Why wait? If there is one area of significant question for the University of Texas football team —and if there is to be a turnaround this year — it will start on the offensive side of the ball.
The questions UT coach Mack Brown asked himself during his first preseason news conference had a common theme: “How quick can the young guys learn? The freshmen will get a hard look in the next 10 days.”
“You’ve gotta have great leadership at that position; you’ve gotta protect the ball, and you’ve gotta put the ball in the end zone.”
Where to start? Garrett Gilbert is not immortal. Who knew? The Lake Travis teen entered the program with more hype than any quarterback since Chris Simms; maybe even more than Simms, since Gilbert hails from a legendary high school program in Austin.
He has the skills, the size, the smarts that you look for ... in high school.
So far, with the very meaningful exception of early brilliance against Alabama in the national championship game, Gilbert has yet to show any of those qualities at the NCAA level. Last season, he threw 17 interceptions against only 10 touchdowns. That stat will not endear you to the Longhorn faithful.
It's likely fans had overly high expectations, and clearly Gilbert received very little help from his offensive line, his receivers, the running game, his coaches — have I missed anyone? In other words, it's a little hard to say how good he can be. No one, though, is ready to call him the second coming of even Chris Simms, let alone Colt McCoy, yet.
There is now competition at the position: McCoy's little brother Case played a hand full of meaningless snaps last year; redshirt freshman Connor Wood impressed in the spring; true freshman David Ash gets good reviews.
“The good news is we have four capable guys,” said Brown, who makes clear this job is up for grabs.
“The biggest thing is leadership,” he said when asked to describe what he needs from the position. “You’ve gotta have great leadership at that position; you’ve gotta protect the ball, and you’ve gotta put the ball in the end zone.
“It will be a great battle. We plan to separate them by charting each pass, and putting them in … critical competitive situations ... We should know in a couple of weeks.”
Brown compared this competition with another back in 2006. "A few years ago we had a competition between Colt [McCoy] and Jevan [Snead]," said Brown, "and that worked out OK."
Yes it did Coach, but if UT doesn't end up with Garrett Gilbert at quarterback, it means there is something very, very wrong at Texas and the season is in significant jeopardy.
Why? Because Garrett Gilbert came to Texas with the tools and the will to win. If he is not the quarterback for Texas, then it's the coaching staff that broke him, and it's the coaching staff that needs to fix him.
There is hope, and his name is not Fozzy, it's Malcolm, as in Brown.
The Running game:
Where to start? What running game? The bar is set pretty low here. If the Longhorns can find a back capable of putting up more than a few hundred yards and playing more than a dozen snaps each game, they have made immeasurable progress.
New offensive co-coordinator Bryan Harsin may bring a passing reputation with him from Boise State, but he also brings a run-first system. Boise averaged more than 200 rushing yards a game last year, ranking 20th in the NCAA Division 1. Texas was, well, not that good.
Most fans can't remember the last time Texas could be proud of its running game. Let me help: Cedric Benson, 2005.
There is hope, and his name is not Fozzy, it's Malcolm, as in Brown (no relation to the coach, although we hope Mack takes him into his arms as a long lost son).
Malcolm Brown came to campus as one of the highest-rated running backs in the country. He played high school ball at Cibolo Steele near San Antonio. He has all the tools: He's big, he's strong, he's fast. He needs to play — a lot. If Malcolm does not play a lot, Texas' season is in significant jeopardy because the guys currently playing running back have clearly shown that while they can play well, they cannot carry the team.
Wide receiver could turn out to be the deepest most talented group on the team. These guys run fast and catch the football.
Where to start? Who's left?
Malcolm Williams, the sole starting senior in the group, left the team last week for personal reasons. He wasn't a star but he knew how to run routes and make plays and could have been a leader for an otherwise young untested group.
Further, speedster Marquise Goodwin decided to take a year off from football and concentrate on the Olympics. Goodwin showed signs of greatness last season.
So, we are left with junior DeSean Hales who has all of one catch in his Texas career, sophomores Mike Davis and Darius White, and true freshmen Jaxon Shipley (little brother of Jordan) and Miles Onyegbule. These guys all have tremendous potential but have seen very little, or nothing, of a college football field. They need to grow up fast. If they don't, the Texas season is in significant jeopardy (you should be seeing a theme emerge here).
All of that said, this could turn out to be the deepest, most talented group on the team. These guys run fast and catch the football. All of them appeared on someone’s short list of great, talented receivers, now is the time to show it.
Without a quality O-line, there will be no running game, and more interceptions.
The Offensive Line:
Where to start? Seriously, who knows what’s going to happen here? There is a serious shortage of proven talent on the line.
Last year’s line was terrible and a couple guys must step up in 2011 in order to have any chance at keeping a quarterback healthy and the running game moving.
Here are the questions even Mack Brown was asking: “Is Luke Poehlmann ready?”, “What about (Dominic) Espinosa’s shoulder?” And in one statement, “David Snow had mono in the spring and couldn’t practice.”
Not exactly the motivational speech you were hoping for right?
The only obvious answer for who starts is Snow, who played well on a bad line last year. It’s not a leap to say the answer to this question may be the single most important forecast of what lies ahead this season. If this line does not significantly improve, Texas' season is in serious jeopardy.
Every game plan, every offensive scheme starts with the O-line. Without a quality line, there will be no running game and more interceptions. The coaching staff will be watching closely for who’s improved over the summer.
Mack Brown does not shy away from honestly laying out the challenges this season represents. Texas has the talent to be a dominant offensive team. Top 10 recruiting classes don’t bring in mediocre players.
We’ll discuss the revamped Texas coaching staff later this month. These players rely on their coaches to put them in successful situations and teach them how to excel.