So we know what we know about this year’s team (channeling my inner Aflac commercial). Texas has a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, experience at every position excluding tight end and Will Muschamp is a deity. We got it.
But what don’t we know? Even with the high expectations, there are some unanswered questions that could grow into concerns as the season moves forward.
1. Will a running back step up?
The same question was raised prior to last season. The question went unanswered all season, and Texas still was one second away from playing for a national title. Heading into the offseason, and into spring practice, the word was Cody Johnson had stepped up and was ready for 20+ carries a game.
That was four months ago. The week of the game, it appears the team is exactly where they were one year ago. Vondrell McGee will get the first look, Fozzy Whittaker is showing flashes of talent when he isn’t hanging out with the training staff and Cody Johnson is great in short yardage but not in shape enough to handle the load.
The loan difference is new comer Chris Whaley. The true freshman was given every opportunity to take the starting spot, but his weight and the adjustment to big time D-1 football is proving tough.
Texas may not have to run the ball to be successful, but Mack Brown sure wants to. If this team can establish a run game in Lubbock who knows what would have happened. McGee has the talent to be the lead back. The question is will Greg Davis stick with him consistently enough for him to prove it. I’m not sure Davis, or Brown, know the answer.
2. Can Texas play without a tight end?
If a team is going to have a string of tough injuries, it might as well all happen at one position. Especially at a position that last year’s group proved they didn’t need for the majority of snaps. But the loss of Blaine Irby, DJ Grant, etc., etc. may give Texas no choice but to play without a tight end.
Despite the success of last season’s offense, the Longhorns need to be able to line up with a tight end in passing and rushing situations. Without the option teams will know what kind of play is coming by the personnel that are on the field. Texas is too good for most teams on its schedule to compete either way, but in the big games the Longhorns need the flexibility. Especially with an offensive line that has proven to be road graders in the run game.
Dan Buckner has stepped up. And Greg Smith is still around to block and deflect balls to the other team. But neither is an all around tight end that can block and stretch the defense. The Longhorns offense works best with a pass catching tight end, so Buckner is the odds on favorite to win the job. But he has never had to block at this level, and it hasn’t been proven he can stay healthy while taking on defensive ends and linebackers on a play to play basis.
Texas will field a good offense either way, but without the threat of a tight end they simply can’t be one of the best two teams in the country.
3. Is the lack of depth at defensive tackle a real concern?
For most teams in the country this would be an easy yes, but in the Big 12 I’m not so sure. And how bad can the depth really be when you’re Texas? Most fans, and coaches, around the country would kill for Lamarr Houston, Ben Alexander and a couple of big time recruits to enter the season at defensive tackle.
Texas has been spoiled at the position over the last decade. It seems like every year Texas has two or three big guys in the middle that are sure fire NFL guys. The difference this year is the fans aren’t aware of the other two yet. Meet Kheeston Randall and Calvin Howell. These two young guys have the talent, and Randall has the years in the program to make a splash. Howell isn’t ready to compete every down, but he can help out in spots. That is four guys right there that can give you snaps, and one of them is an all-conference caliber player in a conference where maybe two teams try to run up the middle on a consistent basis.
If that is the biggest question mark for the defense, Big 12 coaches are in trouble.
4. Are Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho ready?
Roddrick Muckelroy won’t leave the field. Jared Norton is a senior, and will anchor the middle, but what about the other outside linebacker spot? And maybe more importantly, who will play in nickel packages?
The answer to both questions is either Robinson or Acho. It may be both. The two sophomores are battling for the starting spot with Robinson slightly out in front. Robinson is an aggressive player with the athleticism to play the pass as well as anyone in the linebacking unit. That strength may make him the starter because of the types of offenses Texas faces on a consistent basis. Acho is a smart player with the ability to blitz. Sounds like a Muschamp guy to me.
Norton has struggled on passing downs. He has also struggled with injuries this preseason. If one, or both, of these guys step up when the real games begin the Longhorns will be in excellent shape.
5. Can Texas replace the leadership of Brian Orakpo, Quan Cosby and Roy Miller?
Yes, Texas has Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley on offense, but what about defense? Sergio Kindle is the best defensive lineman, but he is admittedly not the public speaking type. Muckelroy leads the linebacking unit, but he does it quietly. And the guys in the secondary are finally comfortable with the layout of the campus.
So who is the guy? Muschamp says Lamarr Houston and Earl Thomas. I think Houston emerges this season as one of the best players in the conference. And I think Thomas plays so well the chatter of leaving early starts, well early. And both of those predictions are based on Muschamp’s perceived leadership out of the two.
It is hard to be a great player without being a great leader. It is not impossible, but I think it is hard. Houston has the ability when he is healthy. Thomas has improved a ton from last year to right now. The talent is there, if the leadership competes with what the Longhorns have on the offensive side of the ball then the comparisons to the 2005 championship team may be fair. If no one steps up, Texas will drop a game they shouldn’t.