By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Texas Longhorns 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 8-5, 4-5 Big 12
Spring practice: Feb. 23-April 1
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 6
Passing: David Ash, 98 of 173, 1,068 yds., 4 TDs, 8 INTs
Rushing: Malcolm Brown, 172 car., 742 yds., 5 TDs
Receiving: Mike Davis, 45 rec., 609 yds., 1 TD
Tackles: Kenny Vaccaro, 82
Sacks: Jackson Jeffcoat, 8
Interceptions: Quandre Diggs, 4
Redshirts to watch: OL Garrett Greenlea, TE M.J. McFarland
JUCO Transfers to watch: DT Brandon Moore, OL Donald Hawkins
Early Enrollees: QB Connor Brewer, LB Alex De La Torre, OL Donald Hawkins, OL Camrhon Hughes, DT Brandon Moore, CB Duke Thomas
Sept. 1 Wyoming
Sept. 8 New Mexico
Sept. 15 at Ole Miss
Sept. 29 at Oklahoma State
Oct. 6 West Virginia
Oct. 13 Oklahoma
Oct. 20 Baylor
Oct. 27 at Kansas
Nov. 3 at Texas Tech
Nov. 10 Iowa State
Nov. 24 TCU
Dec. 1 at Kansas State
Offensive Strength: The Longhorns ranked eighth in the Big 12 in scoring last year, but the rushing attack was a bright spot. Running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron combined for 1,205 yards and 10 scores last season, and will be joined by incoming freshman Jonathan Gray – the No. 7 overall recruit in the Athlon Consensus 100.
Offensive Weakness: Three quarterbacks received a start last year and none turned in a particularly impressive final resume. Garrett Gilbert threw for 247 yards in two games, but injured his shoulder and later transferred to SMU. David Ash and Case McCoy showed a few glimpses of promise, but finished with 12 picks and enter spring practice locked into a tight battle for the No. 1 job.
Defensive Strength: With six starters back and solid depth returning, the Longhorns should field one of the top defenses in college football in 2012. The defensive line has two potential All-Americans at end with the return of Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat. With nearly everyone returning in the secondary, Texas will be stingy against the pass next season.
Defensive Weakness: The Longhorns only have few issues on defense, but they do have to replace two stalwarts at linebacker in Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson. The interior of the line could be a concern, especially with Calvin Howell unexpectedly leaving and Kheeston Randall finishing his eligibility. There's plenty of talent at defensive tackle, but the Longhorns will have some youth stepping into a key role next year.
Spring Storylines Facing the Longhorns:
1. If Texas is to make the jump from eight wins to winning the Big 12 next year, quarterback play has to improve. The offense figures to get better with another year to learn under coordinator Bryan Harsin, but quarterbacks David Ash, Case McCoy and incoming freshman Connor Brewer need to jumpstart the passing attack. The Longhorns averaged only 189.2 yards per game through the air last season, which simply won’t work if this team wants to win the Big 12 in 2012. Ash seemed secure the early lead on the No. 1 spot after leading Texas to win over California in the Holiday Bowl. However, McCoy and Brewer will be given every opportunity to win the job in preseason workouts. The quarterbacks figure to get more help from the receiving corps this year, as Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley and Marquise Goodwin all return after posting solid numbers in 2011.
2. Although the passing attack needs to get better, the offense will lean heavily on a trio of talented running backs. Sophomores Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron will team with incoming freshman Jonathan Gray to form one of the Big 12’s top backfields in 2012. The offensive line showed improvement last season and with four starters back, the coaching staff expects this group to take another step forward. Gray won’t arrive until fall practice, but it will be important for Harsin and the offensive assistants to develop a pecking order and maximize this group’s potential in 2012.
3. The Longhorns should have the Big 12’s best defense next year, but this group has a few question marks to address in preseason practices. Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat should form one of college football’s top combinations at defensive end, but the interior of the line is a concern. Kheeston Randall and Calvin Howell are gone, leaving Ashton Dorsey, Desmond Jackson and former running back Chris Whaley as the most experienced tackles in 2012. This group is expected to get a boost from junior college transfer Brandon Moore and incoming freshman Malcom Brown – the No. 10 overall recruit in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100. There’s no shortage of talent in the middle of the line, but coaching staff would like to see how it stacks up on the field this spring.
4. Filling voids in the linebacking corps is often one of the easiest tasks for any defensive staff. However, the Longhorns have to replace two reliable players with the departure of Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho. Robinson collected 106 stops last season, while Acho earned first-team All-Big 12 honors and recorded 131 tackles. Jordan Hicks is ready to emerge as the leader of this corps, but two other starters need to emerge. Steve Edmond had a solid freshman campaign last year, picking up 16 stops and one forced fumble. Kendall Thompson backed up Acho last season and recorded nine tackles. Thompson and Edmond should open the year as the new starters in the linebacking corps, but incoming freshmen Peter Jinkens, Dalton Santos and Alex De La Torre will have a chance to earn playing time.
5. Justin Tucker handled the kicking and punting duties last year, but he has finished his eligibility. The Longhorns lack a proven candidate at either position, with the most experienced player (William Russ) punting once in 2011 against Kansas. Ben Pruitt was listed as the backup to Tucker on field goals last year and played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl as a high school senior. Pruitt would figure to get first crack at field goals, while Russ handles the punting duties. However, incoming freshman Nick Jordan is expected to compete right away for playing time. Considering the Longhorns could be involved with several close games this year, the special teams cannot be ignored.
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