Was it really only two years ago that Texas was playing in the Rose Bowl? By the end of their 13-10 victory over Nebraska in the final Big 12 Championship Game, which my family up there still insists was "stolen", it was pretty obvious Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley were papering over a lot of holes. But did anyone think the Longhorns would go 13-12 over the next two years?
In its own way, bottoming out in 2011 was useful, in that it forced Mack Brown to admit cosmetic fixes wouldn't be enough. Texas responded in classic New York Yankees fashion: hiring two of the most promising coordinators in the game (Manny Diaz and Bryan Harsin) and aggressively hitting the recruiting trail in one of the deepest talent pools in the country.
That's probably the best part about being a fan of the Longhorns: they have more money and more access to top recruits than nearly anyone else. There's no reason that down periods should last all that long; as opposed to the NFL, which has all types of mechanisms (a draft, revenue sharing, salary cap) to maintain parity.
Now, headed into the 2012 season, UT has almost all of the pieces to get back to a 10-win baseline. They have one of the most talented defenses in the country with future first-round picks (Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat) at the ends, five-star recruits in the linebacking corps (Jordan Hicks) and stars in the secondary (Kenny Vaccarro). There might not be a more talented group of RB's anywhere than Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray.
The $64 million dollar question is at the QB position, where David Ash and Case McCoy didn't exactly light the world on fire last season. Case looked like a smaller and weaker armed version of his older brother, who was probably just big enough to succeed at the D1 level. Ash has the tools, but he looked uncomfortable and erratic in the pocket for the most part.
Of course, that's going to happen when you have a true freshman starting on a rebuilding offense. Just by having more practice and game reps under his best, Ash should be better as a sophomore. But how much better? I think your answer to that question depends on whether you think success at QB is more nature or nurture.
Mainstream writers tend to act like a successful QB is a black box; players either have "it" or they don't. Physical tools are nice, but it's the intangibles -- having command of a huddle, being cool under fire and making "winning" plays -- that really make the difference. Things which, in theory, can't be taught.
On the other end of the spectrum is Nick Saban's philosophy at Alabama. The Crimson Tide have won two titles in the last three years behind interchangeable QB's who played off a dominant run game, understood the concept of the passing plays they ran and weren't afraid to get rid of the ball and punt rather than commit a turnover.
If a QB is nothing more than the tip of the spear in an offensive philosophy, couldn't any reasonably strong-armed passer with a solid football IQ be successful if surrounded by enough talent? A system that keeps the training wheels on Ash, who has been around football his entire life, seems like a system he could have grown pretty comfortable with over the last few months.
With the amount of talent the Longhorns have on defense and in the running game, Texas shouldn't have to outscore teams to win in 2012, especially if they can generate big plays early and play from ahead. At some point, they'll need their passing game to win games for them, but why can't a second-year QB with all the physical tools pull that off?
What do you think will be Harsin's offensive game-plan this season? More broadly, what are your expectations for 2012? Are the Longhorns still a year away or has this last two years brought them back to "normal" (10+ win seasons and contending for Big 12 titles)?
Check back tomorrow for Ian Boyd's response on what the Longhorns offense should look like in 2012.