USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
One of Charlie Strong's earliest messages to his new team involved practice habits: Nicks and bruises were no longer an excuse for spending a weekday on the sideline, Strong said, but blood and protruding bone — well, you'd better get that looked at.
Months later, after a resolve-strengthening spring and summer, players started repeating the mantra.
"Injuries are not a reason to not be practicing anymore; injuries are not a reason to not be playing a game," defensive end Cedric Reed told Sports Illustrated. "There's gotta be blood and a bone sticking out."
Told last Wednesday that one of his senior leaders had bought into one aspect of the process, Strong sat back and smiled, satisfied — somewhat. Mission accomplished — sort of. In one specific way, the Longhorns are different: Texas is a little tougher.
But physical toughness always comes first; the Longhorns' grasp of the mental side to Strong's blueprint, however, remains a work in progress. One offseason, one roster, six dismissals, two suspensions: Texas is a little tougher, true, but not anywhere close to Strong's standard.
On Thursday, Strong suspended wide receivers Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander after each was charged with felony sexual assault. Fullback Chet Moss and defensive back Leroy Scott were dismissed from the program in March. Defensive back Chevoski Collins, running back Jalen Overstreet and safety Josh Turner — the latter a projected starter along the back end — recently followed suit.
A second running back, Joe Bergeron, was dismissed less than a week after Strong said the would-be senior had done "an unbelievable job" taking care of his academic issues. The Austin American-Statesman reported last week that another four players had been banned from the team's workout facilities
In the battle of his way vs. the old way, Strong's way wins — every time. That paints a nice little picture: Texas, derided for the better of five years for being too soft, too flimsy, too easy to shove aside, is now learning a different tune. Long-run gains are in the cards, if short-term pains are coming fast.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Honestly, I think of it this way: It's now or never. If Texas can't win with this team, with this talent and this experience, it'll never win until even more drastic changes are made. Yeah, the pressure is on. Welcome to Texas.
In a nutshell: The final year of the Mack Brown era began with a thud — with ugly, hide-the-children losses to Brigham Young and Mississippi — and ended with a whimper — losses to Oklahoma State, Baylor and Oregon. In between, however, and following a change at defensive coordinator, Texas made a run at the Big 12 championship. That the Longhorns charged in October, winning six in a row — led by major wins against Kansas State and Oklahoma — raises an interesting question: Would Brown have returned in 2014 had Texas reached the Bowl Championship Series? Some questions are better left unanswered, if not contemplated at all.
High point: Beating Oklahoma.
Low point: Losing to Baylor in the regular-season finale.
Tidbit: No Texas coach has posted a losing season in his debut since Dana Bible went 2-6-1 in 1937. The Longhorns' next seven coaches — Blair Cherry, Ed Price, Darrell Royal, Fred Akers, David McWilliams, John Mackovic and Mack Brown — would go a combined 56-22-1: Cherry went 10-1 in 1947, Price went 7-3 in 1951, Royal was 6-4-1 in 1957, Akers was 11-1 in 1977, McWilliams went 7-5 in 1987, Mackovic went 6-5 in 1992 and Brown went 9-3 in 1998.
Tidbit (Mack edition): Let's say goodbye to Brown the only way we know how: by comparing his 16-year run in Austin with the Longhorns' performance in the 16 seasons prior to his arrival. Under Brown's direction, Texas notched double-digit wins nine times, at least nine wins 13 times, at least eight wins 15 times, finished nationally ranked 13 times, had five top-five finishes, won 10 bowl games and claimed one national championship. From 1982-97, UT notched double-digit wins three times, at least nine wins three times, at least eight wins six times, finished nationally ranked six times, had one top-five finish, won two bowl games and claimed zero national championships. So long, Mack.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Strong brought along three former Louisville assistants: Shawn Watson is the quarterbacks coach and assistant head for offense — don't ask what that means, because I don't know; Vance Bedford, the Cardinals' former defensive coordinator, will handle the same position; and Brian Jean-Mary, who has deep ties in the Southeast's recruiting circles, will serve as linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator. Watson's title is confusing, of course, seeing that former Oklahoma State offensive line coach Joe Wickline carries the coordinator tag — they'll have matching input in planning and play-calling, but it'll be interesting to watch that dynamic develop during the season. The lone holdover is tight ends coach Bruce Chambers, who might know Austin better than anyone, while wide receivers coach Les Koenning comes over from Mississippi State, defensive line coach Chris Rumph from Alabama and running backs coach Tommie Robinson from USC.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
NFL players, last name begins O
1. Brian Orakpo
2. Alec Ogletree
3. Greg Olsen
4. Jared Odrick
5. Chris Owens
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Texas has a shot if QB David Ash remains healthy. Staying healthy is the issue, of course: Ash has battled concussions, causing him to miss all but three games of last fall, and suffered a broken foot during spring drills, sending him back to the sideline. Yet he's healthy today, Strong said during Big 12 Media Days, and if healthy — well, if healthy, Ash is as good as they get in the Big 12. Don't doubt what he brings to the table; a locked-in, on-point, on-the-field Ash makes Texas a contender. Take 2012, for instance, when Ash, in his first full season as the Longhorns' starter, finished third in the quarterback-heavy Big 12 in completion percentage and fourth in yards per attempt, tossing just one interception for nearly every 40 throws. Or take his shortened junior season: Ash threw for 760 yards and seven scores in his three appearances. There's reason to think a healthy Ash makes Texas a legitimate contender in the Big 12 — not the favorite, but a contender. Here's the rub: Texas can't have extreme confidence in Ash's ability to last an entire season. Recent history — often not a great predictor, to be fair — suggests Texas must have Tyrone Swoopes and incoming freshman Jerrod Heard ready to go at a moment's notice. It would be great to see Ash go out as UT's every-game starter.
Ash won't have Mike Davis, last year's top target, and there's an issue with proven depth. There's always Jaxon Shipley (56 receptions for 589 yards), of course, and the steady, strong-handed senior continues to stand as the Longhorns' most dependable receiving option. With Shipley locked into a starting role, Texas needs consistency and reliability from likely co-starters Marcus Johnson (22 for 350) and Daje Johnson (24 for 178), the latter an easy-to-identify athlete who really should produce more explosive plays in the passing game. Sanders' departure does hurt: Texas essentially loses a spot on the two-deep, meaning this offense will need an immediate boost from the new guys — a handful of redshirt freshmen, another handful of true freshmen, nearly all with impressive recruiting credentials.
But it's an uncertain mix, due to the rampant inexperience beyond the top three. Yes, freshmen Armanti Foreman and Lorenzo Joe have potential; they also lack anything resembling the reliability Texas demands from the position, I'd imagine, and as such might need to be eased into the system. That this younger core will need time to develop should mean a larger role for sophomore Jacorey Warrick, who played in four games as a rookie, and could mean more time in a receiver-centered role for senior John Harris, a big-play threat at tight end. While Harris could remain at tight end, I imagine the addition of JUCO transfer Blake Whiteley — in conjunction with holdovers Geoff Swaim, Greg Daniels and M.J. McFarland — makes him a flexible option in the passing game. Shipley is going to get a workout.
Bergeron and Overstreet are no longer around, but that shouldn't have a distinct impact on UT's bottom line. The top two running backs return: Malcolm Brown (904 yards) and Johnathan Gray (780 yards) are as talented a one-two backfield pairing as you'll find in college football, and it's very easy to imagine a scenario where the Longhorns' rediscovered physicality yields supremely productive seasons from both co-starters. Where Bergeron's departure stings is in how it robs UT of a powerful runner, though part of me thinks Swoopes can be effective if used judiciously on third down and near the goal line. Texas has a pair of bigger-body backs joining the fold for fall camp – D'Onta Foreman and Donald Catalon – but there's little reason to think either would be more useful than Brown, for instance, in crucial-conversion spots.
Defense: It's all fun and games in the Big 12 until Texas adds Charlie Strong to this defense. There's supreme reason for confidence: Strong, a defensive guru, joins a defensive roster teeming with experience and talent, giving these Longhorns a confluence of positive factors that — excuse me while I hedge — makes me think this team could very well exceed my expectations. Begin with the line, which does lose a pair of starters — one, Jackson Jeffcoat, a total stud — but brings back not just a solid core, including those two returning starters, but a very promising second tier.
Cedric Reed (79 tackles, 10 sacks) is the next UT end to challenge for All-American honors. Here's what he does best: Stop the run and get after the quarterback – so he does just about everything you could ask, basically, and does it well. Shiro Davis is a near-lock to join Reed at end, though you should keep an eye on sophomore Caleb Bluiett and true freshman Derick Roberson, with Roberson the defensive gem of February's recruiting class. When it comes to the interior, Reed's end-spot production is mirrored by junior Malcom Brown's (68 tackles, 12 for loss) guard-devouring, run-game-owning play at tackle. Here's the scary part: Reed and Brown are very often lined up side by side — so pick your poison. Senior Desmond Jackson has the starting experience to get the nod alongside Brown. Reserves Hassan Ridgeway and Paul Boyette will see extensive snaps.
It's easy to say that UT's linebackers are set for a breakthrough … but let's just be a little pragmatic about the situation. This bunch was supposed to break out last fall; they didn't. The proof is in the pudding, in essence, and even if there's a huge amount of experience — and there is — the Longhorns' starting trio need to prove their worth on Saturdays. Helping matters, potentially, is a healthy Jordan Hicks, the oft-injured senior who, like Ash on offense, could be a game-changer if on the field. Hicks will flank the middle with one of junior Peter Jinkens or redshirt freshmen Naashon Hughes and Deoundrei Davis, with Jinkens perhaps the early starter but both youngsters closing fast. There's another competition underway in the middle: Steve Edmond (73 tackles) is going to start, but Dalton Santos will to continue to log a major role on the second level.
It's a slightly similar story in the secondary — great experience, huge talent, diminishing on-field returns — but far more reason for optimism. UT has a stopper in senior Quandre Diggs (58 tackles), who can effectively negate a quadrant of the field, and should feel an adequate degree of confidence in how Duke Thomas will fare as the full-time starter. This is bit of a long shot, but there's even a chance that Sheroid Evans puts it all together, a development that would either give UT its starter at nickel back or allow Strong and Bedford to put Diggs in the slot, where I think he can cause utter havoc. There are also some young options on the outside — Bryson Echols, for one — so UT has options. The back end is a bit more unsettled without Turner, but the Longhorns have a building block in senior free safety Mykkele Thompson (72 tackles). With Turner and Collins no longer in the fold, it'll be interesting to see how far this staff will need to go down the post-spring pecking order to find a starter and dependable reserve.
Special teams: Anthony Fera did it all for UT in 2013 and did it well, fulfilling the promise that accompanied his transfer from Penn State to stand as one of the top specialists in college football. Nick Rose returns on kickoffs, but I imagine Nick Jordan, the Longhorns' kicker for part of 2012, will get a long look as Fera's replacement. The situation a punter is a little tougher to decipher, though that Mitchell Becker is the only punter listed on UT's roster seems like a sign — Sherlock-level deduction there, clearly. I'll say the same thing this year as I say every year: With this much talent, Texas should have the advantage on kickoffs and coverage.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: The plan is to get the best five linemen on the field, Watson said in the spring. Hey, that sounds great. Here's another positive to keep in mind: Wickline is as good as they get nationally when it comes to creating a deep and reliable rotation, if given the bodies, and for all of its recent woes, Texas has rarely lacked for bodies. Having said that … Texas is down about four of last year's starters, counting Josh Cochrane at right tackle — he missed most of last season — and, as such, faces immense questions about the group's ability to protect Ash, a major priority, and open lanes for the running game. Begin with what we know: Dominic Espinosa, a senior with 39 career starts, will anchor the line from center, where he stands as one of the nation's steadiest at the position. UT knows Espinosa will deliver, so his production won't dictate the line's potential; his ability to lead, however, is of vital importance.
Let's pencil another two linemen into starting roles. One is junior Kennedy Estelle, who replaced Cochrane one month into last season and should remain atop the two-deep at right tackle. The second, junior Sedrick Flowers, is entrenched at left guard; he's the only guard on the roster with starting experience. That still leaves left tackle and right guard, however, and UT still seems undecided at both positions. Wickline might be leaning toward senior Desmond Harrison on the blind side, but it's far too soon to give him anything more than a slight inside edge over sophomore Kent Perkins — if healthy, the latter's a pretty comparable option. It's even more unknown at guard: UT is looking at redshirt freshmen Darius James and Rami Hammad, with junior Taylor Doyle a surprise contender.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Oklahoma: Of course. But it's a schedule loaded with must-win games, seeing that this is Texas, and it's a schedule that does Strong no first-year favors. The good news: Brigham Young, Baylor and TCU come in Austin, and UCLA in Arlington, Texas. The bad news: Oklahoma, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State come on the road. The worst news: UT plays all these teams.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: The hard part is just about to begin. Yes, Strong has started the process of remaking Texas, knocking out the shiny, unsupported floorboards in favor of a harder, more concrete foundation, but this is no short-term fix — it's a long-term process, painful at times, but one aided by the talent inherited by Strong and this new-look staff. Some might see the incumbent roster as a partial negative, based on what has occurred in Austin during the last two weeks, but I disagree: Strong has the pieces he needs, talent-wise, and it's better to have the inherent personnel than need to perform a top-to-bottom roster overhaul — obviously. Now, it's not like Strong isn't leading UT through a decided overhaul, but it's more mental than physical. Yes, the Longhorns must get tougher; the Longhorns must get tougher between the ears more than anything, however.
This is going to be interesting — it's Texas, and it's always interesting at Texas. But this'll be more interesting than most, seeing that UT is not only flipping schematics and blueprints but flipping its mental approach. It's the latter that has me worried for this coming fall: Strong might just be what the doctor ordered — let's hold off making any bold claims about what he will or will not achieve — but I don't see this going off like gangbusters from year one. This is despite the Longhorns' clear talent level, particularly on defense, and this despite the simple idea that UT has essentially bolstered a similar core that came within a game of last year's Big 12 title with a stronger, more involved and more demanding coaching staff. I'm going to say this, and don't take it as standing for anything more than just this coming season: I'm skeptical.
Well, we know it's going to go one of three ways: Texas is going to win big, a possibility; Texas is going to lose big, also a possibility; or Texas is going to be average, which is again a possibility. I'm siding toward the latter. Vaulting to double-digit wins seems like a pipe dream, if only due to the shift in approach and — this perhaps most of all — this year's daunting schedule. Likewise, a year that ends with seven or eight losses seems similarly far-fetched; there's too much in town for UT to drop off the map. But there are negatives: Texas is undergoing a major shift on the sidelines while dealing with personnel issues, and that's not a recipe for a run to the top of the Big 12.
I'm worried about Ash under center — not that he won't deliver, but that he won't start 13 games. If he misses another nine games during the regular season, I would go so far as to say UT might miss the postseason altogether; Swoopes and Heard aren't ready for that pressure. The receiver corps lacks experience beyond the top three. The offensive line is rebuilt, even if Wickline inspires immense confidence. The back seven has all the talent in the world — and a hole at safety, to be fair — but has to produce between the lines. The kicking game will take a step back. Just in terms of personnel, I'd have Texas hovering on the fringes of a national ranking. Add some question marks to Strong's continued work in progress and you have the uncommon year: Texas might win seven games and be pleased about what lies ahead. I'd say eight wins is the high end, six the low, and pick UT to end the year in the middle.
Dream season: Texas does 10-2, claiming the Big 12 title thanks to tiebreakers against Baylor and Oklahoma.
Nightmare season: The Longhorns slide to 5-7 in Strong's debut.
Who's No. 44? One of this team's defensive backs shares his first name with a Swedish metal band that first toured the U.S. in the same month Wrigley Field hosted its first night game.
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