AUSTIN, Texas -- The best teams in college football aren’t the ones that got lucky and avoided injuries.
In 2012, Alabama lost five players to season-ending injuries by the end of September. Notre Dame lost two starters in its secondary for the year early on. Two of Oregon’s best senior starters went down before Week 3. It happens.
The best teams in college football are usually deep enough to replace any missing pieces. Mack Brown knows this. He’s preached the need for depth in each of the past two years, insisting the starting 22 listed on the depth chart don’t matter as much as having 22 more good men.
Now it’s time to walk the walk. By the end of Texas’ 31-21 win over Kansas State, six key starters were injured. Linebacker Jordan Hicks is done for the year with a torn Achilles. Running back Daje Johnson is out indefinitely and hasn’t played in two weeks. An ankle issue kept receiver Mike Davis out of the KSU game.
And then there’s quarterback David Ash, who earned the start and didn’t come back from the locker room at halftime. Concussion-related symptoms are the issue, but the details and severity are mostly unknown.
A case can be made that they’re four of the most important players on this 2013 team, the guys most capable of deciding whether Texas ends up winning 10 games or five.
Against Kansas State, the guys tasked with replacing those game-changers took care of business. In this must-win game, embracing a next man up mentality paid dividends.
Sanders did what David does best: He ran a deep post route and hauled in a bomb on a play-action pass from Ash for a 63-yard touchdown, the first of his career.
“I was really nervous, but I’ve been working my tail off so I was kind of calmed down,” Sanders said. “I just treated it like practice. I’ve been working my tail off for this long so might as well show everybody.”
Johnson added 70 yards on five catches, including two long receptions on third downs to help set up scores. Brown lauded him for playing like he’d been around a long time, when in fact he entered the night with one career reception.
Texas went with another sophomore, Kennedy Estelle, to replace right tackle Josh Cochran. Dalton Santos, whose injury status was questionable entering the game, recovered the tide-turning Jake Waters fumble in the fourth quarter as K-State was about to cut the deficit to 31-28.
He’s likely set to play a major role now that Hicks’ season is over. The guy Santos will help replace was a key cog, but his teammates know they have to move on and trust Texas’ depth.
“If he is [out], he is,” cornerback Carrington Byndom said. “We have to continue to go forward. We have to have people step up and fill that role.”
There was no better example of that mentality on Saturday than when Case McCoy took over for Ash. Longhorn players were surprised by the news that Ash was out, but they’ve been down that road before.
He played the role of reliever well and led two scoring drives. He didn’t need to do much – McCoy handed the ball off on three-fourths of his snaps – but he did just enough. More important, his teammates didn’t flinch. They were unfazed by the sudden change of plans.
“We play behind all our quarterbacks,” running back Johnathan Gray said. “When one is down and the other one comes in, we rally around whoever is in the game. That’s what we did tonight and it was a plus for us.
“I didn’t know David was out. It changed nothing. We kept what we were going to do for our offense. We stayed with it.”
As the injuries continue to pile up, that’s precisely the mentality Texas players plan to maintain. And that’s got to last more than one night, especially if Texas wants to get back to playing like one of the nation’s best.