After two consecutive years of falling short of traditionally high expectations, the Texas Longhorns enter the 2012 season with a sense of urgency. With what should be a stout defense, the pressure will fall squarely on the shoulders of Sophomore quarterback David Ash. The question is, how far can his right arm carry UT?
After a year that saw the boys in burnt orange give up games of 38, 48 and 55 points (to Oklahoma State, Baylor and Oklahoma, respectively), the defense promises to be more consistent this year. To be fair, the Longhorns took their lumps against teams that wound up in the top 15 of the final polls, and the Big 12 lost a lot of firepower since the end of last season.
Perhaps more importantly, the defense is a year older. Starting with pre-season watch list bookend defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor, the team should look more like the unit that didn't allow more than 25 points to any of it's other 10 opponents. The secondary will determine just how good the defense can be. They struggled last year with opponents that had trigger men that could air it out (Weeden, Griffin, Landry Jones). Problem is, there's plenty of proven signal callers on the schedule this year, too. TCU's Casey Pachall, West Virginia's Geno Smith and Landry Jones will make sure the road isn't much easier than last year. With another year of seasoning, it should be an improved unit, but how much improved will go a long way in determining what kind of year it is down in Austin.
On the offensive side of the ball, talent abounds at the tailback position. Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown will lead the group with all-everything freshman Jonathan Gray pushing them both for touches. Gray has been slowed by a hamstring since arriving on campus, but he's a big time recruit and there's no reason to think he won't push for time, especially with the indications that D.J. Monroe will be moved to wide receiver to accommodate his arrival. Suffice it to say the horns don't lack for talent at the position.
Then there's the issue of who will be opening the holes for Gray and company and keeping David Ash on his feet long enough to develop. There's not a ton of depth on the line, but the group should be able to do enough to get the running game going. Regardless of anything else, that's what they need to be able to do. In order to give their young quarterback a chance, they'll have to make the running game a serious threat.
And then, there's the quarterback. After the Garrett Gilbbert project continued its extended decline from national championship near-hero to cause of all problems goat, Mack Brown and the horns turned to two freshman to guide the offense. Case McCoy and David Ash each had their moments, but they weren't always highlights. David Ash's first year in big time college football had its ups and downs. He flashed potential and showed physical gifts his undersized competition (Case McCoy) doesn't have enough of to be a starting quarterback in big time college football. But he also showed a lack of feel and looked lost at times.
Despite the extensive experience he got under fire last year, Ash is still only a sophomore. Outside of physical freaks like Terrelle Pryor and Tim Tebow, quarterbacks that young haven't thrived in power conferences. Yes, even Vince Young and the great Colt McCoy struggled early. Nobody is confusing Ash with either of those guys. At least not yet.
But the fact of the matter is that there is enough talent around him to ease the burden -- if the offensive line can hold up. He's got explosive athletes all around him, and nothing makes a quarterback's job easier than a supporting cast. He won't be flawless and he will lose them a game or two, maybe even more. But with enough help from the guys around him and on the other side of the ball, he shouldn't have to win them games either.
The Big 12 is wide open this year with a lot of uncertainty and some new faces. But with an improved defense and a lot of talent at the skill positions on offense, it's not unrealistic for UT to make a run at returning to the conference's elite. A 9-3 regular season isn't an unreasonable expectation, but it might be asking a bit much to expect THE University of Texas to do much more than that with a sophomore quarterback and a potentially vulnerable secondary.