Brown's staff will devote a significant part of this next month trying to fill a void created when three starters in both the defensive backfield and on the offensive front completed their eligibility with Texas
' Alamo Bowl win over Iowa
. In addition, there will be notable battles for backup roles, particularly at RB and at linebacker. There will be personnel changes on both sides of the ball, while the operative word on defense is 'continuity', despite the fact that Texas is breaking in its fourth coordinator in five seasons.
Across the board, there are more exclamation points than question marks for the 2007 Longhorns. These are the first two of our Top Five questions that Brown must address, starting 4:00 p.m. (CST) at Denius Field.
CAN TEXAS IMPROVE ITS PASS DEFENSE WITH THREE NEW STARTERS?
Texas can, and Texas will. That's because it couldn't get much worse than the school-record 236.2 passing ypg (NCAA No. 99) surrendered last season. Not even with three new starters in the secondary. Or, can it?
"We've got a bunch of young guys that can't wait to get out there," Brown said, "but there may be a bunch of open (receivers) Friday."
It's been well-documented that part of the pass defense woes resulted from the rash of injuries among linebackers and DBs (unprecedented during Mack Brown's tenure in Austin). The other half of the equation was the extent to which the defense was rendered one-dimensional because former Co-DC Gene Chizik's emphases on stopping the run. The 2006 Longhorns set a new school record for rush defense (61.2 ypg, NCAA No. 3). There was also some question whether Chizik and Akina were on the same page philosophically. Now, Akina is reunited with life-long friend and colleague Larry Mac Duff as Texas' co-Defensive Coordinators.
"It's a tough call because, if you don't stop the run, you don't win," Brown said. "Obviously, what we'd like to do is the same job of stopping the run but not giving up as many big plays. We've gone back and looked at every one of our big plays. It wasn't just the scheme. We should do a better job of understanding of what (scheme) we're in when we're against someone who can easily blister you."
FS Marcus Griffin is the lone returning starter. The senior (like nearly every other Longhorn) battled injuries his junior campaign, but produced a late TFL against Iowa to help preserve Texas' Alamo Bowl win,
"The rest of them are all puppies," Brown observed. "We've got to figure out if these young guys can play man. Will we blitz as much? Will we play more zone because of them, or will we play more man because they're more athletic? They haven't been out there as much, so they're not as ready to play zone."
During the first two weeks of spring football, Co-Defensive Coordinator Duane Akina will likely "package" groups of players rather than designating four starters, Brown said. The younger DBs have a penchant for man-defense, Brown added.
"That's what we've tried to do. We've tried to recruit corners who can play man. We're seeing more and more teams in our league who play four- or five-wide, so playing just Zone won't work."
Senior Drew Kelson will likely cross-train this spring at both SLB and SS. Considered a prototypical SS when recruited out of Houston Lamar in 2004, Kelson made the switch to linebacker his sophomore season. He never fully recovered from a high ankle sprain that sidelined him the first three games of the 2006 season.
"Drew Kelson is a 220-pound guy who's played linebacker for two years," Brown cautioned, "so you can't just flip him to playing against a wide receiver, man-to-man. You've got to figure out what Drew can do the best."
RCB Deon Beasley was thrown in the fire as true freshman last season, including a start against Baylor. Senior Brandon Foster has served as a backup at RCB the past three seasons. LCB Ryan Palmer is a fourth-year junior who has seen action in 23 games, including a couple of game-saving stops at Texas Tech last October. Sophomore FS Robert Joseph is an up-and-comer who saw actions in seven games as a true freshman before separating his shoulder. RS-sophomore Ishie Oduegwu saw action in all 13 games last year. Erick Jackson is a fifth-year senior at safety with 28 career games on his resume. RS-freshman CB Chykie Brown raised eyebrows on several occasions during practice last fall ("Chykie was one of the ones who was really, really good during bowl practice. We're excited about him. He can run and break on the ball"). Five-Star CB Curtis Brown and Texas 4A First-Team all-state safety Ben Wells are early enrollees who will also participate in spring drills.
WHO WILL STEP UP ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE?
Brown's biggest concern this spring, other than his secondary, is replacing three starters on the offensive front. Among them, of course, is dearly departed All-American who held the current NCAA record with 51 consecutive starts.
"We've got good players," he noted, "but virtually no experience."
Experience now comes in the form of LT Tony Hills (started all 13 games in 2006) and RT Adam Ulatoski (started last seven games of 2006). Junior RG Cedric Dockery will be held out of contact this spring. He started the first six games of 2006 before suffering a season-ending knee injury (ACL) against Oklahoma. Fifth-year senior Dallas Griffin (22 games as a backup) will try to replace Lyle Sendlein at center.
Griffin will be backed by RS-freshman Buck Burnette (a 2006 early enrollee). Charlie Tanner and Chris Hall are a pair of RS-sophomore guards appeared in seven contests as inside linemen. Early enrollee Michael Huey will also work at guard. (Burnette and Hall can play either guard or center). J'Marcus Webb, a Five-Star 2006 recruit, saw action in 12 games as a true freshman, is expected to be Hills' primary backup. (Webb checks in at 6-8, 310) RS-freshman Roy Watts (6-6, 315) is expected to work at LT. RS-freshman Britt Mitchell moved from TE to OT last fall, but will limited by a sore foot this spring. RS-freshman Steve Moore has worked primarily at guard.
"We're trying to get an established offensive line with a group of five guys," Brown said, "and then work it to seven (in the rotation),and hopefully to 10 because we're trying to get two-deep."
Consensus prep All-American Tray Allen, who not only expects to play but expects to start, arrives in March. He will not participate in spring drills but says he will work out with teammates while learning the playbook.
HOW WILL TEXAS IGNITE ITS RUNNING GAME?
WILL THERE BE PERSONNEL CHANGES AT LINEBACKER?
WHO IS THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK?
Texas kicks-off its 10th Spring Football season Friday under head coach Mack Brown. In Austin, The Departed is not just the title of a highly-nominated Hollywood blockbuster but is also descriptive of the Longhorn secondary and offensive line. In part one of our two-part look at Spring Football, we examine the offensive line and secondary.
In part one of our two-part look at Spring Football, we examine the offensive line and secondary.