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Friday, October 7, 2011
Do adjustments mean improvements?

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

The Texas team that runs out of the tunnel and into the Cotton Bowl on Saturday morning will look familiar: big, impressive athletes in burnt orange with Mack Brown as their coach and a large herd animal as their mascot.

But those are just about the only constants for the Longhorns. Almost everything else has changed since they last played Oklahoma a year ago.

New offensive coordinator. New defensive coordinator. New recruiting coordinator. New strength and conditioning coordinator. New offensive line coach. New starting quarterback. New starting running back.

"The melding of coaches to coaches, new guys and guys who have been here, has worked," Brown said. "They're enjoying each other. There's no pointing fingers. None of the issues we allowed to happen last year are present this year. … The energy is different, with a lot of new, fun ideas."

Manny Diaz
Manny Diaz has brought a new attitude to Austin.

From toothpaste to beer, marketers will tell you the word "new" grabs the attention of consumers. But "new and improved" is better.

New Texas (4-0) is improved.

New Texas is 15th nationally in passing efficiency. Old Texas was 87th through four games last year.

New Texas is 25th nationally in rushing. Old Texas was 76th.

New Texas is 37th nationally in scoring. Old Texas was 68th.

New Texas is tied for seventh nationally in turnover margin. Old Texas was 92nd.

New Texas -- with the off-the-wall schemes and confidence of young coordinators Bryan Harsin and Manny Diaz, the weight-room energy of Bennie Wylie, the toughened offensive-line coaching of Stacy Searels and the injection of youthful talent in the backfield -- has gone back to the future. It has a chance to make the 5-7 fiasco of 2010 little more than a one-year anomaly in a 21st century of rampant success.

"There's a lot of new, but at the same time down the hall is one of the winningest coaches of the last 20 years," defensive coordinator Diaz said. "We didn't need to throw everything out. We needed to form a mixture of what's worked for a long time with a little bit of the new."

So far, so sood. But the goal at a program like Texas' is not to go from the 5-7 to 7-5. The goal is to return to the 10-victory standard the school enjoyed every year from 2001-09.

Saturday against No. 3 Oklahoma and next week against No. 6 Oklahoma State, we'll gauge how significant the improvement is. We'll get a better idea whether the old lofty standard is readily attainable.

"The competition gets tougher," Brown said.

To Brown's immense pleasure, he has a tougher team to face that competition. In the final year with longtime offensive coordinator Greg Davis, Texas declared a return to the power running game and then completely failed to deliver. That put too great a burden on first-year starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who collapsed under the weight of it and turned the ball over regularly.

New Texas is pounding the rock pretty effectively with true freshman Malcolm Brown and several others. Harsin is making sure of it.

As a baby-faced coordinator at Boise State, Harsin earned a rep as a sandlot savant in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl -- against none other than Oklahoma. Harsin and head coach Chris Petersen dialed up what is the Holy Trinity of Trickeration to end that game -- a hook-and-lateral pass for a 50-yard touchdown to send the game into overtime, then a halfback pass for an overtime touchdown, then the famed Statue of Liberty handoff for the winning two-point conversion.

Don't think Bob Stoops has forgotten. But viewing Harsin as Inspector Gadget Play would be inaccurate. Boise ran the ball with great effectiveness, finishing 26th nationally in rushing in 2009 and 21st last season.

"We're lining up with two backs in the backfield and running downhill," Mack Brown said. "We're using a lot of wing-T and single-wing components. There are 85-year-olds watching us and saying, 'I remember that.' "

Those old-school components are disguised in a dizzying array of formations, personnel groups and shifts that confuse defenses. That was the Boise way, and now it's the Texas way as well.

Mack Brown
Mack Brown attributes the offseason changes to this year's success.

It's also allowed quarterbacks Case McCoy and David Ash to grow on the job. Gilbert was benched in the second game of the year, had season-ending shoulder surgery and subsequently is transferring, which left the job to a couple of raw youngsters. That's why the Longhorns have thrown only 91 passes this season, compared to the 168 the Sooners have slung around the yard.

"We're mixing and matching," Harsin said. "The BYU game [a 17-16 comeback grinder] was a great sign to me of their competitiveness and toughness. That game didn't go as planned, but they didn't flinch.

"We haven't turned the ball over the last two games, and that's been our deal at quarterback. Don't beat ourselves."

Texas' defensive deal Saturday will be to not let Oklahoma's Landry Jones kill it through the air. Jones is fourth nationally in total offense, with an array of weapons to throw to.

"It's crazy how effortlessly he throws the football," Diaz said. "And he's got wideouts who can go make plays. We've defended the big play well so far, but you can play good on 97 percent of the snaps and lose the game on the other 3 percent.

"We have covered well early on. We've tackled really well. That's helped 5-yard passes stay 5-yard passes and 15-yard passes stay 15-yard passes. That's important, because Landry Jones is going to complete passes. We have to limit the damage."

To date, New Texas has limited the damage that Old Texas did to the program's trajectory. Last year was a very bad year by Longhorns standards. But the lessons learned from it and changes made because of it seem to have the program fast-tracked back to prominence.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.