July 25, 2009

5 Areas Texas is Ahead of 2008

Orangebloods.com did a series in May comparing this year's team to the one that won it all in 2005 to remind everyone just how difficult it is to win a national title and how much luck is involved (especially in terms of injuries or lack of them).

Now, we want to look at how this year's team stacks up to where last year's team left off in a 12-1 season that probably should have had the Longhorns playing for the national title.

Yesterday, we had the five areas where I think the Longhorns are behind last year's team. Today, we look at five areas where I think this team is ahead of last year.

FIVE AREAS UT IS AHEAD OF 2008

1. The secondary/turnovers - One of the biggest mysteries of the 2008 college football season was how Texas could lead the nation in sacks (47) and not come up with more than 16 turnovers (six interceptions and 10 recovered fumbles) for an anemic +2 turnover margin. Oklahoma was +23 (with 19 interceptions) and Baylor was +16 (with 16 interceptions).

I said repeatedly last season Texas struggled to come up with turnovers because of the youth and inexperience at safety. A lot of your interceptions happen at that position (see Texas Tech, which produced 11 interceptions alone from the safety position with six from Darcel McBath and five from Daniel Charbonnet, both of whom were seniors).

Coaches estimate UT players had their hands on at least a dozen interceptions that were dropped during last season.

No position will benefit more from having a year of experience in Will Muschamp's defense than the secondary and especially at safety. Experience at linebacker with players like Roddrick Muckelroy, Jared Norton, Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho should also help with interceptions. (Baylor LB Joe Pawelek had six INTs last season, while OU LB Travis Lewis had four.) All those reps in the back seven should translate into more turnovers, which should translate into better field position for the offense and more points.

I've said I think this year's defense will at least double its interception total from 2008. The confidence Earl Thomas has been playing with will be huge this season, and we should be ready to see some breakout seasons from Chykie Brown and Aaron Williams.

Texas even missed out on some loose balls on the ground. As players gain experience, they react instead of think, so more balls on the ground should end up in Texas hands as well.


2. Offensive line - The reason Colt McCoy struggled as a sophomore (22 touchdowns and 18 interceptions) was because he played behind an ever-changing offensive line due to injuries and inexperience. The reason McCoy was the most accurate passer in the history of college football last season was because the offensive line stabilized. It should stabilize and impose its will even more in 2009.

Of course, most of what we're talking about pertains to pass-blocking, a real positive in 2008. The question remains if this line can run block the way Mack Brown wants to in establishing a "power" running game. With a year of experience, Brown certainly thinks this line is capable. Adam Ulatoski and Chris Hall are preseason All-Big 12 candidates. Kyle Hix and Michael Huey are maulers.

The combination of Charlie Tanner, David Snow and Tray Allen at guard (Snow will also back up at center), should help Texas in gaining some consistency in the run game. Texas will also be aided in that every team on UT's schedule is having to rebuild part of its defensive line except for Oklahoma, Wyoming and Louisiana-Monroe.


3. Backup quarterback - This is in no way meant to be a slight at John Chiles, who has put in the time at receiver to try and make a difference at his new position. But Chiles was frustrated last year, and the coaches were somewhat frustrated last year with Chiles' lack of progress.

I'm not trying to play the blame game here, but for whatever reason, there just wasn't a lot of positive momentum at the backup quarterback position last year.

I'm stepping out on a little bit of a limb here without having seen Garrett Gilbert take a snap in a college game. But I'm willing to gamble that Gilbert will probably have more trust from the coaches from an expanded playbook standpoint than Chiles.

If Sherrod Harris can surprise some by really coming on, so be it. But there appears to be the same kind of feeling about Gilbert that coaches had about Chris Simms when he arrived in 1999 - that Gilbert needs to be ready to play as quickly as possible because he's going to be the starter in 2010. Gilbert has steadily improved in seven-on-seven, gaining a little more confidence each day.

Last season, the sense was if something happened to Colt McCoy, Texas' chances of success were done because Chiles was seen as a zone-read QB who couldn't beat a team with his arm. Gilbert's go-to is his arm. He will end up getting the second-team reps in practice and should have some second-half reps against teams like Lou-Monroe, Wyoming and UTEP.

That should help him in case he's needed in emergency. But Mack Brown will have to allow Gilbert to throw some passes in garbage time, something coaches did a poor job of with Chiles, who rarely got to throw a pass.


4. More big plays in the passing game - Once again, I'm stepping out on a bit of a limb here by saying the passing game could have more of a big-play feel to it than last season. Whenever you lose one of two 1,000-yard receivers, the passing game is supposed to be down across the board. But follow me if you will.

I think Brandon Collins can take some serious steps in replacing Quan Cosby's 2008 output (92 catches for 1,123 yards and 10 TDs). Collins may not be able to fill the void completely, but I bet he will be a lot better than people think. I also think Collins will finish with a better per-catch-average than Cosby's 12.2 ypc.

Colt McCoy has certainly put in the time and effort to get on the same page with Collins, even picking Collins up at his apartment in the off-season to make sure Collins doesn't show up late to any 6 a.m. workouts.

The other big component of this equation is Malcolm Williams, who I think can be the next Terrell Owens without Owens' baggage. Williams is big, strong and fast (6-3 220) like Owens and isn't a natural pass-catcher like Owens. But when the ball finally gets in his hands, big things happen.

Williams has worked hard on catching the football after watching most of the Fiesta Bowl because he had a case of the dropsies in bowl practices and James Kirkendoll was solid, earning most of the playing time.

Williams should get off press coverage a lot better than Cosby, who had to be motioned and hidden in the slot at times when facing physical DBs. Getting physical against the defense should be a strength of Williams, and a reason McCoy will feel more comfortable throwing deep to him because Williams can also muscle DBs down the sideline to go get a ball in the air.

UT's yards per catch have dwindled each of the past four years:

2005 -
14.1 yards per catch
2006 - 12.2 yards per catch
2007 - 12.0 yards per catch
2008 - 11.7 yards per catch

I think 2009 might be closer to 2005 than 2008 in terms of yards per catch. And if Texas has a decent running game, that will help. In 2005, defenses had to worry so much about the run that big plays were available in the passing game. The lack of a consistent running game since has allowed defenses to focus on taking away big plays in the passing game with a lot of two-deep zone coverage.


5. Special teams - It took an injury to Quan Cosby against Texas Tech for Jordan Shipley to get a chance to return punts, but the results were immediate with a 45-yard return for a touchdown. Shipley ended up with an impressive 10.7 yards per punt return average, compared to Cosby's 6.3 ypr.

Shipley also had fewer kick returns (15) than Cosby (17), but had a much better average (26.3 ypr) than Cosby (20.6 ypr), including Shipley's 96-yard return for a score against OU. So with Shipley handling both duties this season, or maybe focusing on punt returns while some others get a shot at kick returns, Texas has proven experience and depth.

Justin Tucker should be a year better at his rugby punts with either foot and a year more polished on kickoffs after posting 23 touchbacks last season, the most since Greg Johnson posted 25 in the 2005 season.

On field goals, Texas has an embarrassment of riches. Senior Hunter Lawrence was 10-of-12 on field goals last season (83.3 percent) and beat out senior Ryan Bailey, who has converted 25 of 30 FGs in his career (83.3 percent), including two game-winners on the road (at Nebraska in 2006 and at Oklahoma State in 2007). Both are more than solid and figure to duel each week for the job.


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