While a lot of the core talent returns for Texas, it?s not too early to start looking at the Longhorns? strengths and, yes, weaknesses heading into the season. We?ll break it down into three categories: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Unknowns.
Wide Receiver Just two short years after a complete lack of receiving options, Texas finds itself in the position of having one of the best receiving corps in the nation. This is as talented a group of receivers as Texas has had in the Mack Brown era; and yes, I?m including the Roy Williams-BJ Johnson group. These guys are that good - and probably the most underrated in the nation. Limas Sweed is poised for a breakout year. Billy Pittman led the nation in yards per catch last year, and has rare ability to create separation. Quan Cosby is ready to explode. And knock on wood: Jordan Shipley?s arrival may finally be here. If you believe the coaches and scouts, Shipley may be the best of the bunch. Scary.
Tailback This group gets plenty of respect, and rightfully so. Between Jamaal Charles, Selvin Young, and Henry Melton, Texas? strength at tailback is well known. There are only two real questions with this group. First, will Ramonce Taylor be in the mix? We don?t know yet, though I?ve insisted Horns fans should assume he?s done at Texas. Second, assuming Colt McCoy is the starter, how will these backs perform in a more straight I formation? The zone read, and that quarterback guy we had last year, certainly aided the tailbacks. Will they be as successful with opposing defenses keying in to force the young quarterbacks to throw? (Note: this is why Texas strength at wide receiver is so important; the transition for the new throwers will be that much smoother.)
Hank the Tank and the tailbacks will be a team strength.
Offensive Line: There are questions as to who will replace Will Allen at right guard, as well as Jonathon Scott at left tackle, but three of the nation?s best return in right tackle Justin Blalock (one of the nation?s two best tackles), center Lyle Sendlein, and left guard Kasey Studdard. Fortunately for Texas, there?s a ton of talent competing for the open spots. Cedric Dockery figures to slide in for Will Allen, while at tackle, Tony Hills and Adam Ulatoski are both looking good. If Dockery struggles, Texas could, at times, slide Blalock in to play guard (look out!), while playing Hills and Ulatoski. The competition for the two open line spots will be fierce, but there are lots of worthy competitors.
Defensive Line Hands down, the best in the Big 12. At the end, Texas returns Brian Robison and Tim Crowder, while the middle of the front four will feature punishing doses of Frank Okam, Roy Miller, Brian Orapko, and Derek Lokey. Losing Rod Wright concerns some people; it shouldn?t: this year?s front four (any combination of the above) will be better than last year?s group. This is an elite group.
Quarterback It?s not that McCoy or Snead can?t emerge as a strength by the end of the year, but we have to be realistic. Neither of these guys has taken a single snap of live college football. The game speed will be dizzying. In the second game of their collegiate lives, one or both of these guys will be playing against the Ohio State Buckeyes, at night, with the entire nation watching, amidst the loudest crowd in DKR history. It?s going to be terrifying from the stands; just imagine what it would be like in your second game ever under center.
Leadership This concerns me as much as anything we?re going to talk about heading into 2006. As complete a team as the 2005 Texas Longhorns were, it was still Vince Young?s team. And that?s before we even talk about Michael Huff?s leadership on defense. Who will replace these guys? It?s a lot to ask of a first time quarterback who loves hunting, fishing, and AC/DC. Still, early reports from the sidelines are positive ? McCoy looks like he?s doing a capable job of seizing the team. And yet, there?s no denying that he won?t ? nay, couldn?t possibly - be the leader Vince Young was. Vince wasn?t just a generational player in terms of his physical abilities ? few are better leaders than he is, too. This has to be on the minds of the coaches.
Kicking The other big worry of mine heading into the season. At this point, senior Greg Johnson is the first-team punter, kickoff man, and place kicker. And that?s simply far too much to ask of any one player. Texas flirted with multiple roles for Richmond McGee last year, but quickly shied away when it proved to be too much. That means Texas? coaches will be very eager to see true freshman Hunter Lawrence earn the kicking job, as well as look to Trevor Gerland to help out with punting. The kicking game is easy to overlook, but Texas isn?t as likely to blow everyone they play out this year ? this is a huge area of concern.
Texas needs Hunter Lawrence to be ready right away.
Linebacker I tend to believe that this year?s linebacking group will prove to be better than last year?s. Aaron Harris was solid, but not an ideal Gene Chizik linebacker. This year?s starters (Rashad Bobino, Robert Killebrew, and Drew Kelson) should be a better fit for what Chizik likes to do. But there are questions behind them, with a lot of players with unquestionable talent but not as much experience. Sergio Kindle?s talent is outstanding, but he?s a true freshman. Roddrick Muckelroy and Jeremy Campbell look promising, too, but they remain relatively green. By the end of the year, this is most likely to be a: Strength. The starters are terrific, the coaches are terrific, the talent behind them is there. This group will be fine.
Secondary Same song, different tune. Tarrell Brown and Aaron Ross return to man the corners. Both are solid, potentially All Big 12 players. At safety, Michael Griffin returns as the team?s leading tackler from last year ? and he might just be as good as the departed Michael Huff. He hits hard, covers well, and is likely to step up as the unit?s vocal and spiritual leader. The question remains as to who will slide in alongside Griffin at safety, though. Marcus Griffin seems like the most likely candidate. As with the linebackers, though: the depth of talent is there, but there?s not quite as much experience as there is in other units of the team. Might we see some Chykie Brown and Deon Beasley this year? This is a unit I?ll be watching closely, too. By the end of the year, this is most likely to be a: Strength. A costly injury or two could derail this group, but if everyone?s healthy, they?ll be more than fine. I feel good about Michael Griffin anchoring the unit.
Greg Davis Davis deserves a ton of credit for his work in developing and getting the most out of Vince Young. Say what you want about Davis? early years at Texas ? you cannot divorce Vince?s development from Greg Davis. What?s unknown is how he?ll manage this new group, headed by a pair of newbie quarterbacks. If McCoy isn?t able to emerge as an effective starter, Davis will have more options with the more mobile Jevan Snead, who could run a version of the zone read that Vince was so successful with. There?s plenty of talent for Davis to work with either way; I?ll be watching intently to see what we do. By the end of the year, this is most likely to be a: Unknown. We just don?t know. Davis was ? by my estimation ? not so great pre-Vince, and then worked well in getting the most out of a Vince-led offense. What he does next will have a lot to say about how we view his abilities as a coordinator. Stay tuned.