Friday, April 20, 2007

Texas Spring Football Preview


If it’s possible for Texas to fly under the radar much of the season, that’s what happened. The whole world was watching on September 9, when the #2 Longhorns lost at home to #1 Ohio State, 24-7. After that, 2006 was written off somewhat as a rebuilding year for the ‘Horns. However, they quietly proceeded to break off eight straight wins (including another domination of OU and tight road wins in Lincoln and Lubbock) and were starting to position themselves for a run at the BCS title. But when people started paying attention again, Colt McCoy got banged up in Manhattan, and they lost to both K-State and ATM, falling all the way from National Title Game to Alamo Bowl, where they crawled past a mediocre Iowa team, 26-24, and finished the season at a quiet 10-3.

Since I’m rarely right (and since I didn’t have a blog at this point last year), I will now brag that I predicted that Texas to lose three games while breaking in a freshman quarterback. That was about 2 more losses than most publications were predicting. Go me. I, however, predicted losses to Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech...not so much Kansas State and Texas A&M. When they got past Oklahoma, Tech, and Nebraska in October, I started to honestly think the preseason hype was justified, that their talent was just so much better than anybody else’s that they could afford to break in a new player at the most important position on the field. Naturally, when I began to think that was about the time they collapsed. But at least they avoided a major letdown in the Alamo Bowl. That would have been just an unforgiveable slip-up.

The good news for teams starting a freshman QB is, you’ll then have an experienced starter for the next three years. Assuming Colt McCoy stays healthy, the ‘Horns will be quite steady at the QB position for years to come.

Key Returnees

As always, Texas loses plenty of big names and returns plenty of big names. Junior Jamaal Charles joins Colt McCoy in the backfield. In his first two seasons (while splitting carries with the likes of Selvin Young and Vince Young), Charles has managed 1,750 yards and 19 TD’s on just 275 carries. Not surprisingly, Charles’ averages went down last season without Vince Young in the backfield, but with Selvin Young out of the picture, Charles could be ready to put up some huge numbers. Meanwhile, somehow both Limas Sweed and Billy Pittman still have eligibility remaining. Seems like they’ve been at Texas forever. Texas will never hurt for talent at RB and WR, but the amount of experience they have this year is impressive...and can only help in McCoy’s attempt to avoid a sophomore slump. Also helping McCoy will be emergence of sophomore TE Jermichael Finley, who caught 31 passes for 3 TD’s last year.

On the O-line, we’ll get to see just how good Texas’ recruiting has been the last couple of years. Gone are the likes of Kasey Studdard and Jason Blalock and Lyle Sendlein, but Texas just reloads when big-timers leave. Guys like Cedrick Dockery and Tony Hills and Adam Ulatoski are still around, so the line should be just fine.

As for the defense...DE’s Brian Robison and Tim Crowder are finally gone (Whaaat? A Big XII team losing their DE’s??), but a) their replacements (probably Aaron Lewis and Brian Orakpo) are very good, and b) the DT’s (led by Frank Okam) should be fantastic. At LB, junior Rashad Bobino and seniors Scott Derry and Robert Killebrew have been steady but not spectacular, and they’ll continue to have to fend off guys like sophomore Sergio Kindle. It’s probably the secondary that has to be the biggest concern for new Defensive Coordinator Duane Akina. With a steady group of seniors like Aaron Ross and Michael Griffin last year, the Longhorn secondary gave up an average of 7.5 yards per pass (9th in the conference), 12.9 yards per completion (10th), and 236 yards per game (99th in the country). Now they have to find a bunch of new starters. Early returns have been unimpressive, as you’ll see in the next section.

Spring Developments

The major spring storylines for Texas were probably the following: 1) Who wins the backup QB job? 2) Who wins jobs in the secondary? 3) Can the secondary achieve the improvement that is needed?

Well, my guess for (1) is Sherrod Harris. My guess for (3) is a resounding no...which means my guess for (2) is irrelevant since there likely be a few shakeups to come. Read this from the Austin American-Statesman:

The coaching staff is actually thinking about going with two groups in the secondary. The veteran group would have cornerbacks Ryan Palmer and Brandon Foster and safeties Marcus Griffin and Drew Kelson or Erick Jackson.

If Kelson continues his improvement through the summer after spending the last season-plus at linebacker, look for Akina to start him at free safety, with Marcus Griffin starting at his customary strong safety spot.

The second group is where Akina will earn his money. His Young Lions freshman group from a year ago — Deon Beasley, Chykie Brown and Robert Joseph — will have to contribute right away, because injuries can lead to a dropoff in production if a team doesn't have quality depth.
Granted, I’m sure all of those guys were big-time recruits, but...let’s just say I’m skeptical, especially with the way the secondary (just about everybody listed above) got rocked by the offense at the spring game.

Fun With Numbers

Statistically, here were the five biggest keys to success for UT in 2006:

1. Yards Per Pass Attempt
2. Pass Completion %
3. Turnover Ratio
4. Yards Per Pass Completion
5. Opponents’ Turnovers

Another team that thrived on (or was tripped up by) big plays. When they were completing the long passes or forcing turnovers, they were winning no matter how much the secondary struggled. But do you remember what I discovered last week about teams that rely on big pass plays? They rarely get those big plays the next season. This team will test that theory, though, as they return just about everybody who caught those big passes (Sweed in particular) last season.

The 2007 schedule sees no Ohio State’s on the non-conference grid (TCU is by far the toughest team on the schedule...and that’s a matchup I really like to see), which will be nice since the ‘Horns will be breaking in whoever they choose to play in the secondary. The only problem for Texas is, it’s an odd-numbered year...meaning the OU game in Dallas counts as a home game for the ‘Horns, and they only get three conference games in Austin. Of course, that didn’t really seem to bother them in 2005, did it?