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August 13, 2010
Texas enters this season with a new quarterback and an old approach.
Little-used sophomore Garrett Gilbert steps into the starting lineup to replace All-America Colt McCoy in the offense. To make the transition easier, the Longhorns are putting more emphasis on bolstering a running game that has been rather mediocre the past two seasons. The end result could mean increased production from running backs Tre' Newton and Foswhitt Whittaker.
Still, Gilbert's play figures to be the key to Texas' season. The Longhorns still have big-play receivers, a solid offensive line and a defense that should be exceptional.
If Gilbert can play at a high level, the Longhorns will make a legitimate run at a 10th consecutive 10-win season and a second Big 12 championship in a row.
THE SCHEME: The Longhorns are going to a pro-style offense and changing their blocking schemes to improve the running game.
STAR POWER: Garrett Gilbert showed signs of great potential in last season's national championship game with two second-half touchdown passes. The son of a former NFL quarterback, Gilbert was impressive with accuracy and arm strength in spring drills. Don't be surprised if he continues Texas' hot streak of star quarterbacks that has included Major Applewhite, Vince Young and Colt McCoy.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Longhorns brought in a heralded group of freshmen receivers, the best of which may be four-star prospect Mike Davis. He has good size and speed and had 39 touchdowns and more than 2,700 yards in his high school career.
STRONGEST AREA: Though All-America Jordan Shipley surely will be missed, the Longhorns are well-stocked at receiver. The addition of Davis and four other highly coveted freshmen adds great depth to an already-talented position. James Kirkendoll, who had 48 grabs, tops a list of four wide receivers who had at least 30 catches in '09. Malcolm Williams has big-play ability but needs more consistency, while Marquise Goodwin is among the fastest players in the nation.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The running game has to be more productive. Gilbert can run, but probably not as well as McCoy. The Longhorns once were on a roll of producing 1,000-yard running backs, but have gotten mediocre production of late. There is no shortage of solid running backs on hand, though none appear to be spectacular. A move to more straight-ahead blocking could prove beneficial.
THE SCHEME: Texas uses a 4-3 set and frequently blitzes from various angles. Coordinator Will Muschamp is one of the best in the nation.
STAR POWER: Junior CB Aaron Williams is an elite player who will contend for All-America recognition and could be a first-round selection if he opts to enter the NFL draft. He's coming off a breakout year in which he had 44 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions and eight pass breakups. Two of his interceptions were key plays in victories over Oklahoma and Nebraska. His blitzing sack also knocked OU quarterback Sam Bradford out of the Red River Rivalry. Williams has blocked four punts in his career, too.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: No team can have too many adept pass rushers, and Texas added one of the best prospects in the nation. True freshman Jackson Jeffcoat, the son of former NFL star Jim Jeffcoat, is a five-star prospect who was rated the nation's best recruit at his position. He had 25.5 sacks in his high school career. Jeffcoat provides another rusher to an already-impressive group that includes Sam Acho, Eddie Jones and Alex Okafor.
STRONGEST AREA: The Longhorns have one of the best secondaries in the nation. Last season, Texas ranked 19th in pass defense and three starters -- Williams, CB Curtis Brown and S Blake Gideon -- are back. The loss of first-round draft choice Earl Thomas hurts, but Christian Scott, Nolan Brewster and Kenny Vaccaro are capable replacements. Senior Chykie Brown has considerable starting experience and provides excellent depth at cornerback.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There aren't many problems on defense, though there are some concerns at tackle where second-round NFL draft choice Lamarr Houston must be replaced. Junior Kheeston Randall has the look of an emerging star there. Redshirt freshman Calvin Howell has great potential, but is coming back from an injury that forced him to miss the majority of last season. If a problem develops, coaches may try moving an end -- Jones or Acho -- inside on passing downs. That plan worked out well with Houston. Tyrell Higgins, Taylor Bible, Ashton Dorsey and De'Aires Cotton will battle to get into the rotation.
The Longhorns are absolutely lethal on kickoff returns. D.J. Monroe averaged 33.6 yards per return and took two back for touchdowns. Goodwin also returned a kickoff for a score. The Longhorns have to decide on someone to replace Shipley on punt returns and have plenty of candidates. Aaron Williams could be the guy. Rugby-style P Justin Tucker has averaged more than 41 yards and had 12 punts for more than 50 yards in the past two seasons. "Regular" P John Gold averaged better than 44 yards in that span. They have shared duties before and may again. Texas needs to find a successor for reliable K Hunter Lawrence. Tucker figures to handle that, too. The coverage units need to get better; the punt-coverage team, especially, struggled at times last season.
A Sept. 25 clash with improving UCLA is the toughest test on the non-conference slate. The last time the Bruins visited Austin, they pulled off a stunning 66-3 rout in 1997 that was a major factor in Mack Brown eventually getting hired to lead the Longhorns. Though that could be a better game than some might anticipate, the success of the Longhorns' season depends heavily on back-to-back games (though not on back-to-back weekends) in October against Oklahoma in Dallas and at Nebraska. Of course, an early road game at Texas Tech and the traditional Thanksgiving Day clash with Texas A&M won't be easy wins by any means.
Texas never has won consecutive Big 12 football championships, and the Longhorns aren't expected to do it this year. But while Nebraska and Oklahoma are popular picks to reach the Big 12 title game, they know from experience not to count out the Longhorns. The Longhorns project to be outstanding defensively, but Gilbert has to step up, there will be three new starters in the offensive line and at least one receiver must emerge to pick up the slack left by Shipley. That's a lot of issues facing a team hoping to win another championship. But Texas has overcome similar issues before.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.