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July 17, 2008
THE SCHEME: Texas' base offense uses three receivers, a tight end and a running back, but the Longhorns will show multiple looks and have had great success with the zone read. They strive for balance, and last season the Longhorns were among just 10 teams in the nation to average 200 yards rushing and passing. More important, Texas has averaged more than 35 points and ranked among the nation's top 15 in scoring offense in each of the past five seasons.
STAR POWER: Junior quarterback Colt McCoy is a productive passer, strong runner, strong leader and sharp game manager. Last season, he completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,303 yards and 22 touchdowns – but it was considered an off-year because of his 18 interceptions. He also ran for 492 yards last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman running back Foswhitt Whittaker, a former four-star prospect, is touted as being quick and elusive. He'll need to be. The Longhorns are unproven at running back and need someone to emerge as an adequate replacement for Jamaal Charles. Whitaker could be the guy. At the least, he'll share time with sophomore Vondrell McGee.
IT'S HIS TIME: A few names could be inserted here, but junior tackle Adam Ulatoski, who is moving from the right to the left side, may be the best choice. He's entering his third year as a starter and needs to raise his level of play from solid to exceptional. He has been good in pass protection, but needs to improve his run-blocking. The Longhorns have so many questions on offense that they're counting on a young line to come up big. Ulatoski needs to lead the way.
STRONGEST AREA: Although McCoy struggled with turnovers in '07 (18 picks, seven fumbles), he has passed for 5,873 yards and 51 touchdowns in two seasons. Now that he's a junior, he figures to be better. He's also a solid runner, though not as dangerous as backup John Chiles - who may be the most explosive runner on the roster.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Longhorns haven't had a real vertical threat since Limas Sweed was lost to injury midway through last season. Wide receivers Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley are capable, but won't make safeties fear the deep pass. Defenses figure to crowd the line if Texas can't find someone who can get deep. That player might be redshirt freshman Malcolm Williams, who has looked good in seven-on-seven drills this summer but did not distinguish himself in the spring.
OVERVIEW: The Longhorns have no proven tight end, no proven big-play threat at running back, some reshuffling on the line and a quarterback who committed 25 turnovers last season. Yet there remains an air of optimism because of offensive success in recent seasons, prospects with potential and the growth of McCoy. But the Longhorns appear to lack the score-from-anywhere-on-the-field punch that Charles and Sweed provided. Texas still has a solid nucleus of seven returning starters, so if a big-play threat emerges, the offense could be as dangerous as ever. If not, they may resort to ball control and count on long, sustained drives to score. For that to happen, McCoy's turnovers must decrease.
THE SCHEME: Historically, Texas has used a 4-3 base set. But this season, the Longhorns may spend more time than usual in their nickel package as they try to get more speed on the field and bolster their pass defense, which has been atrocious the past two seasons. New coordinator Will Muschamp likely will be much more aggressive than his recent predecessors.
STAR POWER: Brown has praised Brian Orakpo as the most talented end he has coached since he had Greg Ellis at North Carolina. That's high praise, especially since Orakpo posted just nine tackles for losses and 5.5 sacks last season. To be fair, Orakpo was hampered by injuries. Now healthy, he's being counted on to lead the Longhorns' pass rush.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: With all the highly regarded defensive backs that Texas has brought in recently, it would be easy to overlook redshirt freshman Earl Thomas. Texas is in dire need of an upgrade at safety and Thomas may provide it. He's active and physical and showed great promise this spring in a safety/linebacker role in the nickel package.
IT'S HIS TIME: The signing of linebacker Sergio Kindle was supposed to be the biggest coup of the Longhorns' 2006 recruiting class. But he has yet to live up to the hype. Kindle has made 53 tackles and 0.5 sacks in his first two seasons. He has been slowed by injury, and the hope is this will be a breakout season. Kindle is expected to be used off the edge more to bolster the pass rush. If healthy, he could give Texas a huge boost.
STRONGEST AREA: The Longhorns typically are ornery up front, and that doesn't figure to change. Orakpo is a standout at end, and the Longhorns feel they're six deep there with great athletic talent. Former five-star prospect Eddie Jones, converted running back Henry Melton and Sam Acho are vying to start on the other side. Aaron Lewis, who started seven games last season, isn't even on the two-deep right now. Even though two starters were lost at tackle, Texas shouldn't falter there with Lamarr Houston moving from end and Roy Miller moving up from second string. Houston started 11 times last season. Depth at tackle could be a problem, though.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Inexperience in the secondary has to be a great concern. Texas may be counting on three redshirt freshmen at safety – Thomas, Ben Wells and Christian Scott – to bolster a pass defense that ranked 110th in the nation last season.
OVERVIEW: Texas allowed more than 30 points in six games last season, including each of the last four. But if everything works out right, the Longhorns could make vast improvement in '08. Still, that would require a lot of "ifs" – if Orakpo turns in a dominant season, if Kindle lives up to his potential, if depth doesn't become a problem at tackle, if newcomers at safety prove they're ready …. Muschamp's hiring enhances the odds that Texas will be improved. As for that poor pass defense? The Longhorns face five opponents that ranked among the nation's top 17 in passing offense last season, and each of the first four opponents have pass-oriented offenses.
Ryan Bailey's first college field-goal attempt provided the Longhorns a last-second victory over Nebraska in 2006. Since then, he has converted 24 of 28 attempts. Cosby averaged just over 24 yards on kickoff returns and just over 9 yards on punt returns to earn all-conference honors a year ago. The Longhorns must replace punter Justin Moore, but their primary concern is upgrading their coverage teams - which were mediocre at best in 2007.
When Mack Brown arrived in Austin 11 years ago, the Longhorns had not finished a season ranked in the top 10 since 1983. Under Brown, the Longhorns have five top-10 finishes in the past seven seasons, including a national championship in 2005. They've also notched at least nine victories every season in that span. Yet Brown often is criticized as being more recruiter than strategist. But he doesn't draw nearly as much criticism as offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who seemingly has to prove himself every season – and every season seems to field one of the nation's most productive units. The defense has struggled the past two seasons, but Brown hired Muschamp to shore up that unit. Muschamp has supervised some of the nation's premier defenses at LSU and Auburn.
Improving a woeful pass defense is vital – but the Longhorns likely will have a young, inexperienced secondary. The Longhorns' non-conference opponents are Florida Atlantic, UTEP and Rice, which were among the country's top passing teams a year ago. The Longhorns also take on Arkansas, which figures to pass frequently under new coach Bobby Petrino. That gives Texas' young defensive players a chance be tested extensively in games the Longhorns should be good enough to win on talent alone. The Longhorns need all the work they can get. Once Big 12 play begins, they face some of the country's best passers, including Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell and Kansas' Todd Reesing, who all threw more than 30 touchdown passes in '07.
Texas has seven consecutive 10-victory seasons. But this season, it's difficult to know what to expect. In fact, Texas probably is facing more uncertainty than in any season since 1998 – Brown's first in Austin. Can McCoy significantly reduce his interceptions? Can the Longhorns get consistent production at tailback? Will they find a deep receiving threat? Will an adequate tight end emerge? Will the pass defense improve? If the Longhorns get a positive answer to all – or most – of these questions, they could mount a stern challenge for the Big 12 championship. If not? The streak of double-digit victory totals will end.
Olin Buchanan is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.