2012 Texas Football Preview: The Joneses And Their Iffy Offense

Apr 1, 2012; Austin, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns defensive tackle Ashton Dorsey (85) pressures quarterback David Ash (14) during the first half of the spring game at Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE

Texas has a ferocious defense and a loaded set of running backs. But until the quarterback position comes around, the Longhorns will still be limited. No pressure. Related: Texas' complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Horns football, visit Texas blogs Burnt Orange Nation and Barking Carnival, plus SB Nation Dallas.

Top Five Schools According To Total Revenue (2006-11)
1. Texas
2. Ohio State
3. Alabama
4. Florida
5. Michigan


Your two-minute preview of No. 13 Texas by SB Nation Studios

Their starting running back might be either of two five-star backs. Two other four-star seniors might get a few carries here and there. Their top two returning wideouts were both high four-star recruits. Two more reported this month. They have two more at tight end. Their two-deep on the offensive line consists of one five-star recruit and either eight or nine four-stars. Three more four-star freshmen reported this month.

Both star defensive ends are former five-star recruits, relegating a couple of former four-stars to mostly special teams duty thus far. Their top three returning defensive tackles are four-stars. They add another five-star freshman this fall, and three more four-stars, this fall. Their leading returning linebacker is a five-star recruit. Virtually every other linebacker of note is a former four-star kid. Four of them are sophomores. Their dynamic pair of cornerbacks: both four-stars. Their top three returning safeties: four-stars. A four-star freshman might have already cracked the two-deep here, passing other former four-stars along the way.

You get the picture.

Top Five Teams According To Two-Year Recruiting Average (The Last Two Years' Off. F/+ Rankings In Parentheses)
1. Alabama (fifth, seventh)
2. Texas (110th, 62nd)
3. Florida State (seventh, 32nd)
4. USC (17th, 10th)
5. Georgia (21st, 18th)

The University of Texas' football team over the last four years has been the perfect case study, both for why recruiting rankings matter so much (25-2 in 2008-09) and why they aren't all that matters (13-12 in 2010-11). When you ARE the Joneses, and you have your pick of the recruiting litter, you should expect a two-deep full of blue-chippers, and you should expect to either make the BCS title game (2005, 2009) or come really, really close (2001, 2008) quite frequently. You should also expect a hell of a lot more offensive competency than Texas has seen over the past two seasons.

Entering the 2012 season, Mack Brown finds himself in the interesting position of having proven everything (2005 national title, nine straight seasons with double-digit wins, the aforementioned 25-2 record in 2008-09) and having a lot to prove. The quintessential CEO coach rearranged the board of directors last year and saw rather drastic improvement, but to get back to the heights of just a few years ago, more drastic improvement is needed. That's how far Texas fell in 2010.

Top Five Most Drastic Single-Season Tumbles in F/+ Ratings
1. 2009 Rice (-28.4%)
2. 2008 Washington (-28.0%)
3. 2010 Texas (-27.0%)
4. 2011 Auburn (-26.7%)
5. 2008 Washington State (-25.5%)

In 2012, the Texas defense should be truly one of the nation's elites, perhaps the most physically imposing defense in the country (yes, Alabama and LSU fans, I said it), with devastating defensive ends and cornerbacks, ridiculous depth up the middle, and an exciting young defensive coordinator on the sidelines. But an offense that improved quite a bit last year, still has quite a bit to go, and it is unclear whether or not there is major reason for optimism in that regard. It is an odd time to be part of Texas football. The Joneses are at once both right where they should be (on defense) and still lagging behind (on offense).


Related: Check out Texas' statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about CEO Brown and his Longhorns last summer:

If the coaching staff gels even halfway, signs point to Texas bouncing back like round ball. They recovered only 17 of 56 fumbles that took place in their games, a staggering 30.3 percent; in the previous five seasons, only five teams (2007 Wyoming, 2008 Florida, 2009 Florida, 2007 Western Michigan, 2007 Tennessee) recovered fewer than 30 percent of all fumbles. While it's not a guarantee that Texas will automatically fall on more bouncing balls in 2011 (Florida did, after all, land on the list in 2008 and 2009), odds are still pretty good. If they had recovered 50 percent of all fumbles, that would have made a staggering difference of almost plus-1 turnovers per game; in a season where they lost four games by eight points or less, that could have made a significant impact. It wouldn't have made them a truly "good" team, of course (nothing was saving that offense), but at least we'd be talking about their "incredibly disappointing Alamo Bowl season" right now.

So if Texas a) gets at least a small handful of immediate contributions from the incoming, highly-ranked recruiting class (particularly if star running back Malcolm Brown is ready from Day One), b) gets a jolt of energy from a young, hungry group of new assistants, and c) gets a normal number good bounces after a year in which they got none, then there's little reason why they can't be a Top 25 team again in 2011. The pieces are in place for that. But if the new management and the personnel do not immediately click, or, of course, if a lot of their four-star offensive players just simply aren't as good as their Rivals rankings suggest, then it is certainly feasible that improvement will be marginal.

When other talented teams (other Texas teams, for that matter) have a "down season," it means 9-3 and 'only' a Cotton Bowl (or, in other conferences, Outback Bowl or Chick-Fil-A Bowl) bid. Texas' 2010 fall was alarming in its magnitude, no matter what kind of bad coaching and bad breaks were at hand. And no matter how "re-energized" Mack Brown says he is now, there is no guarantee that Texas will simply rebound in 2011 like nothing happened. And because of that, any optimistic projection is full of risk. When you're thinking about the Big 12 this season, you're basically ranking the nine teams not named Texas, then throwing a dart against the wall.


SB Nation Studios previews the Big 12 at Big 12 speed

On its face, Brown's moves made for a successful bounceback season in 2011. Texas indeed played at a Top 25 level again (F/+ ranking: 19th), but the offense regressed as the season progressed, and it hindered what became an incredible defense over the last half of the season.

First Three Games: Texas 29.7 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 22.0 (plus-7.7)
Next Three Games: Opponents 27.6 Adj. Points per game, Texas 25.1 (minus-2.5)
Next Three Games: Texas 27.5 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 18.1 (plus-9.4)
Last Four Games: Texas 22.8 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 20.2 (plus-2.6)

In back-to-back weeks in November, Texas allowed a combined 34 points and 459 yards to Missouri and Kansas State, and lost both games. Injuries certainly played a role in the offense's regression -- by the end of the season, Texas had lost its top three running backs to injury -- but only so much of one. Two young quarterbacks alternated behind center, and as opponents figured them out, there wasn't a Plan B beyond "run the ball as much as possible." And when that stopped working, Texas leaned on its defense as much as anybody in the country. That might be the case again in 2012, though a little new blood could go a long way.

Offense


Shutdown Fullback explains and predicts the new Big 12

Mack Brown has since admitted it: in 2010, he just didn't have it. Texas' loss in 2009's BCS title game gutted him; the 'Horns had been working for four years to get another title shot, and when it finally came, four-year starting quarterback Colt McCoy got hurt on the first series of the game. Texas lost to Alabama, and Brown fought off a hangover for much of the proceeding year. Texas regressed in every aspect of the game: they fell from 12th to 20th in Def. F/+ and from fifth to 71st in Special Teams F/+, but the impact was felt most on the offensive side of the ball. Texas fell from 40th to 110th in Off. F/. New golden-boy quarterback Garrett Gilbert struggled mightily, and all the four-star talent in the world couldn't mask what was a lifeless, directionless offensive system.

One could actually make the case that the slide had already begun. Strong defense and special teams, combined with timely magic from McCoy, masked the fact that, even in 2009, the offense had fallen from 11th to 40th. The 'Horns played the field position game well enough, made the plays they needed to make and got a bit lucky with the schedule (the non-conference slate was cakey, Oklahoma regressed significantly, Oklahoma State suffered from well-publicized injuries, and only Nebraska was capable of delivering a strong challenge in the Big 12), and they were able to go 13-0 in the regular season. But when McCoy left and most of the Big 12 South improved, the 'Horns could no longer hide the fact that their offense was in need of a significant upgrade. Brown handed the reins to young co-coordinators Bryan Harsin and Major Applewhite, who in turn handed the reins to two ultra-young quarterbacks: sophomore Case McCoy and true freshman David Ash.

Considering the youth involved, and considering the enormity of the hole into which Texas had dug itself in 2010, the results were … fine. The Longhorns were still starkly limited by their lack of offensive prowess, but the offense did indeed improve quite a bit despite youth at the quarterback position. Texas leaned heavily on the running game on standard downs in an attempt to take as much pressure as possible off of quarterbacks -- they ran 71 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and improved to a mediocre 61st in Standard Downs S&P+. Granted, they were also 99th on passing downs, but that's almost to be expected with a true freshman taking a majority of snaps behind center.

To an extent, we should see the same dynamic at play in 2012, though Texas hopes that a combination of maturity and new talent will still allow the 'Horns to improve on all downs. Not only do the 'Horns' two leading rushers from 2011 return, but the bluest of blue-chippers joins the stable as well. Sophomores Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron combined for 1,205 yards (4.9 per carry), 10 touchdowns and a minus-3.8 Adj. POE (meaning they were about four points worse than the average runner given their carries, blocking and opponents; not terrible for freshmen) while playing around injuries. They both caught fire briefly in October -- Brown gained 254 yards on 47 carries versus Oklahoma State and Kansas, then Bergeron gained 191 against Texas Tech -- and if healthy, both could average well over five yards per carry in 2012. Throw in a scatback type in D.J. Monroe as a change of pace, and you should have a Top 40 running game, especially considering the progress potentially made by an offensive line that returns 64 career starts (spread over five players) and brings in a four-star junior college left tackle in Donald Hawkins. Texas ranked 30th in Adj. Line Yards last year and could ascend into the Top 20.


Texas: Riser or faller in 2012?

Texas could improve more significantly on the ground, however, if incoming freshman Johnathan Gray quickly begins to show the five-star potential that made him one of the state of Texas' most sought-after backs in recent memory. Of course, the ground game will only matter so much unless the passing game improves a bit. You probably aren't going to run the ball too effectively on third-and-7, after all. And at first glance, it is difficult to figure out what improvement should be expected at the quarterback position, no matter how much the dead horse has been beaten this offseason. Both David Ash and Case McCoy bring positive traits to the table, but neither has brought enough to the table to differentiate himself. It seems the job is Ash's to lose at this point, but let's just say I'm unconvinced. Ash supposedly has the upper hand because of his ability to avoid mistakes, but he had both a higher interception rate (4.6 percent to McCoy's 2.8 percent) and a higher sack rate (8.5 percent to 5.8 percent) last year. He brings at least a little bit of proficiency to the table on the ground (57 non-sack carries for 267 yards last year), but he still has a long way to go to prove himself. And it certainly wouldn't hurt if he got a little more help from his receiving corps.

(That is a two-way street, naturally. Sprinter Marquise Goodwin consistently got separation downfield against California in the Holiday Bowl, but Ash could never get the ball to him accurately.)

With Goodwin back from his Olympic sojourn, it appears the top three are set on the receiver hierarchy, with Jaxon Shipley (607 yards, 8.5 per target, 62 percent catch rate) taking on the primary load (he would have finished the season with the most targets had he played in all 13 games), especially on standard downs, and Mike Davis (609, 7.4, 55 percent) and Goodwin (421, 7.3, 57 percent) going long occasionally on passing downs. The possession passing game could get a boost from the tight end position. D.J. Grant (180, 8.2, 73 percent) was successful in minimal opportunities, and redshirt freshman M.J. McFarland is an exciting prospect. Still, this unit didn't produce at the level its recruiting rankings would predict (and yes, two more incoming blue-chippers -- Kendall Sanders and Cayleb Jones -- will get the chance to step into the rotation and live up to their billing this fall), and a receiving corps can only look so good running routes for an unsettled quarterback.

If Ash or McCoy (or, technically, true freshman Connor Brewer) take a step forward -- and your most likely period for a big breakthrough comes either after your first or second year -- the offense will, too. (The spring game wasn't incredibly encouraging in this regard.) Without that, this will still be a solid offense that falls apart the moment it encounters an unsuccessful play on first down.

Defense

For Lindy's In The Huddle: Texas 2012 publication this year, I joined forces with Burnt Orange Nation chief Peter Bean in an article about what makes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's defenses so good.

Manny Diaz's defenses choke the life out of you. Texas' 2011 defense was not incredibly aggressive in terms of taking down the quarterback. Instead, the Longhorns were the football equivalent of UNLV basketball's old Amoeba Defense. The Longhorns sought to leverage opponents into low-efficiency opportunities, and they swarmed to the ball. They forced offenses to settle for 2-yard gains, and if the offense attempted something too aggressive, disaster was likely to strike by way of a negative play. Texas recorded 116 tackles for loss in 2011, an incredibly strong total, especially considering only 29 of those were sacks.

Defense starts in the middle. In 2010, Diaz's first Mississippi State defense improved from 41st to 17th in PPP+, from 24th to 10th in Rushing S&P+ and from ninth to sixth in Adjusted Line Yards. In 2009, Diaz's final Middle Tennessee State defense ranked 15th in PPP+, 23rd in Rushing S&P+ and an incredible sixth in Adjusted Line Yards. In other words, Diaz's defenses feature excellent line play, excellent tackling and excellent safety play. In Murfreesboro, Tenn., of all place, he was able to craft a rather incredible defense; despite having two-star talent, Middle Tennessee State ranked 21st in Defensive F/+ in 2009. The more talent Diaz inherits, the better his defenses perform … but the philosophy behind the defense is clearly strong.

Diaz claims to prefer speed and "suddenness" over size, but with the way Texas recruits, he has plenty of both. The line is of perfectly acceptable size, while the projected starting linebackers average 6'3, 243 pounds, and the safeties average 6'0, 210.

So Diaz's defenses are typically strong up the middle regardless of talent level. In 2011, we got hints of how good a Diaz defense can be when you combine strong middle play with one of the best pairs of defensive ends and one of the best pairs of cornerbacks in the country. Texas was good in all of the ways we expect from Diaz at this point -- fourth in Def. F/+, fifth in PPP+ (big-play prevention), third in Rushing S&P+ and first in the country in Adj. Line Yards. It was a nice turnaround from a 2010 defense that was still solid (20th in Def. F/+) but underachieved a bit. Texas 'only' ranked 23rd in Adj. Sack Rate, but the defense was as suffocating as any not in the SEC.

Ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor, each former five-star recruits, combined for 35 tackles for loss, 15 sacks and six passes broken up, simply absurd totals overall. Jeffcoat is still working back from an injury suffered in the Holiday Bowl, but he was cleared to practice earlier this week. They will be working with a bit of a new set of tackles -- starter Ashton Dorsey is the only of last year's top three tackles returning -- but let's just say that I'm not too worried about a unit that includes sophomore Desmond Jackson, junior Chris Whaley and incoming five-star man-mountain Malcolm Brown. (Yes, Texas' recruiting is so automated at this point that they have two five-star Malcolm Browns on the roster.)

At corner, Diaz hoisted major responsibility onto the shoulders of then-sophomore Carrington Byndom and then-freshman Quandre Diggs. The result: a combined six interceptions, 30 passes broken up, 12 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles from the pair, and a pass defense that ranked eighth in Passing S&P+. The run defense was strong enough that opponents had no question but to pass (not typically a problem in the Big 12), and the corners were strong enough to consistently make plays.

Granted, Diaz and Brown still see room for improvement. And lord knows, coaches always should.

"The defense has to get better or we'll end up in the Holiday Bowl again," Diaz said. "No offense to the Holiday Bowl. Shamu is fun to go see, but he's not going to change much from year to year. We don't need to see him again."

Mack Brown interjected, saying, "People talk about how good the defense was. Well, we gave up 48 points to Baylor and helped their quarterback win the Heisman Trophy."

That's all well and good, of course, but it goes without saying that the offense bears more of the improvement load than the defense. And beyond that, only twice all year did Texas' D play at a below-average level: against Baylor and against Iowa State (thanks mostly to what happened during garbage time of a blowout).

Depending on how it handles departures at the linebacker position, Texas' already stellar defense could improve again this fall. Stars return at end and corner, obviously, but weakside missile Emmanuel Acho (19 tackles for loss, three sacks, six passes broken up) and underrated middle linebacker Keenan Robinson (10 tackles for loss, one sack, seven passes broken up) are both gone. Their replacements obviously have the pedigree, but we'll see if they can match the production. Junior Jordan Hicks (four tackles for loss, four passes broken up) now leads a young corps of linebackers. Longtime starting safety Blake Gideon is also gone, though Kenny Vaccaro and Adrian Phillips (combined: 12 tackles for loss, four interceptions, 13 passes broken up, three forced fumbles) seem like a rather ferocious pair of safeties.

Defining Success

For a typical team that improved from 5-7 and 67th in F/+ to 8-5 and 19th, we would look at consolidation of gains as a success. Win eight or nine games again, solidify a Top 25 ranking after drastic improvement, and you've done well. But this is Texas, of course. It is difficult to imagine that anything other than 10-plus wins and a run at the conference title will be viewed as a success. Texas gets West Virginia and TCU at home, which should help in meeting expectations, and their non-conference slate (Wyoming, New Mexico, at Ole Miss) doesn't offer a lot of resistance.

Prognosis

It is just baffling to see an offense struggle this much with such high recruiting rankings. Again, not too long ago Texas was definitive proof of why recruiting rankings matter and are at least reasonably accurate. But without strong quarterback play, it doesn't really matter. It is almost boring to talk about just one position at this point, especially when the territory is as well-covered as this, but until one of them (or anybody else) steps forward, Texas' ceiling is lower than that of most of the others atop the annual recruiting rankings, even with all the five-star running backs in the world.

For more on Horns football, visit Texas blogs Burnt Orange Nation and Barking Carnival, plus SB Nation Dallas.

While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel:

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