Time for Texas to face its identity issues

October, 18, 2012
10/18/12
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During two-a-days in the preseason, Texas’ coaching staff made an effort to hammer home an important message to its players.

The story of this Texas Longhorns team would not be written in the preseason magazines. The Longhorns needed this one to stick. They needed to prevent the complacency and entitlement that had doomed a just-as-promising 2010 squad.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIMike Davis and the Longhorns passing attack has shown the ability to stretch the field, but Texas struggled offensively against the Sooners.
Those preseason mags, with their glossy photos, generic evaluations and far-too-early prognostications, were in near-universal agreement when pegging the 2012 Longhorns.

Phil Steele said Texas is “loaded at every position.” Sports Illustrated assured “the defense won’t be a problem for Texas” and “the Longhorns’ D should light up most of the Big 12 quarterbacks it sees.” ESPN The Magazine ran a glowing feature declaring that Texas was poised to threaten the SEC’s elite. All agreed instability at quarterback was Bevo’s biggest flaw.

They all said what most Longhorns fans already believed: The identity of this team was unmistakable. Tremendous defense. Solid power offense. Big 12 title contender.

Preseason judgments came from what Texas looked like on paper. Midseason judgments? They come from what’s on tape. What we know now, thanks to the 42-point shellacking Oklahoma doled out last week, is much murkier.

What exactly is the identity of this Texas team?

Through five games, the Longhorns' offense knew what it was: a run-first multiple offense with lots of backs, a few reliable receivers, and a quarterback who didn’t turn the ball over and could be much more than just a game manager.

Against Oklahoma, that all fell apart. No run game. An overwhelmed line. A day full of third-and-longs and three-and-outs.

Now Texas must figure out whether that showing was a fluke or a forecast.

More importantly, it’s hard to tell what exactly this Texas offense does best going forward. If the power run game isn’t clicking, what identity does the offense fall back on?

“That question, I don’t really think you can answer it until the end of the season,” offensive lineman Mason Walters said. “It’s going to evolve, and there’s going to be teams who have answers for the things you do. It’s going to take more games to see what this offense really is.”

Added Trey Hopkins: “I’m not really sure. I mean, we’ve shown great things. We’ve shown the capability to be a very explosive offense and a great offense. But the thing we’re lacking now is just consistency.”

Does the offense need to shift its focus to a more pass-first tendency, considering David Ash’s improving play? Don’t ask him.

“That’s not my call. That’s the coaches’ call,” Ash said. “My job is to try to execute.”

The defensive identity is more of a mystery. This is not the top-10 unit most expected. This is a No. 96-ranked scoring defense that’s now missing two of its best players, Jackson Jeffcoat and Jordan Hicks.

With inexperienced and unreliable play at all three levels of the defense, what do the Longhorns hang their hat on in this department?

The answer, for now, might be leadership. Texas’ three best defenders right now -- Alex Okafor, Kenny Vaccaro and Quandre Diggs -- aren’t shying from the responsibility of righting their unit’s wrongs. They’ve been unflinchingly honest about their troubles.

“We’re still trying to get our identity,” Diggs said. “I feel like one thing that we should be and one thing that showed this weekend is, we’ve just got to be physical. I feel like we lost some of our mojo.

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“We made this defense on being physical, and we haven’t been that this year at all. If we can get that back, I feel like we can dominate a lot of teams.”

Rediscovering that mojo is easier said than done. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz hasn’t said yet whether the answer is new schemes or new faces, but he’s re-evaluating everything his defense does. Staying the course isn’t the solution.

What Texas is learning the hard way is something preseason magazines can’t account for: The good teams evolve. Great expectations are always tested by unexpected change.

Only one program -- Alabama -- had the luxury of entering this season as a finished product.

The Tide know exactly who and what they are. They’ll do the same things in the opener that they do in the SEC title game. They have a winning formula and a loaded cupboard of talent.

They are the exception to the rule. Every other team that reaches the mountaintop of college football does so through trial and error. Players get hurt. Some emerge; some disappoint. Coaches adjust their plans and schemes accordingly.

Texas has the raw talent of a top-15 team. That was as true in the preseason as it is today. In order to start playing like one, the Longhorns must stop pretending they’re a finished product.

On this, the Sports Illustrated predictions weren’t all that wrong: “The Horns, perhaps the most unpredictable team in SI’s top 25, could end up in the BCS title game or they could wind up in the Holiday Bowl.”

It doesn’t get any more unpredictable than this for Texas. But the story of this season can’t be written until the Longhorns solve their identity crisis.

Max Olson | email

Big 12 reporter

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