It’s a new era in Austin. Mack Brown resigned in December, and Charlie Strong was hired from Louisville to return Texas to the ranks of the Big 12 elite. The Longhorns are just 16-11 in conference play over the last three years, but there’s hope for improvement in 2014. Strong inherits plenty of talent and should be able to maximize the roster better than the previous staff. Quarterback play is a concern, but the rushing attack and defense should be solid.
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Previewing Texas’ Offense for 2014:
Quarterback and the offensive line are the two biggest questions on offense, which makes the first year of the Charlie Strong era hard to predict.
David Ash (63 percent passer, 30 TDs, 18 INTs in 21 starts) missed the final week of spring football after having surgery to repair a fractured left foot. And Ash has to prove he can take a hit — literally — after missing the final nine games of 2013 with ongoing concussion symptoms from a head injury.
Max Wittek was expected to transfer to Texas, but he won't graduate from USC until December. With Wittek out of the picture, coach Charlie Strong could look to the junior college ranks for another option. If Ash fails to win the job, coaches would look to still-developing sophomore Tyrone Swoopes or incoming freshman Jerrod Heard. Keeping Ash healthy is a priority with the inexperience on the depth chart at quarterback.
“We don’t need a great player, we just need someone to take control of it,” Strong says of the quarterback position.
Running back should be a strength as 80 percent of the team’s rushing yards return with seniors Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron and junior Johnathan Gray.
Four of Texas’ top five receivers from last season return, including senior Jaxon Shipley, a security blanket on third down; emerging deep threats Marcus Johnson and Kendall Sanders; and explosive slot receiver Daje Johnson. Tight end Geoff Swaim also figures to play a key role in the offense of Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline.
Texas has to replace three starters from an offensive line that gave up only 16 sacks in 2013. Outside of center Dom Espinosa, who has started every game of his college career (39), and right tackle Kennedy Estelle (eight starts), the offensive line is unproven.
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Previewing Texas’ Defense for 2014:
The front four is the strength of the defense, led by end Cedric Reed (10 sacks in 2013) and tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond “Tank” Jackson. Keep an eye on sophomore end Caleb Bluiett, who impressed coaches in his battle with junior Shiro Davis to replace Jackson Jeffcoat.
Jordan Hicks is the team’s best linebacker and a key leader. But he’s been injury-prone. The defense has underachieved each of the past two seasons, in large part because Hicks missed 10 games in 2012 (groin) and nine games in 2013 (torn Achilles). Texas needs Hicks to stay healthy and for middle linebacker Steve Edmond and outside linebacker Peter Jinkens to take the next step.
The secondary is loaded with talent and speed. But Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said in the spring that the group lacked confidence and needed to play with the swagger of senior cornerback Quandre Diggs.
Previewing Texas’ Specialists for 2014:
Gone is Lou Groza Award finalist Anthony Fera, who made 20-of-22 field goals while also punting in 2013. Junior Nick Rose and sophomore Nick Jordan are battling it out for kicker, and seniors William Russ and Michael Davidson are vying to be the punter. Texas needs to get much more out of its return game.
If the quarterback and offensive line can play with some consistency, Texas has the talent and depth at running back and receiver to be potent on offense. The defense has a chance to be strong if the back seven can match the strength and intensity of the front four. The schedule is not forgiving early as the Longhorns will face BYU, UCLA, Baylor and Oklahoma — all by mid-October. Any improvement from last year’s 8–5 record would probably be seen as a good first year for Strong.
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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Texas No. 17:
1. Upgraded coaching staff
Mack Brown won a lot of games in Austin, but Charlie Strong is the right coach to get Texas back on track. The Longhorns slipped in recent years and failed to maximize some of their elite recruiting hauls. Strong developed talent at Louisville and should have more to work with at Texas. He is joined by veteran play-caller Shawn Watson, one of the nation’s best offensive line coaches in Joe Wickline, and Vance Bedford at defensive coordinator. Strong will need some time to establish a foundation to compete for a national championship. However, this staff should be able to take advantage of the returning talent (No. 1 ranked roster in the Big 12) to push for nine wins in 2014.
2. Quarterback play is a concern
If the Longhorns had any stability at quarterback, this team could be picked higher in Athlon’s top 25 for 2014. However, David Ash missed most of last year due to a concussion, and he suffered a foot injury in the spring that will keep him on the sidelines until the fall. Ash has made steady improvement, but how much rust will there be after missing most of 2013? If Ash isn’t 100 percent, Texas will have to turn to sophomore Tyrone Swoopes or true freshman Jerrod Heard.
3. Best backfield in the Big 12
With the uncertainty at quarterback, expect the Longhorns to lean heavily on their ground attack. Malcolm Brown rushed for 904 yards last season and should push for 1,000 yards once again in 2014. Assuming Johnathan Gray returns to full strength from an Achilles injury, and Joe Bergeron’s academic issues are cleared before the fall, Texas should have the top running back corps in the Big 12.
4. Improvement on defense
Texas finished fifth in the Big 12 (conference-only games) last season by allowing 5.2 yards per play. With seven starters back, combined with the arrival of Strong and Bedford, improvement is expected in 2014. The line is loaded with talent, starting with end Cedric Reed and tackle Malcom Brown. The secondary needs to replace cornerback Carrington Byndom and safety Adrian Phillips, but Quandre Diggs headlines this unit at cornerback. The linebacking corps could be a strength if Jordan Hicks returns to full strength.
5. Strength on the offensive line?
With the departure of Donald Hawkins, Trey Hopkins and Mason Walters, it’s hard to call the offensive line a strength this preseason. However, the addition of line coach Joe Wickline was an underrated offseason pickup, which should help Texas own one of the top lines in the conference in 2014. Center Dominic Espinosa is an All-Big 12 candidate, while there’s potential on the left side with Desmond Harrison and Sedrick Flowers. Question marks exist, but there’s also reason to believe this unit will finally reach its potential.