Texas loaded with talent, seeks 2006 repeat

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Texas athletes like to say they've always got a target on them, with that X in the school's name printed right in the middle of their chests. Texas fans have been known to want to take aim at that target when their team falls short of winning the national championship.

Just ask football coach Mack Brown, whose firing was called for repeatedly on message boards during his first seven years with the Longhorns. Or ask Augie Garrido what his reception was like after his second season as Texas' baseball coach ended 23-32-1 in 1998. Things changed when he won the College World Series in 2002, but then the fans had to wait three more seasons until Garrido could bring them another title in 2005.

Brown's team won the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4, and he has probably already experienced a situation similar to one Garrido faces nearly every time he goes out to eat in Austin.
"They don't say congratulations," Garrido said. "They say, 'How's the team going to be?'"

Garrido, who is quick to acknowledge how much he appreciates the fans' support and passion, has leaned on a fairly basic answer this offseason: "We're going to be pretty darned good."

So it goes for the old Longhorns, who begin the season ranked No. 1 for the fifth time since 1983. Texas lost an All-America closer, all-conference catcher and three senior starting infielders, but still returns more talent than any other team in the country.

It's impossible to play Garrido's pitching-and-defense style without great pitching, so returning the top four starters from a 2005 team that ranked fourth nationally with a 2.80 ERA makes for a solid foundation.

Add to that a likely first-round pick patrolling center field and one of the nation's best recruiting classes, and the Longhorns stand a great chance to become the first team to repeat as national champions since Louisiana State did so in 1996-'97. Texas also could become the fifth team since 1981 to open the year ranked No. 1 and finish it there.

"We don't have any expectations," Garrido said. "Other people see us as No. 1 or whatever, and that's their opinion. The question is: Will the players fall victim to trying to live up to it? We have the same right to fail as any other team, regardless of the past. We're going to play to have fun and play with energy. The fun comes out when you develop expectations."

Fall practice at Texas comes without any pretense. Players don't battle for positions; the coaching staff is more concerned with discovering each player's abilities and letting those players become comfortable with their teammates, coaches and surroundings.

So even though Texas' Opening Day lineup likely will include just three or four players who started in last year's College World Series, there's not a lot of concern. There are a lot of options, as Garrido fields his deepest team in his Longhorns tenure.

Junior center fielder Drew Stubbs, a 6-foot-4 two-time first-team All-American, returns as the only given after leading the conference in steals and the team in home runs. A pair of 6-5 freshmen sluggers could end up flanking him out there: Jordan Danks, a potential first-rounder who opted for college and became the ninth freshman preseason All-American since 1983; and Kyle Russell, whose Texas commitment pushed him beyond the first three rounds. Juniors Carson Kainer and Nick Peoples are also in that mix, with Peoples, a high school infielder, also working out at second base during the fall, in hopes that with him there and the designated hitter spot available, all four of these hitters could find regular duty.

The infield offers similar flexibility, talent and youth. Chance Wheeless returns to first base and could see Peoples beside him, junior college transfer Chais Fuller at shortstop and freshman Brad Suttle at third. Suttle could slide over to short, his high school position, with redshirt freshman Preston Clark playing third. However, Clark is the favorite to start at catcher, with Texas-Arlington transfer Brett Lewis backing him up. Lewis can also play first, to spell Wheeless. Jacksonville transfer Preston Pehrson can also catch.

Junior Clay Van Hook is the fourth resort behind the plate after serving as last year's backup, but he might also earn the job at second base, and his skills at third make him a valuable utility man. Garrido is likely to employ each of these players at all of those positions early on to get a feel for who best fits which roles.

The starting pitching offers more certainty, and Randy Boone moves from that role to closer because of his resiliency and experience. After Texas' top four arms, which went 35-11, 2.86 in 429 innings last year, pitching coach Tom Holliday hesitates a bit when he talks about his group's lack of experience.

What they lack in seasoning, they make up for with power arms and depth, particularly in left handers, a commodity Holliday and Garrido both wished they had more of a year ago. Freshmen lefties Riley Boening, Joey Parigi and Keith Shinaberry each should find important roles, as should the Street twins. Jordon, a left hander, went 0-1, 2.87 last year as a freshman while twin brother Juston redshirted. A sidearming right hander, Juston reminded observers of his older brother Huston, with his delivery and the late movement on his pitches during a healthy fall.

This young cast of short relievers and the new faces in the middle infield stand as Garrido's top concerns heading into the season. But he's not overly worried.

"When you win a national championship, if you don't have a high turnover, too many guys are going to be worried about the draft and other things and you're not going to have that energy of youth on your club," he said.

More than that, Garrido doesn't worry because of his team's depth, talent and depth of talent. The roster is so packed there are even two players named Hunter Harris, a senior outfielder and a freshman right hander. That same depth, however, means neither Harris might see much playing time.

Given those conditions, Garrido's most difficult challenge this season might coming in deciding how to fill out his lineup card. He laughs at that suggestion, saying, "You can't really be too good."

He should know. He's the one who, after becoming just the third coach to win five Division I national championships (joining the late Rod Dedeaux and Skip Bertman), was already thinking about his sixth. Garrido mentioned he was looking for a new shortstop during his on-field speech after winning last year's College World Series.

Seems like he's becoming a lot like those native Texans after nine years in Austin, already looking ahead to next year.