July 11, 2008

Forget the skeptics, it's time to pump sunshine

Ok, admit it.

It's been a tough summer for the loyal Orangebloods. As if the prospect of going through the final three lonely months before the first kickoff against Florida Atlantic wasn't bad enough, the Longhorns have become everyone's favorite forgotten football team.

You've already heard from all of the dissenters

All spring you've read that the Longhorns don't have a game-breaking running back.

Or a proven deep threat in the passing game.

Or experience at safety.

Or, Or, Or… the question marks just seem to stretch on for an eternity.

The ultimate indignation is the national gushing that has been directed towards Lubbock. Don't you bother yourself with the fact that this new and improved Texas Tech defense gave up 41 points at Missouri, 31 points against Colorado at home, 59 points to Texas in Austin, 27 points to Oklahoma in Lubbock and 28 points in the bowl game against Virginia.

Geez, all of that occurred in the final six weeks of the season when the Red Raider's defense allegedly made the kind of vast improvement that has some people whispering *gasp* national championship.

Seriously? The Longhorns were just a shade above pretty good as a team last year and they pistol-whipped the Red Raiders so bad that the taste still hasn't left Mike Leach's mouth.

Yet here we are, smack dab in the middle of the summer and you've got prognosticators from the Left Coast to the East Coast predicting a third-place finish in the Big 12 South. A few have even predicted that a fourth-place finish might not be out of the question, given UT's tough schedule.

There was an Internet column a few weeks that compared the Texas football program to Jenny McCarthy, but a better 2008 comparison might be Taylor Vaughan.

Let me guess, the name sounds familiar, but you just can't place it.

Well, let me take you back to 1999 when Mrs. Vaughan was the hottest babe on the planet in the epic guy's movie She's All That. Once on top of the world, she fell on hard times after breaking up with Zack Siler and having MTV Real World-ex Brock Hudson drop her like she was the Los Angeles Clippers.

Heading into the prom, she was no longer the hot name on campus and it appeared that arch-rival Laney Boggs might steal her spotlight, despite a pedigree of championship talent.

I know you remembered what happened next. That's right; the girl that everyone wanted to lose got more than enough votes to earn her crown. Taylor Vaughan simply wouldn't be denied - no way, now how.

After 431 words you are probably wondering where all of this is going.

It's this simple: the fragility of the Texas program has been greatly exaggerated. Yes, there are a lot of questions, but the problem that a lot of people have is that by focusing on what they don't know, they forget to emphasize what they do know.

Therefore, I feel like it's my call of duty to remind everyone why there is reason for excitement heading into the 2008 season. There's a reason why the Longhorns are projected by numerous college football experts to be very serious contenders for a national championship run in 2009.

The depth chart isn't in perfect shape, but when you look at who is scheduled to return in a shade under 400 days from today, the Longhorns might have as many as 16 or 17 returning starters, and there's a group of young players foaming at the mouth to get on the field and they'll be pushing those established starters for playing time.

Not sold?

Here's where I provide the payoff with a look at the top 25 reasons why you should be salivating over the start of the 2008 season. If next year has a potential championship season written all over it, then it stands to reason that some of the dynamic talent needed to embark on that kind of quest is going to start asserting themselves on the field if they haven't already.

Like Taylor Vaughan before them, these Texas Longhorns have too much pride to give up their preordained birthright as one of the top two schools in their division.

1. It is easy to take junior quarterback Colt McCoy for granted after the first two seasons on the 40 Acres. After all, he did follow in the footsteps of the greatest player in school history and he's only won 20 games as a starter (one fewer than James Street and two more than Vince Young at the exact same stage of his career). After a bit of a sophomore slump following a Cinderella season in 2006, it's fair to project McCoy being able to take some major steps forward in his development. If McCoy is guilty of any crime, it's simply having played so many games early in his career that people forget that this is the time in his career when most quarterbacks start to come into their own. He's been way ahead of the curve and he simply started to come back towards it a little last year. He must take better care of the football, but if the players around him hold up their end of the bargain, he could become a legitimate Big 12 Player of the Year candidate. If he continues at his current pace, he'll become the first quarterback in school history to pass for more than 11,000 yards and 100 touchdowns, while also becoming the first quarterback in school history to win more than 40 games as a starter (that VY character is first with only 30 after more than 100 years of history in the program). McCoy could conceivably break that mark this year.

Can we start to give McCoy a little more love?

2. Senior defensive end Brian Orakpo is healthy once again. After being limited for almost the entire season in 2007 because of a lower leg injury, Orakpo is back and NFL scouts are buzzing over the kind of season he might post this year. The nation was able to witness what a healthy Orakpo is capable of in the Holiday Bowl, when he terrorized Rudy Carpenter all night and recorded six tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks. If you ask anyone in the program, they'll tell you that Orakpo was as dominating this spring as any defensive end they've ever had and Mack Brown has been gushing over his star all off-season. When you consider that Brown has gone out of his way to not single out players in the last two seasons, it's interesting to hear him call Orakpo perhaps the second-most talented end he's ever coached outside of Greg Ellis.

3. The Longhorns might not have a Porsche in the driveway at the running back position now that Jamaal Charles is getting paid to perform in Kansas City, but let's keep a few things in mind when we're discussing projected starting sophomore running back Vondrell McGee. Although he didn't have the breakout season in 2007 that many, including myself, projected that he would have, but let's not forget his pedigree. McGee was arguably the state's best running back prospect in 2006 and coaches in East Texas felt like he rated with the very best that the they had seen in those parts in recent years. After a strong spring, McGee has a chance to have a coming-out party in 2008. If there's anyone on campus that has the look of a potential All-Big 12, workhouse runner, it's this kid.

4. Of course, it's not as if McGee is the only talented running back on campus. One of the surprises of the spring was the sudden development of redshirt freshman Foswhitt Whittaker. Although he's not a true home-run hitter in the mold of a Charles, Whittaker is quick as a hiccup and made play-after-play in spring workouts. If you talk with the players, they'll tell you that there's little separation between McGee and Whittaker in terms of talent and productivity. Without the emergence of Whittaker, there might be some concerns at running back, but the tandem of McGee/Whitaker could be a terrific one.

5. That Will Muschamp fellow knows a thing or three about defense; so much so that he might be the single-best hire in the Mack Brown era. Perhaps more than any defensive coach in Longhorn history, Muschamp will take the parts that he has and mold them into a swarming, demonstrative unit that's capable of carrying this team if the offense struggles. How long has it been since Texas has had one of those?

6. Sergio Kindle appears to be approaching 100% health and if you need an example of what kind of wrinkles Muschamp plans on adding this year, just know that the plan is to have Kindle coming off the edge as a pass rusher quite a bit this season. For the first time in his career, Kindle is going to be turned loose and allowed to attack. Everyone knows that Kindle has the talent, so the key is staying healthy, but this kid's upside is as high as any in the Big 12. If Muschamp can't turn the beast loose in this kid, nobody can.

7. When Texas headed into last season, they did so with an inexperienced offensive line, but that is not going to be an issue in 2008 barring injuries. Seniors Cedric Dockery and Charlie Tanner, along with juniors Adam Ulatoski and Chris Hall give the Longhorns a nucleus that no longer is wet behind the ears. Overall, this group now has 58 combined starts between them. What was last year's chief concern is now one of the team's most promising components.

8. Upper-classmen aside, second-year sophomore Kyle Hix might just be the best offensive lineman in the program. This kid has all the makings of a star.

9. In talking with NFL Scouts this spring, the player that excites them the most on the Texas defense is junior defensive tackle Lamarr Houston. Although he's been a part-time starter at defensive end the last two seasons, his long-term position upside has always been the highest inside and his athleticism makes him a threat to emerge as one of the Big 12's best at the position. After an easy transition this spring, expectations are starting to grow.

10. Pairing up with Houston at defensive tackle to give the Longhorns one of the Big 12's best defensive tackle tandems is senior Roy Miller. After a couple of solid seasons as the team's No.3 tackle, Miller finally gets a chance to show whether he can anchor the defense. This might not be the best tackle tandem that the Longhorns have had under Mack Brown, but it might be the quickest pair we've seen in years in Austin. The overall depth at defensive tackle might leave a little to be desired, but the starters have star potential.

11. The Longhorns might not have a true No.1 receiver at the moment, but they've got a dandy pair of No.2-type receivers in Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley. Both players are going to provide big plays, make tough catches and help win football games. If you're looking for the favorite down-field target for McCoy, it's probably Shipley, who is receiving serious praise this summer. After averaging better than 15 yards a catch last year, perhaps it's not crazy to think he can be an answer to the team's deep-ball threat. If you're wondering, Shipley's 15.4 average per catch last season was .3 yards better than Limas Sweed's average during the national championship season in 2005.

12. The good news this summer is that one of the team's top young receiver prospects has really started to emerge into a viable option at flanker. Redshirt freshman Malcolm Williams has been running with the first-team players throughout seven-on-seven workouts and reports have him starting to get some control of that immense physical ability that he possesses. At 6-3, 225 pounds, Williams can create terrific separation because of his strength and speed (4.4). At this point last season he looked like a wild stallion running down the field with no control of his ability, but he's starting to settle down and his progress this summer has created some buzz. The Longhorns must have one of their young receivers take a huge step forward if this offense is going to reach its goals and Williams has a chance to be that guy.

13. There was a time when senior cornerback Ryan Palmer was known more for his mouth than his play, but that's no longer the case. After getting knocked down and bruised at various stages of his career, Palmer turned the corner last season and really started to play at a pretty high level. After leading the team in pass break-ups (14) and finishing second in tackles (80), Palmer might just be most underrated player on the team. I didn't think I would have ever said this two years ago, but Palmer has emerged as a quality Big 12 cornerback and he's going to have a very good year.

14. Palmer isn't the only cornerback on the team that started to come into his own over the course of the final half of the season last year, as junior Deon Beasley showed flashes of being a big-time performer. With Brandon Foster having departed, Beasley is suddenly a starter in his third season and could also emerge as an All-Big 12-type player.

15. The two most athletically dynamic cornerbacks on the team are probably third-year sophomore Chykie Brown and sophomore Curtis Brown. There's not a team in the Big 12 that wouldn't trade their top four cornerbacks for Texas' top four.

16. Did we mention that Major Applewhite is back on the Longhorns sideline? Energy and want-to are worth their weight in gold and this Texas legend brings it with him every day.

17. We've already mentioned Orakpo at one of the defensive end spots, but how about the deep line-up competing for playing time next to him. Third-year sophomore Eddie Jones, senior Henry Melton, sophomore Sam Acho and senior Aaron Lewis give the Longhorns five quality players that can not only get pressure on the quarterback, but also hold up well against the run. At the end of the day, this position might be the deepest on the team.

18. It seems like he's been around forever, but fourth-year junior Roddrick Muckelroy has only played in 15 career games and this will be his first year as a starter. This team hasn't had a lot of NFL-quality linebackers, but Muckelroy can be that type of player if he can stay healthy. At 6-2, 230 pounds, Muckelroy is going to get a chance to play downhill more in Muschamp's system and you can stop if this sounds like a broken record, but this is another kid that has been good, but just might be ready to take the next step in his development.

19. One thing you can absolutely take to the bank is the fact that the trio of Kindle, Muckelroy and redshirt freshman Keenan Robinson re[resent the most athletic trio of linebackers that have ever roamed the 40 Acres. Ever.

20. I know you want me to say it… John Chiles

21. Senior kicker Ryan Bailey hasn't gotten a ton of pre-season love, but he did connect on 18 of 22 field goals last season, while leading the team with 112 points. That's 81.2% clip that he kicked at last year was better than any season that Phil Dawson ever had and his career accuracy ranks first in school history. I'll bet you didn't know that.

22. He doesn't get a lot of love, but Rashad Bobino is entering his fourth season as a starter and has recorded nearly 200 tackles during that time. He's not a big-time playmaker, but he's a solid middle linebacker and he could thrive in Muschamp's system. If he doesn't, a bigger and faster Jared Norton is waiting in the wings.

23. Earl Thomas is going to quickly emerge as one of the most popular players on the entire team within the first couple of games this season. This redshirt freshman has drawn rave reviews since the Holiday Bowl workouts and he's the guy on the team most likely to throw his body into a wall if asked to.

24. The trio of Thomas, Ben Wells and Christian Scott reminds the coaching staff of Cedric Griffin, Michael Huff and Aaron Ross when they all came in together as young players at the beginning of the decade. It's not going to be long before the unit is a foursome of all-stars once again.

25. Finally, we've got Mack Brown. In case you're wondering, he's proven to be worth double-digit wins each year.

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