Longhorns Must Show Fire

Texas has always had enough talent to be in the national title chase, but it hasn't exactly had a mean streak in the Mack Brown era. That might change going into this year thanks to new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp leading Roy Miller and the Longhorn D. Pete Fiutak of College Football News previews the 2008 Longhorns' season.

Texas isn't exactly your typical football program.

It's Texas, so to go T-shirt here, football is life and the rest is just details. But lately this hasn't exactly been known as a tough, punch-you-in-the-face, nasty program that's willing to get its hands dirty.

Texas players are currently known for being ridiculously talented — there's an NFL farm system in Austin — and for good and bad, for having brains, or at least for being more pensive than your average college football meathead.

Does any big-time program have as many big-time talents sticking around for their senior seasons? While that's admirable, and we'd all like it if everyone stayed in school until their eligibility was up, it questions whether or not Texas cranks out killers.

Pure football players go to the NFL the second they're able to because that's all they think about and it's all they want to do. Texas players, for the most part, seem to be interested in leading lives, and while that's hardly a negative, it has tagged the program with a bit of a reputation for being, for lack of a better word, flaky. Cedric Benson and Ricky Williams haven't exactly helped the cause.

The Texas rivalries are nasty. No one has a bigger, badder, meaner pair of showdowns to deal with than when the Longhorns have against Oklahoma and Texas A&M. But still, no one would exactly associate Texas football with being gritty.

On Dec. 27, 2007, that all might have changed.

No, Texas didn't all of a sudden become a grinder-type of program in the Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State, but after struggling late in the year to get by Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and with a loss to Texas A&M, things started to get a little edgy. All it took was for ASU QB Rudy Carpenter to start popping off, and the powder keg was lit.

A jacked-up Texas ran for 300 yards on the Sun Devils in the 52-34 laugher, while the defense used Carpenter like a rag doll. It was as if the program, after 10 years under coach Mack Brown, suddenly realized that if it combined a nasty, 1980s-Miami-like edge with all the all-star talent, big things could happen. It had that disrespected attitude when the 2005 USC team was being compared to the greatest war machines in the history of the planet before the Rose Bowl was even played, and it showed.

Now, with defensive coordinator Will Muschamp entering the picture, the aggressive factor is being turned up to 11. Oh sure, the recent array of star defensive coaches have been great, but Muschamp takes things to a whole other level. If there was any question about the team being aggressive, edgy, and physical before, it's answered now on defense.

So now, can Texas really change its stripes and combine the 10-cent-head mentality needed for football with the million-dollar talent? This will be an under-the-radar year for the Longhorns with everyone about to be in love with Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Tech, but the potential is there to be the Big 12 champion, and even more.

What to look for on offense: The running-back-by-committee approach. Jamaal Charles was the ground game last year, running for 1,619 yards, with QB Colt McCoy finishing second with 492 yards. It'll take a trio of players to get it done with speedsters Vondrell McGee and Foswhitt Whitaker combining with veteran Chris Ogbonnaya to try to make the nation's 17th-ranked rushing attack even better. With an improved line up front, it could happen.

What to look for on defense: Someone other than a defensive back to make a tackle. It's not like the front seven wasn't pulling its weight last year, Texas led the Big 12 and was sixth in the nation against the run, but the top three in tackles were defensive backs with Marcus Griffin, Ryan Palmer and Brandon Foster combining to make 250 stops. Teams bombed away 517 times for 3,611 yards and 23 touchdowns with 16 interceptions, and they made the defensive backs make all the tackles. With more blitzing and more of a pass rush to come from the defense, there will be fewer big pass plays for the secondary to deal with.

This team will be much better if... the secondary shows up. While Muschamp will be looking to improve the defense as a whole, if there's as much blitzing as he'll want to do, the relatively young secondary will be on its own ... again. Texas gave up 236 yards per game in 2006 and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 58 percent of their passes, and that was considered a disaster. Last year, quarterbacks hit 61 percent of their throws and threw for 278 yards per game. In the final five games of last year, Texas allowed an average of 376 yards per game with 16 touchdown passes.

The Schedule: Considering Arkansas is in a rebuilding phase, and the old Southwest Conference showdown is at home, the non-conference schedule couldn't be much fluffier. Oooooh, there's a game against Sun Belt champion Florida Atlantic. Oooooh, a trip to UTEP before facing Rice. There's a week off before going to Colorado in a can't-look-ahead game before back-to-back dates with Oklahoma and Missouri. Going to Texas Tech will be nasty and traveling to Lawrence to face Kansas isn't like it used to be. There's a week off after playing the Jayhawks and before the rivalry game against Texas A&M.

Best Offensive Player: Junior QB Colt McCoy. It's easy to get swept aside in a year when Missouri's Chase Daniel becomes a Heisman finalist, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford leads the nation in passing efficiency, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell puts up ridiculous numbers, and Todd Reesing of Kansas becomes a national breakout star, but McCoy, outside of his 18 interceptions, deserved more attention after throwing for 3,303 yards with 22 scores, while running more than usual with 492 yards and four touchdowns.

Roy Miller will be a key to Texas' success on defense. (Brian Bahr / Getty Images)

Best Defensive Player: Senior DT Roy Miller. While he wasn't a starter last year, playing behind Frank Okam and Derek Lokey inside, Miller still came up with a strong season making 40 tackles with a sack and eight tackles for loss. With tackle depth an issue, Miller doesn't just have to be great, he has to be durable.

Key player to a successful season: Redshirt freshmen safeties Ben Wells and Earl Thomas. The Texas defensive backs are relatively interchangeable, they're all fast like corners and they all hit like safeties, but early on, the spotlight will be on Thomas and Wells to replace Marcus Griffin and Erick Jackson. Tackling and consistent run support will be a must, but after the last few years, providing more help for the corners will be vital.

The season will be a success if ... Texas wins the Big 12 South. This year, just winning the division, much less the conference, will be a monumental achievement considering Oklahoma is national-title good, Texas Tech has a loaded team that might be its best ever, and Oklahoma State and Texas A&M should be improved. The Longhorns need to focus on the progression. Win the South first, and then hope things fall into place from there. Shooting for a national title, even though Texas is one of the few programs able to go into every season with that as a realistic goal, is too big a mountain to climb all at once.

OFFENSE

It wasn't always consistent and it had problems at times getting revved up, but the offense quietly finished 13th in the nation in yards and 14th in scoring. Even with huge losses at running back (Jamaal Charles) and in the receiving corps (Limas Sweed, Nate Jones and TE Jermichael Finley), the production should keep on coming with promising replacements at the skill spots and with a strong, veteran line that should be even better after a decent 2007. Conducting the show is the underappreciated Colt McCoy, who's one of the Big 12's better quarterbacks but gets lost in the shuffle. The one big concern is veteran depth. If there are injury problems, a slew of first year players, including several true freshmen, will have to grow up quickly.

Quarterbacks: The situation is fantastic. Junior Colt McCoy is one of the best, most underappreciated quarterbacks in the country, and John Chiles and Sherrod Harris are special. The passing game will be efficient, there will be good mobility, and in a league full of great quarterbacks, this could be the best overall situation in the league. McCoy followed up a shocking first year as a replacement for Vince Young by throwing for 3,303 yards and completing 65 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns, but unlike his redshirt freshman season when he threw just seven interceptions, he had a problem with picks. He threw four in the loss to Kansas State, three in the comeback win over Oklahoma State, and went just three games without an interception with the offense hanging up more than 50 points in all of them. Chiles, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound sophomore, was supposed to be the next Vince Young with tremendous running skills and a next-level arm, and while he's a talent who can step in and produce, he's going to have to wait his turn behind McCoy.

Running Backs: With Jamaal Charles bolting early for the NFL — getting picked up in the third round by Kansas City — there's a big hole with 1,619 yards and 18 touchdowns gone. There will be a rotation trying to fill the void with sophomore Vondrell McGee likely to be the top option going into the fall. No one's expecting any one back to be Charles, but there's a hope for McGee, Foshwitt Whittaker and Chris Ogbonnaya to combine for over 1,500 yards and keep the rushing production rolling. The backfield instantly gets slower with Charles gone, but the returning trio of backs can move. Really move. Now they need to get the ball in places where they can do something with it. With an improved line, a veteran quarterback, and no major expectations, this group should be able to ease into their jobs. However, they need to start producing early on or teams are going to tee off on McCoy and the passing game. At least one of the backs has to prove he can crank out big plays and can keep defenses on their heels. It might take a little while, but McGee and Whittaker will be a great tandem.

The Longhorns will look to senior Quan Cosby in their passing game. ( / Getty Images)

Receivers: This is a young, really young, receiving corps that needs a leader after losing Nate Jones, Jermichael Finley, and Limas Sweed. That's where senior Quan Cosby comes in after finishing second on the team with 60 catches for 680 yards and five touchdowns. While he's good, is he a true No. 1? One of the new star freshmen will someday be the main man, but for now it's Cosby, who's good, but won't keep defensive coordinators up at night. It might take a few hundred mistakes and a lot of growing pains, but true freshmen DeSean Hales and Antoine Hicks are going to burn their share of corners before their careers are over, and Dan Buckner and Malcolm Williams could be tough, big targets to deal with. As is it'll be a good corps, and it has the potential to be terrific with the right breaks.

Offensive Line: This was supposed to be a relative weakness last year, at least compared to past Texas lines, and while it had problems at times in pass protection, it was rock-solid for the running game. While there might not be any sure-thing first-team All-Big 12 talents, outside of, possibly, OT Adam Ulatoski, there are four really good returning starters with OT Kyle Hix on his way to being more than just serviceable. Other lines like Oklahoma's and Oklahoma State's will get all the love, but this one will turn out to be excellent.

DEFENSE

Last year's defense was supposed to be more aggressive and provide more pressure. Enter new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who'll show what the real meaning of the blitz is. In one of the big upsets of the off-season, Muschamp wasn't snapped up for a big head coaching job. But considering he's one of the hottest young coaches around, he could be one-and-done at Texas. He has a tremendously athletic back seven to work with, and he's going to get them moving and with a far nastier attitude. The front four could be even better despite losing Frank Okam and Derek Lokey inside. While backup tackle is a concern, Roy Miller and Lamarr Houston will form a great run-stuffing tandem, while the end combination of Brian Orakpo and former RB Henry Melton should hang out in opposing backfields.

Defensive Line: The nation's sixth-best run defense won't be better without Frank Okam and Derek Lokey on the inside, but there should be more of a pass rush with Muschamp's style of defense and with former RB Henry Melton appearing to be ready to shine on the other side of Brian Orakpo. If the depth comes through quickly, this will be a fantastic front four. The one problem will be at backup tackle. There's no appreciable experience whatsoever behind Roy Miller and Lamarr Houston. It would've been nice if Houston could stay on the end, or at least have the option to do it, but the team needs veteran talents on the inside.

Linebackers: The linebacking corps was good against the run, but overall was a disappointment considering all the talent and depth. This year, the talent level is still there, but the veteran depth isn't with questions in the middle and weakside if injuries hit. However, this is a very fast, very athletic, very promising group that should put up big numbers across the board. No one should be able to outrun this group. When Muschamp releases the hounds, the corps should look tremendous. There are too many great athletes and too much speed to not wreak far, far more havoc. Sergio Kindle and Roddrick Muckelroy should shine with more work on the outside, while Rashad Bobino should lead the team in tackles in the middle.

Secondary: After two abysmal years, the secondary went from having a ton of NFL talent that didn't produce, to having marginal talent that didn't produce, to having a group of unknown talents trying to get their feet wet. On the plus side, Muschamp's scheme should be more defensive-back friendly as he'll get the linebackers more involved, but with so much blitzing, the DBs will have to make some big plays on their own. Last year the three top tacklers were defensive backs. There will be huge problems if that happens again. The one returning starter, senior corner Ryan Palmer, is a good one. Texas always has speedy players and lightning quick defensive backs who can play just about anywhere, and this year is the case more than ever. The secondary is full of interchangeable parts for the coaching staff to play around with. The best four defensive backs will be on the field. Of course, experience will be a big issue, but early on, size might be a problem. This is a smallish group with most of the key players reaching to get to 5-10 and around 190 pounds.

Special Teams: Senior Ryan Bailey went from a nice, steady prospect to a major-league placekicker with NFL potential nailing 18 of 22 field goals including an impressive eight of 10 from beyond 40 yards. He missed two short-range shots, but he showed off the consistent big leg that'll allow the coaching staff to count on him anytime the offense gets around the 35 and in. Junior Trevor Gerland has to take over the full-time punting duties after averaging 37.7 yards per kick on 15 tries. He needs to replace Justin Moore, who averaged a solid 41.1 yards per kick with 12 put inside the 20. Not your average kicker, he finished second to Jamaal Charles in the 2005 Texas High School Track and Field Championships in the 110-meter hurdles. WR Quan Cosby is a fantastic kickoff returner averaging 24.2 yards per try with a 91-yard touchdown against Texas A&M. He was also a solid punt returner averaging 9.4 yards per try, but he'll likely relinquish the duties to focus more on being a top receiver.


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