Say it ain’t so! Could Mack Brown really be in trouble at Texas?
Yep, could be.
Although some college football insiders suspect that Mack will be safe in Austin as long as AD DeLoss Dodds is his boss, others aren’t so sure. The Longhorns are just 13-12 over the past two seasons, and after an embarrassing 5-7 pratfall in 2010, last year’s team could only make a mild recovery, finishing a modest 7-5 in the regular season before beating a suspect Cal team, from a subpar Pac-12, in the Holiday Bowl.
Coaches have been fired for lesser transgressions in Austin, where normal rules do not apply. The likes of Fred Akers, David McWilliams and John Mackovic, Brown’s predecessors who all got the boot after brief dips in form, can attest.
Sure, Brown had plenty of capital to expend with the zealous Texas support base after the 2005 national title led by Vince Young, and subsequent successes under QB Colt McCoy, but hovering around .500 for any extended period of time is unacceptable performance for the 'Horns. Another 7-5 type season, and it could be sayonara for Brown in Austin.
Brown, however, believes this could be the season in which Texas again becomes a player on the national stage. Fifteen starters are back in the fold from a year ago when Brown began a reboot of the entire operation, importing high-profile new coordinators – Boise State’s Bryan Harsin as co-coordinator along with Major Applewhite for the offense, and Mississippi State’s Manny Diaz for the defense – to lead UT into a new period of prominence.
To get back to the promised land, however, Mack and Harsin have to stop the carousel of QBs who have given it a shot in Austin since the last days of the Colt McCoy era in 2009. The Texas QB situation has been a game of musical chairs the past two years, although the ranks have thinned somewhat now that Garrett Gilbert, who disappointed in his chance as McCoy’s replacement in 2010 and was beaten out by two frosh a year ago, decided to transfer, taking his act to SMU.
Those two frosh from a year ago, David Ash and Colt’s younger brother Case McCoy, are now sophs and hopefully beyond some of those growing pains from a year ago. Case McCoy’s late-season performance pattern was an indicator of the frustration; after beating Texas A&M in late November, McCoy had a meltdown in the regular-season finale vs. Baylor, guilty of five turnovers in a lopsided 48-24 loss.
After Case McCoy’s self-destruct act vs. the Bears, Brown named Ash to start the bowl game vs. Cal. Which the 'Horns won, and makes Ash the likely frontrunner for the starting spot heading into fall, although Mack made a point to not name a starter coming out of spring practice. Remember, Ash threw just four touchdown passes compared to eight picks last fall. The competition for the starting role remains open entering fall camp, and the possibility exists that Brown might again rotate his QBs.
If Mack can get the QB situation straightened out, then the Longhorns might get back into the BCS mix. The rest of the offense is loaded with playmakers, augmented by the arrival of true frosh RB Johnathan Gray (from Aledo, TX), rated by many as the top runner in all of the prep ranks last season. That only further deepens a crackling corps of RBs already featuring the likes of chop-busting soph Malcolm Brown, who rumbled for 742 YR last season against defenses that didn’t have to worry much about any Texas pass threat. Another soph, 230-lb. Joe Bergeron, is a punishing pile-driver who gained better than six yards per carry last fall.
Four starters also return along an offensive line that paved the way for Texas runners to gain better than 200 ypg in 2011, ranking a solid 21st nationally.
The receiving corps is also brimming with difference-makers, with all of the key targets returning from last season led by junior Mike Davis (45 catches in 2011), Jaxon Shipley (44 receptions last year) and deep threat Marquise Goodwin (33 catches LY). Another frosh, Kendall Sanders, is a speed burner who could make similar impact among the receivers as Gray might with the runners.
Now, who is going to get them the ball?
Meanwhile, Manny Diaz’ stop unit should be able to uphold its end of the bargain, with seven starters back from a platoon that ranked an impressive 11th nationally (allowing only 306 ypg) in total defense. Aside from letdowns vs. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor (by far the most-potent attacks the 'Horns faced in 2011), the Texas "D" was almost airtight a year ago.
The strength of the platoon probably lies in a fast-closing, hard-hitting secondary that returns all of its starters from a year ago. The cornerback combo of junior Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs might be the best corner-cover combo in the Big 12, if not the nation. Senior FS Kenny Vaccaro is on the radar screen of all NFL scouts. This unit helped the Longhorns to an impressive 17th ranking in third-down defense a year ago.
The platoon also ranked sixth in rush defense last season, and though two new DTs must be plugged into the starting lineup, returning DEs Jackson Jeffcoat (recovered from the torn pectoral muscle from last season) and Alex Okafor return after combining for 15 sacks a year ago.
If there are concerns within the stop unit, they’re at the LB spots, which took a couple of graduation hits. But another of Mack’s ballyhooed frosh, Dalton Sanders, could be ready to step in immediately at MLB. Junior outside backer Jordan Hicks is a steadying force who promises to assume a leadership role after making 51 tackles as a soph a year ago.
Another potential headache could be with the kicking game that was inconsistent a year ago. Brown might be counting upon a true frosh PK, Nick Jordan, to cure some of those ills this fall.
The schedule is made for a quick break, with Wyoming, Bob Davie’s rebuilding New Mexico and High Freeze’s rebuilding Ole Miss out of the blocks before things get significantly tougher in late September, beginning with a trip to Oklahoma State. Remember, it was at midseason a year ago when things began to unravel, as Texas faded after a quick 4-0 break from the gate.
Spread-wise, rest assured many Texas-exes are aware that Brown has been underachieving against the number the past few years, too. Indeed, Texas has covered only four of 13 at Austin since 2010, another number Mack is going to have to improve upon to get back into the good graces of the Longhorn support base.
Summary: Everything looks in place for a Longhorn renaissance. Well, everything except the QB position, and that’s a big one to be worried about entering the fall. Safe to say that the Texas season depends upon either David Ash or Case McCoy taking the reins at the position and delivering consistency and leadership. The supporting cast is strong enough that the 'Horns don’t need either to be Vince Young to make a serious run in the Big 12.
But if McCoy and Ash aren’t up to the task, and 2012 ends up looking a lot like 2011 (and Texas gets whipped by Oklahoma again), it could be nervous time for Mack Brown.
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