or Pickryl will end up getting dinged and miss at least one game this season and that Mike Williams ends up redshirting.

Bottom Line

The positives on this team clearly outweigh the negatives. Mock appears very comfortable in the Texas offense and looks more than ready to become a star. Benson is healthy and looking more and more like the running back who dominated Texas high school football for three years and the one who turned heads as a freshman at UT. The receiving corps — including the tight ends — is without peer in all of college football. The offense has been tweaked and looks like a totally different operation at times, with motion, the shotgun, power running, rollouts and the option. Even the fullbacks have been a serious part of the offense, all of which should lead to greater unpredictability and lead to big plays.

On defense, the Horns have their best up-the-middle rotation of the Brown era in Tubbs, Wright and Smith, and have the speed to string out and shut down anyone that tries to run wide. The pass defense already looks to be in mid-season form and should be one of the top five in the nation. Overall, the defense looks more than capable of carrying a young offense trying to implement changes and hit its stride and should be one of the top groups in college football.

The few negatives could very easily turn into positives. Richmond McGee improved every day in practice and has a very powerful leg. He has a quick enough drop, has tremendous hang time and is becoming a more consistent performer. If he comes through for the Longhorns, this could be a championship season for Texas. The last few years, Texas has often had to climb out of a serious field position hole because of poor punting. Against Oklahoma State last year, Texas seemingly started inside its 20-yardline (or worse) on every possession, because the Cowboys continually won the punt game. A better performance could save the Longhorns several first downs a game and force opponents to drive further down the field to score on the defense.

If the offensive line can eliminate mistakes and overcome early injuries, it has the talent to become one of the top units in the Big 12. McWhorter’s track record is one of tremendous success, so Longhorn fans should be optimistic, but should not count on an immediate turnaround overnight. If the running game finds success against Arkansas and Kansas State, this could be the year that the Horns put it all together. If they continue to struggle, expect at least one if not two losses in 2003, including a defeat at the hands of the hated Sooners.

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