Now that the spring semester is over and highly touted freshman recruits report to campus, thoughts turn to the upcoming long, hot, summer days. And if recent weather is any indication, summer has arrived early. This spring saw a record number of wildfires across the state of Texas and in spite of the recent, ahem, rains that missed the driest areas, the drought conditions are meaningful in the worst kind of way.
So, too, is the recent drought facing the Texas Longhorns. Almost all major Division I schools are accustomed to an "off year", but this has just not been the case with the Texas Longhorns in the Mack Brown era. Coach Brown's UT winning percentage prior to the 2010 season was at an astonishing 82.6% clip and his resume is chock full of statistical firsts and top-5's / 10's.
But as you review his impressive resume, there is one thing that haunts him and the Longhorn faithful: The obvious lack of conference championships. With that said, he has either won or shared the Big 12 South division title 6 times, representing the south in four Big 12 championship appearances where he won as many as he lost.
This all led to the stars aligning in 2010 for a Texas program that was running on fumes. Far too many to name here apparently sat on their laurels as the winning seasons kept rolling along. And in spite of a lack of conference championships to fan the flames of hard work and dedication, the organization found itself asleep at the wheel. New blood was needed in almost every staff category and the organization was rebuilt.
As we look forward to the 2011 season, the heat is coming. You are welcome to disagree with me, but there is no doubt that Coach Brown has done a masterful job in putting the entire failing of the 2010 season on his shoulders and his alone. The buck truly stops with him. It is not a reach to state that Coach Brown is the majority stake holder in a turnaround effort.
I have a growing sense that despite all the changes, the restless Longhorn faithful are holding him to an even higher accounting. While some on this board have indicated a somewhat tempered expectation, I don't think most Texas fans will be satisfied with just modest improvement. They will be clamoring for instant success, even demanding, including yours truly. The question is, "Will Mack Brown deliver?"
And what of all the others with both a lot to gain...and a lot to prove? Let's examine the cast.
Off-Season Conditioning - Bennie Wylie
As GoBR aptly opined, Bennie Wylie has arguably the toughest job of all the new hires. Easy to blame the S&C coach who must prepare the players for endurance, toughness, and physical strength necessary to succeed. But it's not just the physical conditioning effort as Wiley pointed to an often unmentioned aspect to toughness as GoBR aptly referenced and worth repeating here:
I am intrigued by the mind. The body is just a machine. It will do some amazing things, but the brain--the soul, the spirit--drives the machine. And that is my edge. That's my strength. I have a strong mind, and I will make my body do things it probably should not do any more...that it can't do. And hopefully, that's what I can pass on to the team--that your body will do what your mind tells it to do.
All eyes will be focused on his ability to achieve the highest mental and physical preparation.
Veteran Leaders...Time To Step Up
Which players will rise to the occasion? Johnny Walker recently wrote in his weekly Hookem.com ($) Q&A:
I look at Jackson Jeffcoat and Emmanuel Acho as two guys who I think can have different roles as leaders but could be those type of guys. I think the thing for me if there needs to be someone at every position, particularly the guys who have been here longer, be a leader for the young guys. Marquise Goodwin has to be that guy with the receivers, Keenan Robinson has to be a leader, Kenny Vaccaro has to be a leader for the young guys in the secondary, Trey Hopkins needs to step up and be a leader for the offensive line. Every position needs to have guys step up to really make the leadership core of this team strong.
Do we have one? It is increasingly thought the position is more than likely Gilbert's to lose in spite of the "all positions are open" theme. Will one of the QB's rise up and challenge the junior gunslinger? How are your summer 7-on-7's maximized without the "the guy" leading his charges? So many questions left unanswered at a time when the team needs a central rally point. Unlike Nick Saban's offense which doesn't pivot on the QB position, I'm pretty certain that all things in Harsin's Power-O system do. The starting QB decision arguably has the greatest opportunity to overachieve.
This unit has been castigated in recent years nine ways to Sunday. How long has it been since a Texas Longhorn offensive lineman was drafted? I'm sure it wasn't as long as it seems but then again that is too long. Right behind Wylie is Stacey Searels with the most to gain. He has an uphill battle ahead given both the lack of experience and depth. I bet he buys Coach Wylie the alfalfa bean sprout special each week at Whole Foods since he desperately needs the focus on his bigs.
Will we be better at receiver? How about running back? Tight end play has been a bust the last several seasons. Harsin and Applewhite, along with the receiver coaches, have their work cut out for sure. I don't recall a more mediocre receiving corp than the 2010 version. With that said, things are looking up. Given the lack of playmaking, this group has a lot to prove. Both to themselves and Coach Brown.
A year removed from helping the team to a BCS national championship appearance, the 2010 version lacked a mental toughness usually associated with Will Muschamp defenses. Hard to criticize the squad, though, as they were routinely put in some pretty tough field position situations given mistakes by special teams and turnovers by the offense. But make no mistake, they had their turn at the proverbial wheel of blame giving up way too many yards on the ground.
Manny Diaz' scheme is said to be a more natural attacking style by allowing defenders to play the man instead of protecting an area. Hopefully this will give the players the freedom to be explosive without penalty of missed assignments. I assume this will result in a few more explosives given up than we are accustomed to but this fan assumes more turnovers will be gained as a result. This side of the ball will determine the team's fate. Getting off the field will be job one. With 4-5 senior starters, this group will be hell bent to get it right and prove their high-rating worth.
Punt/Kick Return Squads
These groups were the weakest on the team last season. Winning field position will ease the pressure on our offensive line in reps/scoring opportunity and therefore lessen the number of plays available to potential injury for the thinnest area of the team. Not to mention allow an easier path for scoring improvement. I'm confident we will see considerable improvement as last year was the absolute bottom in performance.
So who has the most to gain this season by overachieving? That is an interesting question. As the saying goes, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Is there a more apt euphemism for the 2011 Texas Longhorns?