November 12, 2008

Seven things Texas still needs to do in 2008

Yes, the Texas Longhorns are 9-1 and ranked No.3 in the BCS. Through 10 games, there can't be any question that Mack Brown's team has put together a special season and there is still hope that it will end with a spot on the largest of national stages. Still, I wouldn't be one of those "Internet experts" if I didn't focus on some of the areas where the Longhorns still need to improve.

Magical season or not, this Longhorns team still has a lot of unfinished business with two regular season games and we've provided a list of seven things that still need to happen before the end of the season.

1. Find out who Fozzy Whittaker really is

There's no question that Whittaker is a player, but through 10 games this season we still don't know exactly what he is as a player. Can he be a lead running back? Can he handle 15-20 carries per game when the spotlight is the brightest?

Again, we think we know about Whittaker, but injuries have kept him from taking off. That being said, after strong performances in the second half against Texas Tech and last week against Baylor, it's time to find out where Whittaker's ceiling is as a player because if he's the guy that a lot of people think he might be, the Texas running game in 2009 will have a head start over where this team was in 2008. If he's not, we're back at square one again in a few months.

2. Continue the education of Malcolm Williams

We all got a taste of what Williams can accomplish when he's given opportunities and through 10 games this season, he's caught 15 passes. That's barely one per game. When you consider that the Longhorns have leaned so heavily on Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley this season, there's no reason not to start getting Williams more involved each week.

We're not suggesting that the Longhorns go out of their way to showcase the kid, but they do need to make sure that they include him in the game-plan. Williams is likely going to be a starter next season and at 6-3, 220 pounds, Williams possesses the kind of big-play ability in the downfield passing game that no other player in the program has.

Memo to Greg Davis - don't forget about that.

3. Taking the next step as an O-line

There isn't a great defense in the Big 12 this season and this group hasn't suffered any major injuries, but they have yet to emerge as a real force this season. This is the time of the year that the Texas offensive line should be imposing their will on teams across the country and it feels like they are headed in the other direction.

Colt McCoy has been taking huge hits in every game and the running game seems to be up in the air each week. For instance, if the Longhorns need a yard in crunch time this week in Lawrence, how much confidence in the running game does anyone in burnt orange really have that they could get it?

Adam Ulatoski, Cedric Dockery, Chris Hall, Charlie Tanner, Kyle Hix and the rest of the gang have too much talent to simply be a good, but not above-average offensive line. In these last two weeks, this unit needs to begin imposing their will on the opponent the way they did against Arizona State in last year's Holiday Bowl and against Oklahoma earlier this week.

There's just too much inconsistency and that needs to stop because we're not talking about a young group any more. Mack Brown thought this group might be the biggest strength that his team has entering the season and their play has grown stagnant in the last three weeks.

It's time to turn that around.

4. The linebackers need to make a play

There was a time early in the season when it looked like everything was coming together for the Longhorn defense - the front four was dominating, the young member of the secondary were playing at a higher level than most could have expected and the linebacker unit was finally starting to come of age. On paper it looked like a unit that might be the fastest and most dynamic in the last 20 years. Then we got into the start of the Big 12 and everything has fallen apart.

Since October 4th when the Longhorns traveled to Boulder, the Texas linebackers (minus Sergio Kindle) have stopped making progress. In the five games that have transpired since, the trio of Roddrick Muckelroy, Jared Norton and Rashad Bobino have failed to record a single tackles for loss, sack or involved themselves in a play that results in a turnover.

That's zero impact plays in the last 300 minutes of game action. There's no question that Will Muschamp is one of the nation's best defensive coordinators, but he's the linebacker coach and he needs to get more out of that position. Even the 2007 Texas linebackers would occasionally make a big play.

Yet when the games have really started to matter, this year's group has been M.I.A.

5. Get the young defenders on the field

Remember these names - Aaron Williams, Keenan Robinson and Kheeston Randall. All three will have major roles on next year's defense and all three could emerge as starters next season.

Perhaps it would be different if the defense was playing better, but the linebackers aren't making big plays, the secondary is averaging an interception once every other week and the defensive line could use the added depth.

Again, I'm not saying that all three need to start or become a showcase piece of the game-plan, but each needs to be involved because they simply possess too much talent to keep on the field. Let Williams rotate some with Deon Beasley. Let Robinson take a few snaps at linebacker. Let Randall give Roy Miller and Lamarr Houston a little relief.

Like the Astrodome crowd once screamed in delight in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, "Let them play!"

6. Create some turnovers

Through 10 games this season, the Longhorns are +1 in the turnover category, which is not a good sign when your team has only committed an average of one per game.

If you want to know what's keeping this team from being a truly great unit, it's the lack of forced turnovers by the defense. As good as they have been this year as a team, they've had very little help in the way of big plays from the defense.

Only three players have gotten their hands on passes this season and turned them into interceptions. Two of the four members of the starting secondary have yet to intercept a pass and not a single player from the front seven has even gotten lucky and caught a deflected pass. Meanwhile, the Longhorns usually recover a fumble once every other week.

Ouch.

If this team is going to survive the last two weeks of the season and perhaps play for their second Big 12 title under Brown, they've got to start forcing opposing offenses into bad plays.

Check out these numbers in the forced turnovers department (national ranking in parenthesis):

Texas Tech - 24 (10th)
Oklahoma - 24 (10th)
Oklahoma State - 22 (20th)
Florida - 21 (16th)
Alabama - 20 (31st)
Texas - 13 (96th)

Double ouch.

7. Finish

Yes, it sounds simple and the Longhorns even made it a team motto a year ago, but it's been easier said than done for much of Brown's tenure at Texas.

There was the loss to Texas A&M last year, the losses to A&M and Kansas State in 2006, the loss to Texas Tech in 2002 and the loss to Colorado in 2001.

The Longhorn program has let some golden opportunities for BCS games, conference titles and possibly even a national championship game bid or two escape their grasp in these seasons because they couldn't finish the job against lesser teams.

That has to change this season. The Longhorns have played too well and overcome so much to simply let a team like Kansas or A&M derail them from obtaining their goals like they certainly have the last two seasons.

With everything left to play for, there won't be any good excuses this year. It's time to finish.


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