Even though the 2012 Texas football season won't kick off for about nine months (237 days, to be exact) and spring football won't start for another month and a half, it's never too early to start talking about next season, no matter how far away it is.
If the narrative in 2011 focused on the process at the expense of setting aside concerns about the number of games in the win column at the end of the year, the 2012 narrative will throw away that emphasis on the process and return to to the typical Texas standard of a 10-win season, conference championship, and BCS bowl game.
However, besides a little luck, to make that leap the Longhorns will have to find some answers for several offseason storylines.
Can David Ash develop into a competent BCS-level starter?
There's no question that evaluating the body of work from Ash this season only using statistics -- particularly his touchdown-to-interception ratio -- leaves a great deal to be desired, caveats about his status as a true freshman and the lack of repetitions throughout the spring and summer aside.
For the Longhorns to make the jump to what appears to be a SEC-type of attack featuring a strong running game and elite defense will necessarily require Ash to avoid turnovers. Reserve the right to punt, as Bryan Harsin likes to say.
The Holiday Bowl certainly represented a major step forward for Ash in that regard, as he did not throw any passes that were even close to becoming interceptions and generally showed a better awareness for when to take calculated risks and when to simply admit defeat and live for another down by throwing the football away.
While there remain very real and pressing questions about whether Ash can be the quarterback to lead Texas to a shot at competing for a national championship, it's clear that the other pieces are starting to fall into place and that there were some flashes of the talent that could allow Ash to be that guy. There were also some flashes that indicated that he may not be able to make the leap, now or ever.
Still, it's reasonable to predict some growth over the spring and the increase in repetitions for him during that time should pay dividends. At the very least, the spring game should provide a snapshot that adds to the data points generated by the 2011 season to provide some more perspective about the quarterback that Ash can or cannot become.
Who will replace Justin Tucker?
Though he probably does not deserve the same level of consideration for offensive MVP in 2011 as he did in 2010, departing kicker Justin Tucker was unquestionably a major part of the Texas team both seasons, working as the kick-off specialist, place-kicker, and punter.
Given that the coaches would have liked to decrease the pressure on Tucker and the wear on his leg by using another player for at least one of those jobs, it's clear that the players who will be asked to contribute there in 2012 either weren't on campus or simply weren't ready in 2011.
In order of importance, the place-kicking duties could come down to a competition between preferred walk-on Ben Pruitt, an Army All-American last season, and Will Russ, the scholarship from the 2010 class who has yet to make his mark on the 40 Acres. It appears that Pruitt is the odds-on favorite, with incoming scholarship kicker Nick Jordan, an Army All-American this season, more of a longshot. Mack Brown did appear to leave the door open for Jordan to at least have a chance to win the competition, however.
In terms of kickoff duties, Russ has been working there in competition with Pruitt. If there's an area where Jordan could make an immediate impact, it is likely as the kickoff specialist, though at the Army game he was inconsistent, sometimes driving the ball deep into the endzone and with good height, at other times failing to achieve both height and distance.
At punter, Russ will be working to improve his consistency there in an attempt to win the job, with Brown also indicating that David Ash will get a look there, although that would hopefully only be for emergency purposes and to use strategically as a pooch punter on the opponent's side of the field. Recruitocosm also broke the news the other day that Highland Park punter Nick Rose will be a preferred walk-on next season, though he will be enrolling in the fall and therefore have a limited opportunity to take control of the position.
There's more uncertainty in the kicking game going into 2012 then there has been in years and though the talent on campus in the fall will be pretty well regarded as far as evaluating kickers is concerned, all are still completely unproven.
Who will replace Cody Johnson?
One of the underrated storylines of the 2011 season was Cody Johnson's ability to make the transition from short-yardage tailback to fullback, a perhaps overdue move that nonetheless carried with it no assurances that the senior back would show either an aptitude or willingness to play the position.
Fortunately for Texas, Johnson stepped into a leadership role and selflessly showed both an aptitude and a willingness to do the dirty work as a lead blocker. And while he struggled some during the early part of the season, Johnson developed enough throughout the year that he became a major asset and put enough on film to pique the interest of NFL scouts and give himself a strong chance to play at the next level.
If there's a negative, it's that Johnson emerged to the extent that he won't be easy to replace next season. With Jamison Berryhill foregoing his senior season as a result of health concerns, Texas is left with a gaping void at the fullback position that doesn't have a proven answer.
Ryan Roberson is the top candidate to step into the position, but he was inconsistent in limited looks and will need to make serious improvement to provide similar production to Johnson. For what it's worth -- likely little -- Mack Brown did say that Roberson practiced well in preparation for the Holiday Bowl. The only other serious option at this point seems to be Chet Moss, who spent some time at fullback last fall, but was not with the team in San Diego for undisclosed personal reasons.
Before that trip, Harsin indicated that he may use Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown as blockers at times, likely on sweeps out of pro set or Diamond formation looks, but he did shoot down the idea that Bergeron would make a full-time transition to the position, as he has become too valuable now at running back.
The other potential option is to use an H-back as a lead blocker, a tactic that Stanford employed successfully last season. Of those players, it appears that Barrett Matthews would be the best fit -- it's a position he worked at some in preparation for the 2010 season and his lack of size as an in-line blocker has always been a major hindrance, but he is the perfect size for a fullback and has always been known as a willing and able blocker.
Will there be a significant drop-off at linebacker?
Throughout the recent history of Texas football, losing multi-year starters and future NFL players like Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho would be nearly catastrophic. After all, they were the top two tacklers on the team by a significant margin, as well as both ranking in the top four on the team in tackles for loss. More than that, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz trusted them to change plays at the line of scrimmage at the last second, a major boon for a coordinator who always likes to have the last say in the pre-snap chess match.
The good news is that depth at the linebacker position has never been better during the Mack Brown era. So while there is a certain amount of projection that goes into the assessment of the unit in 2012, the outlook is overwhelmingly positive. In fact, as much as Keenan Robinson improved in the middle late in the season taking on blockers, Steve Edmond should be an immediate improvement there after flashing in limited snaps as a freshman. The key with Edmond, as always, will be to keep his weight in the current 260-pound range. Expect Bennie Wylie to make him his personal project.
On the outside, Jordan Hicks showed tremendous improvement in the Holiday Bowl after a mediocre season hampered by a hamstring injury and appears ready to fulfill his five-star potential, while Demarco Cobbs showed off his acceleration chasing down Zach Maynard and will provide Manny Diaz the versatility to stick with a 4-3 front against spread offenses.
By the end of the season, it still seems like a stretch to say this group will be better than the 2011 unit, but it's not out of the question to achieve similar production, albeit in a slightly different manner. The key could be whether Edmond or Hicks can step up to the extent that Diaz will trust them to make last-second changes to the defense to consistently keep the Longhorn defense one step ahead of opposing offenses.
Can the offensive line make another leap?
The 800 yards gained over two weeks against Kansas and Texas Tech represented substantive improvements over what the 2010 offense could have achieved against similar competition, but the results were much more varied against competition that didn't rank among the worst in the country.
Texas will have to replace only one starter along a line that featured a true freshman, redshirt sophomore, redshirt freshman, and sophomore at the other four line positions. Simply the increase in experience and another offseason to work with Bennie Wylie and offensive line coach Stacy Searels should provide improvements, especially when considering that offensive success and the number of starts along the line have a high correlation.
After missing the 2011 offseason following shoulder surgery, Dom Espinosa stands to benefit as much as any lineman from a full offseason, as well as Mason Walters, who was limited by a stress fracture in his foot throughout his early tenure at Texas. Add in Josh Cochran, who essentially walked onto campus and earned a starting job within weeks, and it's easy to project significant gains in overall play based simply on gains in strength.
The two most pressing needs are to find a right tackle to allow Trey Hopkins to move back inside -- which should be filled by incoming JUCO tackle Donald Hawkins -- and to establish greater depth along the rest of the line, which could allow for the starting unit to more consistently perform at a higher level. A healthy Sedrick Flowers should help in that regard, as would development from Paden Kelly or another young player like Garrett Greenlea.
If there's one player who is representative of the collective leap the offensive line needs to make, it's Mason Walters. In the fall, he'll be entering his fourth year in the program after losing much of the first year and a half or so to that stress fracture and although Mack Brown has compared him to Kasey Studdard, right now the parallels rest mostly in attitude rather than on-field success.
A willing and emerging leader, like the rest of the line, Walters desperately needs to improve his consistency to avoid the type of catastrophic negative-yardage plays that often killed drives in 2011.
Where is the tight end prototype that the Harsin offense demands?
To take the next step in the running game, the Longhorns need better blocking from the tight ends at the point of attack, a major struggle last season. Brown acknowledged late in the year that Texas is still looking for that 6-5, 250-pounder who can both run and block, but it's not clear that such a tight end currently exists on the roster.
DJ Grant was slowed late by the knee injury he suffered against Missouri and at his best doesn't have the size or strength to consistently win battles against defensive ends -- that will probably continue to be the case into 2012, although some improvement is certainly possible, if not probable.
With Blaine Irby choosing not to apply for another year of eligibility and Dom Jones unlikely to return to the program after missing the Holiday Bowl due to grade issues, redshirting freshman MJ McFarland looks like the one and only hope for immediate and substantive improvement. But even though he has the ideal size at 6-5 and should be able to stretch the seam and use his ball skills to help out his quarterback, the major question mark for the former high school wide receiver revolves around what he can provide in the blocking game.
As with most of the other issues listed here, practice should provide some insight into what McFarland can do and the spring game will provide the first real viewing of his talents, but the unfortunate reality is that the solution for the tight end position problems may not currently be on campus. With no tight end currently committed in 2012 and the only player on the radar -- Mesquite Horn's Vincent Hobbs -- more of a regional recruit, if there's help coming, it probably won't be until 2013 at the earliest.
Whither the Wildcat?
The injury to Fozzy Whittaker forced Texas to mostly abandon the Wildcat formation throughout the last part of the season and though it seems clear that mega recruit Johnathan Gray will step easily into that role in the fall when he begins practice with the team, his absence in the spring means that to rep the formation, Harsin will have to find another triggerman, at least temporarily.
There don't seem to be any strong indications that Miles Onyegbule or Mykkele Thompson will take time from working at other positions to play in the Wildcat, so that leaves only the incumbent running backs -- Bergeron, Brown, and Jeremy Hills. None are ideal for the formation, but if one of those three can at least emerge as a capable option there, it would both help execution and provide some insurance in case Gray suffers an injury in the fall.