Arkansas State Preview: Got I.D.?

The Arkansas State team visiting Texas Saturday will likely be re-named within the next few years, now that the NCAA has decreed that monikers -- such as 'Indians' -- may be disrespectful of Native Americans. For now, it is No. 4 Texas in search of an identity as the season kicks off for the tenth time under coach Mack Brown.

A significant part of Brown's focus during August Camp, as well as the non-conference slate, is "figuring out who we are" and what our "feature (play) will be." There was no question that, in 2005, this was Vince Young's team and the "feature" attraction was the Zone Read. The Horns ran with it into NCAA record books and their first national championship in 35 years.

This Saturday, Horn fans will not be nearly as concerned with Arkansas State's personnel but rather looking for evidence of how Texas intends to effectively run the ball, involve the backup QB, rotate its offensive linemen, scheme defensively, establish a starting punter and whether play-making SE Limas Sweed (wrist) is as healthy as he says he is. At the same time, "there are nine freshmen with a chance to be in the Two-Deep on offense and six on defense," Brown points out.

In short, Brown wants to avoid the identity crisis that contributed to his team's 4-2 start in 2003.

There is no question that the offense will be built around uber-accurate QB Colt McCoy. But will Texas, as expected, set up the run by passing the ball, basing primarily out of the three-wide, shotgun set? How many totes can RB Jamaal Charles handle in a ballgame, and can McCoy emerge as a respected running threat (an emphasis during the preseason)? Is there a viable FB in the house, and who is the go-to guy in the type of goal-line and short-yard situations that got McCoy injured at Kansas State and Henry Melton demoted against Texas A&M?

For now, Brown has made it clear there will be no rotating between McCoy and backup QB John Chiles. In fact, the true freshman probably won't log his first collegiate snap until, presumably, this one gets out of hand during the second half.

"We're not planning on rotating John in-and-out early in the ballgame," Brown said. "We're planning on just playing Colt."

The Zone Read will remain in the game plan but will not be the featured play, offensive coordinator Greg Davis has said. But Chiles reportedly can run the Zone Read almost as effectively as You-Know-Who, and could provide an electrifying change of pace when he is on the field. And Charles' number of carries will be dictated by his durability, productivity and ball security.

Not all of the true freshmen who cracked the depth chart at offensive line will be part of the rotation. For now, coaches will rotate RG Chris Hall at center. He'll share time with RG Cedric Dockery who is working his way back following his ACL injury suffered against Oklahoma last October.

There is no question that Texas' defensive front is among the finest -- maybe the best -- in Brown's tenure. (Frank Okam, Derek Lokey and Roy Miller are functioning as co-starters; each could start for any big-time D-I program in the country). There is now more defensive depth at the Forty Acres than there has been in at least 16 years. But the rotations at linebacker and in the secondary remain an intriguing story line for Saturday. Fans will also look for the aggressive, all-to-the-ball schemes that Duane Akina has promised since given the final word as Co-Defensive Coordinator. We'll also keep an eye out for the extent Texas departs from its base (maybe not this week, but certainly later this month against the likes of TCU and K-State). The secondary is so young that it almost qualifies for a nap rather than halftime, but Akina projected that he could put together an effective nickel- and dime-package by Saturday.

"One of the biggest questions we have to answer this Saturday," Brown said, "is if Erick Jackson, Marcus Griffin and Drew Kelson are all starters at safety, how do we play these guys? Ryan Palmer and Brandon Foster have earned the right to start at corner. They've played the best. Deon Beasley is right there with Ryan Palmer. Then you've got all of the young ones, and some of the young ones are saying they're not sure if they want to play yet. They want to look at it as it gets closer to game time, which is typical."

Another subplot is how Texas reacts to the recent rule change in which KOs will be spotted at the 30. Until now, Brown's preference has been to defer until the second half, trusting his defense to produce outstanding field position by posting a three-and-out on the opening series.

"We haven't decided to receive to start the game, which we've never done," Brown said.

Granted, Texas' need to separate its co-starters, not to mention sifting through its abundance of unproven talent, is a luxury most programs would love to have. It's also obvious that these issues don't always get resolved during the preseason. That's why the likes of Arkansas State provides a relatively ideal forum for Texas to further its sense of identity.

The Indians are picked third in the Sun Belt Conference after winning the league title in 2005. The Indians are coming off a season where they collected their most wins over Division I-A foes with six, including wins over Memphis, Army and New Orleans Bowl champion Troy. ASU also played on the road against Auburn in the middle of the season, losing 27-0 to the Tigers.

"They play in some big stadiums on the road every year," Brown said, "so this will not be new to them, They won't come in here looking around and worried about the crowd."

ARKANSAS STATE OFFENSE
The Horns can expect multiple offensive sets from the visitors, yet the emphasis will remain a clock-grinding, ground-bound attack. The only way the Indians hang with the Horns is continue their recent history of controlling the clock, winning the time of possession battle in 11 of 12 games last season. In fact, the Indians led the Sun Belt Conference in TOP last year at 33:03. They'll try to do it Saturday with RB Reggie Arnold (5-9, 217), the league's choice as the 2006 Offensive Freshman of the Year. He averaged 89.7 rushing ypg, good for No. 30 nationally and No. 3 among freshman ball carriers.

The triggerman is sophomore QB Corey Leonard, a member of the 2006 Davey O'Brien National 'Watch List'. Leonard started eight games, including the Tribe's final seven as a RS-freshman, passing for 1,321 yards and adding another 331 yards on the ground. His TD-to-INT ratio has room for improvement, after completing eight TD passes against eight picks. Leonard will look to 'Y' receiver Levi Dejohnette. The lanky junior (6-0, 175) has 1,115 career receiving yards on 91 catches through two seasons, placing him on his program's Top 10 list. The long ball typically stems from play-action passes.

"It will be a great test for our front seven and also for our new secondary guys who haven't played very much" Brown concluded. "They'll get tested deep."

Yet, ASU was ranked 117th in passing efficiency last season. Leonard may try to test early a Longhorn secondary that replaces three starters. But expect the Indians primarily to run the clock by running the ball, shortening the game and hoping to capitalize on whatever breaks come their way.

Junior LT Matt Mandich is one of three Indians selected to the Preseason All-Sun Belt Conference team. He highlights a veteran offensive line that starts a senior at every other position.

ARKANSAS STATE DEFENSE
The strength of the unit is its pass defense, and Indians head coach Steve Roberts has said that all four of his starting DBs are legitimate NFL Draft prospects. SS Tyrell Johnson could probably start at most Big 12 schools. He is the fourth-leading tackler in school history, after setting the pace last season with 63 stops. Johnson is also one of 49 players nationally to appear on the Nagurski Watch List (honoring college football's top defensive player)

It is a secondary that relies almost exclusively on man defense.

"They'll try to stop our run and play our receivers man-to-man, especially since we have injuries there," Brown said.

Senior SLB Koby McKinnon is also a Preseason All-Conference selection and is program's career leader in INT return yards (185, 2004-current). Junior Ben Owens anchors the middle while RS-freshman WLB Javon McKinnon is slated to log his first start against the No. 4 Longhorns.


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