July 4, 2009

UT's 5 concerns heading into the 2009 season

When the Texas Longhorns entered their fall campaign in 2008, every man, woman and child following the team knew that the defensive backfield would potentially serve as its Achilles' heel.

After all, football isn't rocket science. With a schedule that featured a murder's row of elite-level passing quarterbacks and a secondary that featured a last level of defense that was void of any game experience.

As well as the young players held up all season, in the team's only blemish of the season - the heartbreaking loss in Lubbock - it was in fact that the Longhorn Nation's season-long phobia became a reality as Michael Crabtree scooted into the end zone for the winning touchdown as time expired while a pair of young defensive backs blinked with the spotlight shining.

Fast-forward to the eve of the 2009 season and there's a host of new worries, although none appear to be as drastic as last year's secondary concerns. Therefore, with barely a month remaining until the beginning of two-a-days, I thought I would take a look at the five biggest concerns this Longhorns squad will face heading into the season.

Of course, the bigger question looming is simple - are any of these issues so problematic that they could derail the team's quest for a national championship?

Let's take a look at each:

(Note: I left out any and all concerns that the Longhorns cannot control, such as injuries or the BCS. You might wake up at night in a cold sweat because of a nightmare that involved an injury to Colt McCoy, but there's not a team in the nation that can survive losing their star quarterback and best player, and still win a national championship.)

No.5 - Lack of a lead running back

It's tough to measure how important this is problem is for the Longhorns leading in to the season, because they might have been the best team in the nation last year and they didn't have a running back that broke the 40-yard barrier.

Still, it's hard to believe that this team could make a run at another national championship without a true No.1 running back or at least improved running game numbers. The good news for the Longhorns is that they have a host of talented running backs and they bring back three players in Vondrell McGee, Cody Johnson and Foswhitt Whitaker that each averaged better than 4.3 yards per carry. In fact, if you add their numbers together from 2008, you'd have a 1,100-yard back with 20 touchdowns.

Obviously, this isn't a desperate situation, especially when you factor in the upside of true freshman Chris Whaley. The running game isn't on life support - it just needs to be better and a stronger identity needs to be forged. If that happens, the offense will be even better than it was last season.

No.4 - The tight end position might be a lost cause

With Blaine Irby's terrible injury in 2008, the tight end position has turned into a revolving door of parts that haven't added up to the program having a group of players that can be winning factors for the team.

As the season went on in 2008, the Longhorns deemphasized the position and added another wide receiver to the skill mix on the field, which paid huge dividends against Oklahoma. Perhaps the biggest problem for the Longhorns at the position as the head into the 2009 season is that they don't truly have a player that's well-rounded enough that his presence on the field doesn't dictate exactly what kind of play the offense plans to run.

Redshirt freshman D.J. Grant has a ton of promise as a receiver at the position, but there's no telling at this point whether he can give the team anything in the way of blocking. Meanwhile, the guys that are proven blockers don't have the ability to scare teams at all as receivers.

When the Longhorns won consecutive Rose Bowls in 2004-05, the tight end position was as important as any on the field with the exception of quarterback. When the Longhorns won the Fiesta Bowl in 2008, they did it without a strong presence at the tight end position.

So, it can be done both ways and the Longhorns will probably continue to deemphasize the position this season until some of the younger players (incoming freshmen Barrett Matthews/Trey Graham) in the program can develop and prove that they deserve to be on the field.

In the meantime, the offense won't be as good as it would be with a true threat at the position.

No.3 - The lack of a dominant offensive line

This might be nit-picking to a certain degree because the Texas offensive line is probably as strong as any line in the Big 12 and the four starters that return did help the offense post some truly historic numbers.

When it comes to pass protection, this group is as good as it gets. Yet when it comes to establishing an identity as a physically imposing unit in the running game, this group is terribly inconsistent.

As much as everyone points to the Horns' lack of a true No.1 running back, there's nothing wrong with the running game that better player from the big boys up-front won't fix.

There will be times this season when the Longhorns need to run the football, control the line of scrimmage and finish games. There were times last season when they were able to do that and times when they weren't.

The season's single loss occurred when the group wasn't able to establish themselves in the running game. As this group heads into the season, the concern is that they haven't grown enough as a group to take the next step and finish in every game they play.

No.2 - The depth at defensive tackle

Along with the tight end position, the Longhorns have had some terrible luck at this position. If former Longhorn Andre Jones doesn't lose his freaking mind with a little off-season malpractice, he's starting right next to Lamar Houston this season and the Longhorns would likely have had a pair of legit NFL prospects to lean on, while a stable of young players could contribute and potentially emerge as impact performers.

However, Jones isn't a factor and a number of other players recruited from 2006-08 simply haven't given the program much of anything at all, which leaves this position slightly in limbo heading into the 2009 season.

The Longhorns have Houston (an All-Big 12 candidate) as one starter, but they'll likely need to depend on senior Ben Alexander to emerge as a starting-caliber player and that's not a role that he's been prepared for in his first three seasons in Austin. In addition to those two, the Longhorns will have sophomore Kheeston Randall, incoming freshmen Calvin Howell and Derek Johnson, along with several other young players like Michael Wilcoxon and Tyrell Higgins. Frankly, the entire unit is probably at its weakest point that it's ever reached in the Mack Brown era in Austin.

At the end of the day, the Longhorns need to avoid the injury bug in a major way because the numbers are not strong enough to handle them. For instance, if Houston can't stay healthy (and that has been a big problem for him), this team doesn't currently have a true No.1 defensive tackle candidate. Still, young players like Randall, Howell and Johnson have star potential - they're just young. If one or two of those players can develop rapidly, this position will be much stronger than it looks on paper.

Perhaps the best news is that the Longhorns will play very few teams that can exploit their potential deficiencies and the first one might not arrive until they play Oklahoma in October. That means that the Longhorns will have the first month of the season to let a few young players settle in. The bad news is that we might know what this group can truly do until they are in the Cotton Bowl and facing a pair of 1,000-yard backs.

No.1 - Complacency

The Longhorns went 12-1 last season and were within an eyelash of a national championship game appearance despite not having a No.1 running back, a true threat a tight end, an inconsistent offensive line and a secondary full of young, inexperienced players. It's funny what a junkyard dog mentality can do for you as a team because for all of their faults, the Longhorns were a sensational football team.

That's because they were the Lunch-pail Longhorns and they weren't going to outfought, outworked or outplayed on the field. Their success occurred because of the commitment by the entire team to be great. It started in the off-season and we watched them bring a worker bee's integrity to the field each week.

In order to get to the top of the mountaintop in 2009, they'll need that same type of inner commitment from everyone. It's assumed that this team won't lose its edge with the return of players like Colt McCoy, Jordan Shipley, Sergio Kindle and Co., but this team lost a ton of veteran leadership in the off-season.

Brian Orakpo is gone. Quan Cosby is gone. Roy Miller is gone.

Those are big losses from a leadership standpoint and if there's a biggest concern heading into the season, it's that this year's team won't have the same blood and guts attitude that they lived on a season ago.

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