Big 12: Charlie Tanner
2009 conference record: 8-0
Returning starters: Offense (6), Defense(7) P/K (1)
Top returners: CB Chykie Brown, CB Aaron Williams, S Blake Gideon, WR James Kirkendoll, RB Tre’ Newton, DE Sam Acho, DT Eddie Jones, DT Kheeston Randall
Key losses: QB Colt McCoy, WR Jordan Shipley, DE Sergio Kindle, S Earl Thomas, DT Lamarr Houston, OL Adam Ulatowski, OL Charlie Tanner, LB Roddrick Muckelroy, WR Dan Buckner (transfer)
2009 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Tre’ Newton* (552 yards)
Passing: Colt McCoy (3,521 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Shipley (1,485 yards)
Tackles: Roddrick Muckelroy (84)
Sacks: Sam Acho* (7)
Interceptions: Earl Thomas (8)
Three spring answers
1. Check out the new style. Texas is going under center. And while offensive coordinator Greg Davis warns the style change isn’t as radical as some believe, it’s still a departure from the spread attack under the accurate Colt McCoy, which was a departure from the zone read scheme under the athletic Vince Young. If the running game materializes, everything else will come easier for the Longhorns.
2. National Championship was no fluke. The hype surrounding Garrett Gilbert’s impending ascension to starter this spring was expanded tenfold by his performance in the national championship game after McCoy was sidelined with a shoulder injury. This spring, as best he could, he validated that hype. He’s taken control of the team, and performed solidly all spring, capped off by an impressive 10-of-13 for 165 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game.
3. Secondary strengths. After this spring, Mack Brown believes his secondary has three NFL-bound defensive backs in Chykie Brown, Curtis Brown and Aaron Williams. They could terrorize Big 12 quarterbacks this season, even though they lost safety and first-round pick Earl Thomas to the NFL last season.
Three fall questions
1. Will the broken record fix itself? The past couple springs have been all about establishing the running game in Austin. The past two falls have come and gone without a solid, consistent runner for Texas. This year, Tre’ Newton and Fozzy Whittaker have separated from a talented group of running backs as the featured runners in the offense heading into fall. If they’re not productive, we’ll be right back here again next spring.
2. What receivers will fit where? Other than Jordan Shipley, no Texas receiver could be counted on for Colt McCoy. Now, players like Malcolm Williams, James Kirkendoll, DeSean Hales, Marquise Goodwin and John Chiles will try to change that. But when fall comes, so does the nation’s best receiving class. Texas signed two of the top three receivers and three of the top 11, as well as ATH Demarco Cobbs, who could also play receiver. Mike Davis, Darius White and Chris Jones will be nipping at the heels of any older receivers who slip up in preseason camp.
3. Will the dominance over Oklahoma continue? The Red River Rivalry has favored the south side, Texas, in four of the past five seasons. As usual, the Sooners and Longhorns will meet again at the Cotton Bowl in October, and Oklahoma will be hungry to reverse their fortunes against the burnt orange. How Texas responds will have a big impact on the South race, even though a victory in the 2008 game didn’t put the Longhorns into the Big 12 title game.
Among the Longhorns’ biggest chores during spring practice: replacing record-setting quarterback Colt McCoy and star receiver Jordan Shipley.
Texas fans got a sneak peak at new quarterback Garrett Gilbert during the Longhorns’ 37-21 loss to Alabama in the Citi BCS National Championship Game. After McCoy injured his throwing shoulder early in the first quarter, Gilbert was thrust into the game against one of the country’s most ferocious defenses. The freshman responded by throwing for 186 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions on 15-for-40 passing. After struggling mightily during the first half, Gilbert nearly rallied the Longhorns back from a 24-6 deficit in the second half.
Texas also will have to replace three starting offensive linemen: center Chris Hall, left guard Charlie Tanner and left tackle Adam Ulatoski.
I talked with Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis on Monday about replacing his offense’s departed stars:
Greg Davis: Four years ago, everybody asked me, “What are you going to do when Vince Young leaves?” Now everybody wants to know what we’re going to do after Colt left. We’re going to regroup and plan on winning. I have to find exactly what Garrett’s strengths are and find his comfort area. We’ve got to find the things we’re going to do to utilize his talents. I’m very confident that he will be an outstanding player.
What are you looking to accomplish with Gilbert this spring?
GD: What I want from him this spring is just to relax and to be himself and not try to be Colt. I’m talking to him this offseason the same way I talked to Colt four years ago. I told Colt: “Hey, you’re not going to rush for 1,000 yards like Vince Young. Just be Colt McCoy.” That’s what I’m talking to Garrett about. I told him: “You just need to go out and be yourself and lead the way you’ve always led.” We expect to win games with him.
What did you learn about Gilbert after he was thrown into the BCS National Championship Game after McCoy injured his shoulder?
GD: I learned that a lot of the things we thought we knew about him were true. We thought he had a lot of poise. To start the way he did in the first half, and to have him come back and play the way he did in the second half, I think he showed a lot of poise and maturity. I thought he grew up a lot as the game went on. To play in that venue and play against that defense, and to have to adjust to the things they were throwing at him and to have to change protections, move around and know where his hot reads were, I was really encouraged by what I saw from him in that ballgame. I thought that was what I would see, but you never know until he gets thrown in there. I was pleased overall with the way he performed in that game.
Gilbert is a bigger quarterback than McCoy. What do you anticipate his playing weight to be?
GD: He’s gained about seven pounds and weighs about 214. I would guess that he’ll be in the neighborhood of around 220 pounds in August. He’ll be a good-sized kid.
Your offense loses Shipley, who caught 116 passes and 13 touchdowns last season. You have a veteran group of receivers coming back and add one of the best recruiting classes in the country. How will you replace Shipley’s production?
GD: It’s going to have to be spread around. We went into last season knowing that Jordan would have over 100 catches and over 1,000 yards receiving. We went into the season expecting him to do that. We’re going into the spring expecting those numbers to be spread out. We’re expecting those numbers to be spread among guys like James Kirkendoll, Malcolm Williams, John Chiles, Marquise Goodwin and Greg Timmons, a young guy we redshirted last season. We’re not going into the spring with the idea that one of them is going to have 100 catches and 1,000 yards receiving next season. We’re going into the spring with the idea that we’re going to spread the ball around. The group is going to have to pick up the slack.
How much progress did you think your offense made running the ball year?
GD: I thought there were times where we made progress, but when we sat down and looked at the season as a whole, we feel like it’s still an area where we have to be more productive. The last two seasons, we kind of put a bunch of eggs in Colt’s basket as far as running the ball. We kind of said, “If the defense outnumbers the run, that’s fine and we don’t care.” But we’ve got to be better in the run game this season than we were the last two years. We’re going to do some things this spring to try and help that.
Do you plan to make any changes schematically to your offense?
GD: We’re going to go back under center with the quarterback some more. We played the last two years almost exclusively out of the shotgun. We will continue to play a lot of the game from the shotgun, but we’re going to go back under center to try and help the backs run more downhill. With the zone read dropping off the radar, we’re going to play with the running backs’ alignment in the gun. When we are running the ball out of the gun, they can run more downhill. We can be tighter on our zones with the offensive line because of the landmarks with the backs. I think that is a big emphasis this spring -- to try and take the pressure off the quarterback and run the ball better.
How much more important is it to be able to run the ball more effectively this coming season to take the pressure off a young quarterback?
GD: We did the same thing when Colt took over. Even though we thought Colt was going to turn out to be a much better quarterback than anybody anticipated, we wanted to make sure we took some pressure off of him by being able to run the ball. We had a 1,500-yard rusher in Jamaal Charles [in 2007]. I think it’s an important aspect of spring training to be more productive in the running game. We have the same kind of confidence in Garrett Gilbert, but we have to be able to run the ball to help him.
One of the interesting things about the magazine's winter edition is their annual All-Texas team for players from colleges across the Lone Star State.
Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and TCU defensive end Jerry Hughes were named as the offensive and defensive players of the year.
Here's a look at the other selections for the magazine.
All-Texas first-team offense
QB: Colt McCoy, Texas
RB: Donald Buckram, UTEP
RB: Charles Sims, Houston
WR: Jordan Shipley, Texas
WR: Emmanuel Sanders, SMU
WR: James Cleveland, Houston
TE: Dan Buckner, Texas
OL: Brandon Carter, Texas Tech
OL: J.D. Walton, Baylor
OL: Chris Hall, Texas
OL: Marshall Newhouse, TCU
OL: Marcus Cannon, TCU
K: Hunter Lawrence, Texas
All-Texas first-team defense
DL: Von Miller, Texas A&M
DL: Brandon Sharpe, Texas Tech
DL: Lamarr Houston, Texas
DL: Jerry Hughes, TCU
LB: Daryl Washington, TCU
LB: Sergio Kindle, Texas
LB: Joe Pawelek, Baylor
DB: Earl Thomas, Texas
DB: Rafael Priest, TCU
DB: Jordan Lake, Baylor
DB: Jamar Wall, Texas Tech
P: Chase Turner, Houston
Ret: Jeremy Kerley, TCU
The magazine all selected other awards for specific positional groups.
Best passer: Case Keenum, Houston
Best runner: Donald Buckram, UTEP
Best offensive lineman: Marshall Newhouse, TCU
Best receiver: Jordan Shipley, Texas
Best defensive lineman: Jerry Hughes, TCU
Best linebacker, Daryl Washington, TCU
Best defensive back: Earl Thomas, Texas
Most versatile: Von Miller, Texas A&M
DCTF also picked an all-Texas second team as well
All-Texas second-team offense
QB: Andy Dalton, TCU
RB: Lance Dunbar, North Texas
RB: Shawnbrey McNeal, SMU
WR: Jeff Moturi, SMU
WR: Tyron Carrier, Houston
WR: Kendall Wright, Baylor
TE: Justin Akers, Baylor
OL: Adam Ulatoski, Texas
OL: Jarve Dean, Houston
OL: Mike Aguayo, UTEP
OL: Lee Grimes, Texas A&M
OL: Charlie Tanner, Texas
K: Ross Evans, TCU
All-Texas second-team defense
DL: Scott Solomon, Rice
DL: Tyrell Graham, Houston
DL: Daniel Howard, Texas Tech
DL: Sam Acho, Texas
LB: Tank Carder, TCU
LB: Marcus McGraw, Houston
LB: Craig Robertson, North Texas
DB: Nick Sanders, TCU
DB: Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, UTEP
DB: Blake Gideon, Texas
DB: Brandon Brinkley, Houston
Ret: Tyron Carrier, Houston
P: Derek Epperson, Baylor
Note: All Big 12 players are listed in bold facing.
Defensive line: After losing starters Jason Lamb and Trey Bryant and having Phil Taylor and Earl Patin entering their senior seasons, the Bears need to add immediate depth. Xavier Ruben and Anthony Gonzales will help shore up the deficiencies and the Bears still are in the hunt for top prospects like Carlos Thompson and Byran Jones.
Secondary: Starters Jordan Lake and Jeremy Williams have graduated and four juniors in the two-deep roster will start their senior seasons. Coach Art Briles has already lured surprising strength in the defensive backfield with Ahmad Dixon, Tyler Stephenson and Prince Kent. That trio makes it one of the finest positional groupings for Baylor in recent history.
Robert Griffin’s redshirt season has lessened the immediate need at quarterback: With Griffin now having three years of eligibility remaining, recruits now see only a two-season window to play. But another Robert Griffin should help the Bears as well. Baylor coaches see the other Griffin, a junior college transfer from Coriscana Junior College, being able to contend for the starting position at right tackle from his first day in the program.
Running back: With Chris Brown graduating and DeMarco Murray entering his senior season, the Sooners need some producers at the position. Bob Stoops has never hesitated to playing top freshman players in the past if they can help. Don’t be surprised if top recruits like Brennan Clay and Roy Finch get an early chance in 2010 with the Sooners.
Receiver: Ryan Broyles is entrenched in the slot, but the Sooners are looking all over for pass catchers who can challenge existing players. Recruits Kenny Stills, Joe Powell, Julian Wilson and Sheldon McClain all should challenge this summer to battle their way into the rotation.
Defensive tackle: Injuries and NFL declarations have riddled the Sooners’ depth at the postion. Gerald McCoy will leave early for the NFL draft with JaMarkus McFarland ready to take over. Adrian Taylor was set at the other position, but his nasty ankle injury sustained in the Sun Bowl has depleted the Sooners’ depth. Redshirt sophomore Casey Walker and four incoming freshmen are all that is in place as far as depth at the critical position.
Offensive line: The Cowboys lose four senior starting offensive linemen from the Cotton Bowl team, including the left side of their offensive line in tackle Russell Okung, guard Noah Franklin and center Andrew Lewis, as well as right tackle Brady Bond. Mike Gundy needs some immediate help at the position, both from existing players and incoming ones.
Defensive tackle: Starters Swanson Miller and Derek Burton both will graduate and top backups Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson both will be senior this season. Defensive coordinator Bill Young needs to find some defensive linemen who can challenge for playing next season.
Linebackers: Young also will have to rebuild this group after the underrated group of Andre Sexton, Donald Booker and Patrick Lavine helped sparked the Cowboys’ surprising defensive growth last season. All will be gone this season, putting pressure to add some more contributors to add to the returning mix of players including James Thomas, Tolu Moala and Justin Gent.
Defensive end: With Sergio Kindle graduating and Sam Acho and Eddie Jones both entering their senior season, the Longhorns need a talent boost here. It also just happens to be the position where top target Jackson Jeffcoat would immediately fill the rather sizable hole.
The left side of the offensive line: Tackle Adam Ulatoski, guard Charlie Tanner and center Chris Hall combined for 114 starts during their careers.The Longhorns has some strong arriving talent, but they’ll still miss the leadership and savvy that this trio provided over the years.
Quarterback: Even with Garrett Gilbert seemingly entrenched as the Longhorns’ quarterback of the future, the Longhorns added depth with the commitments of Connor Wood and Colt’s little brother Case McCoy. It will make for some interesting competition this spring and fall as the rotation sorts itself out.
Defensive end: The Aggies received a huge boost when Von Miller announced he would return for his senior season, but A&M needs to prepare for his departure -- particularly after losing starting defensive end Matt Moss and Miller’s backup Matt Featherston as departing seniors from 2009.
Tight end: Starter Jamie McCoy graduated and top replacements Kenny Brown and Craig Raschke both will be seniors next season. Adding at least one player would be beneficial as the Aggie coaches hope they can find a combination blocker/receiving threat at the position like McCoy was.
Offensive tackle: The Aggies lose bookend senior starters Michael Shumard and Lee Grimes. They do have Stephen Barrera and Danny Baker in the depth chart but would like more depth to help the line develop.
Defensive line: The Red Raiders’ biggest need is at defensive end where all three players in the two-deep roster -- Brandon Sharpe, Ra’Jon Henley and Daniel Howard were seniors. At defensive tackle, Richard Jones departs as a senior and Colby Whitlock will be a senior next season. New coordinator James Willis needs to find some productive players in the trenches quickly.
Linebackers: Starters Bront Bird and Brian Duncan will be back as seniors next season, but Tech loses departing starter Marlon Williams on the other side. They need some depth to help build for the future at the position.
Quarterback: Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield will wage one of the closest-watched battles for playing time in the nation during the spring and summer. But both will be seniors, meaning the Red Raiders need to prepare for their departure by grooming some young talent like Scotty Young, a recent commitment at the position.
1. Producing yards on first down: The Longhorns have a better chance of achieving offensive success if they produce early in a series. Second-and-long and third-and-long will make the Crimson Tide’s defense much more difficult to crack. If Colt McCoy can make things happen on first down – particularly early in the game – it should boost the Longhorns' confidence and their chances at an unexpected victory.
2. Dominate special teams: The Longhorns had one of the nation’s most proficient special teams units all season. Alabama has struggled in kick coverages, ranking 116th nationally with an average of 25.7 yards per kick return, and have been blistered with two returns for touchdowns. With the likely return of D.J. Monroe to the kick return rotation, the Longhorns will add the No. 2 kick returner in the nation. Marquise Goodwin was strong while Monroe was suspended, and Jordan Shipley is a threat to score a touchdown every time he returns a punt. The Longhorns need to make several big plays in this phase of the game.
3. Protect Colt McCoy: The Longhorns have allowed 30 sacks this season, and nearly half came in tight victories over Oklahoma (four) and Nebraska (nine). If the Longhorns have hopes of claiming the national title, they must give McCoy enough time to pass and keep fearsome Alabama pass rushers like Marcell Dareus, Eryk Anders, Javier Arenas and Rolando McClain away from their senior quarterback. And it would be a good time for the center of Texas’ offense – guards Michael Huey and Charlie Tanner and center Chris Hall -- to keep massive defensive tackle Terrence Cody away from McCoy.
But as we get ready for those eight games, it's clear that several key players need to step up with big games in order to help their team's winning hopes.
Here's my list of 12 players or groups who need to have big games to bolster their team's bowl hopes.
- Texas quarterback Colt McCoy: His Heisman hopes sank after his nine-sack, three-interception performance in the Big 12 title game. But he has bigger aspirations if he can finish his career by leading his team to the national championship against Alabama in the Citi BCS National Championship Game.
- Oklahoma tackle Trent Williams: He could become the fourth starter at center for Oklahoma this season if Brian Lepak doesn't respond to treatment before the Sooners' Brut Sun Bowl game against Stanford. Williams has become one of college football's best offensive linemen at tackle and looked good in practice earlier this season at center. He'll face a big test against massive 315-pound Stanford nose tackle Ekom Udofi if he plays at center in the bowl game.
- Oklahoma State running back Kendall Hunter: After struggling with a nagging foot injury most of the season, Hunter has been diagnosed at "close to 100 percent" by Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. The Cowboys had a strong running game and led the conference in rushing but still missed a true breakaway threat without Hunter in the lineup. His return will provide an infusion of speed that could be important for their hopes against Mississippi in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
- Texas guards Michael Huey and Charlie Tanner and center Chris Hall: After their struggles against Ndamukong Suh in the Big 12 championship game, this trio will really be under the gun against Alabama All-American tackle Terrence Cody and All-American middle linebacker Rolando McClain. They must play better than they did against Nebraska if they have any hopes of bringing the national title home to Austin.
- Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson: After gamely trying to play against Oklahoma on a sprained ankle, Robinson says that he's healthy for Mississippi in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Robinson's injury and a sputtering attack helped explain the Cowboys' difficulties in a 27-0 loss that ultimately cost them a shot at a BCS at-large berth. Robinson must run the offense better against a similarly strong Mississippi defensive front if the Cowboys are to pull off an upset victory.
- Texas Tech running back Baron Batch: Batch is one of the Red Raiders' most consistent receivers and top rushing threats. He'll be critically important in the Valero Alamo Bowl as he goes up against Michigan State All-Big Ten linebacker Greg Jones. Michigan State is being universally dismissed because of their suspension-wracked roster. All of that will make Jones and the defense eager to become involved early. Batch will be tested to keep Jones and the Spartans away from starting quarterback Taylor Potts.
- Missouri's defensive front: The grouping of defensive ends Aldon Smith and Brian Coulter, tackle Dominique Hamilton and nose tackle Jaron Baston played very well down the stretch as they allowed only 52.4 yards rushing per game during a strong 4-1 finish. But the Tigers' defensive front will be facing a huge challenge in stopping Navy's unique run-based offense in the Texas Bowl. The Midshipmen rank fourth nationally in rushing and are keyed by quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who averages 85.5 rushing yards per game and ranks second nationally with 24 rushing touchdowns. Keeping Navy in check will be a big challenge for the Tigers, particularly the defensive front.
- Iowa State cornerback Ter'ran Benton: The suspension of Kennard Banks will thrust Benton into the starting lineup for the Cyclones in the Insight Bowl against Minnesota. Benton is recovering after breaking his left leg Oct. 24 against Nebraska and missing the final four games of the season. Top Minnesota receiver Eric Decker is injured and will miss the bowl game, but Troy Stoudermire and Brandon Green will no doubt test Banks early and often in the Dec. 31 game.
- Iowa State running back Alexander Robinson: When Robinson is an effective ball-carrying threat, the Cyclones have a much better chance at winning. That's why it will be important to get him going early against a Minnesota defense that tends to wear down if it plays too much. Robinson's running will be an important part in trying to do just that.
- Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones: When he was on, Jones was one of the most effective passers in the Big 12, torching Tulsa for six touchdown passes, Texas A&M for five touchdown passes and Kansas State for four. But he also struggled with five interceptions against Nebraska. He'll need a big game against a similarly streaky Stanford team that ranked 95th in pass efficiency defense, 105th in pass defense and allowed 15 touchdowns in its last five games.
- Texas A&M safety Jordan Pugh: He'll be important in coordinating work in a secondary that features two sophomores and a freshman in the starting lineup. After A&M's struggles in a 49-39 loss to Texas in the regular-season finale, the group will be facing a similarly high-powered offensive threat from Georgia. Joe Cox and A.J. Green no doubt saw the Aggies' struggles against Texas and will be intent on duplicating them in the Independence Bowl. It will be important for Pugh to keep his young teammates focused -- particularly if they struggle early.
- Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee: His struggles running the Nebraska offense were apparent in the Cornhuskers' loss to Texas where they produced only five first downs and amassed only 105 yards in the game. The offense must perk up against Arizona in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl and Lee will be most under the gun to make it happen. He showed flashes of a passing touch earlier in the season, but the Cornhuskers relied on a run-heavy game down the stretch to win the North Division. A couple of well-timed passes from Lee early in the game against the Wildcats could open up the Nebraska offense for the rest of the game.
“Yeah, we’re best friends,” McCoy said.
Suh had one of the great games in Big 12 championship game history, producing a career-best 4.5 sacks among his team-high 12 tackles -- seven of which were for a loss.
But it wasn’t enough as the Longhorns escaped with a wild 13-12 victory that cost the Cornhuskers their first chance to win a Big 12 title since 1999.
The massive 300-pound senior defensive tackle was a consistent force throughout the game. He slung McCoy around like a rag doll and dominated the interior of the Texas offensive line from the opening snap.
“He’s the staple of our defense,” Nebraska safety Matt O’Hanlon said. “He makes plays that not a lot of other guys could. So for us to have him in the trenches, you know, he just plays his butt off. He makes a lot of plays that no one else makes. So he definitely kept our defense in it.”
If a defensive player ever could have made a statement to win a Heisman Trophy, Suh’s game Saturday night looked like one. Texas guards Michael Huey and Charlie Tanner and center Chris Hall found it impossible keeping him out of the backfield all night long.
“I think he’s the best defensive player at his position in the country,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “If that means the Heisman Trophy, so be it.”
The finish left Suh subdued and disappointed.
“My initial emotion is that it was very unfortunate how things played out,” Suh said. “But I mean, this team played very, very hard and that’s what we all really do. Like our coach said, the chips fall where they may. Just go out and play as hard as you can.
“They’re going to handle the score, they’re going to do everything to put us in the right position as they did. And all we have to do is go out and play.”
Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, one play remained at the end of the game. After the controversy on the next-to-last play, Suh was convinced the Cornhuskers had won and that the clock had expired.
“As far as I’m concerned, I thought the game was over, but obviously, it wasn’t,” Suh said.
Longhorn players and coaches were raving about Suh’s performance after the game.
“He’s the best defensive player we’ve played all year,” Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “He and (Nebraska defensive tackle Jared) Crick are as good a pair as we’ve faced all year. They are so tough to handle because they really get after you.”
Suh came back for his senior season for an opportunity to play in conference championship games and improve his draft stock.
He obviously did both this season, finishing with 82 total tackles and 12 sacks. That total is the third most in Nebraska history and the most since linebacker Trev Alberts notched 15 in 1993.
It’s hard to believe many NFL teams could find a better player on the film than him tonight.
Can the North Division make this a game, for a change? The South Division has dominated this game, much like all aspects of cross-division play in recent seasons. Since Kansas State’s stunning upset victory over Oklahoma in 2003, the South Division teams have won the games by a combined margin of 233-51. During those five games, the North team has led for a total of 3 minutes and 22 seconds in the 300 minutes of game action. Nebraska’s defense should give it a puncher’s chance to be successful in the game. But Texas looks like the prototypical bully from the South Division that looks like it will be ready to jump on an opponent at the slightest sign of weakness.
Colt McCoy’s Heisman hopes: With the Alabama-Florida game being played earlier in the afternoon. McCoy should have a good idea who will be his prime Heisman opponent emerging from the SEC championship game. It won’t be easy as McCoy will be facing one of his biggest challenges of the season in terms of the rival defense. Nebraska ranks among the top 15 teams in the major team defensive statistical categories of rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense. The Cornhuskers have allowed more than 21 points in a game only once this season and have averaged three sacks a game over their last five contests. McCoy will need a big statistical game to sway Heisman voters one last time.
The center of Nebraska’s defense: Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick are the finest pair of defensive tackles in the conference. Suh likely is the best defensive player in the country. They will be backed up behind the line by starting middle linebacker Will Compton, a redshirt freshman. These players will need to dominate the game inside in their contest with Texas starting center Chris Hall and starting guards Charlie Tanner and Michael Huey. If the Nebraska defensive tackles and Compton can impose their will in the trenches, it will make life much more difficult for McCoy and the Longhorns.
Nebraska’s special teams need to be special: The Cornhuskers have dictated field position all season long thanks to punter Alex Henery and kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic. Henery is the most accomplished situational punter in the conference with 26 of his 65 punts pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line. Eight of those kicks have landed inside the opponent’s 3-yard line. Kunalic leads the Big 12 with 40 percent of his kickoffs going through the end zone for touchbacks. If the Cornhuskers can dictate the special teams, they will be able to neutralize Texas kickoff return specialist Marquise Goodwin (24.1 average, one TD) and punt return specialist Jordan Shipley (13.3 yard per return average, two TDs). As difficult as it will be for the Cornhuskers to stick with Texas on offense and defense, they can’t allow any cheap touchdowns or wild changes in field position and expect to win.
Can Texas’ defense rebound? The Longhorns struggled through their worst performance of the season in their narrow victory over Texas A&M, allowing their most rushing yards, total yards and points of the season. Texas players said those memories have been blotted away as they prepare for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska’s offensive strategy should play more into Texas’ strengths that Texas A&M’s varied run-pass option attack. But it will be imperative for the Longhorns to forget about their recent defensive difficulties and bounce back with a big effort in the championship game.
Maybe Cedric Benson, Ricky Williams or Earl Campbell weren’t coming back any time soon. But it still was a signal that the Longhorns hadn’t ditched their traditional running attack completely and could still move the ball on the ground when they needed to.
The installation of Cody Johnson as the starter and Newton as the speedy backup is indicative that Mack Brown has turned to two precocious but talented parts of his stable of backs for a late-season lift.
“We needed balance and we felt we could do a few things with Cody and Tre’,” Brown said. “They both stepped up. We feel our offense can be really good if we are balanced.”
With 224 yards rushing and 187 yards passing against the Bears, the Longhorns had more rushing yardage than passing yardage for only the second time all season.
“Basically, running the ball was our No. 1 concern,” said Johnson, who was the fourth different Longhorn to start at tailback this season. "Of course, we can still pass the ball, but we put a huge focus on running the ball and being more effective when we were out there. And I think the way we did it opened up a lot of eyes out there.”
Brown has yet to identify a featured back. But he appears to have growing comfort in the “Thunder and Lightning” tailback tandem of Johnson and Newton to perhaps alternate in that role.
Newton, who rushed for 80 yards, has been installed as the team’s primary backup heading into Saturday’s game against Kansas. It’s a signal, Brown said, that the team’s rushing attack appears “headed in the right direction.”
“Every time we’ve put Cody in, he’s made yards,” Brown told reporters earlier this week. “And when Tre’s in, he’s made yards, too.”
Running the ball had been a real concern for the Longhorns, who had produced only 297 rushing yards on 100 carries in their three previous games before playing Baylor.
A simplified playbook that relied on a handful of running plays helped spark the Longhorns to an impressive 6.4 yards-per-carry average against Baylor. It was their best performance against any conference foe this season.
Johnson had struggled with problems with his weight before finally rounding into shape over the last several weeks. His bullish running style appears to improve with the more carries he receives. He gained 109 yards after notching a career-best 19 carries last week.
“Backs I’ve been around like Ricky [Williams] and Cedric [Benson], they got better and better the more snaps they got,” Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “They would see things, lather up and really get going. I think the same started happening for Cody after we got him going.”
Newton had been hobbled since sustaining a concussion in a victory against Colorado last month. After a recovery of several weeks, it appears he is nearing peak performance.
"It feels good being back," Newton said. "It's always frustrating when you can't help your team. You have to stay focused and just be ready to help out when you get your chance."
Together, their divergent talents provide a good combination in the Texas backfield.
“Cody is just a beast out there -- he’s so physical,” Texas guard Charlie Tanner said. “And Tre’ is awesome. You give him an extra second and he’s gone. He has a great burst and can just run by people if you give him a chance.”
The Texas offense will remain centered on McCoy and the passing game. But the development of Johnson and Newton gives the Longhorns hope of balance that had been missing much of the season.
“This shows the world we can actually run the ball,” Johnson said. “It’s not just the passing game. We can actually line up and run the ball. And now, they have to respect both the run and the pass when they play us.”
“We were just messing,” Johnson said. “We were excited and we had fun in the situation. It was exciting for us to finally play like we did. And we can still do a lot more.”
It was amazing that the bullish sophomore had enough energy for much physical movement after the pounding he delivered to the Bears.
Johnson barreled for a career-best 109 yards on 19 carries and scored two short touchdown runs that were about as subtle as a pair of Vitali Klitschko body shots.
“Cody is just a beast when he gets going,” Texas guard Charlie Tanner said.
The Longhorns' big rushing day was part of the plan. Texas coaches shortened their playbook to about five runs they felt comfortable with. And they inserted Johnson for the first start of his career and installed speedy Tre’ Newton as the No. 2 back.
“We needed balance and we felt we could do a few things this week with Cody and Tre’,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “They both stepped up. We feel our offense can be really good if we are balanced.”
The combination of speed and quickness helped propel the Longhorns to 202 rushing yards and an impressive 7.0 yards per carry average. Both figures were the best that Texas has produced in conference play and trailed only the Longhorns’ 304-yard effort against UTEP earlier this season.
“We can throw the ball, but to do what we want to do, our running game has got to continue to grow,” Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “That was a big step today in the process of the team that can win either way.”
Johnson's big game signaled the return of the Longhorns’ running game missing most of the season. The Longhorns were 60th in the nation in rushing and had averaged only 146 yards per game. The struggles had grown more pronounced in recent weeks as the Longhorns had produced only 97 yards rushing per game in the last five weeks.
The Longhorns used the running game from the opening snap. Johnson was featured on three of the first four plays from scrimmage, including bruising back-to-back runs of 12 and 14 yards.
That fast start was important for Johnson, who struggled with his early conditioning after reporting back to practice this summer at well over 250 pounds. But after making a concerted effort to limit portions at mealtime and do away with his favorite fast food treats, he started feeling like the back that turned heads during the spring.
“I feel like I can run the ball better,” Johnson said. “I can move the ball. You drop 20 pounds you feel better. That’s how I’ve felt the last couple of weeks.”
And Newton added an element of speed that had been missing in recent weeks, adding 80 yards as he provided the kind of outside lift missing since his breakout game against Texas Tech.
Newton’s redshirt freshman season was interrupted for several weeks after he sustained a concussion against Colorado. He saw some limited action during the last three games, but not nearly as much as in Saturday’s game.
“It’s always frustrating when you can’t help your team out,” Newton said. “You just have to stay focused because when you want to come back we’re ready. I wanted to do what I could when they needed me.”
Together, the two young backs have provided hope that the Longhorns’ major offensive question can be answered during the next several weeks.
“We can run the ball as well as we can pass it,” Johnson said. “Our biggest focus was on running the ball and being more effective. And the way we did it opened some eyes out there.”
Obviously running the ball against Baylor is one thing and running against Nebraska in the Big 12 title game and Florida or Alabama in the national title game is an entirely different story.
But on Saturday -- at least for the Longhorns -- it was a big start.
As Texas streaks to its second 9-0 start since 1983, it’s understandable that some are already comparing this year’s team to the other team that started that fast.
Texas’ 2005 national championship team is the benchmark for all of the other Texas teams coached by Mack Brown. And this team appears to be the closest to the national championship squad in many respects.
While Brown says such comparisons are premature, he does say his current team’s fast start makes for some inevitable comparisons.
|Brendan Maloney/US Presswire|
|Colt McCoy and the Longhorns have drawn comparisons to the 2005 national championship team.|
“I would think you could compare them because there’s been only one close game for this team and for that team in 2005,” Brown said. “It was the Ohio State game in 2005 and the Oklahoma game this year that was in question late in the ballgame.”
But in order to meet the challenge of matching the 2005 team, Colt McCoy’s team will have to match the finishing kick of Vince Young’s team.
“At this time, they’ve earned the right to be in conversation with the 2005 team,” Brown said. “But they haven’t earned the right to be considered as good because they have to finish like that bunch did.”
The 2005 national championship led the conference in 11 statistical categories; the current team leads it in five. The 2005 team was the nation’s leading scoring team and led the nation in pass efficiency. The current team is more defensively oriented as it leads the nation in rushing defense and scoring defense and ranks second in kickoff returns.
The 2005 title team ranked 10th or better in 10 of the 17 team statistical categories tracked by the NCAA. The 2009 team ranked 10th or better in eight of those team statistical groups.
Here's a position-by-position comparison of the two teams:
Quarterbacks: Both teams featured quarterbacks who were involved in the Heisman Trophy race. The 2005 team had Vince Young, a multi-purpose player who accounted for 3,036 passing yards and 26 touchdown passes. Most importantly, he provided leadership for a team that had never won a Big 12 title under Brown. McCoy redshirted on that team, earning the opportunity to soak up lessons watching Young’s leadership. He’s capping the most productive statistical career for a Texas quarterback by passing for 2,447 yards and 17 touchdowns with at least three games remaining -- not counting a potential Big 12 championship game and a bowl. And his leadership skills are comparable with Young’s in guiding his team to an undefeated season so far.
Rushing game: The 2005 team relied on Young, who rushed for a team-high 1,050 yards and scored 12 touchdowns and also had a strong starter in Jamaal Charles and an outstanding change-of-pace player in Ramonce Taylor. That team produced 55 rushing touchdowns and had five different backs with eight rushing touchdowns or more. The current team’s rushing game might be its major weakness without a featured rushing threat, as no current back has rushed for more than 275 yards. Depending on game situations, the team has utilized any of three starters, but its most consistent producer has been Cody Johnson, who will become its fourth starter this week against Baylor.
|Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire|
|Vince Young quarterbacked the 2005 Texas team to the national title.|
Receivers/Tight end: The 2005 team had a stacked collection of receivers led by top deep threat Billy Pittman and Limas Sweed. But the most consistent receiving threat for Young was tight end David Thomas, who produced 50 receptions, including a career-best 10 in the BCS title game victory over USC. But that team had no receiving threat to match Jordan Shipley, who has already produced 75 catches, four double-figure reception games and broken the school single-game receiving yardage record. Dan Buckner developed early into a receiving threat at flex end and Malcolm Williams, James Kirkendoll and John Chiles all have been strong in an offense that has lived by short passes. But Shipley has been the focal point of a passing game that features short, quick passes as its primary offensive weapon.
Edge: 2009 Texas
Offensive line: The 2005 team featured three-first team All-Big 12 picks in Justin Blalock, Jonathan Scott and Will Allen. Because of Young's mobility, that team allowed only 14 sacks and produced 5.9 yards per carry and 55 rushing touchdowns. The current team is nearly as strong with key players like Adam Ulatoski, Charlie Tanner and Chris Hall, who have currently combined for 99 career starts and should be peaking as the season continues. The current team is producing 3.9 yards per carry, 16 sacks and 20 rushing touchdowns.
Edge: 2005 Texas
Defensive line: The 2005 team featured first-team All-Big 12 players like Rodrique Wright and Tim Crowder and pass-rushing specialist Brian Robison, a converted linebacker who led the team with sacks. But that team didn’t feature anybody as proficient as Sergio Kindle or a run-stuffing tackle like Lamarr Houston. It’s the main reason the current Texas team leads the nation in rush defense (55.33 yards per game), total defense (230.78 yards per game) and ranks in the top 20 in both sacks and tackles for losses. The 2005 team was 39th nationally in sacks and 29th in tackles for losses.
Edge: 2009 Texas
Linebackers: The 2005 unit was at its weakest at linebacker where no players earned All-Big 12 first-team or second-team designation. Robert Killebrew was that team’s only player to earn honorable mention. The current team features an anchor in the middle in senior linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy, flanked by Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho. Will Muschamp’s unit seldom uses three linebackers except in run-stuffing situations, preferring to use a nickel formation. But his current group still has the edge at linebacker over the championship team.
Edge: 2009 Texas
Secondary: The 2005 team might be one of the great college units of all time. That team featured the Thorpe Award winner in Michael Huff and another all-league player in Cedric Griffin. Huff, Cedric Griffin, Michael Griffin, Aaron Ross and Tarell Brown all were drafted in the NFL and had eventual pro careers. The unit was nearly impermeable as it broke up 85 passes and permitted only two teams to pass for more than 200 yards against them. The current group is young and skilled and might develop into as strong of a group with experience.
Earl Thomas has played like the best defensive back in the country this season with six interceptions, including two touchdown returns. Curtis Brown, Chykie Brown, Aaron Williams and Blake Gideon have already helped the defense combine for 16 interceptions. And the group is playing with swagger as the season continues.
The current group could match the eventual production of the 2005 team, but it still has to get there.
Edge: 2005 Texas
Special teams: Neither team had to punt very often, but Hunter Lawrence has a narrow edge over David Pino at kicker for his consistency and range. The biggest difference is in the return game. The current team features two threats with D.J. Monroe (two TDs, 36.5 yards kick return average) and Shipley (14.5 punt return average, two TDs), giving it an edge over Ramonce Taylor and Aaron Ross (14.7 punt return average, two TDs).
Edge: 2009 Texas
Coaching: With largely the same cast of coaches, the 2009 team appears to be better coached. In 2005, Brown was trying for his first Big 12 title and utilized defensive co-coordinators with Gene Chizik and Duane Akina. It often seemed that the individual talents of Young took over the game during that championship season. But this team features a better job by Greg Davis as he compensates for his team’s lack of a consistent running game by developing a crafty passing game utilizing quick short passes. And the defense has taken big steps this season in its second season under Muschamp.
Intangibles: The 2005 team was trying to become Brown’s first Big 12 title team and played well throughout. It started with a dramatic comeback victory over Ohio State and continued with a run through the Big 12 that featured no victory less than 11 points. The 2005 team needed a comeback over Oklahoma State, but Young helped the team peak as the Longhorns scored at least 40 points in 12 games. The team rolled to victories of 62, 52 and 11 points in November before notching a record-breaking 70-3 triumph over Colorado in the Big 12 title game and the 41-38 BCS title game victory over USC.
This team hasn’t faced many tests, although it did handle Oklahoma in a 16-13 triumph that ranks as its closest margin. Other than that game, the 2009 Longhorns have rolled up at least 34 points in every game and allowed more than 20 points on only two occasions. But it still has its chance to finish strongly in November like the 2005 team did.
Edge: 2005 Texas
If they met: The 2005 team still would merit a slight edge, mainly because this team doesn’t have a transcendent talent like Young. But the current team is developing and could have a chance to match the championship with a strong finish.
Edge: 2005 Texas
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Although it may have raised an eyebrow or two around the Texas football facilities, the Longhorns weren’t saying much about being dropped in the polls this week.
Despite a 24-point victory over Colorado, the Longhorns dropped behind Alabama in both major polls on Sunday, behind No. 1 Florida.
“It’s something that was mentioned, but it’s not really a big deal,” Texas guard Charlie Tanner said. “Everything takes care of itself by the end of the season. If we win every game and try to get that Big 12 championship, we’ll be where we want to be.”
|John Albright/Icon SMI|
|Mack Brown and the Longhorns aren't worried about falling a spot in the latest poll.|
Truthfully, the Longhorns’ drop isn’t surprising. They haven’t faced the kind of challenge that would make national pollsters really stop and take notice.
And with all due respect to Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, Texas Tech and UTEP, the Longhorns haven’t been tested by nearly the schedule that both Florida and Alabama have navigated this season.
The Gators beat LSU on the road with their starting quarterback iffy coming into the game. Alabama convincingly whipped Virginia Tech in Atlanta in the season opener and won at Mississippi last week with a fearsome defensive effort.
Texas struggled with Colorado, which had earlier been humiliated in nationally televised losses to Colorado State and Toledo. It wasn’t a great selling point for the Longhorns when it was noted they were behind at halftime and need a late charge to subdue the Buffaloes, who came into the game 1-3.
“Anytime you win, it’s a great thing,” Tanner said. “One of the things we have at Texas is that we want to win very convincingly. We have to realize that winning in this conference is tough sometimes and we just have to embrace it.”
And that’s why this week’s game against Oklahoma is so important.
The Sooners and Longhorns resonate across college football as one of the major rivalries. The game has only become bigger because it has been the seminal battle for South Division supremacy.
“The good thing is that everybody who follows football in the nation will be watching this game at noon Eastern, 11 a.m. Central,” Texas coach Mack Brown said, sounding almost like a huckster for the broadcast. “You don’t have to care about either of these teams to be interested in watching this game.”
Brown remembered it being that way when he served as Barry Switzer’s offensive coordinator in 1984. But it wasn’t nearly as big when Brown arrived at Texas in 1998 and Bob Stoops arrived a year later.
In those days, Kansas State, Nebraska and Texas A&M were the dominant Big 12 programs.
“The OU game is back here where it should be,” Brown said. “When we got here, it really had lost its luster some as a national game. People were talking about it being on regional TV and I was in shock. For this not to be the game of the week in the nation was very disappointing to me after being at both schools.”
Stoops arrived the following season and won a national championship. That success has rekindled the rivalry where it is THE GAME in the country this week.
Texas has the chance to take advantage of that exposure with a big performance that will elevate them back into the mix with the Gators and Crimson Tide.
Still, there are enough concerns about the Longhorns to worry Brown.
Texas rushed for only 46 yards in 25 carries against Colorado. Both top running backs Vondrell McGee and Tre' Newton were dinged in that game and will be questionable during practice this week. Brown appears ready to rely on oft-injured Fozzy Whittaker as his primary back if necessary.
Take away a big game from scintillating wide receiver Jordan Shipley and an opportunistic game from Texas special games and the 38-14 margin of victory is much closer. The Longhorns capitalized on Colorado mistakes to return a blocked punt, a punt return and a 92-yard interception return by Earl Thomas for a touchdown. That kind of game would be great for your fantasy football team, but won’t sway too many pollsters.
“It was a weird game,” Texas quarterback Colt McCoy said. “When you have three non-offensive touchdowns, it really kinds of throws a loop to you. You can get in a groove and find that rhythm that you can normally find in a game. You can’t judge off that game because it’s weird.”
Fortunately for the Longhorns, the Oklahoma game couldn’t be coming along at a better time. Now, they need to take advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of that missing national respect.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Texas coach Mack Brown wants to test his team during the next several weeks.
That's why training camp is such an arduous battle; he's trying to get them ready for anything they might face during the season.
"Preseason camp, for a better analogy, is like boot camp," Brown said. "It's trying to prepare you for tough days and the days where things aren't going your way. That's when your leadership steps up."
The Longhorns are up well before daybreak and practice until nearly sunset in an activity-filled day.
"Two-a-days prepares you for that fourth-quarter game where things aren't going well and who is going to step up and make a difference," Brown said.
To give you an idea of what camp is like on the inside, here's today's schedule, courtesy of MackBrown-Texasfootball.com:
4:30 a.m.: Wake up
4:50 a.m.-5:50 a.m.: Tape/breakfast
5:40 a.m.: Defensive squad bus departs for practice field
5:50 a.m.: Team bus departs for practice field
6 a.m.: Blitz walk-thru
6:15 a.m.: Team flex
6:30 a.m.-8 a.m.: Practice in shorts and helmets
9 a.m.: Post-practice continental breakfast
9:30 a.m.-10 a.m.: Special forces (teams) meeting
10:05 a.m.-11:15 a.m.: Offense/defense meetings
11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.: Lunch
Noon: Staff meeting
1 p.m.-3 p.m.: Rest
3 p.m.-4 p.m.: Dinner
3:50 p.m.-4:20 p.m.: Special forces meetings
4:25 p.m.-5:25 p.m.: Offense/defense meetings
5:25 p.m.: Defensive bus departs for practice field
5:35 p.m.: Team bus departs for practice field
5:45 p.m.: Blitz walk-thru
6 p.m.: Team flex
6:15 p.m.-7:45 p.m.: Practice in shorts and helmets
7:45 p.m.: Snack
8:30 p.m.: Offense/defense meetings
10:30 p.m.: Curfew
It's obvious after looking at this that rest time is at a premium for the Longhorns. And 4:30 a.m. must come mighty early for all of them.
But some Longhorns don't appear to mind that their focus is consumed by football.
"I've been looking forward to it for a long time," tackle Adam Ulatoski said. "This is an exciting time. Like I told (Texas guard) Charlie (Tanner) earlier, all we have to do is focus on football, eating and sleeping. That's it. It's pretty exciting for me."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Mack Brown has earned the reputation as one of the game's master recruiters as he has developed a program that has run off 10 straight victories over the past eight consecutive seasons.
The Longhorns have a few holes to fill from this season's 12-1 team that claimed the Fiesta Bowl but was disappointed in its hopes to have a shot at the BCS title by a last-second loss at Texas Tech.
The most pressing need will be along the defensive front as starters Brian Orakpo, Roy Miller, Henry Melton and part-time starter Aaron Lewis all will leave from a unit that led the nation with 47 sacks last season. Don't be surprised if linebacker Sergio Kindle moves to defensive end to help fill the talent gap for next season.
More talent for the future could be used at linebacker where both projected starters Jared Norton and Roddrick Muckelroy will be seniors next season. The secondary appears set with eight players in the playing rotation who were either sophomores or freshmen last season, including both starting safeties in Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon.
With Colt McCoy set for his senior season, finding depth at quarterback is an immediate goal. Heralded prospect Garrett Gilbert will likely redshirt in order to prepare for the battle to replace McCoy in 2010.
The Longhorns lose only Cedric Dockery as a starter along the offense line and appear stacked with talented players lined up for playing time. Center Chris Hall, guard Charlie Tanner and tackle Adam Ulatoski all will be seniors next season, giving impetus to finding more depth across the line.
Redshirt freshman Tre Newton appears poised for a battle for playing time at running back, where the lack of a breakaway threat remains a concern. Vondrell McGee has struggled in the featured role and Fozzy Whittaker has been injury-prone.
The need isn't quite as pressing at wide receiver. The development of youngsters like Malcolm Williams, James Kirkendoll, Brandon Collins and Dan Buckner have the Longhorns apparently set for the loss of Quan Cosby and the eventual departure of Jordan Shipley after the 2009 season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Texas lists three players as questionable for Saturday night's game in Austin against Rice, including two potential starters.
Junior G Charlie Tanner (left ankle) and redshirt freshman RB Fozzy Whittaker (right knee) both are questionable. Michael Huey would start at guard and the Longhorns would alternate Vondrell McGee and Chris Ogbonnaya as the featured running threat if Whittaker can't go.
Texas trainer Kenny Boyd also lists sophomore WR Brandon Collins (back) as questionable for the game.