Season Preview: Quarterbacks

2010 in Review: Like pretty much every position on the offense, the quarterbacks had an awful 2010. I shouldn’t really make that plural because only three passes thrown last year did not come from Garrett Gilbert (and two of those were from a running back!). After being unfairly thrown to the wolves in the National Championship game against Alabama, Everyone thought Gilbert actually performed well for someone thrust into that position and were looking forward to 2010 with a whole year of practice as the No. 1 QB under his belt. One 5-7 season later (and don’t forget those 17 interceptions) and people couldn’t get off the Gilbert band wagon fast enough. With longtime Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis resigned fired, Gilbert remains as the lone whipping boy if the Texas offense sputters again this season. That’s a log of pressure, but hey, this is Texas football. You don’t come here to play QB unless you want the brightest lights shining on you.

Key Returner: Even after all the struggles last season, a supposed “open” quarterback battle and months of practice the depth chart for Rice still reads the same. Gilbert 1, Case McCoy 2. Gilbert has the experience, and that seems to be the biggest reason for Mack’s decision to start him. Doesn’t really instill a whole lot of confidence in me. I probably would have rather heard ‘Gilbert really stepped up as the unquestioned leader of this team’ ‘his passes are on target  and he’s showing a lot of confidence in the pocket’ or ‘he’s limiting his mistakes and his decision-making has vastly improved.’ Nope, he’s getting the nod because he’s done this whole college quarterbacking thing before and the other guys haven’t. Something tells me though that the leash will be short and Mack won’t hesitate to get someone else a little experience.

Player to Watch: This wouldn’t be a true quarterback battle unless we were fawning over the latest recruit that hasn’t sniffed a college field yet. That player this year is David Ash. According to reports from camp, Ash has shown a lot of confidence and leadership as a true freshman. Early reports even had Ash pulling ahead in the four-man race for starting QB, and at the very least it is thought that a special package of plays has been put together featuring the Belton product. One sign of good things for Ash is that Connor Wood has decided to transfer, following in the footsteps of guys like Jevan Snead and G.J. Kinne. If Ash does not see the field as a QB this year, there is still the possibility he may fill in as punter (he’s currently tied on the depth chart for second-string duties). Fake punt anyone?

For the Quarterbacks to be successful, the need to … limit turnovers. I don’t really care who is under center this year. As long as they can stay upright and not throw interceptions, they are alright with me. Not to say that all Texas needs to be successful this year is to have a game manager at QB (a la Trent Dilfer with the Baltimore Ravens), but whoever starts at the very least needs to be able to do that. Expect to see a lot of running plays in the first few games until the quarterback(s) get more comfortable in this new Harsin/Applewhite offense. Like anything else, it’ll take time. Unfortunately for the QB, patience is not a virtue when it comes to Texas football fans.

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Season Preview: Running Backs

2010 in Review: For the third straight year a Texas running back has failed to eclipse 600 yards rushing for the season. Blame it on injuries Blame it on the linemen not opening up holes to run through. Blame it on players not stepping up to become a featured back. Blame it on Mack Brown not being able to recruit a big-time back. Blame it on the coaching in general! Blame it on whatever you want, the fact is the Texas running game hasn’t been good since Jamaal Charles left after his 1,600-yard breakout year in 2007. Each running back had a shot at being a feature back last season including Cody Johnson, Fozzy Whittaker, Tre Newton and D.J. Monroe (all of which are back in 2011 except for Newton who was forced to quit football due to too many concussions).

Key Returner: According to the first depth chart released this week, Johnson will move to fullback while Whittaker gets the first shot at being the featured tailback. If Whittaker can stay healthy, he will play a major role in the Horns bouncing back from last year’s disappointing season. New strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie and Jeff Madden have helped Fozzy put on more weight and muscle to prevent future injury.

[Coach Wylie and Coach Madden] are guys that have been instrumental in helping me maintain my weight, put on more weight initially and then being able to maintain that through fall camp. It’s probably the strongest that I’ve ever been. I also weigh the most that I ever have, and being able to maintain that is helping me be very efficient and [helped] not getting injured.I feel like I give that all to Coach Wylie and Coach Madden.” – Fozzy Whittaker, Texas Running Back

Player to Watch: The obvious choice is true freshman Malcolm Brown, who is currently listed as and either/or backup to Whittaker at tailback. He led Cibolo Steele High School to the 5A-DII football state championship last year, and  is easily the biggest running back recruit to come to the 40 Acres since Cedric Benson. Fans are clamoring for Brown to see the field early, like Benson, and rightfully so after seeing what he did in high school (6,663 rushing yards, 86 rushing TDs and 9.8 yards per carry). If he just rushed for half the yardage that he did in high school, he would rank in the top 4 running backs all-time at Texas (behind Ricky Williams, Benson and Earl Campbell). Just in case anyone wanted to know, the freshman rushing record for yards in a season is 1,053 (set by Benson in 2001).

For the Running Backs to be successful, they need to … find a feature back and stop the streak of dwindling rushing numbers. Since the 2007 season, the team rushing yards and touchdowns have decreased every year (from 2,698 yards and 35 TDs in ’07 to 1,806 yards and 19 TDs last season). If Texas is going to bring back the tradition of producing big-time running backs, they’ve got a promising prospect in Brown and 2012 commit Johnathan Gray who will provide a future 1-2 punch. But the question is 2011, and it remains to be seen if what kind of production Texas will get out of its running backs.

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Season Preview: Offensive Line

2010 in Review: If you really want to get to the root of all the offense’s problems last season, look no further than the offensive line. In 2010, Mack Brown decided that he wanted to become a North-South, downhill, I-formation running team, like he used to have when Major Applewhite and Chris Simms were under center. But it seems you actually can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Texas’ offensive line was senior laden with guys like Kyle Hix, Michael Huey and Britt Mitchell who had spent their previous years at Texas on their heels in pass protection. Pushing forward to gain a few yards on the ground was just not their forte. For an offensive line that had so many struggles last season, it’s surprising to note that they only allowed 18 sacks last season. A decent number considering the Horns defense had 31 sacks in 2010.

Key Returner: There will be a lot of new faces on the offensive line which is why the key returner has to be one of the two guys that are back. Mason Walters started all 12 games at right guard last year, but by all media accounts will probably be moved out to tackle in 2011. There is a lot more responsibility on the end of the line, so Walters will have to step up big time if the Longhorns are to have any sort of success this year. Senior David Snow will likely move out to guard to take Walters’ spot after playing all last season at center.

Player to Watch: This could easily go to newcomers Trey Hopkins or Dominic Espinosa, which by early accounts will be starters on the line, but a key player to watch this season will be tackle Tray Allen. Allen was one of two 5-star recruits in the 2007 freshman class, however he has only played sparingly in his first four years on campus. He sat out all of 2010 with a foot injury and after years of waiting, finally seems to be getting his shot at a starting gig. Coming out of high school Allen was a consensus prep first team All-America selection, he was tabbed as the top lineman on the Parade All-America team, and earned first-team All-America honors from USA Today. So the talent is there, but can he finally put it together as a collegiate player. (If you have never seen or heard from Allen like me, watch the video below. He pops up at about 3 minutes in)

For the Offensive Line to be successful, they need to … open up holes for Longhorn running backs. The Texas running game struggled mightily last season in the new offense. Well, now they have a new, new offense with incoming Co-O Coordinator Bryan Harsin, which emphasizes the same downhill running game. Harsin’s passing offense needs a good rushing attack if it is to be successful because he likes the play-action pass. To the naked eye Harsin’s offense at Boise State may seem like it was a predominantly passing attack with the success of QB Kellen Moore, but over the past two seasons the Broncos have had more than 30 rushing touchdowns per season, a 5-yard per rush average and an 1,100-yard rusher.

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Season Preview: Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

2010 in Review: In 2010, the biggest problem with the wide receiving corps was that not one receiver could be relied upon to step up week in and week out. The good news was that Texas had enough talent at receiver that a different player could step up each week, but every successful QB at Texas in the past 10 years has had a go-to target. Chris Simms had Roy Williams. Vince Young had Limas Sweed. Colt McCoy had Jordan Shipley. Garrett Gilbert has ??? That’s the question. When VY was first getting his feet wet as a starter for the Horns, he relied heavily on the safety net of his tight ends. Gilbert hasn’t had that luxury in his short career because the best tight ends can’t stay healthy. The quartet that made it on the field last year (Greg Smith, Barrett Matthews, Ahmard Howard and Dominique Jones) didn’t have nearly as many playmakers as those that didn’t (Blaine Irby, D.J. Grant, Ian Harris and Trey Graham) although Matthews does have good upside.

Key Returner: Irby is by far the most important returning player for the Horns. You may not remember him seeing as how he hasn’t played since severely injuring his knee against Rice two years ago (Watch the video at your own risk). That year he was poised to become the next big thing at tight end following in the footsteps of guys like Bo Scaife, David Thomas and Jermichael Finley. In new Co-Offensive Coordinator Bryan Harsin’s offense, the tight ends will play a major role. As long as he and fellow playmaker Grant, a converted high school wide receiver, stay healthy Gilbert should feel more comfortable dinking and dunking to his tight ends.

Player to Watch: Receiver Mike Davis is the only returning wideout that had more than 20 catches last season. Since June, four receivers have left the program including two guys who combined for 55 catches, 658 yards and three of the 10 receiving touchdowns made last year. Malcolm Williams left the team for personal reasons and Marquise Goodwin will redshirt this year while he focuses on long jump after winning the national title. It’s not like Davis is the player to watch by default though. He had five starts and two 100-yard games last year and showed flashes of greatness. There have been rumblings that Davis has been benched in practice, but he is still the most experienced playmaker at the wideout position for Texas … and he’s only a sophomore. Davis was also named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list for 2011. Keep an eye on true freshmen Jaxon Shipley and Miles Onyegbule as well. They have been getting rave reviews in camp.

For the Wide Receivers and Tight Ends to be successful, they need to … step up to the big leagues. It’s time for someone in this group to become a star and be a go-to playmaker for whoever starts at quarterback. There is no shortage of talent, but if Texas really wants to rebound from last season they need that talent to manifest into something greater. There will be a lot of guys seeing the field for the first time with so many players either coming back from injury or replacing departing starters. Mack Brown says it’s an open competition. We’ll see who steps up.

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