The 2006 Texas football season started with promise but ended with disappointment. The fear of a Vince Young hangover was temporarily put to rest by the emergence of Colt McCoy at quarterback. Unfortunately, an injury to McCoy derailed a Big 12 winning season and cost the Longhorns a third consecutive trip to a BCS bowl. The issues that dogged the Longhorns at the end of last season remain questions for the upcoming year: health at the QB position, the efficiency of the running attack, and a suspect secondary. Can the Longhorns answer these lingering question en route to another BCS appearance, or will the ghosts of last year continue to haunt Texas?OFFENSE
The 2005 Texas team featured the most prolific offense in NCAA history. The 2006 team could not match that output, but thanks to the success of McCoy was able to put up points. The running game started strong, but faltered down the stretch. The offensive line lost three starters to the NFL, but the receiving corps return every starter and almost every backup.The Quarterbacks
No one could have predicted McCoy's success as a freshman. McCoy's emergence was at once a blessing and a curse. The Longhorns passing game produced above expectations, but the depth chart took a hit with Jevan Snead opting to transfer to Ole Miss. The Longhorns even missed out on prize recruit John Brantley, who chose to sit three years behind Tim Tebow rather than three years behind McCoy. McCoy set a school-record with 29 passing touchdowns and threw for over 2500 yards. The Longhorns hope McCoy can avoid injury again and avoid a sophomore slump.
The Horns need McCoy to stay healthy, because of the aforementioned transfer of Snead, Texas is left with two freshman backups who have never taken a college snap. Sherrod Harris should win the back-up job, but suffered a strained MCL at practice. Coaches hope he will be healthy for the opener against the Arkansas State Blanks. Third string belongs to the dynamic John Chiles - who will be difficult to keep off the field, at QB or otherwise. CJ Kinne is being redshirted this year.The Running Backs
Frequent readers of this blog know how big a fan I am of Jamaal Charles. He is lightening quick, but needs to prove he is durable enough to carry 30 times a game. Chris Ogbonnaya will spell Charles and may be the featured short-yardage back. Coaches are also high on Vondrell McGee.
When the Horns use a full-back, it will be Luke Tiemann and Antwann Cobb. Defensive tackle Derek Lokey will be used at full-back in short yardage and goalline situations. Lokey was a monster in this role until he broke his leg in the Nebraska game last year. The goalline offense fell off sharply after Lokey went down. The Henry Melton experiment is over too. Once he returns from his suspension, Melton will be limited to defensive end duty.The Offensive Line
The O-line will be rebuilding this year, and therefore is a cause for concern on the 40 acres. The Horns lost three linemen to graduation. Most important of these is Kasey Studdard, who brought 100% attitude to the position. The O-line will be helped with the return of Cedric Dockery, who is returning early from an ACL tear. Tony Hills, Jr. has been solid at tackle and sophomore Adam Ulatoski had a good freshman year. Dallas Griffin will step in at center, and Charlie Tanner or Chris Hall will have to step up at the other guard position. The Horns also have a number of talented freshman who may see playing time.
This O-line doesn't feature the talent of the 2005 line, but will be relied upon to give Colt time to find his receivers. Speaking of...The Receiving Corp
This is hands down the best receiving group, top to bottom, of Mack Brown's tenure, and may be the best receiving group in the country. Yes, this group is better than the Williams, Johnson, and Thomas group of the early 2000s. Every receiver from last year is back, led by big-play receiver Limas Sweed. Lining up with Sweed are speedster Billy Pittman and 24 year old Quan Cosby. Nate Jones, Jordan Shipley, and George Walker are the second team receivers.
Many Longhorn faithful are excited about the development of Jermichael Finley at tight end. The Longhorns are in need of a dependable receiving tight end since the departure of David Thomas. Finley definitely needs to improve on his blocking though. Junior Peter Ullman is the other tight end for the rare occasion the Longhorns line up in a two tight-end formation.DEFENSE
The departure of Gene Chizik led to the promotion of Duane Akina to Defensive Coordinator. While Chizik engineered the defense that won the BCS Championship in 2005, many Longhorn fans were unhappy with the performance of the defense last year. Despite the presence of a Thorpe award winner and two other NFL caliber players, last years pass defense was ranked 99th in the NCAA. Grumbling on the 40 Acres seems to lead to the conclusion that Chizik and Akina were not always on the same page. Akina seems to prefer an aggressive defense whereas Chizik favored a conservative scheme. The Longhorns have a strong front 7, and Akina's new-fangled blitzing attack will have to take the pressure off of the secondary.The Defensive Line
Once again, the Horns should feature a dominant D-line. NFL scouts are salivating over DT Frank Okam. He is a big, big man. Although the defense had issues against the pass, the run defense performed well due in part to the presence of Okam. The line will be bolstered by the return of Derek Lokey. Roy Miller, who played well in place of the injured Lokey last year, and Ben Alexander will rotate in with Okam and Lokey.
Despite the departure of Brian Robinson and Tim Crowder, there should be no drop-off at the end position. Juniors Brian Orakpo and Aaron Lewis each saw significant playing time last year. Orakpo has NFL talent, and Lewis is a bulldog. Former goal line back Henry Melton will be a backup after he returns from suspension. Lamar Houston is also a suitable backup. The Longhorns were excited about true freshman Andre Jones, but his availability is in question after some off-season legal troubles.The Linebackers
Despite the performance of the secondary last year, the linebackers may have been the most disappointing unit. The linebacker position is loaded with talent, but they rarely made an impact in games last year. Some of the lack of stellar play may have been the result of injury, as Drew Kelson and Roderick Muckelroy each dealt with injuries throughout the season. Kelson has been moved back to the secondary, but Muckelroy returns along with the rest of the unit from last year. Rashad Bobino will anchor the middle and fan favorite Robert Killebrew will play outside along with Muck. The second team unit is also formidable. Scott Derry is back. He started for most of last year, and may have been the most dependable linebacker. Longhorn coaches are high on both Jared Norton and Sergio Kindle. Kindle will have to wait three games to return to the field due to off the field issues. Once he does return, the Longhorns will have two full linebacking units to rotate during game play.The Secondary
The secondary can't play much worse than last year, but can they be any better? The troubles against the pass were perplexing, given the talent on display. Recall the last two Thorpe Award winners wore burnt orange. Akina was in charge of the secondary, and was given credit for turning Michael Huff and Aaron Ross into great defensive backs. Once again, he has talent to work with. The success of the pass defense will depend on his being able to coach up that talent.
The secondary will benefit from the return of Marcus Griffin, twin brother of former standout Michael. Drew Kelson will move back to the secondary to lend experience, though he may also see time at linebacker. Cornerbacks Brandon Foster and Ryan Palmer have been patiently biding their time behind Griffin (Michael), Ross, and Tarrel Brown. Now is their time to shine. If Foster and Palmer falter, a talented crop of newcomers await their chance to show what they can do. Look for Chykie Brown, Deon Beasley, Curtis Brown, and Ben Wells to get some playing time.
Given the lack of experience, the secondary is the unit with the biggest question mark hanging over it. Akina will have earned his stripes if he can return the passing defense to dominance.Special Teams
New kick-off rules will put a greater emphasis on the return game across the nation. The Longhorns will continue to use Quan Cosby as a return man, but don't be surprised to see Jamaal Charles returning as well.
Ryan Bailey has parlayed his game winning heroics in Lincoln into a starting job, and will do the kicking on field goals. The Longhorns also have Hunter Lawrence and Trevor Gerland returning to help with punts and kick-offs. The kicking game should be solid.
The Longhorns are often over-looked for their kicking defense. Since 2000, the Longhorns have blocked more kicks and punts than any other team. The Horns will look to keep the pressure on the opposition.Fearless Predictions
Despite the emergence of Colt McCoy as a blossoming star, I can't feel as confident about this team as years past. This team needs to re-establish its identity with the run game. That will be difficult to do with the losses on the offensive line. The mystery of the passing defense needs to be solved as well.
That said, this is a team capable of winning the conference championship, but contending for a national championship is too much to ask. The schedule sets up nicely for the Horns. They play TCU, Nebraska, and Texas Tech at home. However, the Horns play dangerous Oklahoma State and Texas A&M on the road. There is also the annual game in Dallas against the Sooners. I look for this team to go 10-2, with the losses to either Oklahoma, Oklahoma St., or A&M.