by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

After nine straight Texas seasons with 10 or more victories, last year’s plummet to 5-7 was shocking in more ways than one. First of all, the Longhorns started out 3-0, as was expected, although it was obvious the team’s offense was not going to be the same without the likes of Vince Young or Colt McCoy at the controls. Still, there was hope for development during the season, even with the attack altered from the days of Young’s zone read plays or McCoy’s quick-release aerials. After all, was it not true that new starting QB Garrett Gilbert had been the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a prep senior? And wasn’t it also true that the strong-armed Gilbert had relieved McCoy early in the 2009 season BCS title game vs. Alabama and (after a shaky start) had lifted Texas to within three points (24-21) of the Tide with six minutes to play?

However, the Longhorns’ reshaped offense in 2010 failed to dominate as it had in the Young and McCoy years, when 40-point games seemed the norm and when starters were often pulled in the third quarter. The altered-for-Gilbert attack was unable to support the pocket-passing QB as had been hoped. The offensive line had problems reverting to a power-blocking group after UT’s years of zone-read runs and West Coast-style passes. [Insiders report that HC Mack Brown concedes that UT has endured “whiffs” on several recruits, especially offensive linemen, who did not live up to lofty expectations.] UT’s crew of RBS failed to distinguish itself when given more of the workload, with powerful RB/FB Cody Johnson (592 yards rushing) being the steadiest, but hardly a big-play threat. The receiver group missed the sure hands of departed deluxe WR Jordan Shipley and was plagued by drops, injuries and inconsistency (plus a few other recruiting “whiffs”). The end result was more than expected pressure on new starting QB Gilbert, who suffered variously from inexperience, impatience, deteriorating mechanics, and marginal rapport with his receivers. As his interceptions rose, Gilbert’s confidence sank. He did hit 59% for 2744 yards, but his TD/int. ratio of 10/17 was as upside down as so many mortgages after the collapse of the sub-prime housing market.

With far less help from the offense than expected, Texas’ strong defense found itself on the field much more frequently. The unit still did well in finishing sixth in the country in total yardage. But the defensive platoon was unable to overcome the flood of turnovers (30 overall; 29 in the last ten games) by the offense, ending up 49th in scoring. Playing from behind way more often in 2010, Will Muschamp’s talented, aggressive defense had only eight interceptions. For example, the Texas offense gave the ball away four times in the first half alone in a humiliating 34-12 loss in Austin to lightly-regarded UCLA; Gilbert suffered five interceptions in a 39-14 loss at rebuilding Kansas State; and the Horns endured four giveaways in their 24-17 final-game defeat vs. A&M, killing any Burnt Orange bowl hopes.

After nearly a decade of consistent, double-digit victory success, including two BCS title games, Brown admits he was fairly stunned and humbled by the results of 2010. Credit him for being pro-active in seeking a return to the halcyon days of the previous decade. Bright defensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting Muschamp has moved on to the open head-coaching gold mine at Florida made available by the resignation of Urban Meyer. Muschamp will be replaced by the promising Manny Diaz, who impressed last season at Mississippi State. But look for major changes on offense following the importation of Boise State offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and Georgia OL coach Stacy Searels. Harsin will coach the QBs and be co-offensive coordinator with holdover RBs coach Major Applewhite.

With Harsin aboard, the revised Longhorn attack will have a quicker pace, feature more motion and shifting, and—you can be sure—plenty of Boise-style innovation and creative plays. Harsin has been tasked with the job of restoring the mechanics and confidence of the previously-promising Gilbert. With only two OL starters returning, new OL coach Searels will be dealing with a two-deep unit loaded with youth, which might not necessarily be a bad thing, considering the new approach to the UT attack. If Gilbert can’t get his mind and mechanics right, there is the feeling that 6-2 soph backup Case McCoy (Colt’s brother), who was more consistent in spring, or 6-4 RS frosh Connor Wood, who is more mobile, might get an early shot in the new scheme. Ball security was emphasized all spring.

But the prevalent offseason buzz in Austin has been about the potential immediate positive impact of freshman Malcolm Brown, considered among the very best of prep runners. If Brown’s the real deal, he should fit perfectly into Harsin’s system of quick-hitting plays. Which, in turn, should help “restore” QB Gilbert and generate more big plays by the likes of talented WRs 6-2 soph Mike Davis (47 recs., but only 478 yards LY) and 5-9 speedster Marquise Goodwin (31 recs., only 324 yards), whose 4.2 speed has helped make him a world-class long-jumper.

Plus, if the revamped offense does its job, the UT defense should expose its fangs more often than in 2010, despite returning only six starters. DT Kheeston Randall (13 TFL), DE Alex Okafor, OLB Emmanuel Acho (3 sacks), MLB Keenan Robinson (113 Ts), S Blake Gideon (fourth year starting), and S Kenny Vaccaro (big hitter) are all solid. Soph DE Jackson Jeffcoat and soph OLB Jordan Hicks are former top-ten recruits who got plenty of experience LY. Still, there will be young corners on the edge of the Horns’ multiple-blitz defense.

To help set the tone for 2011, HC Brown—renowned for his candor and cooperation with the fans and media—closed practices at the start of spring, saying, “We have no expectations except to get better, brick by brick. Everything is different this spring. I think you will see a major change on both sides of the ball. We’ll be more aggressive.”

After spring, Brown was blunt about the status of his team going into 2011. Says Brown, “We’ve got to fix the turnover ratio....We’ve got to run the ball better and help our quarterbacks until one of them can get on his feet....We’ve got to have corners grow up. So it’s obvious what we’ve got to fix, but we’ll have depth. We’ll be really young, but I’m also excited about the fall.”

Summary...ESPN didn’t commit $300 million over the next 20 years to help launch the Longhorn Network on the belief that 5-7 is going to be the norm for Texas football. Plus, the Horns have dug in their hooves to help preserve the Big XII conference despite the flight of Nebraska and Colorado. But UT (2-6 in league play LY) goes into this season as perhaps only the third or fourth-best team of the ten-member conference. Maybe worse. In-state rival A&M has made major inroads in recruiting. Still, Texas has enough raw talent to surprise if Harsin’s Boise-style offense takes hold. But if there’s no improvement at QB, RB and OL in the Horns’ new scheme, the defense will have to excel just to get Texas into a mid-echelon bowl.

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