30 December 2011
Texas didn’t come close to answering all of the questions posed by the shortcomings that exposed themselves during the regular season but after a double-digit bowl win – the Longhorns’ first in nearly three full years – it’s hard not to look at the glass as half full. Cal ran into a brick wall Wednesday night at Snapdragon-Qualcomm-nobody-knows-what-to-call-it Stadium as the Texas defense delivered yet another dominant defensive performance, allowing just seven rushing yards while racking up six sacks and five turnovers over four spectacular quarters that saw the Longhorns give up less points than all but three games this season as the Golden Bears scored on just two drives – the first of each half.
It’s no wonder that hard-hitting safety Kenny Vaccaro announced via Twitter moments after the game that he would be returning for his senior season, citing a desire to win the Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive back, and travel to the Orange Bowl, the site of next season’s national championship. Texas is going to have win a lot more than eight games to earn the right to take their talents to South Beach, but the way they played against the Golden Bears showed that they’re on the right track. Here’s a rundown of 10 Holiday Bowl thoughts:
1. David Ash played well enough to earn Holiday Bowl MVP honors but didn’t come close to proving that he should be the outright starting quarterback
Texas and Cal combined for just 450 yards and four touchdowns in Wednesday's Holiday Bowl and the victorious Longhorns' leading rusher had just 35 yards while their leading receiver had 49 yards. So even though freshman quarterback David Ash - who wasn't announced as the starting quarterback until moments before kickoff - only threw for 142 yards and didn't rush for any, the fact that he scored twice, once on a 47-yard touchdown pass and again on a 4-yard touchdown catch, was enough to earn Holiday Bowl offensive MVP honors. But, by no means, did he solidify himself as Texas' starting quarterback heading into the offseason. It was 25 possessions between Ash-led touchdown drives and the long scoring strike to Marquise Goodwin in the third quarter was his first touchdown pass in 127 pass attempts, six of which were intercpeted, as the Longhorns' leading signal-caller. Ash did a great job not turning the ball over, something Case McCoy could not do in the second half against Baylor earlier this month, but don't forget that McCoy waited until his 126th throw this season before he was picked off. Ash may have finished the season on a higher note than his sophomore counterpart but when you look at the season as a whole, you'll find that McCoy was the better quarterback.
2. Texas will need a healthy stable of running backs in 2012
Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were fantastic before they got hurt. Brown was on pace to run for 1,000 yards before he suffered a turf toe injury, something he said has actually been nagging him since high school while Bergeron was coming off two monster 100-yard, multi-touchdown performances before he hurt his hamstring. Before their respective injuries, the dynamic duo had combined to run for more than 1,000 yards and 5.5 yards per carry while rushing for barely over 150 yards and less than 3 yards per carry after getting hurt. With senior running back and kick returner-extraordinaire Fozzy Whittaker - the "heart and soul" of the team, according to Mack Brown - out for the season with a torn ACL and MCL, it was no coincedence that Texas hit the rough patch of the year at the same time their two fantastic freshmen running backs went down. With three-time state champ, two-time Gatorade National Player of the Year, and record-holder for the most touchdowns scored in high school history Jonathan Gray coming to Austin soon, Texas will once again have a formidable trio of running backs next year.
3. As many young players that contributed this season, there are several seniors that will be missed
This year's senior classes offered many disappointments, including several players that left the program before this year and contributing to the program's first losing season since 1997, but several of its members will be sorely missed. Cody Johnson, despite leading the team in rushing as a junior, unselfishly slid over to fullback, a move that benefitted both the team and Johnson's prospects of a professional football career. Blaine Irby overcame a horrific knee injury and provided much-needed offensive leadership and caught touchdowns in each of the Longhorns' last three regular season games, nearly making it four in a row with a 30-yard reception that saw him tackled four yards shy of the goal line. David Snow started all 12 games at center a year ago but, like Johnson, switched positions for the betterment of the team as he moved to guard, was consistently Texas' best offensive linemen, and took the youngsters on the offensive line under his wing. Kheeston Randall was the only reliable part of a defensive tackle unit that, other than Randall, had only one start between them. But after spending a season with new coach Bo Davis, guys like Calvin Howell, Ashton Dorsey, Desmond Jackson, and Chris Whaley vastly improved and ensured that the defensive tackle position will be just fine while Randall enjoys what is sure to be a successful time in the NFL. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho combined to make 434 tackles over the last two seasons and were two of the biggest reasons why Manny Diaz' first year as defensive coordinator went so smoothly. With Kenny Vaccaro coming back for his senior season and Adrian Phillips' ability to seamlessly transition from cornerback to safety, Blake Gideon, the starter of 52 consecutive games (1 shy of the school record owned by Colt McCoy), won't be missed as much as Acho or Robinson but did provide valuable contributions during his four years here. Last but not least, Justin Tucker - despite missing two of his last four field goal attempts in a Texas uniform - may be the most difficult senior to replace because of how well he handled all three kicking duties (kicking, punting, kickoffs).
4. It’s hard to believe but the Texas defense will be even better next year than it was last year
Texas loses four starters on defense. Junior college transfer Brandon Moore, a mammoth defensive tackle who was on Alabama's roster when the Crimson Tide beat the Longhorns to win the national title two seasons ago, should make the loss of Kheeston Randall a little easier. Demarco Cobbs and Steve Edmond, both of whom were very highly-touted coming out of high school and who were productive in the little playing time they got this season, should do a good job replacing linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho. And with Kenny Vaccaro and Adrian Phillips likely starting at safety next season, even without four-year starter Blake Gideon, Texas should have one of the nation's best secondaries. Not to mention one of the nation's best defenses. Manny Diaz will be working with two of the country's best pass rushers, Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor, a group of young but extremely talented defensive tackles, a solid group of linebackers and a secondary capable of shutting any passing attack down. If you thought the Longhorns had a good defense this year, just wait until 2012.
5. This offseason will be much more productive than the last as Texas spends a whole offseason with these new coaches while they were busy hiring them before last year
This time last year, Mack Brown just witnessed his team's worst season in 14 years and knew the program needed serious change. So, this January, he hired six coaches in a two-week period. The change was swift and effective. Co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin came from Boise State and implemented a successful run-first offense and provided elements of trickery and mystery that were non-existent while Greg Davis was the Texas offensive coordinator. Manny Diaz was probably Brown's best hire, turning an inexperienced defense into the Big 12's best. Brown said Tuesday, though, that Stacy Searels "may have done as good a job as anyone in the country," and for good reason. He moved a senior over to an old position so a freshman could start at center from the beginning of the season and replaced another senior with a true freshman at left tackle while recruiting beautifully, landing several top prospects, including junior college transfer Donald Hawkins that could fill the hole left by David Snow, the only starter that won't be returning next year. Bo Davis turned several young defensive tackles into legitimate run-stoppers and head strength coach Bennie Wylie turned everybody into monsters. It's going to be fun to see what comes out of an entire offseason with those guys.
6. This team can and, should be expected to win 10 games in 2012
Assuming Landry Jones and Robert Griffin III don't both come back, there are too many returning starters, not nearly as tough of a schedule as this year's, and too many talented youngsters - both returning and incoming - to let Texas lose more than three games in 2012. The Longhorns' toughest non-conference contest will come during a trip to Oxford when they play Ole Miss while TCU and West Virginia should not present too much of a challenge to a Texas team that will be much-improved and likely much healthier next season. Collin Klein will still be back at Kansas State but Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State won't. The Wildcats and Sooners could take down the Longhorns but they should win every other game. If they lose one other game, as long as they triumph in a bowl, Texas could be 10-3 next year. A BCS bowl, a Big 12 title, or a national title might be too much to ask for, though.
7. Conference and national title might not be too much to ask for in 2 or 3 years
It might not be too much to ask for in two seasons though. Holiday Bowl victories in 2003 and 2007 preceded BCS bowl victories, which were followed by a national championship game appearance. Texas certainly has the pieces in place to make a run like that in 2013. Both David Ash and Case McCoy, along with Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, and Jonathan Gray will still be here in two seasons. Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis, both of whom started this season will be here, as will four of this year's starting offensive linemen. All of the starting defensive linemen from this upcoming season, with the exception of Alex Okafor, should be around in two years, along with all of next year's starting linebackers. And everyone in the secondary other than Kenny Vaccaro will still be on the Forty Acres in 2013. It might be too early to make such a bold prediction, but look for the Longhorns to be a preseason top-five team in two years.
8. Texas has a chance to have the nation’s best secondary next year
Texas' starting cornerbacks next season will include a guy that was named 1st-team all-Big 12 this season and the 2011 Big 12 defensive freshman of the year - Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs, who drew comparisons from his head coach to LSU's Tyrann Matthieu, aka Honey Badger. If Adrian Phillips does indeed move over to safety in 2012 and starts alongside Kenny Vaccaro, the Longhorns will have one of the nation's top pair of safeties. Vaccaro, who was known primarily for his prowess as a hard hitter, improved his cover skills drastically this year, as evidenced by his limiting Texas A&M's Ryan Swope, who racked up more than 1,100 receiving yards this year, to a mere 33 yards on three catches - both tied for season-lows. Big 12 offenses will have their hands full trying to get anything done against this secondary.
9. Kenny Vaccaro really does have a chance to win the Thorpe
Despite multiple pleas with the media to look at his Twitter account for his announcement regarding whether or not he would forego his senior season, Vaccaro finally owned up to the fact that he was coming back for another year. Before he mentioned any chances Texas had to win a national title in 2012, Vaccaro said he wanted to win the Thorpe Award given each year to the nation's top defensive back. Then, the junior safety talked about his desire "to go to South Beach," which is near the site of next season's national title game, the Orange Bowl. As blunt as Vaccaro might have been, he has a legitimate chance to win the award. Tyrann Matthieu is sure to be the overwhelming favorite to win the award, unless the defending Thorpe winner, his teammate Morris Claiborne comes back for his senior season like Vaccaro. I wouldn't be surprised if Vaccaro was at least a finalist though.
10. Blame Mack Brown for the 5-7 debacle in 2010 but give him credit for everything he’s done since then
He hasn't been shy about his failure as a head coach during Texas' awful 5-7 2010 campaign or about the fact that his program needed drastic changes, including the replacement of one of his closest friends, former offesnive coordinator Greg Davis. All six of the guys that he hired over last offseason have proven to be homeruns, especially Diaz. Without his three best running backs or his best receiver (Jaxon Shipley) healthy for most of the second half of the season, without his initial starting quarterback for the last 10 games, and coming off a losing season he managed to help Texas go 8-5 while working on what could end up being the top-ranked recruiting class - a remarkable accomplishment. The future is bright for Texas football.