Dallas Colleges: Keenan Robinson
The defensive cupboard was well-stocked and Mack Brown was talking up the squad, openly inviting high expectations for his defense and claiming they might be the best in his time in Austin.
With the Acho brothers up front and three future NFL draft picks in the secondary, who could blame him?
The Longhorns defense was good, but not good enough. It led the Big 12 in total defense, but forced just 18 turnovers for 11th in the Big 12.
Oh, and Texas went 5-7.
The Longhorns bounced back with eight wins in 2011, and in 2012 the hype is back for a defense loaded with NFL talent once again. There is talk that it might be among the nation's best, if not the nation's best.
"I want our defense to live up to those expectations," Brown said. "All of us sitting here in preseason have expectations, especially at a school like the University of Texas. But, until you produce on the field, and we’ll have a better idea of how they look on Saturday, then we’re not sure how good they will be."
Brown's tempering the expectations a bit this time around, but he knows what he has.
The league's No. 1 and No. 2 defensive ends are anything but an unknown commodity. Both Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor could hear their names called in the first round of next April's NFL draft, though Jeffcoat said this week he wants to stay and get his degree from Texas.
Cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom morphed a question mark at cornerback into one of the team's strengths late in the season, and safety Kenny Vaccaro might be the best overall defender in the Big 12.
The one thing most closely resembling a question mark? The middle of the defense.
"I’ve consistently talked about the loss of the four seniors down the middle," Brown said, "and that we’ve got new, young guys in their places."
Linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson were the vocal leaders of the defense last season, but have been replaced by super recruits Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks, joining a speedster on the outside in linebacker Demarco Cobbs, who played quarterback, receiver, safety and returned kicks and punts in high school.
Tackle Kheeston Randall is gone, too, but the Longhorns look well suited to replace him by plugging juco transfer Brandon Moore and reformed running back Chris Whaley at the top of a rotation of five capable contributors in the middle of the defense.
Adrian Phillips moves up to replace four-year starter Blake Gideon at strong safety opposite Vaccaro.
"Until they prove it on Saturday that they’re ready to show that leadership and show that ability to handle Big 12 football at a fast pace, then we have to wait until they prove it before we can anoint them as a great defense," Brown said.
Here's guessing we won't wait long.
See more fall camp previews.
Next up: Texas.
Media's predicted finish: Third.
Biggest storyline: Texas was a lot better last year than it was in 2010's five-win season, but how much better will Texas be in 2012? Eight wins won't cut it with the expectations facing this year's team. An offense full of freshmen is now an offense full of sophomores, but the Longhorns are still trying to climb back up the mountain after a Big 12 title in 2009 and two forgettable seasons since. Is this the year the Horns reach the summit once again?
Biggest question mark: Quarterback. No question about this one. For now, coach Mack Brown still says the position isn't settled between David Ash and Case McCoy, but Ash has reportedly received nearly all of the first-team reps since a strong performance in the win over California in the Holiday Bowl. Ash has the bigger upside and more impressive physical attributes, but he's got to start making good on that upside. He'll have plenty of help around him with a strong backfield and two good, young receivers in Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis.
Who needs to step up: The linebackers. Junior Jordan Hicks is the leader of the group, but there's a huge leadership void there with the loss of Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson. That leadership has shifted to guys like Alex Okafor, Kenny Vaccaro and Jackson Jeffcoat. Steve Edmond is a big presence and a promising player at 255 pounds in the middle of the defense, and former blue-chip recruit Demarco Cobbs is ready to take over at the other outside linebacker spot. He missed six games last season with a broken arm, but he's got absurd speed for his position.
Fun fact: Texas has exactly 12 players on its roster who are not from Texas. Who came from furthest away? How about freshman kicker Michael Davidson, from Aberdeen, Scotland.
New addition: Don't underestimate the impact of newcomer Anthony Fera, who gives Texas a huge upgrade at one of its biggest question marks: kicker. He may also get in the mix at punter, but Fera's an experienced kicker who transferred to Texas after the NCAA hammered Penn State with severe sanctions, including a four-year bowl ban. He made 14 of 17 kicks last season. Texas' defense should produce a lot of close, low-scoring games. Here's guessing Fera will have a big influence on how many of those are wins and how many are losses.
Don't forget about: WR Mike Davis. Shipley grabbed a lot of headlines last year, but Davis is still a big talent, too. The junior grabbed 45 passes for 609 yards and a touchdown last year. I'd be shocked if he doesn't have a major boost in production this year.
Breaking out: RB Johnathan Gray. Gray was the nation's top running back in the 2012 recruiting class, and joins Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron in a loaded backfield for the Longhorns. Still, where he fits and what kind of impact he'll have is one of the league's most fascinating developments. It's not every day the nation's Gatorade Player of the Year shows up on a Big 12 campus.
At this position, depth is a major factor in these rankings. Additionally, I included nickelbacks in this grouping. Hybrid defensive end/linebackers will be grouped with defensive lines.
2. Texas: The Longhorns will sorely miss an outstanding duo of their own with tons of experience. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho are both NFL-bound after combining for 215 tackles.
3. Oklahoma: The Sooners weren't quite as good as expected in 2011, but part of that was because of a Travis Lewis preseason toe injury that slowed him for much of the season. Lewis, Tony Jefferson and Tom Wort all topped 70 tackles in 2011, and are a solid group.
4. Kansas State: Arthur Brown reinvigorated this group, finishing eighth in the Big 12 with 101 tackles, but the Wildcats linebackers were more than just Brown. Tre Walker and converted safety Emmanuel Lamur combined for 135 stops and helped lead one of the league's most underrated units and a much-improved run defense.
5. Texas A&M: The Aggies' backers were big pass-rushers, though they struggled in coverage this season. Sean Porter was the Big 12's sack champion with 9.5, and Caleb Russell and Jonathan Stewart combined for six more. Damontre Moore is the rawest talent of the bunch, but built on that in 2011, making 72 tackles.
6. Oklahoma State: OSU's group was good, but not great. Alex Elkins' crazy story came to an end with 90 stops in 2011. He showed up everywhere for the Cowboys, but reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year Shaun Lewis didn't quite have the sophomore season some had hoped. Caleb Lavey added some solid play for the turnover-hungry unit, producing 74 tackles and five tackles for loss.
7. Missouri: Zaviar Gooden wasn't quite the impact player Mizzou had hoped, but he was solid alongside a group that's been injury prone over the past two years. Sophomore Andrew Wilson emerged as the team's top tackler with 98 stops, and Luke Lambert added 82 more. A high ankle sprain in the season opener kept Will Ebner off the field, but he'll be back in 2012 after the NCAA granted him a fifth year of eligibility.
8. Kansas: Steven Johnson led the Big 12 with 119 tackles, but the rest of the unit left a lot to be desired. Darius Willis has some potential, but the rest of the team's linebackers have their work cut out for them in 2012. Tunde Bakare also returns from a unit that ranked ninth in the Big 12 in rushing defense.
9. Baylor: The Bears needed help just about everywhere. Elliot Coffey was solid, and finished tied for fourth with 114 stops, but Baylor was eighth in the Big 12 in rush defense. Baylor has solid athlete in the secondary and on the defensive line, but at linebacker, Rodney Chadwick and Brody Trahan leave a bit to be desired. Ahmad Dixon was better in 2011, but still has a lot of potential that needs to be filled.
10. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are looking for a new defensive coordinator and the 4-2-5 made a short stop in Lubbock. The Red Raiders were awful everywhere on defense, but especially up front. Nobody in college football was worse at stopping the run, and D.J. Johnson, Daniel Cobb and Cqulin Hubert turned in forgettable performances. Time to get better for 2012.
You'll need Insider to see this post from Steve Muench, but here are a few snippets from our team on the ground in Indianapolis:
West Virginia's Bruce Irvin ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, which is faster than most outside linebackers, let alone defensive ends. That's good for Irvin, who projects as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. He's undersized (6-3, 245) and lacks the power to anchor against the run as an end. He would have been better off working with the linebackers at the combine because he is a developmental prospect, and it showed in his footwork when he dropped.
Obviously, I didn't get a big chance to see Irvin from week to week in the Big East, but that 40 time is nuts. Reminds me of ... wait for it ... Von Miller?
What about another Big 12 pass rusher you know a bit better?
Oklahoma State DE Jamie Blatnick isn't as explosive or athletic as some of the other prospects, and his arms are as short as Ingram's, so there are some red flags. On the other hand, Blatnick performed well during the drill. His hands were active and violent during bag work while he did a good job of staying low in his backpedal when asked to drop.
Blatnick's a tough guy, but like Muench said, doesn't have the jaw-dropping measurables of some other guys we've seen in this league or guys at the combine this week.
He was productive, though, and technique will take you a long way in the NFL. Blatnick isn't lacking in athleticism necessarily, he just doesn't wow you.
Now, time for a few results from Monday at the combine:
Najee Goode, West Virginia
- 40-yard dash: 4.66 seconds (sixth among inebackers)
- 40-yard dash: 4.68 seconds (T-8 among linebackers)
- 225-pound bench press: 36 reps (most among linebackers -- by four reps)
- 40-yard dash: 4.69 seconds (11th among linebackers)
- 225-pound bench press: 19 reps
- 40-yard dash: 4.73 seconds (14th among linebackers)
- 225-pound bench press: 24 reps (T-10th among linebackers
- 40-yard dash: 4.88 seconds
- 225-pound bench press: 22 reps (14th among linebackers)
- 225-pound bench press: 27 reps (T-6th among linebackers)
Another spring camp is opening, and it's time to take a closer look. Today, the Texas Longhorns get started.
Schedule: Practice starts today leading up to the spring game on April 1. Practices are closed to fans and media, though the team will have two open practices, a change from last year, when all 15 practices were closed.
What's new: Not much, as opposed to last year, when the answer was "almost everything." The Longhorns' staff all returned for 2012 after Mack Brown shook up his staff and replaced six assistant coaches after going 5-7 in 2010. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will have to replace defensive leaders Emmanuel Acho, Blake Gideon and Keenan Robinson, but the offense returns 10 starters, including both quarterbacks, David Ash and Case McCoy.
New faces: Quarterback Connor Brewer joins the fold, but the biggest news may have been a shift in recruiting philosophy with new assistants on staff with SEC ties. The Longhorns took a junior college signee for the first time since 2002. Offensive line coach Stacy Searels came from Georgia last season and will have offensive tackle Donald Hawkins from Mississippi to work with. Meanwhile, defensive tackles coach Bo Davis (Alabama) will work with Brandon Moore from Alabama.
Big shoes to fill: Linebacker Jordan Hicks. The Ohio native and No. 1 linebacker in the 2010 class made 55 tackles last season, but without Robinson and Acho, it's Hicks' time in Austin this year. Look out for a big year, and that starts this spring. He's battled through a broken foot, but if he can stay healthy, the sky is the limit for the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder who has added 20 pounds since leaving high school.
Don't forget about: Receiver Mike Davis. He was the team's top target this time last year, but had a slightly disappointing sophomore season and Jaxon Shipley surpassed him as the Longhorns' top receiver. Davis is very talented, though. He and Shipley could both be stars, but don't rule out Davis surging this spring. He turned the coaching staff's collective head last year.
Breaking out: Quandre Diggs was part of the freshman invasion at Texas last year, and he could have made a case for being the best freshman in the Big 12. He's a shutdown corner ready to become a star. In a league with the type of offensive talent the Big 12 has, his skills are invaluable. Don't rule out the sophomore cracking the All-America team next year.
All eyes on: Texas' quarterback battle. Texas will be best off if Ash asserts himself and boxes out McCoy with a strong spring, but there's no guarantee that happens. Ash's physical attributes (size, speed, arm strength) give him a much higher upside than his counterpart, but for now they amount to just that: upside. The two had comparable numbers in 2011 and neither was solid. Will we see separation this spring?
We'll start taking a look at what each program in the Big 12 needs to deal with during the offseason, whether it be in the spring, summer or fall preseason camp. Maybe all three! Who knows?
Next up: The Texas Longhorns.
Invest in David Ash. Texas will bring on another true freshman this spring, Connor Brewer. The Longhorns have already been down that road. Ash is the most physically gifted of the Longhorns' quarterbacks, and that gives him the most upside. He's been in the program just one calendar year, and he got hardly any practice reps last spring and in the preseason while Texas was trying to prepare Garrett Gilbert to bounce back. If you ask me, forget competition with Case McCoy. Get Ash tons of reps and get him ready to take over in 2012. They'll be better off for it.
Find new defensive leadership. Leadership was one of the Longhorns' downfalls in 2010 after Colt McCoy left. Without Keenan Robinson, Emmanuel Acho and Blake Gideon, the Longhorns have a huge hole once again. Who's going to take over? Senior Kenny Vaccaro's probably the most talented player returning for the Horns, closely followed by junior-to-be Jackson Jeffcoat. What about Alex Okafor, the senior up front? Somebody's got to take hold of this team.
Figure out how the running backs will be used. Texas' backfield next year's going to be real crowded. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron return, and Johnathan Gray, the nation's No. 1 running back and No. 2 prospect overall, will join them. All three could probably start for most teams in the Big 12, if not the country. The Longhorns need to utilize that strength, along with a maturing offensive line. Will offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin debut some new formations to get them on the field? Maybe a Wishbone redux? Copycatting Oklahoma and Oklahoma State's "Backs" or "Diamond" formation? Who takes over for Fozzy Whittaker in the Wildcat formation? Who gets the lion's share of the carries for these Horns? All are questions that have to be answered over the next seven months.
More offseason to-do lists.
Here's what each team across the Big 12 needs. You'll find Texas A&M and Mizzou on the SEC blog and West Virginia on the Big East Blog.
Quarterback: This one's pretty simple. Robert Griffin III is taking his talents to the NFL early. Nick Florence is waiting to take over, and the Bears have Bryce Petty behind him, but more reinforcements at quarterback are needed. Dual-threat quarterbacks, ideally.
Defensive tackle: Baylor already was one of the nation's worst teams (102nd nationally) at stopping the run. Now it'll need to replace both its interior linemen, Nicolas Jean-Baptiste and Tracy Robertson.
Offensive linemen: Baylor's offensive line, meanwhile, has been solid. It loses junior college transfer and two-year starter Robert T. Griffin, as well as All-Big 12 center Philip Blake. John Jones, a reserve guard, also has exhausted his eligibility.
Receiver: This has been a weak spot for the team for several years, and its top overall talent, Darius Reynolds, is gone. Darius Darks is, too. Aaron Horne and Josh Lenz will be the team's best weapons in 2012, but the pair of shifty slot guys will be seniors. This position needs reinforcements.
Defensive back: The DBs have been a quiet strength for ISU, especially in 2011. Cornerback Leonard Johnson and safety Ter'Ran Benton both have exhausted their eligibility, though, and defensive backs coach Bobby Elliott left for Notre Dame. You'll see plenty of new faces in the Cyclones' secondary next year.
Defensive line: Experienced starters Stephen Ruempolhamer and Jacob Lattimer are both gone, and Iowa State has struggled to stop the run consistently the past few seasons.
Quarterback: Kansas landed high-profile transfers Dayne Crist (Notre Dame) and Jake Heaps (BYU), but this is still a huge position of need. Last year's starter, Jordan Webb, left the team. Quinn Mecham is out of eligibility. Heaps is sitting out his NCAA-mandated year after transferring. Crist is the starter, but he badly needs a backup, especially if Brock Berglund's transfer appeal allows him to leave.
Wide receiver: Kansas lacks a big threat at this position. It needs a talent upgrade in a big way. Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay is joining the team, but he's no guarantee to a) be granted immediate eligibility or b) become an impact player.
Defensive tackle: Kansas is thin here, too. Richard Johnson, Patrick Dorsey and Michael Martinovich are gone, and Kansas couldn't stop much of anything on defense. Some push up front could help make everything look better. A late addition to the 2012 class from a junior college seems like a no-brainer. The Jayhawks need physically mature players to contribute immediately.
Offensive line: K-State's offensive line was much better in 2011 and could be again in 2012. It needs help replacing All-Big 12 lineman Clyde Aufner, though. Starter Colten Freeze is also gone.
Defensive line: Kansas State is bringing back about as many starters as anyone in the Big 12, but the biggest losses are along the defensive line. Kick-blocking specialist (five in 2011) Ralph Guidry is gone, along with tackle Ray Kibble. Juco transfer Jordan Voelker exploded onto the scene this year, but he's gone, too.
Defensive backs: Cornerback David Garrett leaves a huge hole behind. Tysyn Hartman may not be as talented as teammate Ty Zimmerman, but his experience leaves a big hole. Zimmerman will have to mentor a younger safety in the near future.
Receiver: The Sooners are thin here in a big way. That was obvious late in the season when Ryan Broyles' storied college career ended a few weeks early with a knee injury. The team also lost Justin McCay (transfer) to Kansas. Jaz Reynolds and Kenny Stills are the likely top two targets, but they need help.
Tight end: This position inspired a bit of panic at the end of the season. Seniors James Hanna and Trent Ratterree are gone. Austin Haywood wasn't allowed back on the team, and two more tight ends left the team for various reasons. That left the Sooners suddenly without a scholarship player at the position returning in 2012.
Offensive line: Starting tackle Donald Stephenson must be replaced, as will guard Stephen Good, who moved in and out of the starting lineup throughout his career. The Sooners bring back a lot of talent and aren't dying for depth there, but those two will leave holes. Three more offensive line starters will be seniors in 2012.
Offensive line: The Cowboys need a whole lot of help here to fill in behind young players stepping into the starting lineup. Starters Levy Adcock, Nick Martinez and Grant Garner are gone. Backup center Casey LaBrue is gone, too. Those are two All-Big 12 linemen who leave big shoes to be filled.
Receiver: Justin Blackmon surprised no one by leaving a year early, and Josh Cooper leaves with perhaps the most underrated career of any receiver in school history. In OSU's offense, there's always room for depth here. Nine receivers had at least 19 catches in 2011. Blackmon and Cooper combined for 192, though.
Defensive ends: The pass rush was solid for Oklahoma State this year, but both starters, Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones, are gone. Replacing both is a necessity.
Receiver: Texas lacks a true game-changer at the position, though Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis may develop into that role in 2012. Former blue-chip recruit Darius White left for Missouri, too.
Quarterback: David Ash and Case McCoy didn't show a ton of potential at quarterback this year, though Ash may grow with an offseason to prepare as starter. Garrett Gilbert got a big chunk of the work in the spring, summer 7-on-7 and fall preseason camp. Even if Ash does grow, the Longhorns need reinforcements at the position.
Linebacker: Two senior impact players are gone. Texas is left trying to replace Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, though Jordan Hicks may mature into a star in 2012.
Offensive line: TCU's offensive line is headed for some major turnover. OT Robert Deck, OG Kyle Dooley and OG Spencer Thompson are gone. Two more starters, OG Blaize Foltz and C James Fry, will be seniors in 2012.
Defensive linemen: TCU isn't losing a lot at this spot, but Ross Forrest and D.J. Yendrey will be seniors in 2012. The Horned Frogs would be well-served to prepare, and offer some depth next year.
Specialists: TCU will have to break in a pair of new starters on special teams next season. Kicker Ross Evans and punter Anson Kelton have exhausted their eligibility.
Receiver: The Red Raiders' offense requires a lot of depth here. Tramain Swindall is the only loss at the position, but three more (Alex Torres, Cornelius Douglas, Darrin Moore) will be seniors. Douglas moved to cornerback this year after the team was racked with injury, but we'll see whether he moves back this offseason.
Offensive line: Tech has a huge need here. Four players won't be returning in 2012. Lonnie Edwards, Mickey Okafor and center Justin Keown must be replaced.
Defensive linemen: Tech's Donald Langley and Scott Smith are both out of eligibility, and juco transfer Leon Mackey will be a senior.
We're offering up grades for each team in the Big 12 after their seasons conclude, so here's a look at how the 8-5 Texas Longhorns graded out in 2011.
More report cards:
Instead, he had shoulder surgery and booked a ticket to SMU after struggling in his second start of the season and being benched to a chorus of boos in the second quarter against BYU. Case McCoy and David Ash checked in, and neither grabbed hold of the position. McCoy would make plays (ask Texas A&M), but his limited arm strength and physical measurables made life easy on defenses and tough on his receivers. Enter the fleet-footed Ash. The true freshman didn't get much experience during the spring or in summer 7-on-7 and it showed. His decision-making didn't look much better than Gilbert's, and he finished with four touchdowns and eight interceptions. Jaxon Shipley was outstanding as a freshman, though he was slowed by a knee injury during the second half of his season. Still, it's not a good sign when a true freshman receiver has one fewer touchdown pass (3) than the team's leading passer.
Malcolm Brown validated much of the hype in his first year, looking the part of a future star in the running game, alongside Joe Bergeron, though both had the second halves of their seasons marred by injuries that kept them out of action or hobbled when they did play.
There's plenty of potential in this Texas offense, but ultimately, the passing game leaves a lot to be desired. Even with its defense, Texas isn't going to win the Big 12 with a total offense ranked seventh in the Big 12 and 54th nationally. Like we said in the Missouri report card, offenses in this league are graded on a curve. The Longhorns were nearly 80 yards per game behind sixth-place Texas Tech, and ranked eighth in scoring offense for the entire season and in conference play.
DEFENSE: The biggest surprise, and a welcome one for new coordinator Manny Diaz, was the play of the secondary, especially corners Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs. They'll both be back in 2012 and Diggs absolutely looks like a future All-American, and as a true freshman, tied for fourth in the league with four interceptions. Byndom, a first-year starter, could make a case as the Big 12's best corner in 2011.
Linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson weren't superstars, but both were a step above solid and provided valuable leadership that was missing in 2010. They combined for 215 stops as the team's top two tacklers, and combined for 23 tackles for loss.
Both are gone in 2012, but the Longhorns have plenty of young stars who may mature into superstars. Diggs isn't the only one. Jordan Hicks stayed healthy and looked like he clicked in 2011. The same is true of the nation's No. 1 recruit in 2010, Jackson Jeffcoat, who led the team with 17 tackles for loss in a huge year after the second half of his promising 2010 season was slowed by an ankle injury.
And senior-to-be nickelback/safety Kenny Vaccaro might be the best of the bunch, a versatile, speedy, hard hitter with a nose for the ball who seemed to be everywhere. He finished with 71 tackles (third-most on the team), 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and eight pass breakups. The Longhorns' defense was the best in the Big 12 in a league full of dangerous offenses, and ranking 11th nationally in that stat deserves respect.
OVERALL: This was an improvement. The offense was not quite as good as expected, but that's what happens when the guy who took a huge chunk of snaps in the spring and preseason camp gets benched for good in the second game. Ash and McCoy did what they could, but the Longhorns were tangled by their offense. In losses to Missouri and Kansas State, the Longhorns scored 5 and 13 points, and were held without a touchdown against Missouri, a first since 2004. Texas was back in a bowl, but if the team is to get any further than 8-5, the offense has to be much better.
Dec. 28, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Cal take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: California overcame a horrible midseason lull and finished strong, which is why it's heading to the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl to settle on old score.
The Bears will square off with Texas, which some might recall squeezed Cal out of the Rose Bowl in 2004 after coach Mack Brown openly politicked against the Bears.
As for the present state of Cal, it's much different than it was on Oct. 29, when an embarrassing 31-14 loss to UCLA had the Bears reeling, losers of four of five. They certainly didn't look like a bowl team, and quarterback Zach Maynard didn't look like a Pac-12 quarterback.
Then Cal, leaning on its running game and stout defense, pounded Washington State and Oregon State, allowing just 13 points in the two wins. That allowed Maynard to get his confidence -- and mechanics -- back into form. Though the Bears lost at rival Stanford, 31-28, it could be said that Maynard was every bit the match -- at least statistically -- of Andrew Luck.
Cal concluded its season with a strong 47-38 win at Arizona State, which was particularly satisfying based on how poorly the Bears have played on the road the past few seasons.
A 7-5 finish has taken some of the heat off coach Jeff Tedford. Beating Texas would make the Old Blues extremely happy.
Texas take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: For the Longhorns, it's good to be back. After winning 10 games for nine consecutive seasons, the Longhorns spent the holidays at home last year after going 5-7, their fate sealed by a home loss to rival Texas A&M. Not this year. Texas' 7-5 season is still not up to Longhorns' standards. Their defense was hampered by an offense that found its rhythm in midseason but then promptly suffered debilitating injuries. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were rarely healthy over the season's home stretch, when Texas lost three of its final four games.
Linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson were the solid anchors of the defense as expected. A solid secondary that refused to give up big plays flanked the pair. It kept opposing offenses from throwing a touchdown pass of longer than 20 yards until Robert Griffin III threw two in the season finale. Nobody in college football went longer, and with the caliber of quarterbacks across the Big 12, that's an amazing feat.
Case McCoy and David Ash are still trading places at quarterback consistently, and McCoy threw the first three interceptions of his career against Baylor. Bowl practices before Texas takes the field again could be interesting, and play a big role in the future of the Longhorns.
Here's what I'm looking for in five games across the Big 12 this weekend.
1. Oklahoma State's focus. This has to be a weekly watch, does it not? OSU is a markedly better team than Iowa State. This is clear. A single-digit win would be fairly inexplicable, especially considering the Cowboys' success on the road.
2. Texas' health. The Longhorns' offense got tied up with injuries last week, playing the majority of the game without its top three running backs and top receiver Jaxon Shipley. Linebacker Keenan Robinson also injured his thumb against Mizzou. He's listed as a co-starter on this week's depth chart, but coach Mack Brown is playing it coy with injuries this week. Who's in and out for the Horns will have a lot to do with the team's success against K-State.
3. Oklahoma's new offense. We still haven't seen Oklahoma play a full game without Ryan Broyles and Dominique Whaley. They'll have to put points on the board against Baylor on Saturday. How do they compensate for the loss of Broyles?
5. Missouri's new look in the backfield. Henry Josey is done for the year, and Kendial Lawrence is back as the starter in Mizzou's backfield. Texas Tech is extremely vulnerable up front, and Lawrence will need to take advantage alongside De'Vion Moore. Can the pair, along with quarterback James Franklin, take advantage of arguably Texas Tech's biggest weakness?
6. Baylor's changing reputation. The Bears have ascended into a very good second-tier Big 12 team, but have not been able to beat the real titans of the league. Oklahoma State blew them out this year. OSU, OU and Texas A&M all did it last year. You want to prove something? Beat Oklahoma. Baylor's never done it in 20 tries.
7. Texas A&M's second half. Don't blame me. The Aggies keep doing it. We'll keep watching. Leads of 14-0 and 31-21 evaporated against Kansas State last week, and the Aggies had better take care of business or the season could find a new low: letting an improving Kansas team get its first conference win on Kyle Field. If you're 5-5 like A&M is, I don't think you can rule anything out.
8. Texas Tech's first half. In the Red Raiders' last three games, Tech's been outscored a combined 104-13 by Iowa State, Texas and Oklahoma State. Can't do that. If Tech can hang with Mizzou for the first half, it would give itself a nice chance to win the game down the stretch. The Red Raiders haven't had a chance lately, though.
9. Kansas' legitimacy. Is this resurgence for real or not? Not many people think Kansas can beat Texas A&M, but the Jayhawks have legitimately come very, very close against Iowa State and Baylor. Can they be competitive against the Aggies and give themselves a shot late?
10. Iowa State's defense. There might not be a tougher test in college football than the experienced, balanced Oklahoma State offense. To give the Cyclones a chance, the ISU defense has to play its best game of the year by far. Iowa State doesn't have enough offense to get in a shootout in the 40s. Both sides will require a lot to make the upset happen, but the Cyclones can't let OSU move the ball at will.
We've only got three weeks left in the season. Here's how the Big 12 looks as the clock ticks on the season.
1. Oklahoma State (10-0, 7-0 Big 12, last week: 1): OSU is defining the term "bowing up" on teams. Any ideas Texas Tech had of an upset were over pretty quick in a crazy 66-6 win in Lubbock. It's been awhile (read: never) since anybody's come to Lubbock and won a game like that. The 60-point loss was the worst in school history.
2. Oklahoma (8-1, 5-1, LW: 2): A heck of a weekend for the idle Sooners. Boise State and Stanford both lost and Oklahoma's got a strong case as the nation's top one-loss team. The Big Question: Will voters downgrade Oklahoma's best wins for an ugly loss against Texas Tech, or downgrade the Sooners for being without Ryan Broyles and Dominique Whaley, the team's top receiver and rusher. They'll have to beat OSU to find out. That won't be easy.
3. Kansas State (8-2, 5-2, LW: 4): Cardiac Cats is about right. Another thrilling game for K-State, and another fourth quarter comeback. This one took four overtimes, the longest game in Big 12 history. Collin Klein continues to truck defenders and burrow into the end zone, now with 24 touchdowns on the season.
4. Baylor (6-3, 3-3, LW: 6): That could have been disastrous. Baylor needed fourth-quarter heroics to rescue an awful three quarters, and turned a 24-3 fourth-quarter deficit against Kansas to a 31-30 overtime win. Big-time ballgame in the fourth quarter from Robert Griffin III, but that wasn't too pretty.
5. Texas (6-3, 3-3, LW: 3): You could switch Baylor and Texas in this ranking, but the Longhorns are reeling and banged up fron injuries. Fozzy Whittaker is done for the year, and freshmen Jaxon Shipley, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are still trying to get healthy. The result? A long day in Columbia for quarterback David Ash. Linebacker Keenan Robinson is also likely to miss time with an injured thumb.
6. Missouri (5-5, 3-4, LW: 7): The Tigers got their biggest win of the year with a dominant defensive performance against Texas, holding the Longhorns to their first game without a TD since 2004. Missouri must deal with the loss of Henry Josey, but like he did at the beginning of the season, backups Kendial Lawrence and De'Vion Moore must pick up the slack with one more win needed for bowl eligibility.
7. Texas A&M (5-5, 3-4, LW: 5): Oh, the Aggies. This team should probably be a lot closer to 9-1 than 5-5, but alas, here they sit. Texas A&M has a double-digit lead in every game this season but the loss to Oklahoma. And they're .500. ... Has anyone ever duplicated that feat? Unbelievable.
8. Iowa State (5-4, 2-4, LW: 9): Iowa State's going to need a ton of help to qualify for a bowl game. The two Oklahoma schools are up next, followed by Kansas State. For those of you keeping track, those are the Big 12's top three teams. Talk about a backloaded schedule. Yeesh.
9. Texas Tech (5-5, 2-5, LW: 5): Texas Tech's been one of the league's big disappointments this year, well behind Texas A&M, but still underwhelming. The Red Raiders are 5-5 with five losses in the last six games, but other than the win over Oklahoma, here are Texas Tech's wins: Texas State, Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas. Um ... about that ...
10. Kansas (2-8, 0-7, LW: 10): So close, Kansas. So close. The Jayhawks probably deserved this one, but the Bears offense broke through in the fourth quarter and showed why they entered the game as the nation's No. 2 offense. They're dangerous, and Kansas' defense isn't exactly loaded with talent. If Kansas couldn't get a win in this one, I'm not sure where the next one's coming. A trip to Kyle Field is up next, followed by what will be a heated, somber rivalry game against Missouri, likely the last for awhile. This is me making a sad face.
It was no "Rout 66," but it might as well have been.
UCLA needed only eight pass attempts to roll over an undefeated No. 7 Texas team, 34-12. The Longhorns would only win twice (Nebraska, Florida Atlantic) in their nine final games.
And last week's gutsy win over BYU was the beginning of, well, something. Exactly what that is might be clearer by early Saturday evening when Texas and UCLA meet in the Rose Bowl at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
"We’re a team that’s going to fight until the end. Basically, no matter what challenge is placed in front of us, we’re going to fight through it and that’s definitely what we did," Texas linebacker Keenan Robinson said.
Trite as it may sound, that didn't happen for Texas last year. It's already shown signs this year is different.
UCLA led 13-3 at halftime of last year's blowout.
"They kind of ran away with a victory," Robinson said.
Last week? BYU carried a 13-0 lead into halftime, but unlike all five times Texas faced a double-digit deficit in 2010, the Longhorns came back to win.
"We were putting seven and eight guys in the box and that put some stress on our DBs, but they were really able to make good plays, stay under control, stay calm," Robinson said.
That resulted in the 17-16 win over the Cougars, thanks to a strong second half from the defense.
But facts are facts: Texas coach Mack Brown isn't blowing smoke about what he's putting on the field this year.
"We're probably even with every team we play from here on out, or more of an underdog," Brown said.
Making that challenge more difficult is Texas' youth. Freshmen haven't had a hard time cracking the depth chart after last year's debacle, and the Longhorns have already played 25, including 18 true freshmen, more than any team in the country.
"It just makes me have to be that much better. They’re going to learn from what leaders do by example in front of them," Robinson said. "We’ve got to make sure we’re doing everything we can to calm guys down, make sure we stay calm, stay collected and not let anything get out of hand or get out of whack."
That's worked well for Texas so far. The Longhorns have let opponents in its red zone six times this season.
They've given up a touchdown just once. That percentage is good for 11th nationally.
The Longhorns are taking that youth to Pasadena, Calif., this weekend, hoping a new environment away from Austin doesn't stunt the early-season growth.
"We want to be a team that dominates no matter where we play," Robinson said.
Texas isn't there yet. It probably won't be this year. But games like this are the building blocks to eventually arriving.
So has coach Mack Brown.
Of course, when Shipley first got there, he was rolling down the hills surrounding the practice field. He later graduated to sliding down the hill on cardboard.
Give Shipley a break, though. That was back when big brother Jordan Shipley was practicing and he was "watching."
Now, it's Jaxon Shipley's turn, and he's making noise early in his career.
The result? Shipley became the first true freshman receiver to catch a touchdown pass in a season opener in Texas history. He caught a pass from John Harris on a trick play for his 36-yard touchdown and added another 18-yard catch to finish with 54 yards.
Shipley won the team's offensive MVP award for the game, and Brown had a tough time remembering the last freshman to do so in his first game.
"During 7-on-7 stuff this summer he was hopping in there with the first group very quickly and did a good job, so you know, I knew from the start he was going to be a good player," said junior quarterback Garrett Gilbert. "He really shined the other night."
Gilbert loved what he saw during the summer, but he didn't get to see much of Shipley during the spring. Despite graduating high school early, he decided to spend the spring semester working with the player that he may never stop being compared to: his brother, Jordan Shipley.
Brown called the decision "smart." Shipley's academics were in order and he didn't need to enroll at Texas early. He had a sore knee, too. Jordan Shipley was locked out by the NFL and planned to get married in the spring.
"This gave him a chance to spend more time with his brother than he’ll probably ever get again," Brown said. "He said he could spend all spring working on their route running together, so it made sense to me."
The comparisons are obvious, and far from forced.
Both can "run forever" Brown said, noting that Shipley stood out in Sunday's conditioning workout after the win over Rice. Brown credits having a father as a coach, and, of course, the work with his brother.
"The way they run looks similar and they both run very good routes," Gilbert said. "Jordan is doing it at the highest level right now ... and I’m sure he taught his little brother some of that stuff."
Jaxon Shipley hasn't encountered any of the injuries that kept Jordan on campus for six seasons, but his potential? Undeniable.
"He’s a great young cat," said linebacker Keenan Robinson. "He’s a guy that’s shown me a lot in camp. He hardly ever drops the ball in practice. He’s a guy that’s following in the right footsteps. He could be as good or better than his brother was. He’s definitely that. He definitely has a chance to put up big numbers, and I expect him to possibly be a freshman All-American this season."
That's a long way from sliding down a grass hill during Longhorns' practices.
The team in college football closest to that number? Defending national champion Auburn, with 13.
The Longhorns added efforts from seven more redshirt freshmen, but there's no question about the fresh face that drew the most attention in Week 1.
Running back Malcolm Brown didn't play in the first half, but had 16 carries for 86 yards in the second half -- both game highs -- with his longest runs drawing a rise out of the 101,624 in attendance.
It is, and Brown's debut showed promise of what may come. He came to Texas as the nation's No. 7 overall recruit and No. 2 running back.
The hope for Longhorns' fans? That Brown becomes "The Next Great Texas Running Back" along the lines of Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson or Jamaal Charles.
"Everybody has their 'Welcome to college football' moment. Nobody is exempt from that, so the thing about Malcolm, and really the whole freshman class, is they’ve done a great job of coming in, keeping their mouth shut and going to work," said senior safety Blake Gideon. "They’ve put aside whatever kind of recruiting stars they had and whatever kind of hype they had, because in the end, it’s just hype. They’ve really worked their tails off this summer and this camp, and now we’re going to see who’s producing."
Brown produced in Week 1, but for now, he's just a co-backup behind Fozzy Whittaker and sharing a spot on the depth chart with fellow true freshman Joe Bergeron, who came to Austin with a whole lot less fanfare. And for now, Brown has 86 career yards, a couple short of Williams' 6,592 in his four years at Texas.
"He’s a guy that’s learned to study his playbook really well, and he’s been coachable," Robinson said. "He’s got great examples in front of him [Whittaker and fullback Cody Johnson]. It’s great to have guys in front of you that will coach you and lead you and teach you what you need to do in practice. All through fall camp, he did really well, and now he got a chance in a game and shined."
That wasn't before his "Welcome to college football" moment, which was, admittedly, quite tame. Gideon chuckled thinking back to the first days of summer workouts with new strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie, offering only a couple scant details.
"Summer workouts in college are going to be different than summer workouts in high school," he said. "Whenever you’re running with Bennie out there in the heat, it’s definitely going to get your mind right."
Mack Brown helped Bergeron and Malcolm Brown get some time by putting them in a smaller amount packages, and Brown was even further behind after missing 10 days of fall camp with a sore hamstring.
"Probably freshman running back is one of the hardest places to play on a football team, especially when you have that many packages," Mack Brown said.
But early on, the signs are good for Malcolm Brown.
"I thought he did really well. He had good vision, he had good ball security and he ran the ball with some power," Mack Brown said.
Whatever it took, and apparently it wasn't much, Brown's mind sounds like it's right where it needs to be as he tackles his first year of college football.
Before last week's game Whittaker calmed his freshmen position mates by telling them to block out the 101,000 cheering them on and the brand-new surroundings and "just run like you did in high school."
So far, it looks like they're doing it.
"Hopefully they’ll be a big factor for us and be able to be a spark for us," Whittaker said. "Those young guys, they’re going to have a big significant role for us, and just seeing the way that they’ve played, it’s very encouraging."
We know less about Texas than any team in the Big 12.
That's by design, of course, but after the team released its Week 1 depth chart on Monday, that's still the case, with apologies to Kansas State.
Texas hasn't had a practice open to the media all offseason. Quarterbacks spoke to the media today for the first time since a Thanksgiving night loss to Texas A&M.
Players weren't made available to the media during fall camp until 11 days had passed.
So, more so than any team in the league, these Horns are an unknown commodity. Coach Mack Brown provided a peek underneath the veil on Monday, but we won't get a real sense for how good Texas can be until it opens the season Saturday against Rice. We'll learn a good deal more of what we need to know when BYU travels to Austin the following week.
For now, though, here's what we've got:
- The big news is obvious: Garrett Gilbert gets the nod at quarterback. He was the safe bet all offseason, and the guy I thought would eventually get it. I doubted originally how "open" the job actually was, but to be clear, I don't think this whole QB race was a ruse. It was open. Gilbert re-won it. As for the difference this year? There's no doubt that if Gilbert struggles like he did in 2010, backup Case McCoy will get a look much quicker. "He’s the starting quarterback. If he moves the ball and scores, he’ll keep the job," Brown told reporters on Monday.
- Hyped freshman corner Quandre Diggs wowed in the spring game, and has mesmerized his teammates all fall. He's a co-starter at one of the cornerback spots alongside Adrian Phillips.
- Jordan Hicks missed the spring with a broken foot, but he's come on strong in the fall, seizing a starting spot at strongside linebacker. The Ohio native was one of the nation's best linebackers in the 2010 class, but he'll get a chance to grow alongside Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho.
- Fozzy Whittaker is the starter at running back. His backup? A three-way tie between Joe Bergeron, Malcolm Brown and D.J. Monroe. The race at running back should be fascinating to watch.
- Good to see Blaine Irby back after his awful knee injury. He'll start at H-back.
- Look out for Shipley 2.0. Jaxon Shipley, Jordan's younger brother, is the starter at H receiver and will return punts. Every indication we've heard is he's a playmaker and will get a chance to show it early on. He graduated early, but instead of enrolling at UT and going through spring practice, he worked out with Jordan during the NFL lockout.
- Diggs and Monroe will handle kickoff return duties.
- Starting center? Redshirt freshman Dominic Espinosa. Tray Allen is back at left tackle, too, after missing all of last season because of a foot injury.
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