After hitting a lull over the last four seasons under Mack Brown, the Texas Longhorns are starting fresh in 2014. A slow start to 2013, losing two of their first three games, put Brown on the hot seat and he ultimately stepped away from the program after the Horns dropped three of their final four games of the year. While 8-5 may be a pretty good record at most places, it doesn’t cut it at Texas and the program is looking to rejuvenate their brand and once again become the premier college football program in the state.
To get them there, Texas has turned the program over to Charlie Strong who has wasted no time in putting his stamp on the roster. In the last week, six players have been dismissed from the program, two for a serious criminal offense and the other four for a violation of team rules. Strong is shaping the team into his tough-minded philosophy who does things the right way. While that will likely pay major dividends down the line, how will Texas handle the transition in 2014?
At quarterback, Texas deals with uncertainty not due to a coaching change but because of health concerns. David Ash is pegged as the No. 1 QB for 2014 after missing much of the 2013 season with concussions. While he has been cleared to play this fall, there’s no guarantee that the concussion issue won’t come back. If Ash can’t stay healthy, Texas will have to turn to some inexperienced options in Tyrone Swoopes and incoming freshman Jerrod Heard. Ash is the team’s best option as the most complete quarterback on the roster but will have to protect himself to stay on the field.
The running back corps has been thinned considerably during the offseason. At one point, the group appeared like one of the deepest in the Big 12 but after losing Joe Bergeron and Jalen Overstreet, the number three and four running backs from 2013, Texas heads into the 2014 season with just three running backs on the roster. Malcolm Brown returns after leading the team last season with 904 yards and nine touchdowns and told media at Big 12 Media Days that he was ready to be a workhorse. He may have no other choice as the rest of the running back corps consists of Johnathan Gray, who is returning from injury, and incoming freshman Donald Catalon.
At receiver, Texas will be looking for some big-play ability to emerge this fall. Jaxon Shipley returns as the team’s leading pass-catching option after posting a team-high 56 receptions for 589 yards and a touchdown. Marcus Johnson figures to be a deep-threat for the Horns after averaging a team-high 15.91 yards per catch as a sophomore as he hauled in 22 passes for 350 yards and two touchdowns. Also look for Daje Johnson to be an X-factor for this offense after an injury-shortened 2013 campaign where he managed 140 yards rushing, 178 yards receiving, and a 10.75 yards per punt return average as he scored three total touchdowns.
Further complicating the transition into 2014, however, will be the total lack of experience along the offensive line. Four of five starters from last season have moved on, including a pair of Second Team All-Big 12 tackles in Trey Hopkins and Donald Hawkins. Center Dominic Espinosa is the only returning starter for 2014 with the rest of the offensive line roster boasting a combined 10 starts among them.
There are plenty of key pieces left on the Texas defense this fall that should make for a quick turnaround under the defensive-minded Strong. Cedric Reed at defensive end should have a huge season after finishing second on the team last season with 10 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. Big Malcolm Brown is also back in the middle of the defensive line after posting a very impressive 10 tackles for loss from his nose tackle position in 2013. Junior Shiro Davis will do his best to replace Jackson Jeffcoat in the BUCK position after posting 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack in relief last season.
At linebacker, Texas is hoping that senior Jordan Hicks can stay healthy and provide a playmaking presence at outside linebacker. Last season, he played in just four games but managed to record 30 tackles. If healthy, he should help form a formidable group with returning starters Dalton Santos and Steve Edmond, who combined for 103.5 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss last season. No matter who lines up at linebacker, however, they will need to improve their level of play as the Longhorns have been plagued by underachieving linebacker play for the last several years.
The secondary sees a wealth of experience return for 2014 which should help solidify the back end of the Longhorn defense. Senior Quandre Diggs returns to cap off a very strong collegiate career that has seen him snag eight interceptions and 31 pass breakups over the last three seasons. Junior corner Duke Thomas slides into the starting lineup after playing out of the nickel position in 2013 where he posted a team-high three interceptions and five pass breakups. The question in the secondary will be who will step up and replace the now-dismissed Josh Turner at free safety especially since redshirt freshman and apparent backup to Turner Chevoski Collins has also been dismissed.
There will be no soft cushion for Charlie Strong to find his footing with the Longhorns in 2014. After a season-opener against the North Texas Mean Green, Texas plays back-to-back marquee non-conference games against the BYU Cougars (who embarrassed the Longhorns last season in Provo) and UCLA Bruins. Their conference schedule is no easier as they play conference favorites like the Baylor Bears and Oklahoma Sooners in back-to-back weeks in early October before finishing the season with three of their final five games on the road against the Kansas State Wildcats, Texas Tech Red Raiders, and Oklahoma State Cowboys.
This would have been a tall order for a full-strength Texas squad that wasn’t going through the growing pains of a new coaching staff. With the slashing of their depth (with more possibly coming), there is very little margin for error for Texas in 2014. Any injury or sluggish play from a starter could doom the Horns to a step back this fall. But Strong has shown he knows how to build a tough, winning football program. Look for Texas to hang tough in every game this season and win some close ones, building character and experience for the future as they win around eight games again this season.