When it comes to Texas football, it's never too early to start thinking about next year. And with nine returning defensive and seven returning offensive starters, there are those who say that the Longhorns' first-ever Rose Bowl appearance was a precursor of things to come.
"This team is going to be better next year," promised All-American WLB Derrick Johnson. "We're not losing anybody."
Relatively speaking. Most notably, Texas loses Butkus winner D.J. and Doak Walker winning RB Cedric Benson. If it's any consolation, Texas won the Rose Bowl despite quiet performances (by their standards) from both Johnson and Benson. After hyperextending his left knee on his first carry, Benson's 70 net yards was his lowest output since the 2003 Oklahoma game. When the Wolverine offense wasn't running away from D.J., they committed their big FB to at least slowing his forward progress on the way to just 1.5 tackles on the afternoon.
As such, several of the California and Michigan writers credited Texas' 38-37 win to Vince Young carrying the entire team on his shoulder pads. That, of course, does an injustice to the rest of the team. But as long as Young wears the Burnt Orange, and as long as OC Greg Davis allows the free-wheeling Young the kind of pass-run option that gets him moving, Texas should be favored in at least ten games next season (including the trip to Ohio State).
The Horns would understandably be a 'dog going into the OU game. But even without Benson and Johnson, 2005 represents Texas' best shot at upending the Sooners in several seasons. Not only has Heisman QB Jason White and All-American WR Mark Clayton completed their eligibility, so has the bulk of what has arguably been the finest O-Line in Sooner history. It begs the question: just how much can RB Adrian Peterson do on his own, especially against what should be a Longhorn strength in 2005, it's defensive front.
In fact, two-time All-American DT Kenneth Sims told me that he not only expects Texas to beat OU this year but roll the table precisely because of its D-line. If Rodrique Wright and Larry Dibbles return for their senior seasons, Texas will boast as good (if not better) a D-line as the program enjoyed in the days of Shaun Rogers and Casey Hampton. The group is further solidified by DT Frank Okam, a Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America team selection. Okam played in all 12 games as a true freshman with one start, posting 22 tackles, six TFL, five passes batted down, a fumble recovery and two sacks. The youngster will be a Lombardi finalist before he hangs up his cleats.
DE Tim Crowder came into his own in 2005. The Burnt Orange crystal ball expects a dogfight for playing time at DE between returning starter Brian Robison and Aurmon Satchell and, from what I hear, DE Brian Orakpo will be nearly impossible to keep off the field.
The secondary loses over-achieving FS Phillip Geiggar, but Texas is so loaded with talent that Brown probably will not sign a D-back next month. In fact, Texas is so stacked at SS that it wouldn't be a surprise to see Michael Huff slide over to Geiggar's vacated spot at FS or even one of the corner spots. The fastest guy on the defense, Huff is so versatile that he allows coaches to build the secondary around him in order to get the four best guys on the field. That's why you should cross your fingers that he stays for his senior season. SS Michael Griffin was arguably the most improved player on the defense (Greg Robinson's vote went to RCB Cedric Griffin). Drew Kelson, a 2004 Parade All-American, is considered a prototypical SS. Tarell Brown and Aaron Ross were solid if not spectacular in '04 and will continue to battle for playing time at LCB.
Offensively, the backfield will be forever Young with VY calling the signals and junior RB Selvin Young as Benson's heir apparent. Selvin has the speed to slip tackles and turn the corner, but must prove himself durable after suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Arkansas after dealing with a nagging groin injury after Rice in 2003. RB Ramonce Taylor is being talked about as an all-purpose back. If Signing Day goes as expected, San Antonio Clark speedster Jerrell Wilkerson will remind Orangebloods of Eric Metcalf while Port Arthur Memorial RB Jamaal Charles previously told Inside Texas, "I'm going to make Texas fans forget about Adrian Peterson." Expected spring enrollee Denver Montbello big back Michael Houston could also compete for immediate PT.
Texas says goodbye to FL Tony Jeffery. The senior had just 11 career starts but contributed mightily in terms of work ethic and special teams throughout his career. (If Jeffery doesn't pull down that TD reception with 11 seconds remaining at Kansas, there is no Rose Bowl for the Longhorns.) Yet, RS-freshman SE Limas Sweed began to emerge midway through the season and you almost see Young's passing game elevate along with it. WR Jordan Shipley is reportedly ahead of schedule after tearing an ACL last August and is expected to participate in full-contact drills during the second half of spring drills. Talented WR Nate Jones is bound to have a breakout game one of these future Saturdays.
TE Bo Scaife completed his eligibility after, what, eleven seasons (six actually) but, for my money, TE David Thomas is the best-kept secret in D-I football. The only way Thomas doesn't earn at least first-team all-conference honors in 2005 is if OC Greg Davis fails to dial his number in say, high-profile games against Oklahoma and Ohio State.
The O-line replaces C three-year starter Jason Glynn with Lyle Sendlein but the big uglies up front in 2005 may be the best Texas has fielded during the Mack Brown era. The line returns a pair of first-team All-Big 12 selections in LT Jonathan Scott and RT Justin Blalock. LG Kasey Studdard started all 12 games as a RS-sophomore and is a future star. RG Will Allen, considered the toughest guy on the O-line, may slide over to center where he trained during the 2003 preseason before injuring his thumb on his snapping hand.
And as for replacing Rose Bowl hero FG Dusty Mangum? Personally, I'm anxious to see Greg Johnson finally get on the field after earning first-team Freshman All-American honors at Vanderbilt two years ago.
Road games at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M are potential pitfalls; coaches at both programs will be gunning for their first-ever win over the Longhorns. Texas Tech's freak show offense has the bells and whistles to spring the upset but the Red Raiders will be breaking in their third new quarterback in as many seasons. Besides, Robinson's unit turned in its finest game of 2004 on the South Plains and isn't likely to be outscored at home in 2005. (We'll just have to wait and see if Robinson will still be coaching the Texas D then, or if he will have moved to Syracuse or some other locale.)
Still, the season shapes up as a make-it or break-stretch from September 10 to October 8 when Texas plays at Ohio State and against Oklahoma. Again, if Davis unleashes Young in those two pivotal showdowns and if Texas takes care of business the rest of the way, the team has a chance to qualify a statement Brown made shortly after the 38-37 win over Michigan: "There will not be a better Rose Bowl game than this one."
From a Texas perspective, one Rose Bowl would, in fact, be better: a Longhorn win in Pasadena in January, 2006.