How does one of college football's savviest commentators and rankers give a top-ten spot to a team sporting a .565 winning percentage over two years? It's pretty simple: talent + good coaching + experience; it's a winning formula, and Texas is probably about to return from a journey out of rare air. Its second year coordinators are outstanding, and coach an outstanding crop of talented players.
So TCU's eleventh opponent is formidable in a way its first ten simply are not. The Longhorns get TCU in Austin this year, where the Horned Frogs have not won since LBJ was president. Oddsmakers are not going to predict that trend to change.
Texas is doing what TCU is doing—it’s molting upperclassmen, and playing young’uns. Fifteen freshmen were listed on its fall practice depth chart, in this season after the Longhorns played the most freshmen in the country—18. The coach says that more than those 15 will probably play this season.
Paul Myerberg notes that last year’s freshmen played in consequential roles: "In a Holiday Bowl win over California, the Longhorns’ leading passer, rusher and pass-catcher were true freshmen. This is what Harsin had to work with in 2011; the offensive struggles were more to do with youth than incompetent coaching."
What these youths did was run the ball, a lot. The Longhorns "ran 71 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent)." (for all of the atypical-but-outstanding stats in this preview, see FootballStudyHall’s Texas preview, here.) Look for UT to keep it up in 2012, but probably with better results. two sophomores, Joe Bergeron (463 yards) and Malcolm Brown (742 yards), combined for 4.9 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns and a minus-3.8 Adj. POE (meaning they were about four points worse than the average runner given their carries, blocking and opponents; not terrible for freshmen) while playing around injuries, and both return this season. Add to the mix the best player almost to come to TCU, Jonathan Gray, and also sprint-darter D.J. Monroe, and that’s about as deep a stable of runningbacks as it’s possible to have.
And for the first time in a few years, the o-line will be up to the task of pushing defenses around. That group returns 64 career starts and a top JUCO transfer. That transfer, Donald Hawkins, has seized the left tackle spot, allowing sophomore Josh Cochrane to move over to right tackle, which in turn allows junior Trey Hopkins to replace the graduated left guard. Right guard Mason Walters is all-Big 12 quality, and sophomore Dominic Espinosa is starting his second year at center.
The receiving corps is probably good, but it’s hard to tell with the poor quarterback play they’ve been getting for a couple years. (Let’s pause and appreciate how ridiculous it is that Texas gets poor quarterback play for consecutive years. Wow.) The top three return—Jaxon Shipley (607 yards, 8.5 per target, 62 percent catch rate), Mike Davis (609, 7.4, 55 percent) and Marquis Goodwin (421, 7.3, 57 percent). Of course there’s a line of blue chip receivers waiting in the wings that’s as deep as the day is long. But this only matters of the quarterbacks can get them the ball.
And that quarterback is going to be—either David Ash or Case McCoy. Official Ash is the starter; but the question remains how much leash he has to grow into the role before the coaches flip the switch to "McCoy." Paul Myerberg calls this "simple untenable." He minces no words, either: "If Texas wants to win the Big 12, wants to beat Oklahoma, wants to play in a B.C.S. bowl, but will not achieve any of those milestones should anyone other than Ash take every meaningful snap for this offense... The only reason why Ash should ever leave the field is due to injuries or massive incompetence – and not just over the span of one quarter, half or game, but over the course of multiple games. More shuffling will continue to stymie this offense’s development. It should be Ash every Saturday; McCoy is a nice backup, but he should not be viewed as anything more than that."
We’ll soon see if the coaches agree.
Texas tallied 116 tackles for loss in 2011, but only 29 sacks. That’s philosophy. This is not a high-risk, high-reward kind of scheme, but a patient, talented, suffocating kind of attack. It’s brightest stars are up front, at both ends: junior Jackson Jeffcoat (63 tackles, 18.0 for loss, 6.5 sacks) and senior Alex Okafor (54 tackles, 14.0 for loss, 7.0 sacks). Both inside spots have new starters—junior Brandon Moore, a JUCO transfer, and either junior Chris Whaley or junior Ashton Dorsey (22 tackles, 5.0 for loss, in four starts last season). The proven performers on the line—Jeffcoat and Okafor—cause enough headaches for opposing offense that I’m not sure anyone will notice whether or not the unproven quantities inside excel or not. In the Big 12, I think only TCU has the potential to match this line for quality—and that only if the Frogs’ unproven quantities all perform at high levels.
Behind this line is a lot of youth. (Sound famililar?) True freshmen Peter Jinkens and Dalton Santos have muscled their play into the two-deep (both as "or"s with sophomore backups Tevin Jackson and Kendall Thompson). But neither will start. That will be done by returning starter junior Jordan Hicks (57 tackles) on the weak side; sophomore Steve Edmond (16 tackles) in the middle, and junior Demarco Cobbs on the strong side. The front seven carried the defense last season; it’s unclear if the linebackers are dynamic enough to hold up their end of that task this year. But the secondary is going to be first rate, and so maybe they won’t have to.
Both corners return: junior Carrington Byndom and sophomore Quandre Diggs. The duo had six interceptions, 30 passes broken up, 12 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles last season. True freshman Duke Thomas is pressing for snaps at corner.
In between, safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Adrian Phillips (combined: 12 tackles for loss, four interceptions, 13 passes broken up, three forced fumbles) are going to be pretty good, too. Vaccaro, like Okafor on the line, turned down the chance to go pro a year early. Adrian Phillips is the team’s quarterback on defense, quite like Tejay Johnson was at TCU for several years.
Wih Penn State transfer Anthony Fera out for an unspecific amount of time with an injury, true freshmen Nick Jordan and Nick Rose will handle kicking duties, and Duke transfer Alex King will punt. King is a good punter; the freshmen are unproven.