Over a few beers at Posse East the other day, my friend Katie and I stumbled onto an interesting question. If you had to pick from the Longhorns that you had seen play football live -- in person -- what would be the best team you could assemble? Now, to date me a bit, I was a UT student from 2004-2011 (the Van Wilder approach; I don't recommend it), so I saw both national championship runs, most of our BCS appearances, and an ill-fated year or two of Garrett Gilbert. There is a mixed bag there, but mostly an unprecedented few years of success that I would put up against any 7 years at the University.
Below is my ballot for the best Longhorn football team based on players I have seen play live. It is a list devoid of some Longhorn greats (Nobis, Williams, Campbell), but I think is one that speaks to the success of the Longhorns over the last ten years. In coming up with this list, I placed some emphasis on how players would fit together, but largely this is a hypothetical construction of players based on absolute talent. Now the rules.
1. You put together an offense, defense, and special teams full of Longhorns that you have seen play in person.
2. I went with a 4-3 defense and pro style 2 WR/HB/FB/TE offense, but you can run anything you want.
3. You may assume that you're getting these guys at their collegiate peak, not their current state (like, you get the 2005 Vince and not the 2013 Vince).
Let's see how you do.
Defense Ends: Brian Orakpo, Alex Okafor
Whenever Orakpo was on the field, I ignored everything else going on defense just to watch him either bull rush his assigned blocker, or feint a bull rush and leave the opposing tackle swatting at the space Brian Orakpo occupied a moment before. He came into UT as a 6'4" freshman weighing under 200 pounds, and left at 260 lb, having put on basically 50 lbs of muscle. Watching him destroy offensive lines was an exquisite pleasure of mine, and he makes my list.
Alex Okafor is the only current member of the Longhorns to make my list on offense or defense. I'm picking him largely from what I saw of his 6 TFL 4.5 sack performance against Oregon State last year, but his 6'4" 260 pound measurements certainly help. At least they remind me of my other starting DE's frame.
Defensive Tackles: Roy Miller, Lamarr Houston
Peter Bean has called both Miller and Houston the platonic ideal for the position of defensive tackle, and I would not disagree. At 6'2" 300lbs each, the two of them looming over a center and tackle would pose a fearsome front that would be a nightmare to any offensive line. Although they did play together in 2008, Houston really came into his own as a dominant DT in 2009, replacing Roy Miller as the defensive lineman that commanded two blockers. With 2009 Lamar Houston as a senior playing side-by-side with 2008 Roy Miller, an offensive line would have to essentially ignore the DEs to adequately block the Texas tackles. As disruptive a duo as they would annihilate any game plan the opposing OC thought he was going to employ, and they make my starting 11 over other worthy picks like Frank Okam and Rodrique Wright.
Linebackers: Sergio Kindle, Roddrick Muckleroy, Derrick Johnson
Along with Orakpo, Kindle was a player that held my attention whenever he was on the field. I loved him at DE, but start him at linebacker to make room for the talented Texas defensive ends I've seen play. Kindle inspired my username "pleaseplaykindle" -- a plea to anyone that would listen to play the talented Kindle over any of the starting LB trio of Scott Derry, Rashad Bobino, or Robert Killebrew. He makes my list for that alone.
Texas has not had a particularly strong class of linebackers in my tenure at UT, and so Derrick Johnson and Roddrick Muckleroy are no-brainers. Johnson because he picked pockets like Avery Bradley, and Muckleroy because he tackled everyone. With this linebacking trio, I'd send Kindle on a blitz 80% of the time, leave Muckleroy to play cleanup, and Johnson to attack the running back. It would be a thing of beauty. Scott Derry would be stored safely in an upright and locked position.
Cornerback: Michael Huff, Aaron Ross
Defensive back is an embarrassment of riches for Texas over the last decade, with names like Griffin, Ross, Huff, Thomas, Brown, Williams, Vaccaro, and Diggs (and this leaves out guys I just missed seeing like Vasher and Jammer). Choosing four of these seven is not an easy task, but I feel confident in these two cornerbacks. Aaron Ross' entire highlight reel is impressive, but this play from the 2007 Oklahoma game sticks out in my memory. The way he elevates, intercepts the trajectory of the ball, and swats it without ever laying a hand on his coverage assignment is just beautiful. Can't teach it any better. And Michael Huff's involvement in stopping Lendale White from converting that crucial 4th and 2 seals it for me. And oh yeah, these two are back-to-back Thorpe award winners.
Safeties: Earl Thomas, Michael Griffin
Earl Thomas' three career interceptions against Oklahoma bump him onto this list over other Texas safeties. At just 5'10", he isn't particularly physically imposing but he always seemed to be in the right place to make a play at Texas. Paired alongside 6' 200 pound run-stopper Michael Griffin, Thomas would be free to patrol the air and would thrive. And for his part, Michael Griffin can play the ball as well, having made possibly the most beautiful interception I've ever seen against Southern California one day in January.
Quarterback: Vince Young
The only real competition to Vince Young in all of Longhorn history wears the number 12, and even the most diehard Colt McCoy supporters would be hard pressed to choose him over Young. Young is a player who surpasses the need to be described by numbers in the aggregate, and is better understood by the singularly memorable plays of his. The pump fake. "Touchdown Texas!" against tOSU. Fourth and five. From his college debut it was clear Texas had someone special on their hands, and the coaches built a flawless offense around him... eventually. There is a right answer to the QB position at Texas, and he wears the number ten.
Tailback: Cedric Benson
It's almost a toss-up between Benson and Jamaal Charles for me. I saw Charles play spectacularly on occasion (200 yards against Nebraska in the 4th quarter, for example), but also horrendously on occasion (he had a penchant for fumbling at very inopportune times). Although Charles has had the better NFL career, I choose Benson for my all-time team because of the way I watched him run over people my freshman year at UT. Even sitting in the upper deck in 2004, I could tell that the physically imposing Benson was going to obliterate any defender unfortunate enough to have encountered him in the open field. A zone-read offense with Benson and Young was, and would be, near unstoppable, and for all of Charles' talents, I would rather see Benson lined up in the backfield. Of course, I'm leaving the biggest names at running back off my list, having never seen Campbell and Williams play, but so it goes.
Fullback: Chris Ogbonnaya
At only a shade over 200 pounds, Ogbonnaya is not a fullback in the classic sense, but fits what this roster would be geared to do. He proved himself adequate in pass-blocking and receiving out of the backfield, two things required of any fullback, and was also adept at rushing when called upon. Cody Johnson and Henry Melton, while both capable blockers and short-yardage rushers, never showed the ability to receive nor run in space, which Ogbonnaya did well. If asked this question again next year, I might be penciling in Joe Bergeron into this slot, but for now, Chris Ogbonnaya takes it.
Offensive Line: Johnathon Scott, Justin Blalock, Kasey Studdard, Will Allen, Lyle Sendlein
I thought long and hard about whether to disrupt the 2005 offensive line and concluded that I really would not replace any of these players with any other lineman I'd seen at Texas. This is partially due to the dearth of line talent since and partially due to the excellence of the 2005 unit. They anchored the most potent rushing attack in college football in 2005, and have over a combined 200 NFL starts between them. As honorable mentions, I include current senior Mason Walters or past tackle Tony Hills, but really who would want to break up this group?
Tight End: David Thomas
Once, the Texas Longhorns had a tight end whose position was not described as "flex" or "H-back" or "nonexistent". In those days, tight ends were not just "receivers who couldn't catch" or "lineman who couldn't block". Although certainly some of the lack of a pure TE has to do with the spread-style offenses Texas has run in my few years on campus, a lot of it is just a lack of talent. It is just plain hard to find a 6'5" 230 pound athlete that is a capable and willing blocker, pass catcher, and route runner. In my tenure at UT, I've seen exactly two: David Thomas and Jermichael Finley.
In choosing a tight end for this offense, a lot of my decision was biased by David Thomas' chemistry with QB Vince Young. Young always seemed to find Thomas when the offense needed a crucial first down, or the pocket was collapsing and Young was rolling uncomfortably to his left. Although the other choice at TE, Jermichael Finley, is bigger and faster, I choose David Thomas. Really, though, either player is a terrific choice, and far distanced from all of the rest of the tight ends in the last decade at Texas (a list that is Blaine Irby followed by a host of flexes, H-backs, and converted receivers).
Wide Receiver: Limas Sweed, Jordan Shipley
At receiver, I wanted a deep threat and a possession receiver. If I had been a Longhorn during Roy Williams' tenure, perhaps the choice for deep threat would have been difficult, but I only witnessed Limas Sweeds career and so the choice was clear. Besides his 6'4" 220 pound frame, Sweed possessed soft hands and great balance, and was a favorite target of both Young and McCoy (he caught McCoy's first TD pass).
Jordan Shipley is the perfect complement to Sweed in the passing game. He ran routes with devastating proficiency, often finding himself wide open with a stumbling cornerback left yards behind. I have never seen (before or since) double-move routes executed so perfectly. Even in the 2009 game against Alabama, with his starting QB lost to injury, Shipley shined, catching two TDs from the young Garrett Gilbert. With a deep threat in Sweed stretching opposing safeties, Shipley would shine underneath, as no linebackers could compensate for his quickness and agility. The only other viable alternative to Shipley would be Quan Cosby, who would be adding a lot as a blocker, but I don't think it's enough -- Shipley makes my team.
Kicker: Justin Tucker
Texas has its share of clutch kickers. Dusty Mangum, Hunter Lawrence, and Justin Tucker all made huge kicks to win close games, none more important, perhaps, than Lawrence's kick to win the 2009 Nebraska game to send Texas to the 2009 BCS Championship
where a strong performance by completely healthy McCoy won Texas the game handily. But I have to give the nod to Justin Tucker, for his performance against A&M alone. A game we weren't supposed to win, in the last game for a long time against a hated rival on the road. And it wasn't an aberration either: he was 17/21 on FGs and a perfect 44/44 on extra points with a long of 52 yards his senior year. I'll take him over any of the other (deserving) candidates.
Kick/Punt Returner: Aaron Ross
While we all owe a debt of gratitude Jordan Shipley for his punt return against Oklahoma in 2008, I think Aaron Ross is the better returner. With a 4.4 40 at the combine and a 34" vertical, Ross has the pure speed that Shipley does not, and displayed tremendous elusiveness and reliability as a returner at Texas.
Punter: Justin Tucker
Love the rugby punt. That is all.
The only coach I've seen in person. Are there any of you out there that can write in DKR?
So there's my ballot, and I'd put it up against anyone's. What's yours?