The Texas Longhorns check in at No. 11 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: Malcolm Brown, RB
The Cibolo native had an outstanding freshman campaign, compiling 742 yards and five touchdowns in just 10 games. Brown was named the AP’s Big 12 Newcomer of the Year last season, and he had 100-yard efforts against UCLA, Oklahoma State and Kansas. If the Horns passing game improves and defenses don’t key on the running game, Brown could have a monster sophomore year.
Trap Game: West Virginia (Oct. 6)
The Mountaineers were a BCS team a year ago, but how seriously will the Longhorns take the former Big East champions? WVU has an electric offense with senior quarterback Geno Smith and two 1,000-yard receivers, and coach Dana Holgorsen is a familiar Big 12 name from his days as the Oklahoma State offensive coordinator. This game is in Austin but is sandwiched in between the Oklahoma State and Oklahoma contests. Texas cannot afford an uninspired performance against the new league member.
Upset Alert: at Texas Tech (Nov. 3)
The Red Raiders do not play much defense, but quarterback Seth Doege leads a Tech aerial attack that can score in bunches. Many Big 12 foes have been upset in Lubbock over the years, and the Longhorns must make sure they play a solid game when meeting their longtime rival. Texas ran all over the Tech defense last season, and Mack Brown’s crew will need more of the same to not get surprised like Oklahoma a year ago.
Defensive MVP: Alex Okafor, DE
The All-Big 12 pass rusher will be a top All-America candidate in 2012. Okafor had 58 tackles last season with seven sacks. He also totaled 17 quarterback pressures, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Along with Jackson Jeffcoat, Okafor is part of one of the top defensive end duos in the country. The defensive line will be excellent once again, and Okafor is major reason the Longhorns will have one of the nation’s top defenses this season.
Breakout Player: Jaxon Shipley, WR
The younger brother of former UT star and current Bengals receiver Jordan will be a favorite target as a sophomore. In 2011 as a freshman, Shipley had 44 catches for 607 yards and three touchdowns in just 10 games. He showed his potential with over 120 receiving yards against Iowa State and Baylor, plus an 89-yard, one-score effort against Oklahoma. Shipley should have a very productive sophomore season.
Unsung Hero: Carrington Byndom, DB
Much of the talk — and deservedly so — when it comes to the stellar Texas secondary revolves around All-Big 12 safety Kenny Vaccaro and the Defensive Freshman of the Year in the league, cornerback Quandre Diggs. However, Byndom is a talent at the other corner and many thought he deserved more recognition than the honorable mention honor from the Big 12’s coaches. He had 58 tackles, 15 pass breakups and two interceptions last year and is a player to watch in 2012.
Biggest Game: Oklahoma (Oct. 13)
You may have noticed this one on the schedule. Besides the usual intensity that goes with the Red River Rivalry, the fact is that the hated Sooners have dominated the Big 12 for a good part of the last decade. There is no denying that the Longhorns have not played on an elite level the last two seasons, but a win over Oklahoma could be a springboard for a 10-win season and a symbol that Texas is back.
Revenge Game: Baylor (Oct. 20)
The Horns won 12 in a row over the Bears from 1998-2009, but the boys from Waco have won this game the last two seasons. Obviously NFL first-round selections Robert Griffin III and Kendall Wright had a lot to do with those victories, but Art Briles has raised the level of the BU program. Texas should be ready to go against Baylor, as the Horns do not want to become the first team in school-history to lose three straight versus the Bears.
Freshman To Watch: Johnathan Gray, RB
The electric back from Aledo was ranked the No. 7 player in the country in this year’s AC100. Moore set the all-time national record for total touchdowns with an astounding 205. He rushed for 10,889 yards during his illustrious high school career, while also compiling 1,244 receiving yards. Gray is obviously a scoring threat from anywhere on the field and will form a dynamic duo with Malcolm Brown in the backfield.
Newcomer To Watch: Brandon Moore, DT
The 6-foot-5, 335-pound transfer from East Mississippi Community College could be a supreme run stuffer for the Longhorns. Moore spent two seasons at the University of Alabama where he played under current UT tackles coach Bo Davis. Last year, he helped lead his JUCO team to a 12-0 record and national title. With Kheeston Randall gone, Moore could be a massive solution in the middle of the defense.
Position Battle: Linebackers
Junior Jordan Hicks is the only linebacker on the roster with significant experience after the departure of leading tacklers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson. The senior duo combined for a whopping 237 tackles a year ago, with 29 of those for loss. Sophomore Steve Edmond had 16 tackles last season, and he has the size and ability to be a playmaker in the middle for Manny Diaz. Speedy Demarco Cobbs should fill the other outside role, but depth and inexperience could be major issues.
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