September 22, 2012

Is UT ahead or behind expectations one quarter into season?

We are a quarter through the season, so let's take a quick look at whether each position is ahead, behind or right on preseason expectations:

QUARTERBACK - If you were told before the season David Ash would have 7 touchdown passes, 0 interceptions and be completing 76.4 percent of his passes with his best game coming on the road at Ole Miss (19 of 23 passing for 326 yards and 4 TDs) through three games, you'd have taken it.

There's been no controversy, no major hiccups outside of a botched snap and a few missed deep passes. But even those started to connect at Ole Miss.

Ash and Bryan Harsin are making the kind of progress the Longhorns needed to see at this point.

The next step is critical, because Ash has to continue to progress on the same arc he's been on to handle the to-do list coming up (at Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma).

He has to start stringing performances like the Ole Miss game together against better opponents.

Expectation: Ahead

RUNNING BACK - The results have been solid. The Longhorns are averaging 258.7 yards per game on the ground, and that's right where the coaches wanted things.

Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron both have 37 carries with Brown averaging 6.4 ypc and Bergeron averaging 5.6 ypc. Both have 3 TDs. Both have some nice, long runs as well with Bergeron turning in a tackle-breaking 54-yarder, and Brown going for 31 yards (both against Wyoming).

Brown seems like he could use a few more carries earlier in games, but the bottom line is the running game is productive.

Johnathan Gray has hardly gotten any work when the game is on the line, but senior D.J. Monroe has found his fire and has certainly made the most of his 8 carries (for 56 yards and 3 TDs) this season.

Expectation: Right on

RECEIVER - If not for the Ole Miss game and the deep passing game involving Mike Davis and Marquise Goodwin, this group would finish well below expectation. But instead it finishes slightly below expectation.

There needs to be more consistency in the deep passing game to Davis and Goodwin, and more consistency in finding Jaxon Shipley. (After Shipley caught 7 passes in Game 1, he has five catches the past two games, the same number as Daje Johnson.)

With the running game cooking, there hasn't been many throws for guys like John Harris, Bryant Jackson or the young receivers. But as the defenses get better, and the passing game becomes more necessary to back safeties out of the box, there should be more receiver personnel groupings.

There are signs of progress at this position after the Ole Miss game, and the blocking down field has met or even exceeded expectations as witnessed by Goodwin being named offensive MVP of the New Mexico game for his blocking despite only two catches for 15 yards.

Expectations: Just below

TIGHT ENDS - The blocking of Barrett Matthews has come on, and Greg Daniels' blocking has been a pleasant surprise. But it's taking M.J. McFarland longer than hoped to become an effective blocker, and it's still mind bottling that UT doesn't have a complete tight end. No sense lamenting that fact, since it's been lamented so many times already.

There have been flashes from D.J. Grant, but not enough consistency to say this position has met expectations.

Expectation: Below

OFFENSIVE LINE - There was improvement against Ole Miss, which had 9 sacks coming into the Texas game and didn't touch David Ash. There haven't been glaring lapses in which defenders have run free into the backfield and unloaded on Ash through three games.

But the competition is about to get a whole lot better.

The line should have been able to impose its will early in games against teams like Wyoming and New Mexico for UT's running backs, and that didn't happen. Although, the line has been able to wear teams down. But, again, the competition is about to get a whole lot better.

When the opposing team has a quality nose tackle, Texas has shown it will struggle to open holes in the between the tackles. That area has to improve.

The O-line needs to have more days like it had against Ole Miss.

Expectation: Below

DEFENSIVE LINE - Defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor have made impact plays, and you'd expect that from two preseason all-conference type performers. The defensive tackles weren't as strong as you'd have expected in games against Wyoming and New Mexico, although Brandon Moore produced a sack against Ole Miss.

I expected this group to be able to completely disrupt the running attack of a team like New Mexico, and that didn't happen. The Lobos ran for 206 yards and were able to control the clock with their running game in the first half because Texas couldn't get them off the field.

For Texas to really get pressure on the best quarterbacks in the Big 12, this group has to take it up a few notches.

Expectation: Below

LINEBACKER - We knew there would be growing pains for this group after losing senior leaders Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson. But you wanted to see those pains start to go away in Week 2 and Week 3, and they are still happening.

And now Jordan Hicks (hip) is injured with his return unknown. Steve Edmond and Demarco Cobbs both came into the Ole Miss game needing to make a play or two that would infuse confidence.

It happened for Edmond almost immediately with his pick-six that contributed immensely to the performance of the Longhorns in hostile territory. Now, Edmond needs to build on that game and start stacking big plays.

Cobbs is still looking for a play or two that he can build on. Instead, he has looked like he's thinking way too much instead of just attacking. Cobbs needs a breakout game, because all of his coaches and teammates say he has the talent to do it. But it's time to show it.

And players like Kendall Thompson and Tevin Jackson need to be ready to go if Hicks is out for any period of time.

Expectation: Below

SECONDARY - This group has been all over the place. Kenny Vaccaro has played at a high level consistently with his coverage and bone-crunching hits. His stock is high.

Quandre Diggs has been up and down, but has made up for his inconsistency with a team-leading three interceptions.

Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips probably haven't had the start to the season they would have wanted.

Both may be pressing, but there are too many examples of missed tackles, poor angles and poor communication in coverage through three games.

This group can turn things around quickly with the opportunities it is about to get in the passing game. It will need to do so, or the flip side is getting exposed.

Expectation: Below

SPECIAL TEAMS: This group has been all over the place as well. The punting of Alex King has been outstanding. Quandre Diggs has had a couple moments on punt returns.

Mykkele Thompson has blocked punts in back-to-back games, and Chris Whaley blocked an extra point in Game 1.

The coverage on kickoffs the first two games was outstanding, led by wild man freshman LB Dalton Santos. But there has been very little sizzle on kickoff returns, and any attempted field goal the first three games required holding your breath.

With K Anthony Fera expected to be back for Oklahoma State, there may be a remedy to UT's 3-of-7 start on field goal attempts. And Daje Johnson may just be getting warmed up on kick returns.

Expectation: Below

MY TAKE: Through three games, it's almost as if Texas has been drafting in the pack behind the leaders without calling on available horsepower. Or it may not know how to tap into that horsepower just yet.

Bryan Harsin's play-calling can mask some of the issues with the offensive line and tight end. UT's running backs are versatile and demand respect from defenses. Texas has talent at receiver, and that chemistry with Ash should keep getting better.

The biggest concern right now, of all places, is on defense. The missed tackles and mental mistakes are not what anyone expected from that side of the ball. The injury of Jordan Hicks has a chance to be a season-changer if he can't recover quickly.

The two weeks to prepare for this upcoming stretch came at a good time, so that Manny Diaz and company can do the teaching and coaching necessary to get the defense playing at a higher level.

There is a lot of room between the team and its ceiling. The question is how much of that room can be made up by the Longhorns in the next three weeks. In the preseason, Mack Brown made some subtle comparisons between this year's team and 2008.

If the Longhorns are going to be the surprise team of the Big 12 and really shake things up, Ash needs to continue to improve the way he has, and the rest of the team has to keep pace with the progress he's been making.

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