Texas Longhorns: Mason Walters

Texas seniors endured tough run, rebuild

November, 28, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- When Mack Brown introduced his latest recruiting class on signing day of 2010, he did so with great pride.

“I've been asked over the last couple of days, ‘Is this the best class that we've ever had?’” Brown said that day. “We feel like it definitely has the potential to be, because from top to bottom it covers every position and that's a very difficult thing to do.”

On Thursday, seven of those signees will take the field at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium one final time. Senior Night has a tendency to elicit mixed emotions, a bittersweet cocktail of pride, sadness and sentimentality.

It’s hard to assess this Texas class with anything else but mixed emotions. You wonder if they feel the same. After all, this four-year run was not what these seniors signed up for or expected back in February 2010.

Of the 13 scholarship seniors being honored during Texas’ Thanksgiving home finale against Texas Tech, more than half came from the 2010 class that ranked No. 2 nationally. They signed after Texas won 13 games and played for a national title. The senior class that departed after 2009 went 45-8 in their four seasons.

Today’s seniors made their debuts for a 2010 team that was No. 5 in the preseason AP poll. Expectations were as high as ever. Brown seemed poised to chase another championship.

Instead, this class ended up inheriting the task of helping lead a rebuilding project, one that still isn’t complete. They hope this is their legacy, that their efforts will get this Longhorn program back on track.

[+] EnlargeJackson Jeffcoat
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJackson Jeffcoat calls his Texas career a roller coaster ride.
“To their credit, they would tell you they haven’t accomplished what teams at Texas would want to have accomplished as seniors,” Brown said.

The fourth-year seniors enter Thursday night’s home finale against Texas Tech with a career record of 29-19. If the Red Raiders pull the upset, this group will drop to 17-17 in Big 12 games.

They haven’t been particularly successful at DKR, either, with a record of 13-11 at home in the past four years. They’ve won six conference home games and lost nine.

Most of these seniors been playing from the very beginning. Guard Mason Walters, a 2009 signee who redshirted, and receiver Mike Davis were starters on the 5-7 team of 2010. Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, cornerback Carrington Byndom and guard Trey Hopkins are three-year starters. All together, this senior class has combined for 266 starts.

It's a group that, to this point, has endured an awful lot. The first losing season of Brown’s tenure. A coaching staff shakeup. The end of the Texas A&M rivalry. One win and three losses to Oklahoma. No Big 12 championships. No BCS bowl games.

“It's been a roller-coaster ride, ups and downs,” Jeffcoat said. “I think I'm better for that.”

Jeffcoat signed to play for then-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Case McCoy has been tutored by three different quarterback coaches and playcallers. These Texas seniors received an education in embracing change.

“A lot of things have gone good, a lot of things have gone bad,” McCoy said. “That's part of the game, that's part of life. One thing I know in this game and in life, you’ve got to battle. You can't give up. That's why I love this team. I love the way they're playing. I love their hearts because we haven't given up.”

They know they had Texas-sized standards to live up to in their careers. When a program bottoms out the way the Longhorns did in 2010, everything achieved since has been in the commitment to getting back on top.

There have been high points along the way, but it all seemed to be building toward 2013. Brown believed Texas had a chance to win every game this season. That didn’t work out.

To the seniors’ credit, he said, they didn’t fold after starting off 1-2 this year. They didn’t give in and they rallied to win six in a row.

“They were very, very strong-willed in stepping up with their leadership and telling the other guys, ‘This is our last time now, we’re going to make this work,’” Brown said. “I’m really proud of them. I’m proud of the way they’ve handled adversity, proud of the way they fought through it.”

And Jeffcoat believes the legacy of these seniors is unfinished. They’ll earn a share of the Big 12 title, and perhaps more, if they win out. Three games left means three more chances to get the Longhorns back in the right direction.

“I think we definitely have that opportunity,” McCoy said. “We have the opportunity right now to put our final stamp on it and put it where we need to go.”

Texas’ seniors have had a rough journey. As the end nears, though, they still believe their story can have a happy ending. And they seem to have few regrets.

“If I had to choose all over again,” Jeffcoat said, “I’d come to Texas.”

Planning for success: Texas

November, 27, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Getting people to agree to spend their Thanksgiving night in a football stadium isn’t always easy. When that game isn’t Texas against Texas A&M, it’s a little harder sell.

That message was sent, not-so-loud but clear, last November when Texas played TCU in front of a relatively tame Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium crowd. The paid attendance figure still said 99,950, and coach Mack Brown still said afterward the atmosphere was “great.” He was being too kind.

[+] EnlargeCase McCoy
AP Photo/Eric GayQuarterback Case McCoy has little love for Texas Tech, the Longhorns' opponent on Thanksgiving.
The first Thanksgiving game without the Aggies was a bit of a flop. Texas is trying to rekindle its holiday tradition, this time against Texas Tech, and make this an annual game that still matters.

“We told our players that if you want to have an exclusive game on Thanksgiving night, you need to make it something everybody in the country is going to be excited about seeing,” Brown said Monday. “It was that way for many, many years. It wasn’t that way last year.”

Which merits a question worth asking this week: Do the Longhorns miss Texas A&M? Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat doesn’t speak for all his teammates, but he does.

“We miss playing A&M. That’s a big rivalry,” he said. “But we have a great rivalry with Tech as well. They’re an in-state team. We battle back and fourth with them.”

Some Texas players take Texas Tech more serious than the rest. Right guard Mason Walters grew up near Lubbock in Wolfforth, Texas. This game matters to quarterback Case McCoy, another West Texas native.

“I am not a Tech fan,” McCoy said. “I’m from that neck of the woods and I’ve walked those streets. Most of my high school [went] there. This is a game you don’t have to worry about me being fired up for.”

McCoy will always be remembered as the guy who beat Texas A&M in perhaps that rivalry’s last matchup in a long time. Of course he cares about that game, and the tradition will forever matter to him.

But Texas is trying to establish a new tradition, a home game every year on Thanksgiving. Even if the opponent alternates annually, he still values the opportunity to play on a big stage on national TV.

“I came to Texas, for a large majority, for the rivalry games,” McCoy said. “I came to play on Thanksgiving and I came to play on the Red River Rivalry. The Thanksgiving game has changed. It’s a different team now, it’ll be a different team every year. But it’s still a chance to play on Thanksgiving when nobody is.

“You come for games like this. Last year it was just a weird feeling not playing A&M and trying to get that same vibe.”

And the side dishes served with that game are still being tweaked. The Aggie Dinner on Sunday has become Senior Dinner, this year’s edition featuring more than 30 letterwinners. The Hex Rally was continued in 2012 but canceled this year due to inclement weather.

Throwing out long-held traditions is hard. Starting new ones isn’t much easier. But to Texas players, it’s still Thanksgiving and it’s still football. Hard to go wrong with that combo, no matter who’s coming to DKR for the holidays.

“It’s a game we’ll be fired up for,” McCoy said. “It’s a game that, you know, I’ll talk about a lot of games the rest of my life and this will be one of them."

Texas faces same late-season stakes again

November, 25, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- After a week off, Texas goes into its final home game of the season with a potentially huge finish on the horizon. All the Longhorns need to do is win two games.

First comes a Thanksgiving night game against a foe that already has four conference losses. Then a regular-season finale on the road against one of the teams atop the Big 12 standings. A share of the Big 12 title could be on the line, but not if Texas can’t win the first one.

Here’s what’s fascinating about that statement: It was just as true on Nov. 22, 2012, as it is today.

[+] EnlargeQuandre Diggs
John Albright/Icon SMIConsecutive losses to TCU and Kansas State last season left a sour taste in the mouths of Longhorns such as cornerback Quandre Diggs.
If the stakes this team now faces seem familiar, that’s because they’re almost identical to what the Longhorns faced one year ago.

This time it’s Texas Tech and Baylor on the slate. Last season, Texas was eyeing a trip to a BCS bowl and maybe even a slim hope of winning the conference with TCU and Kansas State standing in the way.

Those hopes were dashed by a Turkey Day disaster, a 20-13 home loss to the 6-4 Horned Frogs after Texas had clawed its way up to No. 16 in the BCS standings and back onto the national radar.

“We missed a great opportunity to get back in the mix for some things," Texas coach Mack Brown said afterward.

Then came a 42-24 loss to K-State, sending the Wildcats to the Fiesta Bowl. Before this season, Texas players said they remember the bitter taste left from having to watch their opponent celebrate a co-Big 12 championship.

Now they get an opportunity to replace that negative memory with a positive one.

“We just have to go back and regroup knowing that we still have a chance to win the Big 12,” cornerback Carrington Byndom said after Texas’ 38-13 loss to Oklahoma State. “We just have to win out.”

Last year, it was a Baylor win over Kansas State that created a glimmer of hope for Texas. This time around, Baylor’s loss to Oklahoma State has made perfectly clear what UT needs to do to snag a share of the Big 12 title: win out.

Two wins plus an Oklahoma victory over OSU in Bedlam means an outright title for Texas and the elusive BCS bowl trip.

That’s not much different from last year’s scenario, except Texas was crossing its fingers for a Sooners loss in 2012. Doesn’t matter if you don’t take care of your own business, though. And the Longhorns stumbled.

Texas turned the ball over four times, two coming on interceptions thrown in the red zone by an injured David Ash and one on a last-ditch effort to rally from Case McCoy. TCU won the rushing battle 217-86. The Longhorns squandered their big opportunity by squandering lots of little ones that night.

“At times we all didn't play well tonight. That's football,” lineman Mason Walters said after the loss. “Someone's got to step up and be the man, and we didn't have anyone doing that.”

That Texas team was coming off four straight wins. This one strung together six Big 12 victories in a row before the Cowboys came to Austin and blew them out. Nine days have passed since then.

This team has to defeat a Texas Tech team that began the year 7-0 and has now lost four in a row, then go on the road and beat a Baylor team that, despite revealing its vulnerabilities in a 49-17 loss this weekend, is still No. 9 in the BCS and capable of putting up 50-plus on the Longhorns.

What's it going to take to get to 9-3? Some of Texas' best football yet at a time when six starters are injured or out and the margin for error is slim.

"I don't think anybody is capable of playing perfect football. Football is a game and nothing's going to be perfect," receiver Jaxon Shipley said after the loss to OSU. “Ultimately, I think it's if you can be persistent. If you are facing adversity, can you overcome those?

"Today we didn't do that, but I think we can bounce back and we've still got a shot at winning the Big 12 championship."

And to pull that off, the Longhorns need a perfect 2-0 record to close the season. They need to do something they couldn't one year ago.

Big 12 Week 12: Did you know?

November, 15, 2013
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Back again with more stats and tidbits courtesy of SID departments across the league and ESPN stats and information. Did you know …

  • TCU coach Gary Patterson returns to his alma mater for the first time as a head coach when he visits Kansas State on Saturday. He played linebacker and safety for the Wildcats before graduating in 1983. He was born in Larned, Kan., and lived in Rozel, Kan.
  • TCU's Trevone Boykin is the only player in the nation with a 100-yard rushing, 100-yard receiving and 200-yard passing game this season.
  • TCU leads the Big 12 with 70.4 percent (2,379 of 3,380 yards) of its scrimmage yards from underclassmen.
  • Deante' Gray, who started two games at receiver this season, started at cornerback for TCU against Iowa State last Saturday and had two tackles and a pass breakup. He also leads the squad in special teams tackles.
  • Iowa State's DeVondrick Nealy's 98-yard kick return for a touchdown snapped TCU's 135-game streak without allowing a kick return for a score, which was the nation's longest.
  • TCU is tied for the conference lead and sixth in the nation with 25 forced turnovers this season.
  • TCU holds the nation's third longest streak of games without being shut out at 265, dating back to a 32-0 shutout loss to Texas in 1991.
  • Kansas State coach Bill Snyder earned victory No. 175 overall and No. 100 in conference play with the Wildcats' 49-26 win over Texas Tech last Saturday. He's the 46th coach to reach the 175-win mark and just the 11th reach that standard at one school. He joins Tom Osborne of Nebraska and Barry Switzer of Oklahoma as the only Big 8/12 coaches with at least 100 wins at one school.
  • K-State has turned it on in the fourth quarter of recent games, outscoring opponents 56-14 during its three-game win streak.
  • The Wildcats are 49-17 in November under Snyder since 1991.
  • KSU is looking to become the fourth Big 12 team to start 2-4 or worse yet still make a bowl game. 2001 K-State, 2002 Oklahoma State and 2004 Iowa State are the only teams to achieve that feat thus far.
  • Since 1999, K-State ranks No. 1 nationally in non-offensive touchdowns with 91.
  • John Hubert is averaging 109.5 rushing yards per game and one touchdown in KSU's last four games after averaging 53.6 rushing yards in the Wildcats' first five contests.
  • KSU sophomore defensive lineman Travis Britz has blocked four kicks this season, which leads the nation.
  • Texas is 6-0 in the Big 12 for the fifth time under Mack Brown (1999, 2005, 2006, 2009).
  • The Longhorns has scored 30 points or more in their last six games, matching their longest streak since 2009.
  • UT is No. 5 nationally in sacks in its last six games. The Longhorns have gotten to the quarterback 24 times during their last six contests.
  • Longhorns' guard Mason Walters has started 47 straight games, the second-longest streak in the nation among offensive linemen (Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson owns the longest streak).
  • Texas has scored 11 touchdowns on plays of 45 yards or more this season. Eight different Longhorns have achieved that feat.
  • UT receiver Jaxon Shipley is clutch with 30 of his 46 receptions resulting in a first down this season, including three on fourth down. His fourth-down catch kept hope alive in the Longhorns' 47-40 overtime win over West Virginia last Saturday.
  • UT defensive end Cedric Reed is the lone FBS defender with at least six sacks, four pass breakups and four forced fumbles. The junior has seven sacks, four pass breakups and four forced fumbles.
  • Oklahoma State has won 10 of its last 11 games in the state of Texas.
  • An OSU win over Texas would be the Cowboys third-straight victory in Austin and make the Cowboys the first team to do it since Colorado in 1990, 1994 and 1997.
  • OSU has scored 20 or more points in 48 straight games dating back to the start of the 2010 season. It's the longest streak in the nation.
  • OSU has forced a turnover in 17 straight games.
  • Cowboys cornerback Justin Gilbert leads all active players with six kickoff returns for touchdown in his career after his kickoff return for a score to open the game against Kansas.
  • OSU is one of seven teams ranking in the nation's top 20 in both scoring offense (40.7 points per game) and scoring defense (19.7 ppg). Alabama, Baylor, Florida State, Oregon, Ohio State and Louisville join the Pokes in that category.
  • The Cowboys are averaging 6.11 three-and-outs forced per game this season.
  • OSU ranks No. 9 nationally in yards per play allowed at 4.67 yards per play. Michigan State leads the nation at 3.47 followed by Baylor's 4.08.
  • The Cowboys lead the Big 12 in third down conversion percentage at 29.6 percent which ranks sixth nationally.
  • The Cowboys could feature the league's most balanced offense. OSU has 343 rushing attempts and 343 passing attempts heading into its battle with Texas.
  • Texas Tech's series with Baylor is the longest in school history. The Red Raiders hold a 36-34-1 lead in the series.
  • The Red Raiders have scored 20 points or more in 25 straight games, dating back to 2011.
  • Linebacker Will Smith has either led or tied for the team lead in tackles in six of TTU's last eight games. He has 72 tackles in 10 games, including 50 solo stops.
  • TTU had its nation-leading streak of 257 straight PATs snapped when KSU blocked Ryan Bustin's attempt last Saturday. It also snapped Bustin's personal streak of 101 consecutive PATs.
  • TTU tight end Jace Amaro had nine receptions for 67 yards against Kansas State to make it nine straight games with at least eight receptions for the junior, tying Michael Crabtree for the school record. He also moved to 10th on Tech's single season receptions list with 88 catches this season.
  • Baylor head coach Art Briles is a 1979 Texas Tech graduate and was an assistant coach on Mike Leach's staff from 2000-02.
  • It's been a full year since Baylor lost a game and the Bears 12-game winning streak is a school record. Oklahoma was the last team to defeat Baylor on Nov. 10, 2012.
  • The Bears' 8-0 start is the best in Baylor's history.
  • Baylor is hoping to win three straight games against TTU for the first time since 1984-87.
  • Baylor leads the nation in total offense (686 ypg), scoring (61 ppg), pass efficiency (201.5), yards per play (8.64) and passing yards per completion (19.29).
  • The Bears defense has more interceptions (11) than passing touchdowns allowed (8).
  • Baylor leads the nation in fewest three-and-outs per game (1.02) and is No. 2 in three-and-outs forced (7).
  • Baylor is on track to set NCAA records in points per game (61) and yards per game (686). Army averaged 56 points per game in 1944 while Houston averaged 624.9 yards per game in 1989.
  • BU's starting offense has 85 drives resulting in 52 touchdowns, getting into the end zone on 61.1 percent of its drives.
  • Baylor has won a school-record eight straight conference games. The previous high was five in 2010.
  • The Bears lead the Big 12 in tackles for loss with 8.9 per game. That ranks No. 2 in the FBS.
  • Baylor has converted 52.7 percent of its third down attempts, which leads the Big 12 and ranks No. 8 in the nation.
  • Baylor leads the Big 12 in sacks at 3 per game. That number ties the Bears for 14th nationally.
  • BU quarterback Bryce Petty leads the nation in pass efficiency (210.6) and yards per completion (19.68).
  • BU running back Lache Seastrunk has 10 games of 100 rushing yards or more in Baylor's last 12 games. He's averaging 8.7 yards per carry, which ranks No. 2 nationally.
  • Seastrunk leads the league with 111 rushing yards per game and 11 touchdowns.
  • Teammate Shock Linwood, a redshirt freshman running back, is second in the Big 12 with 89.3 rushing yards per game.
  • BU receiver Antwan Goodley leads the Big 12 with 121.8 receiving yards per game, which is No. 4 nationally.
  • Baylor is 12-1 in November and December since 2011, which is tops in the FBS. That record includes a 5-1 mark against Top 25 teams.
  • Iowa State's loss to TCU was the fifth time this season the Cyclones lost a game by eight points or less, including losses to Big 12 foes Texas, Texas Tech and TCU by a combined 12 points.
  • ISU and Rutgers are the only two teams with two different players who have returned a kickoff 95 yards or more for a touchdown.
  • Nealy has scored in four straight games in three different ways for the Cyclones.
  • ISU has used eight different starting offensive lines in nine games. With injuries ravaging its offensive front, 10 different Cyclones have starting along the offensive line.
  • Receiver Quenton Bundrage is the only Cyclone to start every game on offense.
  • ISU linebacker Jeremiah George has recorded double digit tackles in seven of nine games. He leads the Big 12 with 11.3 tackles per game, ranking fourth nationally.
  • Even with ISU's struggles on the field, the Cyclones have had three sellouts this season (Oklahoma State, Iowa, Northern Iowa) and are averaging the highest attendance average (55,617) in program history.
  • ISU has converted 23 of 24 red zone possessions into points (18 touchdowns, five field goals) to lead the Big 12 and rank No. 4 nationally at 95.8 percent.
  • West Virginia is making its first trip to Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan.
  • Two of the top-20, single-game rushing performances in KU history have occurred on Nov. 16. June Henley rushed for 209 yards against Texas in 1996 (15th best) and John Riggins rushed for 189 yards against K-State in 1968 (19th best).
  • Mountaineers running back Dreamuis Smith played at Wichita (Kan.) Heights and was committed to the Jayhawks before spending two seasons at Butler County Community College.
  • KU's Michael Reynolds has 5.5 sacks this season, the most by a KU defender since 2009. He has a sack in four of KU's last five games.
  • KU punter Trevor Pardula has punted for 3,044 yards this season, nearly 1.73 miles. He leads the nation at 338.2 yards per game.
  • West Virginia has scored 30 points or more in 24 games, 40 points of more in 12 games, 50 points or more in six games and 60 points or more in three games during Dana Holgorsen's tenure.
  • WVU running back Charles Sims leads the Big 12 in all-purpose yardage, averaging 124.2 yards per game.
  • WVU has forced a turnover in 16 straight games and 28 of its last 29 contests.
  • WVU's is looking to extend its streak of making bowl appearances to 12 with wins over Kansas and Iowa State to close the season.
  • WVU is 3-1 on the road in November under Holgorsen
  • Oklahoma has won 14 straight games against Iowa State and is 8-0 under Bob Stoops.
  • The Sooners are 13-1 on Senior Day under Stoops.
  • Stoops has 156 career victories and will be looking to tie Barry Switzer at 157 with a win on Saturday.
  • OU will honor 17 seniors on Senior Day. This class is 39-10 during their time in Norman.
  • The Sooners are seeking a perfect home record for the 11th time in 15 seasons under Stoops and the first time since 2010.
  • The Sooners-Cyclones contest will feature a battle of brothers. Tom Farniok is ISU's starting center while Derek Farniok is a backup tackle at OU.

Brown, Texas saved year one game at a time

November, 14, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Mason Walters was reminded Monday of this bit of trivia: Texas' last six opponents have won a total of 23 games. Its final three foes are 23-4.

Daunting stuff for a team that finally entered the BCS standings this week, right? The offensive lineman crunched the numbers for a moment, then produced a firm answer.

"We only have to beat one of those teams this week," Walters said. "I think that's the way we do it."

[+] EnlargeMack Brown
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesMack Brown had turned Texas' season around by convincing the Longhorns to just take it one week at a time.
That's the company line for the Longhorns this season, repeated and reinforced week after week until players started realizing just how effective that myopia can be.

How did coach Mack Brown pull this all off? How did he take a team on the brink at 1-2, one that lost its quarterback and had too many injured starters, and swing this season with a six wins in a row?

The easy answer is that Texas had talented players all along, that somehow this group came together and starting playing up to its experience and potential. These assistant coaches probably aren't receiving their due credit.

But Walters' answer speaks to the mentality Brown has stubbornly preached since Texas' second loss. His Longhorns avoided disaster by living one day and one game at a time.

Brown couldn't control the chatter about his job status. He couldn't control the perception that Texas' season was in a shambles. He and his coaches stuck to what was in front of them: Beat Kansas State. Start 1-0 and start over.

Two months later, it's clear that mentality has trickled down to his players and taken hold in the locker room. Nobody is questioning their focus. Cornerback Quandre Diggs, as confident and hardheaded a leader as Texas has, isn't letting anyone look ahead.

"I don't want to hear about the games we have following Oklahoma State. I really don't care," Diggs said. "I just want to win this week and that's all I care about. I don't care about a Big 12 championship in the future, because that kind of thinking gets you beat. I'm worried about this week."

Brown is teaching a master class in crisis management right now. Those focused on finding a way to replace him in 2014 are missing out.

It's not that Texas players lacked focus in losses to BYU and Ole Miss. It's about how they've responded since. They held a players-only meeting after the Ole Miss defeat. The goal, lineman Donald Hawkins said, was to throw out the hard feelings and put aside differences. This was a mature enough team -- 17 upperclassmen were starting at the time -- to recognize the fork in the road and the way to find the right path.

"We really did, after taking those two losses, figure out that, wow, this is kind of a cutthroat environment we're in after a loss," Walters said. "If we win each one every week, things can only get better."

Added Diggs: "Win the week. Win the day. That should've been our goal from the jump."

Meanwhile, their head coach had to find a way to ignore everything being said about him and his program. Brown would joke that, at Texas, everyone wants the head coach fired after every loss. Publicly, he'd argue the national chatter didn't matter.

The only way to shut people up is by winning. And he's doing just that.

"What's the saying? A wolf doesn't concern himself with the opinions of sheep," Hawkins said.

And now that the noise is dwindling, we can step back and recognize what Brown is accomplishing.

He believed Texas would be good in 2013 if quarterback David Ash had a strong junior year. Ash hasn't played in nearly two months. Starting tackle Josh Cochran is out. Top linebacker Jordan Hicks is done for the year, and now leading rusher Johnathan Gray and defensive tackle Chris Whaley are too.

Yet his team keeps rolling. The Longhorns climbed out of their two-loss hole one test at a time. That's all Brown has asked of them.

The week of the Oklahoma game, national writers were asking Case McCoy and others to defend Brown and to explain why he was still the right man to lead Texas. The responses were understandably defiant. So were the results.

"I play every week as if it's my last," McCoy said. "He's coaching every week like it's his last. It can only trickle down when people see that."

And McCoy says he believes his coach is having as much fun as ever right now. Brown says the postgame locker room after beating West Virginia in overtime last weekend was one of the best he has ever witnessed. He sees an inspired team.

What the players see is a coach who keeps fighting. Walters hopes Brown looks back on 2013 as one of the best coaching jobs he has ever done. But the Longhorns have to take care of business in the next four weeks for any of that to matter.

"If we reflect too much on it, and don't focus on the next week," Walters said, "it's going to get pretty real pretty quickly."

Planning for success: Texas

October, 31, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Case McCoy had no business wearing such a clean uniform as he walked off the Amon G. Carter Stadium field early Sunday morning.

In Texas’ 30-7 victory at TCU, McCoy had once again not been sacked. After playing half a game on a wet grass field, his white jersey and white pants ended up faring quite well.

He has his offensive line to thank. And they’ll remind him who deserves the credit.

“Oh I know, trust me,” McCoy said. “They let me know.”

That Texas offensive line is playing so well and so consistent, with dominant showings against the Horned Frogs and Oklahoma, that the unit is almost unrecognizable today. Yet it’s rolling with four of the same five usual guys.

[+] EnlargeCase McCoy and Dominic Espinosa
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDominic Espinosa (right) has helped keep Case McCoy upright and Texas' offense running.
McCoy has not been sacked in three of the Longhorns’ last four games. He’s gone down five times this season and three times in Big 12 play. The lineup of tackles Donald Hawkins and Kennedy Estelle, guards Trey Hopkins and Mason Walters and center Dominic Espinosa is finally finding consistency after years of scrutiny.

“We’re grading out well, everyone is playing well,” Espinosa said. “The biggest thing is everyone playing together, all five at the same time. We’re getting everyone on the same page on every play.”

Entering the year, Mack Brown had repeatedly preached the need for 10 linemen who can play at any moment. Texas has seven or eight at this point. But this starting five is doing just fine without much help.

Estelle, a sophomore, has filled in for the injured Josh Cochran at right tackle and, in the opinion of Walters, has the “extreme confidence” of his teammates.

Those fellow linemen have started a combined 132 games in their Longhorn careers. Add in Cochran’s two-plus years and that number climbs to 155. A line that experienced is supposed to be this good.

“They’re older. I know that’s weird to say because you have Kennedy, a younger guy, but Kennedy is playing like a veteran,” McCoy said. “Those guys have pulled him in. It’s fun to play behind those guys. I never have a worry stepping on the field with those five.”

The confidence that Texas’ current five is showing makes life a bit less stressful for offensive line coach Stacy Searels. He signed one the most highly touted freshman class of linemen that Texas has had in Brown’s tenure. They were supposed to compete for starting jobs from day one. They simply haven’t had to this fall.

Same goes for junior college tackle Desmond Harrison, who came in with NFL-caliber expectations and hasn’t lived up to them yet. He’s getting time to develop and won’t be shoved into the lineup until he’s ready.

What has the starters playing so well, just in time for their games against the Big 12’s best defensive lines? It could be Texas’ commitment to running the ball -- 60 rushes against OU, 52 against TCU -- and the mere fact that run blocking is easier than pass blocking.

That’s not how Espinosa sees it. The balance that Texas has managed to strike under McCoy with a power run game and big-play passing has helped get opposing defenders on their heels.

When those plays aren’t working, those watching the ball blame linemen. When everything is clicking, the big guys up front don’t get talked up much. That’s just how they like it.

“It’s nice not getting all that kind of scrutiny,” Espinosa said. “We know we played two great defenses the past two weeks, some of the best in the Big 12. So it definitely gives us confidence knowing how we were able to run the ball against both those teams. It definitely helps us the rest of the year, knowing what we’re capable of.”

And just what is this line capable of going forward, after their best games in a long, long time?

“We want to go out there and be the best offensive line in the nation,” he said. “That’s our goal and that’s what we’re going to do. If that’s getting more physical and giving the quarterback more time, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Texas finds unsung hero in OG Hopkins

October, 17, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The guy who will be Texas’ first offensive lineman drafted in six years didn’t dream of playing in the NFL. No, Trey Hopkins wanted to be an anesthesiologist. These days, he’s working toward a different profession: Physical therapist.

The Longhorns’ senior offensive guard has job shadowed at a local rehab center and interned at Austin Sports Medicine. He’s planning for a long future in the business, no matter when his playing days end.

“As far as the NFL and physical therapy, I’m kind of taking those kind of things one step at a time,” Hopkins said. “Both are things I’d love to do. Whichever happens, happens. I’m just making sure both options are available.”

[+] EnlargeTrey Hopkins
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesTexas OG Trey Hopkins has started 35 games, can play every O-line position and should be the first UT O-lineman drafted since 2008.
Coming out of high school, Hopkins knew his future: He’d be in the medical profession no matter what. He gave no thought to being an NFL player. He realizes now that’s going to be an option.

Hopkins is the 6-foot-4, 300-pound unsung hero of the Texas offense. He’s worn burnt orange for 43 games and has started 35. The left guard can play every position on a line and was once a 13-game starter at right tackle. He’s everything a coach could ask for, and one of the players line coach Stacy Searels trusts most.

“I like everything about Trey, to be honest with you,” Searels said. “He’s our most consistent lineman in grading. He has not given up a sack. Very few pressures. The kid is really solid. He’s a leader. No negatives off the field. Smart kid. He’s the kind of player you want.”

He’s quietly put together a resume that will impress NFL personnel men. There hasn’t been a Longhorns lineman drafted since tackle Tony Hills went to the Steelers in the fourth round in 2008. Hills, by the way, was an elite tight end prospect in high school. Back in the Class of 2003. So, yes, it’s been a while.

Hopkins laughs when asked about breaking that strange streak.

“To know I would be starting that pipeline back up for offensive linemen would be great,” he said.

But, again, this was a goal he only recently began taking seriously.

The past year changed his vision. A 63-21 beatdown from a far more physical Oklahoma team last October was the catalyst. Hopkins decided it was time to reevaluate.

“I really thought about everything I was doing. I thought about how important it was to me,” he said. “If it is that important, why not be more consistent? Why allow yourself to be held back by something?”

The next game, a home win against Baylor, was the first in Hopkins’ career where he truly felt he’d played a great game.

“That’s the mentality I bring into every game now: How important is it to you?” Hopkins said.

His dedication was put to the test in December, when team doctors determined Hopkins would need surgery for a stress fracture in his right leg. According to Searels, he’d had been playing through the fracture and shin splints for a while. Hopkins toughed it out and waited until after the regular season finale for the bad news.

He missed the Alamo Bowl. He missed spring practices. And he hated every second of it. Hopkins considered those months missed easily the most difficult of his college career, and those “terrible, completely awful” days brought new perspective.

“It just makes you think, ‘I really can’t live without playing this game,’” he said.

The guys he lines up next to on a weekly basis only deepen his love. Hopkins helps tie this offensive line together. It’s a quirky group led by veterans who have made a combined 151 career starts.

The guys who’ve been doing this a long time -- Hopkins, Mason Walters, Dominic Espinosa, Donald Hawkins, Josh Cochran -- go out to eat together and play video games. They mess with each other in one long, running group text message. Sometimes, they’ll even trade books.

Well, OK, that’s just Hopkins and Walters. It started when Walters suggested Hopkins try “1984.” He enjoyed it. So Walters recommended a personal favorite, “Catch 22.”

“He starts reading it and he says, ‘Man, this is terrible. It’s an awful book. It’s not a good book, Mason,’” Walters said. “Maybe I was being a little abstract in my reading of it and trying to connect too many dots, and he’s trying to read it at face value. So that was the end of the book club. But I think he’s reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ now…”

Walters is disappointed Hopkins doesn’t share his cynical view of bureaucracy, but they’ve still formed a bond that makes them a special duo. It’s almost a good cop-bad cop dynamic.

“I mean, I’m kind of the even-keeled guy,” Hopkins said. “I’m not really the fire-starter like Mason is. I would say it’s Mason’s job to get everybody going.”

The Texas line certainly got going last Saturday. One year after Hopkins wondered what this game meant to him, he and his fellow lineman are coming off their finest performance of the season.

This time, they were the ones owning Oklahoma at the line of scrimmage, paving the way for 59 carries and 255 rushing yards. He finally got to put on the Golden Hat.

“It’s indescribable,” Hopkins said after the game. “I’m really proud of my fellow seniors and really proud of this group. To go through all the lows we’ve gone through and finally accomplish this big milestone is great for all of us.”

Keep this up and Hopkins really won’t have a choice. His career as a physical therapist will just have to wait.

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 7

October, 14, 2013
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Taking stock of Week 7 in the Big 12:

Team of the week: Texas. Not only did the Longhorns pull off the biggest Red River upset in 17 years, they completely reversed the outlook of their season. At 3-0 in the Big 12 standings, Texas is right in the middle of the conference race. The Longhorns also finally found an identity in Dallas, which could make them a tough out during the second half of the season. The Longhorns ran the ball with authority between the tackles behind their experienced offensive line, which took pressure off quarterback Case McCoy. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, meanwhile, disguised his defenses beautifully and utilized Texas’ speed in timely blitzes. Baylor remains the favorite to win the Big 12 crown. But Texas, which travels to Baylor in the regular-season finale, could be a factor. What a difference a week makes.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesBlake Bell had one of the worst performances statistically by an OU QB since 2005.
Disappointment of the week: Oklahoma. While Texas found its identity in the Cotton Bowl, the Sooners seemingly lost theirs. The defense’s Achilles' heel resurfaced from last season, as Oklahoma couldn’t stop the run. That made the Sooners vulnerable against deep passes, which McCoy capitalized on with a pair of long touchdowns. As much as the defense struggled, the offense looked completely lost. Blake Bell took four sacks, threw two interceptions and was utterly miserable on third down. Bell’s QBR on third down, in fact, was 0.1 percent (he had been 89.8 on third downs coming into the game). Bell wasn’t much better the rest of the game with an Adjusted QBR of 2.8, which was the fourth-worst single-game adjusted QBR of any FBS quarterback this season. Curiously, Bob Stoops said the offensive staff didn’t feel comfortable running Bell in this game. And the Sooners couldn’t figure out which running back to feature, with no back receiving more than seven carries. This is a team that doesn’t look like it knows who it is all of a sudden.

Big (offensive) men on campus: The Texas offensive line, Kansas State quarterback Daniel Sams and Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro.

The most experienced offensive line in the Big 12 blocked like it at the most opportune of times. Kennedy Estelle, Mason Walters, Dominic Espinosa, Trey Hopkins and Donald Hawkins paved the way for Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown to become the first Texas duo to top 100 rushing yards apiece in the same Red River game. The Bevos up front also kept McCoy upright, as the Texas quarterback was not sacked all day and barely pressured, either.

In Manhattan, Sams played valiantly in K-State’s 35-25 loss to Baylor. He rushed for 199 yards and three touchdowns and almost single-handedly kept the Wildcats scoring with the high-powered Bears. Sams' late interception that effectively ended the game was a huge mistake. But his 86.1 Adjusted QBR was 13th-best in college football for the week. Sams now is second in the Big 12 in Adjusted QBR (86.5) for the year, trailing only Baylor’s Bryce Petty (95.1).

Amaro continues to be a security blanket for Texas Tech’s true freshman quarterbacks. Against Iowa State, he had his best game yet with nine receptions for 143 yards. Amaro leads the Big 12 with 47 receptions. Teammate Eric Ward is second with 34.

Big (defensive) men on campus: Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller, Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon and Texas defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed.

Along with Sams, Mueller was a major reason the Wildcats were in the game in the fourth quarter. In what might be the defensive highlight of the season in the Big 12 so far, Mueller stripped Petty while simultaneously recovering the fumble to set K-State with field position in the third quarter that would turn into a go-ahead touchdown. Mueller finished with seven tackles, two sacks and a pass breakup.

Dixon, meanwhile, came up with the defensive play of the game, as he beelined to the sideline to intercept Sams with four minutes to play. Off the turnover, the Baylor offense sealed the victory with a touchdown that put the Bears up two scores.

Jeffcoat and Reed, meanwhile, were terrific against the Sooners. The swarming defensive end duo totaled three sacks and kept the Oklahoma running backs from bouncing much of anything outside.

[+] EnlargeDaje Johnson
AP Photo/Brandon WadeDaje Johnson delivered Texas' first punt return for a touchdown since 2009.
Special-teams players of the week: Texas returner Daje Johnson, Texas kicker Anthony Fera and Iowa State returner Jarvis West.

Johnson delivered the dagger to the Sooners with a weaving 85-yard punt return touchdown late in the third quarter, which put the Longhorns ahead 30-13. It was Texas’ first punt return touchdown since Jordan Shipley did it in 2009. Fera came up big on special teams, too. He nailed a 43-yard field goal right before halftime that stymied the Sooners’ momentum from a long Roy Finch kick return that led to a touchdown the previous drive. Fera also nailed 50- and 31-yard field goals to be perfect on the day.

West kept the Cyclones above water in the first half as the Iowa State offense struggled. His 95-yard kickoff return -- Iowa State’s first non-onside kick return for a touchdown since 1994 -- tied the game in the first quarter 7-7. West later added a 38-yard punt return, and he finished with three receptions for 36 yards.

Play of the week: With the Red River Rivalry tied 3-3 in the first quarter, Texas' Adrian Phillips came off the edge untouched on a third-down zone blitz and slammed into Bell. The hit caused Bell’s pass to flutter behind intended receiver Jaz Reynolds and into the arms of defensive tackle Chris Whaley, who rumbled 31 yards for the touchdown. The Longhorns never gave up the lead the rest of the way.

Stat of the week: Bell’s QBR against Texas was the lowest by an Oklahoma quarterback since Rhett Bomar posted a 1.6 against Tulsa in 2005.

Quote of the week: "We love the guy. We’re playing for the guy. You all keep writing those articles bad about him. We’ll keep playing for him." -- McCoy on coach Mack Brown

Execution the issue for Longhorns line

September, 10, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas – A group that has started a combined 134 career games still has plenty to learn.

Lost amid one of the worst defensive performances in Texas history and the abrupt firing of Manny Diaz is the unmistakable fact Texas’ offense still has plenty of work to do. That work might begin up front.

Texas’ offensive line did not have its best night Saturday in Provo, Utah. David Ash was scrambling much of the night as BYU got consistent pressure by only rushing three or four defenders, and eventually Ash got hurt. Texas’ run blocking, especially in short-yardage situations, was maddeningly inconsistent.

[+] EnlargeKyle Van Noy
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMIDavid Ash was under pressure from Kyle Van Noy and others on the BYU defense on Saturday.
The Longhorns flat-out didn't own the line of scrimmage against a team that was manhandled by Virginia a week earlier.

That’s not exactly how Texas coaches and players perceived the game when they reviewed the film. On Monday, Mack Brown said he believed Texas’ line did some good things and had a better night that most realize.

The real problem, he said, was situational football.

“We were in so many third-and-long situations,” Brown said. “BYU has some great pass rushers. Kyle Van Noy, as publicized, he's a great player, not a good player. We ran the ball well at times, could have run it at other times better. We made some mistakes at quarterback and running back, even receiver, that hurt us up front. But I'm still positive about those guys moving forward.

“When you don't score more than 21 points, it always goes to the offensive line. Other times, people could have helped them with other things.”

On that topic, the numbers do not lie. Texas’ offense had 26 second-down opportunities against BYU and picked up first downs on only eight occasions. On 14 of those 26, Texas was facing second-and-7 or longer.

Going 0-for-3 on fourth downs is an obvious issue, but the Longhorns’ performance on third downs shouldn’t be overlooked. They converted five of their 17 third-down attempts, but that number doesn’t say everything. Eight of those 17 attempts were from 7 yards or longer, and Texas converted on third-and-long only once.

Those pressure situations put BYU at a distinct advantage. Creating more passing downs gave the Cougars the ability to drop more defenders into coverage and attack Ash with only three or four rushers.

"Now you have third-and-long, and you have a guy that's going to be drafted, and he's rushing your passer," offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said. "That makes it extremely difficult on the quarterback. When they can mix that in, allow him to drop seven or drop eight, it makes it difficult. We have to find a way to get ourselves in third-and-medium and third-and-short and find some more options.”

Senior offensive guard Mason Walters says failures in those critical situations can’t be blamed entirely on the Longhorns line. It takes all 11 to execute, and execution was certainly not up to par against BYU.

When he rewatched the game, he saw 11 players who were battling for 60 minutes. Effort wasn’t the issue, in his opinion. It’s simple attention to detail.

“It’s really all you have. When you’re not executing, you just have guys running around,” he said. “I really think the execution part of it comes when you start understanding there is an onus on you. It’s not OK to go out and almost do it right. It has to be done exactly the way it’s coached. Once that is seen and the execution starts to happen, it can be very explosive.”

It’s hard for that Texas offensive line to stay explosive without getting more help. Left tackle Desmond Harrison struggled, but that’s to be expected for a junior college transfer playing his second game for Texas. For most of the game, though, the same starting five stayed on the field.

Brown and offensive line coach Stacy Searles say they want 10 offensive linemen they can use, but backups Sedrick Flowers, Kennedy Estelle, Curtis Riser and others played minimal roles on Saturday. Next up is an athletic Ole Miss line, led by No. 1 recruit Robert Nkemdiche, that that presents just as many challenges as BYU did.

Now seems as good a time as any to open up competition for the starting offensive line jobs and tinker with new combinations. Texas is playing the same five linemen over and over and expecting different results.

Walters’ explanations for why the line didn’t get the job done are more abstract than blunt. He says energy needs to be better focused in the first quarter, that efforts need to be better channeled going forward.

But at the end of the day, Texas didn’t win. That’s all that matters to him, and no matter what explanation you lean on, the line needs to get better.

“We know this is a good team,” he said. “We know we have a good offense. It’s the execution factor that we need to step up on.”
AUSTIN, Texas -- Years from now, the 2011 BYU-Texas game won’t likely be remembered for anything more than its 17-16 final score, just another pair of numbers on a list of all-time results. A win, a close win but still a win, and nothing more.

But if Mack Brown is right and Texas does make another run at a national title soon, if the Longhorns do become elite again, perhaps we’ll look back on Sept. 10, 2011, as one of the key milestones of the rebuilding project.

You see, it was in that game when, with 9:42 left in the second quarter and a chorus of boos raining down from the stands of DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium, Garrett Gilbert walked off the field and never returned.

The fresh start Gilbert would get under new offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin lasted less than two games, undone by a bum shoulder and a deeply shaken confidence. He had surgery three days later and left the program within three weeks.

David Ash
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesDavid Ash played against BYU two years ago, but he's a completely different player now.
Oh, and Texas trailed BYU 13-0. David Ash and Case McCoy would have to take over and scrap together a victory, initiating a quarterback battle that would continue for nearly another year.

That Longhorns team was inexperienced and full of freshmen. It had five new coaches. It had to lead the program out of the 5-7 ditch. Two years later, Texas and BYU meet again.

These Longhorns might not look too terribly different from the 2011 squad, but so much has changed.

“Back then we still had, what, three quarterbacks?” senior offensive lineman Trey Hopkins said. “We had a new offense, a whole new staff came in, so many things. Young offensive line, young quarterbacks, young wide receivers, young everything. Everything was brand new and fresh to us.”

The Texas team that takes the field Saturday in Provo will feature 14 starters who played against BYU in 2011, including eight who will have started both games. The Texas two-deep has nearly 30 players who appeared in that 2011 contest.

“Now people have settled in. We know the system, we know each other, we’ve played next to each other for years now,” Hopkins said. “We’ve been in the great wins and the tough losses together. It’s almost like a completely new team going against them now.”

The task of rebuilding Texas has largely fallen on the shoulders of Texas’ 2011 recruiting class. From that group of 21, 13 played against BYU as true freshmen. None of the signees have transferred. They’ve agreed to ride this roller coaster together.

Seven of those 2011 signees will start against BYU this weekend, and a total of 14 have earned starts in their career. They comprise the core of this veteran roster.

Remember, these are the kids who signed two months after the 5-7 season ended. They signed despite that 2010 season and despite the coaching shakeup. They signed because they wanted to fix Texas.

Those players say now that having to overcome adversity before they ever showed up on campus made them closer and more determined to turn the program around.

“That group had something special about them, or they would’ve left,” Brown said. “They cared about Texas. They were very loyal to me and to the coaches that were still here. They had every opportunity to be negative and leave, and they didn’t.

“I think that’s one of the reasons they’ve come in here and helped us get this thing back in the right direction.”

Junior cornerback Quandre Diggs was one of the guys who kept that class intact during the turmoil. He still remembers sitting in the stands with Cedric Reed, Steve Edmond, M.J. McFarland and others and watching Texas’ season fall apart. When the coaches left, he worked the phones to make sure everyone stuck to their word.

“We all stuck together,” Diggs said. “It’s just tremendous, tremendous chemistry we have between our 2011 class. I love those guys like brothers. It’s something special we have.”

Back when BYU came to town, Diggs and Jaxon Shipley were learning on the job as true freshman starters. Malcolm Brown led the team in rushing. Now they’re just a few of the veteran leaders of a vastly different team.

The Longhorns have won 16 games and lost nine since BYU came to Austin. They’ve found their starting quarterback, surrounded him with weapons and developed one of the nation’s most experienced offensive lines. Their defense is out to prove itself after take a step backward in 2012.

“If we want to claim we’ve grown since the last time we played them, the table is set for a great challenge and, really, a measuring stick at this point in the season to see where we’re at,” offensive lineman Mason Walters said.

Garrett Gilbert is long gone now, as are any doubts about who should be Texas’ starting quarterback. Ash had to laugh Monday when asked how much he has grown up. These past two years haven’t always been easy, but he’s proud of how far his team has come.

“I think we came in at a difficult time when things were changing a lot,” Ash said. “A lot of us had to play young. We took our licks early, but I think we’re starting to learn from it all, all of the things we struggled through. I think now we’ve played football long enough that I think we can be a good ballclub.”

Just how good? We’ll know more after Saturday, after Texas takes on a familiar foe.

Planning for success: Texas Longhorns

September, 5, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Maybe Texas players just love wearing those clean all-white uniforms.

Why the Longhorns have been so good on the road in recent years can be explained by a variety of reasons. Most of them are valid.

Texas is 52-15 in the past decade when playing away from Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Its veteran players can’t quite put their finger on exactly why that is.

“Well, it’s their crowd and not our crowd,” Texas quarterback David Ash said. “It’s a different place. I don’t know. It’s a lot of different things. It’s not your locker room. It’s not familiar territory. There is a little bit different feel.”

Senior offensive lineman Mason Walters said the pressure to perform isn’t any worse on the road than at home, even with a hostile crowd roaring in the background.

“I don’t know the formula,” he said. “The coaches just do a good job with it. We’ll look to continue the trend. I think going in every week with the same preparation I’ve put in since I got here is probably going to help if history repeats itself.”

When talking about Texas’ recent history of taking to the road, 52-15 is not even the impressive statistic.

The Longhorns have won 13 straight regular-season nonconference road games. They haven’t taken an early-season loss on the road since 2000, a 27-24 loss at Stanford.

With that kind of history on his side, Mack Brown has every right to feel confident heading into Texas’ big road test Saturday night against BYU in Provo, Utah (6 p.m. CT, ESPN2).

What makes this matchup an intriguing challenge is the fact BYU’s season opener might not have revealed much about the team that will take the field against UT this weekend.

There’s no ignoring the rain factor when assessing BYU’s 19-17 road loss to Virginia. Not only did weather cause a two-hour delay in the first half, but the downpour BYU and UVA played in after produced a mess of a game.

BYU quarterback Taysom Hill completed 13 of 40 passes. The Cougars fumbled a snap for a safety and had a punt blocked. They proved they have a run game, but that’s one of the few conclusions Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz could take away from the game.

“You can see who they are and what they were trying to accomplish, but you cannot evaluate their level of execution,” Diaz said. “Because really, after the first quarter, the whole game was played on, like, a Slip ‘N Slide.”

Texas, meanwhile, will try to get off to a better start and avoid its own slip-ups after being held scoreless for the first 28 minutes against New Mexico State last weekend. A BYU defense led by senior linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Spencer Hadley should provide as tough a defensive test as any Texas has faced in its 13-game road nonconference streak.

But if that recent history holds up, the Longhorns still might have the advantage in the end -- even if that isn’t home field advantage.
This week we took a closer look at five Longhorns -- David Ash, Jackson Jeffcoat, Johnathan Gray, Mike Davis and Jordan Hicks -- who are poised to change the course of the 2013 team.

Any list of that nature is bound to change plenty a week, a month and a season from now. There was no way of predicting Jeffcoat and Hicks would suffer season-ending injuries last year, and Gray was Texas’ No. 3 back to start the 2012 campaign.

[+] EnlargeQuandre Diggs
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisQuandre Diggs led the Longhorns with four interceptions in 2012.
So with that in mind, here are five Longhorns worth keeping an eye on. They might not have the big names of those aforementioned five, but their contributions could be critical to making Texas a Big 12 championship-caliber team. Lots of guys nearly made the cut, but we’ll be watching these five closely.

1. CB Quandre Diggs

Diggs has All-Big 12 potential, there’s no doubt about that. We’re about to find out if he’s All-America good. Diggs has started 23 consecutive games for the Longhorns and led the team in interceptions and pass breakups last season. He was tested by Big 12 passing attacks and won more battles than he lost in 2012, but he can be even better. He’ll play multiple roles in the secondary and could be the Swiss Army knife-type defender Kenny Vaccaro became last fall.

2. LB Steve Edmond

Edmond was hyped up as the real deal entering last season. Once Texas got into Big 12 play, he struggled. He seems far better prepared entering his junior season and has been universally praised by coaches and players throughout fall camp. He’s one of the keys to the Longhorns repairing their run defense and could finish as the team’s leading tackler. A big season from Edmond would answer a major question mark on this defense.

3. OG Mason Walters

One of the most experienced offensive linemen in the country, Walters has started 38 consecutive games and is a leader in the locker room but has never earned better than second-team All-Big 12 honors. He can take the next step and prove he’s an NFL-caliber lineman this fall. If his play over the course of the season becomes truly great, don’t be surprised if the rest of the line thrives, too.

4. DT Malcom Brown

Expectations for Brown have been high since the day he set foot on campus. Texas will rotate its four defensive tackles, but it’s time for Brown to take over a starting gig and hold it down for three years. Few players in the program have more raw talent. Hard to believe he isn’t in for a lot more than the two tackles for loss he contributed as a true freshman.

5. S Mykkele Thompson

A surprise pick, yes, but Thompson really is one of the great unknown commodities on the Texas defense. He has to be a better tackler in 2013 and play with more confidence. He recorded no interceptions and one pass breakup. Texas coaches trust him enough to keep him in the starting lineup and believe he’ll be a different player as a junior. He has made progress, and the Texas secondary can’t play up to its potential without more.

Texas depth chart preview: Offense

August, 20, 2013
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The Texas Longhorns have yet to release their official depth chart for the season opener, and don’t be surprised if that comes out later this week. But why wait?

With so few position battles in this year’s fall practices, it’s time to make start projections on how the depth chart will look when Texas takes the field Aug. 31 against New Mexico State.

Today, we look at Texas’ offensive depth. On Wednesday, we’ll break down the defense. Here’s where the Longhorns appear to stand with only a few days left in camp.

Quarterback

David Ash, Case McCoy, Tyrone Swoopes, Jalen Overstreet

No surprise here. Ash has been solid throughout the fall and pretty much exactly what we’d expected. He’s the unquestioned quarterback of this team, and his fellow Longhorns have bought in. A sore hamstring has limited Swoopes to some extent lately, and it’s still unclear if he’s the mop-up guys or a redshirt candidate. McCoy would still be the first guy off the bench if Ash gets hurt, but he’s got to cut down on his turnovers.

Running back

Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, Jalen Overstreet

Shipley-Davis
Brett Deering/Getty ImagesJaxon Shipley (left) and Mike Davis are set to start at receiver, but after them, the depth gets dicey.
Gray is your likely starter, but Brown and Bergeron will see the field plenty in the first few weeks. Gray acknowledged Monday that Texas is using more two-back sets in practices, which could mean more snaps and opportunity for all three running backs this fall. Bergeron is earning rave reviews for losing weight without losing his ability as a thumper, and Brown appears to be fully healthy. He’s got to stay that way. What’s Overstreet’s role? Hard to tell right now. He might be a utility back/slot guy who shines late in nonconference games, but right now it seems unlikely he’ll assume the duty of Wild formation quarterback. Gray is just too good in that role.

Wide receiver

Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley, Kendall Sanders, Daje Johnson, Marcus Johnson, Jacorey Warrick, John Harris, Bryant Jackson

The good news is Davis and Shipley are back and practicing. The bad news is that too many other guys aren’t. Sanders is the clear No. 3 receiver, but he’s suspended from the opener. Jackson had a chance for some first-team reps, but the foot injury he suffered Sunday drops him down this list. Everyone has praised Daje Johnson for his maturity this summer, and he’s going to be a dangerous threat in the slot. Warrick has garnered the most attention of the four freshman receivers, but several of them could be in the mix to play against New Mexico now that Jackson is out. The sleeper is Harris, who could get some play at outside receiver, and we don't know when Marcus Johnson will return.

Tight end

Geoff Swaim, M.J. McFarland, Greg Daniels

This could be one of the few surprises of the preseason depth chart. Swaim has been better than Texas coaches expected, both as a receiver and blocker, and the juco transfer is definitely rising. Ash had strong praise for his play Monday. McFarland, the guy everyone expects to start, is still too inconsistent but has the potential to be a big-play guy over the middle in this offense. We didn’t list a fullback since Texas is going to more spread looks, but sophomore Alex De La Torre appears to be the favorite to hold down that job.

Tackle

Donald Hawkins, Josh Cochran, Desmond Harrison, Kennedy Estelle, Kent Perkins

Harrison was expected to easily take over the left tackle job in fall camp, but he hasn’t practiced since Aug. 5 due to his academic issue. So, for now, Hawkins stays at left tackle and Cochran maintains his right tackle job. Estelle has made big strides entering his sophomore year, and of all the touted freshmen offensive linemen, it was Perkins who cracked the two-deep early on in camp and has impressed his fellow linemen. Until Harrison’s situation gets resolved, expect Estelle and Perkins to contribute right away.

Guard

Trey Hopkins, Mason Walters, Sedrick Flowers, Curtis Riser, Rami Hammad, Darius James

Hopkins continues to get a little work at center, but Texas must prepare for the possibility that Harrison is unavailable and appears likely to stick with Hopkins and Walters on the starting line. Hopkins says the starting linemen hardly consider Flowers a backup at this point due to his experience, and he’ll be one of the first guys off the bench to relieve Hopkins and Walters. Riser is also stepping up in his second year in the program. Hammad has been as good as advertised, and while James started in less than idea playing shape, he’s coming along. It’s hard to tell, though, whether those two freshmen play or redshirt at this point.

Center

Dominic Espinosa, Trey Hopkins, Garrett Porter

Espinosa would likely be the odd man out if Harrison gets back in the mix and earns the left tackle job, but right now he’s safe. If he were to go down, it stands to reason that Texas would feel comfortable with Hopkins at center and Flowers or Hawkins at left guard. Porter is the No. 2 or No. 3 guy in this group and appears to remain ahead of freshman Jake Raulerson in the pecking order.

Placekicker

Anthony Fera, Nick Jordan

This is seemingly one of the few unanswered questions among starting jobs. Fera, the Penn State transfer, is healthy this fall and impressing with his leg. He’s likely the favorite to start off as placekicker over Jordan, but realistically the guy who loses out now could get another shot at some point this season if the starter struggles.

Texas season preview

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
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Today we continue our Big 12 preview by taking a look at Texas, which is gearing up to make another run at a Big 12 title.

Texas Longhorns

Coach: Mack Brown (237-117-1, 150-43 at Texas)

2012 record: 9-4 (5-4 Big 12)

[+] EnlargeManny Diaz
John Albright / Icon SMIManny Diaz and the Texas defense returns nine starters, but will they be improved as a unit in 2013?
Key losses: S Kenny Vaccaro, DE Alex Okafor, WR Marquise Goodwin, RB/WR D.J. Monroe, TE D.J. Grant, WR Cayleb Jones

Key returnees: DE Jackson Jeffcoat, LB Jordan Hicks, CB Quandre Diggs, RB Johnathan Gray, QB David Ash, OG Trey Hopkins, WR Mike Davis, CB Carrington Byndom, WR Jaxon Shipley, OG Mason Walters

Newcomer to watch: OT Desmond Harrison

Biggest games in 2013: Oct. 12 vs. Oklahoma (in Dallas), Nov. 16 vs. Oklahoma State, Oct. 26 at TCU, Nov. 21 vs. Kansas State

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can Manny Diaz fix the Longhorns' defense? Texas might be the Big 12 preseason favorite had its defense in 2012 lived up to the standard set by Diaz’s first unit in 2011. Instead, injuries to Hicks and then Jeffcoat rendered the third-year coach’s D slow-reacting and ineffective. Basic tackling was a serious issue on a near-weekly basis. Diaz gets nine starters back from that unit, but that’s not necessarily a good thing if the same problems hit just in time for the Big 12 slate.

Forecast:

Let’s talk about the floor and the ceiling for the potential of this particular Texas team.

Make no mistake, this Longhorns team has all the parts necessary to emerge as one of the nation’s 10 best. There is just way too much returning experience and talent at each position to dispute that.

The ceiling is a Big 12 championship and a BCS bowl game appearance, especially if Ash takes the next step and becomes one of the Big 12’s best QBs. If he’s good and healthy, Brown is confident this team can accomplish more than most expect.

The issue is the floor. Another blowout loss to Oklahoma or an early-season stumble against Ole Miss or Kansas State could send this Texas train off the rails. One serious injury to Ash, and it’s a whole different season.

What Texas is trying to avoid is falling right in the middle of that floor and ceiling, as it has the past two years. An eight- or nine-win season with losses to UT’s toughest opponents just won’t cut it this time, not with all that experience, talent and leadership on board.

That falls on Brown, who has plenty to prove this fall. He has a compelling roster of talent. What’ll he do to raise everyone’s game and make that jump from fourth place to first in the Big 12?

On paper, the offense looks loaded, and having Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron at running back is a luxury. The defense has plenty of veterans back at all three levels. Texas’ special teams should be solid if former Penn State transfer Anthony Fera gets past his injury issues.

All the pieces are there for another big run for the Horns, and the Big 12 is wide-open. It will be on Brown and his staff to put all those pieces together.
AUSTIN, Texas -- You’re not supposed to mess with a good thing, right?

Texas’ offensive line is as experienced as any in the country this fall. All five starters return and have a combined 124 career starts under their oversized belts.

So why is each of them at risk of losing their jobs? Because, in 2013, Texas thinks it has a chance to have not just a good offensive line, but a great one.

“If one of these guys coming in is better than the starters, we will replace them, without question,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “And they know that. We’ve told them that.”

[+] EnlargeDonald Hawkins
Tim Heitman/US PresswireDonald Hawkins, a junior college transfer in 2012, could find his starting job in peril because of another junior college lineman.
Seniors Mason Walters (38 career starts), Trey Hopkins (29) and Donald Hawkins (11) and juniors Dominic Espinosa (26) and Josh Cochran (20) enter fall camp as the incumbents and received nearly all of the first-team reps in the Longhorns’ first two days of practice this week.

But for the first time in his tenure at Texas, third-year offensive line coach Stacy Searels has options. He’s wanted 10 offensive linemen he can lean on, 10 he can trust. Thanks to two years of strong recruiting, the cupboard is now well-stocked.

The star of that two-year talent infusion could very well be a lineman who arrived in Austin only three weeks ago: Desmond Harrison.

He’s never put on pads for the Longhorns, and the sum total of his experience in the program is one fall practice. But the 6-foot-8, 310-pound offensive tackle is already the talk of fall camp after wowing his new teammates.

“He is huge. He’s a massive human being,” Hopkins said. “Probably the only person I’ve seen stand next to Mason and make him kind of look short.”

If the touted transfer from Contra Costa (Calif.) College is everything he’s hyped up to be, Harrison could become the starting left tackle by the end of the month. If that’s the case, the rest of the line would be in for a reshuffling.

Hawkins, a junior college transfer last year, could move from left tackle to guard, prompting Hopkins to take over the center duties. Or he could bump off Cochran for the right tackle job. Or he could get benched.

“Your position could change, and you could be second- or third-string really quick,” Walters said. “The guys we have here now really want to play. We have a lot of bodies and talent right now. I love it. We want to be as good as possible, and you have to have somebody pushing you.”

Harrison isn’t the only threat. Brown and Searels have high hopes for four true freshmen who have a serious shot a cracking the two-deep.

“This recruiting class for offensive linemen could be one of the best offensive line classes ever before they finish at Texas,” Brown said. “I can’t wait to see them when we put the pads on. I’m really excited about them. We haven’t been able to find these guys and get these guys on campus like this. It’s going to be fun to watch them. Don’t know how soon that will be, but our future is very bright there.”

Kent Perkins is already working as the second-string right tackle. Guards Darius James and Rami Hammad and center Jake Raulerson lined up with the third-team offense Tuesday. Several could be worthy of serious playing time this fall.

If they are good enough, that puts Searels in somewhat of a difficult position. How does he explain to three seniors and two juniors that the freshmen must play?

Walters and the rest of the veteran linemen have been through a lot together. When Searels arrived in the spring of 2011, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound guard was one of only seven scholarship linemen in the program. He’s started 38 straight games because Texas really had no choice. He and Hopkins have lined up together for 25 of Texas’ last 26 games.

“[Hopkins has] grunted at me before and I knew exactly what he was saying,” Walters said. “That’s just with all of us. You can tap somebody on the shoulder at a certain time and we all know what to look for on certain plays.”

They share that bond with Cochran and Espinosa, both of whom started as true freshmen. Through the good times and the bad these past two years, they survived together. There has to be some intangible value to that.

But the veterans know this is a meritocracy. Searels had six offensive linemen he trusted in crunch time last season. He needs more than that. The added depth comes at a critical time, when an up-tempo scheme will require more rotating to keep the line fresh and effective.

No matter what, Searels needs 10 good men. And that’s only going to make his five starters work even harder.

“Our togetherness is big, and I think that helps with the guys who have been around for a while,” Walters said. “But at the same time, Coach Searels has definitely made it clear he’ll play the five best.”

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