The Horns return seven offensive starters from an 11-1 Rose Bowl championship squad when spring drills begin February 25. But two of those dearly departed Longhorns are Doak Walker Award-winning RB Cedric Benson and two-year starting FB Will Matthews. And while Rose Bowl MVP Vince Young returns for his junior campaign at QB, the base offense this season depends primarily on who emerges as the starting TB, Brown said Wednesday.
"In my experience, you base everything on your quarterback, your tailback and your split end," Brown said. "That's where you start. Unless you're really good at those three positions, you're not going to be as good. We overcame it last year because the tight ends took the place of our split end. We were just able to work through that position until Limas (Sweed) or somebody can grow up."
Yet, the RB spot dictates so much of what Brown wants to do offensively that no base set will be carved in stone between now and the Orange-White Game set for April 2.
"What you do is figure out who's the best one of them and build an offense around him," Brown said.
RB Selvin Young is the heir apparent to fill Benson's cleats but will not be cleared to practice until next fall for academic reasons. And if freshman recruit Michael Houston had not enrolled early this semester, Texas would have no scholarship player specifically recruited at RB to carry the ball this spring. Meanwhile, you've got a pair of walk-ons and a converted linebacker competing for time at FB.
Selvin believes he has had such a run of bad luck during the past two seasons that he has changed his jersey number from 'three' to '22', Brown reported. He suffered a groin injury at Rice (September 2003) and a season-ending ankle injury at Arkansas (September 2004) prior to running into academic troubles. Young probably would not have been cleared for full-contact practice regardless, Brown mentioned.
It means that sophomore Ramonce Taylor will get the starting nod when drills start next week, even though he is not likely to remain the featured RB come next season. But if Taylor emerges as the featured RB, the Horns would likely go to a more wide-open, spread offense with three wides (particularly if the drop-off at FB is severe). But Brown has a penchant for big, bruising, slashing, physical, fast RBs, so look for Taylor to ultimately become an all-purpose back cut in the same mold as USC's Heisman finalist Reggie Bush. (Of note: Brown said RT is the fastest guy on the team and that coaches have recently talked with former USC Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow about what the Trojans have done successfully to get the ball into Bush's hands out in those wide-open spaces.)
"He is so fast, but can (Taylor) touch it 30 times (per game)?" Brown said. "He is obviously a tremendous talent. If you put him at split end, you fight to get it to him six or eight (times). So we need to find out if he's an every-down player or is he a wide-guy. That's the biggest thing about spring practice."
I asked Brown if coaches intended to keep RT exclusively at RB this spring, or at what point does the staff test him at other spots.
"These will be seven-day decisions," Brown said. "If we don't know after seven, then it's easy for him to go play receiver. We were moving him to receiver the week Selvin broke his ankle (at Arkansas) because we thought we were in pretty good shape there. We obviously had no choice but to move him back. And you still need to have your short-yardage and goal line (RB). You need to have a four-minute offense at the end where you pound. We're not going to get away from being able to be physical and control the game when you need to."
Get the picture? It's clear that Brown expects Selvin to be the featured back next fall if he proves durable.
"He pressed Cedric two years ago for the starting job," Brown said. "The question mark is can he stay well... I don't think you can plan on him going through the year healthy because he hasn't yet. So we've got to plan on somebody else."
For the record, the Burnt Orange crystal ball is forecasting that the "somebody else" will be true freshman and two-time first-team Texas 5A all-stater Jamaal Charles and that Charles is going to be the primary ballhandler before the sun sets on the 2005 season. Until then, former WR Chris Ogbonnaya will also get some snaps at TB this spring. The RS-freshman played scout team RB during Rose Bowl preparations.
"The good thing is we've got time to look at what we've got and then re-evaluate the others in the fall," Brown said.
Former FB Will Matthews never got the attention he deserved as a two-year starter, and the potential for drop-off at his spot is about as critical as it is at TB.
This fall, look for TEs David Thomas and Neale Tweedie to log time at H-back to give the Horns both a physical front and game-day experience. For now, walk-on Ahmard Hall is atop the depth chart followed by converted linebacker Marcus Myers. Orangebloods may recall that Hall is the U.S. Marine who carried the American flag onto the field at Arkansas on September 11. If there's a young man on campus you'd like to see succeed, it's this Marine, husband and father who's been to Afghanistan and is precisely the kind of person you'd want representing not only your program but also your country. But at 5-11, 234, Hall gives up four inches to Myers. Personally, I wouldn't be surprised to see 6-3, 270-pound true freshman Henry Melton emerge at FB next season.
FL Jordan Shipley, listed just behind Nate Jones on the depth chart, should be full throttle by the start of spring drills. If anything, coaches would like to ease him into contact drills after the standout tore his ACL last August. They also know that a determined Shipley, who vowed last summer that he would be fully recovered by spring ball despite a more cautious prognosis from team doctors, may be a little too eager to try to make up for lost time.
"What we'll do is try to get him to go slow and he's going to fight us," Brown said. "But he looks great. He's running again. He looks 100 percent."
I asked Brown just how far ahead of schedule Shipley actually is.
"Six months," Brown said. "He's a freak. That kid's the hardest working kid I've ever seen."
Coaches are hoping that third-team FL Billy Pittman will have a breakout year, or at last catch a break, following an injury-shortened redshirt freshman campaign.
"He made a great catch in the spring game last year and then separated his shoulder during two-a-days," Brown noted. "We'd like to see him come on."
David Thomas returns for his senior season as the best-kept secret in college football. Heading into the spring, he'll be backed by journeyman Tweedie (whom teammates dubbed 'Two-Way Tweedie' last season for also logging time at DE). Tweedie just may be the best blocker of all the TE candidates but doesn't have Thomas' speed to spread the field. (Then again, not many TEs do.) Tyrell Gatewood will also get a look at both SE and TE, or at H-back to be more precise. At 6-2, 200, Gatewood may be a bit undersized at H-back but this move stems from the lack of experienced depth at FB. Tony Hills, recruited as a five-star TE in 2003, will remain as Jonathan Scott's backup at LT. Hills, who missed his freshman season to rehab a knee, is listed at 6-6, 280 pounds (but Brown said the sophomore is closer to 290).
The 2005 O-line, which returns four starters, will be the best at Texas in eight seasons, Brown predicted. Lyle Sendlein steps in at center where Jason Glynn simply refused to go away for the past three seasons. The 6-5, 305-pounder played "about as good as Jason did at center last year," Brown said, "so we're really excited about him. But we've got to find a backup center." Junior-to-be Brett Valdez (6-4, 305) is listed as Sendlein's understudy.
"You don't replace Derrick Johnson," Brown said, before noting that there should be more senior leadership on defense than at any time during his tenure. This year's seniors include Honorable Mention All-American SS Michael Huff, who will also work at CB.
Mike Williams has regained his academic eligibility and should push Brian Robison (Honorable Mention All-Big 12) for his former starting spot at RDE. Freshman All-American Frank Okam slides over to RDT now that starter Larry Dibbles is academically ineligible to compete this spring. Okam is backed by sophomore Derek Lokey. (I tell ya, coaches are high on Lokey.)
LDT Tully Janszen is expected to participate in non-contact drills during the first seven days of spring ball and then practice during the final two weeks, Brown said.
Eric Foreman has moved back from his one-year stint in no-mans land (i.e., fourth-team backup QB) to the SLB spot where coaches have wanted him all along. The sophomore is backed by RS-freshman Jeremy Campbell. Eric Hall is tabbed as the starter WLB, but I would pencil that in. Sophomore Robert Killebrew more than held his own as D.J.'s understudy, especially when he played during most of the fourth quarter of the Missouri game last October when the outcome was far from settled.
"We were really impressed with Bobino last year at every practice," Brown said of the RS-Freshman. "I think he'll be pushing Aaron Harris. He's really good. He'll knock your brains out."
The Horns will practice in shorts at Denius Field on February 25, 3:30 p.m., and at Royal-Memorial Stadium, 9:30 a.m., Saturday, February 26. Both sessions are open the pubic but, again this season, most practices will be closed. The annual Orange-White game is set for 7:00 p.m., Saturday, April 2.