Sunday, August 26, 2012
Texas ready for return to prominence
By Carter Strickland HornsNation
AUSTIN, Texas -- Alex Okafor said it without thinking.
"Me, I have 13 games guaranteed."
Thirteen? Hang on a sec. The Longhorns were 13-12 through the past two years. They lost by an average of 24.3 points per game to the three ranked teams they played in 2011. This is the same program two years removed from not winning a home conference game in 2010, the same program that exhaled audibly after a sixth win last season.
Okafor was around for all that. Yet, without a stammer or sly smile, the senior defensive end just went ahead and let it be known that Texas' season would not end after 12 games.
Aelex Okafor, the preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year, is one of the most talented defenders in the Big 12.
So much for sweating the small stuff. That is so last year.
This year it is about a return to prominence. Bringing back the brand. Getting Texas back in the first five minutes of "College Football Live," not just seeing the Longhorns as an also-ran on the scroll.
"We used to laugh about being bowl eligible," Texas coach Mack Brown said at one of his weekly pressers a couple of years ago. "We would win six and would be thinking about winning 13."
Well, the giggles have started again. Maybe there are just a few believers in the far-flung corners of college football -- but not enough to take the Longhorns' assertion seriously just yet.
It is with giddy anticipation, however, that Texas starts 2012. While the Longhorns' enthusiasm certainly was not prompted by the preseason polls, it has certainly been buoyed by them. Texas is ranked No. 15. Three voters put them in the top 10.
There's a grocery list of reasons for the guarded optimism:
• Defense. The Longhorns, who have eight defensive linemen available to them at any time, finished 2011 with the No. 11 defense, and that defense is faster than it has been in several years.
• Players. Texas could have three first-round NFL draft picks -- Okafor, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and safety Kenny Vaccaro. That hasn't happened in Brown's 14 previous seasons. The last time Texas had two in the first and two in the second was 2007. All those players were integral parts in the 2005 BCS National Championship game.
• Coaches. This is the second year for coordinators Manny Diaz and Bryan Harsin. Both now know the league, know their personnel and, more importantly, their personnel knows the coaches, the expectations and their schemes.
• Runners. Malcolm Brown was pegged as the second-best running back coming out of high school in 2011. Johnathan Gray was the Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior in high school. Joe Bergeron averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season. The offensive line returns four starters, and the fifth is a former junior college All-American.
"We're so much further ahead of where we were last year at this point," Brown said.
Make that the last two years. And that is just on paper. When listening to players like Okafor it is empirically clear that Texas knows it is further ahead of 12 and 24 months ago. There is undeniably more conviction in the conversation.
"I've got to give everything I have every single play," Okafor said. "There are no plays that I can't."
Now it is true that every senior is apt to make such declarative statements in the preseason. But the difference here is, first, Okafor has the talent to back it up -- he was named the Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year -- and second, he has an entire team to back him up.
That much has been clear off the field as well as on it. In what could have been overlooked as an innocuous moment of preseason camp, the seniors were asked to stand and sing "The Eyes of Texas" for the team. Before they went off-key and a cappella with the university's official alma mater, one of the seniors, Luke Poehlmann, turned to the freshmen and said, "Y'all get up here. You've got to help us win."
"That wouldn't have happened two years ago," Brown said. "We kind of had a team that was split and the older ones and younger ones weren't getting along, and there was just a disconnect there somewhere. And it's back, and this team is focused.
"We've been really hard with this team, we've been really direct with this team, we've been really disciplined with this team, and we're not letting anything slip, and I like it."
What Brown has also refused to let slip is his confidence. Whether it's bravado or not, the coach who spoke in uncertainties a year ago is now more declarative. He's unafraid and unabashed in his statements that Texas is back to being a top-five team.
"I think if you didn't think that, Lord, you shouldn't be at Texas," he said.
Players read that confidence and react to it. And now, maybe more so than in several years, those players believe in it. That's why they embrace all the talk about swagger -- so much so that it was used as one of the lynchpins in the team's acronym, RISE.
"Swagger is just confidence," said Vaccaro.
It's a confidence that has not been seen or displayed around Texas in two years. A confidence that led Okafor, without hesitation, to let it be known that he has 13 games, guaranteed.