ANALYSIS: Texas fans will enjoy tailgating at The Grove (and likely walloping Ole Miss); then the next three games set the tone for the season.
Alex De La Torre
SCOUTING REPORT Offensive guard Mason Walters noticed a change in the vibe around the Longhorns' practice facility this spring. "Last year the mood was kind of just rebuilding, getting back to that national level," said Walters of a team that went from playing in the BCS title game in 2009 to missing a bowl in 2010. "This year we're back at the national level, and now it's time to take something."Just how the Longhorns, who closed last season's 8-5 effort by beating Cal in the Holiday Bowl, will fare depends largely upon which quarterback ultimately takes control of the offense. The battle for playing time will be between sophomore David Ash (who started six games and threw for 1,068 yards with four touchdowns and eight picks) and junior Case McCoy (who started five and threw for 1,045 yards with seven touchdowns and four picks). Coach Mack Brown says that both exercised better judgment during spring practice than they did last season. "They were smarter with the ball," said Brown. "Instead of throwing into a group and trying to force something on first down, [they knew to] bring the ball down, get your five and play second-and-five." The general consensus is that Ash, who was a true freshman last fall and has the better arm, will take the reins. "You've seen him gradually grow into this position of being a leader," said Walters.The offense had growing pains under new coordinator and play-caller Bryan Harsin -- "Last year was kind of get to know each other," said Brown -- though the backfield, with its 202.6 yards per game, had its best season since 2007, even despite injury woes. Now running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are healthy, and five-star freshman Johnathan Gray joins them. The run defense, stout under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz last season, is led by All-Big 12 first-teamers Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro and should be even stronger in 2012."At the end of spring last year, compared to where we are right now, it's not even in the same ballpark," said Brown. "We only lose 10 seniors [total] at the end of , so the next couple of years will be fun. We're not there yet, but we're getting back in the mix, and that's a fun challenge."THE BIG IF In its second year under Bryan Harsin, can the Longhorns' offense catch up to Manny Diaz's defense?TELLING NUMBER 1 -- Victory for Texas in the past two seasons against the AP Top 25 (Nebraska, in 2010). The Longhorns were 1-8 against ranked foes.KEY RETURNEES Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Jr. -- In his first full season as a starter, Jeffcoat led the team in sacks (eight) and made 71 tackles, second-highest among returning players. "Jackson has natural instincts for rushing the passer," said coordinator Manny Diaz. "He sort of has a slippery quality to him." Alex Okafor, DE, Sr. -- A tackle as a sophomore, he started at end last season, earning All-Big 12 honors with seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Said Okafor of being back at end, "It makes me a lot more comfortable on the field. I can pick up where I left off." Mason Walters, RG, Jr. -- Walters is the linchpin of a line that allowed 28 sacks last year but cut down on missed assignments in spring practice. "We're getting a lot better," said Walters, who was honorable-mention all-conference. "Everybody knows what [he's] doing." Carrington Byndom, CB, Jr. -- He drew tough assignments last year (see: Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller) and excelled, with two picks, 17 passes defended and eight tackles for loss. BREAKOUT PLAYER Brandon Moore, DT, Jr. -- A transfer from East Mississippi C.C., the 6-foot-5, 335-pound tackle appears ready to make an impact in the Big 12. "He has maturity," said Diaz of Moore, who played four games at Alabama in 2010 before being dismissed for violating team rules. "He's athletic for his size." That's key because Diaz coaches "an attack defensive line."TOP RECRUIT Johnathan Gray, RB, Fr. -- Gray rushed for 7,114 yards over his junior and senior seasons and scored a record 205th touchdown in Aledo High's Texas 4A Division II title-game win. "And he can catch the ball out of the backfield, so he's got the whole package," said Mack Brown.PLAYER SPOTLIGHT Jordan Hicks was the type of recruit who had to hold a weekly teleconference. ("My coach was getting grief because I wasn't picking up my phone," he explained.) His highlight video included punishing hits, interceptions and a fake punt he took 65 yards for a touchdown. During one week in December of Hicks' senior year at Lakota West High outside Cincinnati, Florida coach Urban Meyer, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and Texas coach Mack Brown all met with or expressed interest in him. That was one week after a certain Hall of Fame linebacker dropped by to tell Hicks he had won the high school version of the 2009 Butkus Award, named for that very linebacker.That January, Hicks -- the nation's top-ranked linebacker -- pulled out a Longhorns' hat at his press conference to announce his college decision. "A lot of people gave me a hard time," he remembered of the decision to spurn Ohio State. "I had always seen myself going somewhere far and taking a chance and meeting new people and experiencing new things."His journey to becoming an Academic All-Big 12 linebacker began long before that pick of Texas -- but it was hardly a direct trip. When he was four, Jordan began playing organized basketball at the YMCA and dreamed of playing in the NBA. He had been dunking on the tiny hoop in his home since he was two, and he idolized Michael Jordan; he had the clothes, the shoes, the posters in his room. In junior high, along with playing football, he was on a traveling AAU hoops team. He made Lakota West's varsity basketball team as a freshman guard. Then it happened. "I started getting [college] offers for football and basketball but definitely bigger offers for football," said Hicks. "It was kind of like, 'Maybe this is where my future's at.'"As a senior at Lakota West, Hicks decided his immediate future would play out at Texas. He and his mother, Kelly Justice, had been impressed with the coaches, the campus and the city when he attended a Longhorns football camp the summer after his sophomore year. "It's hard not to love this place," said Hicks of Austin. "I just remember walking away and thinking, I could see myself going there."As a true freshman Hicks dabbled in special teams and served spot duty at linebacker, finishing 2010 with 23 tackles. Expectations were high going into spring practice last year, but Hicks broke his foot a month in and missed the rest of the spring. Then during the 2011 regular season, with seniors Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho firmly entrenched in the middle and on the weak side, Hicks stepped in on the strong side, a position that doesn't always see the field in the nickel package Texas often runs. Because of that, and a nagging hamstring injury, he "didn't really get into the flow of the season," as coordinator Manny Diaz put it, though Hicks did start eight games and had 65 tackles. "We just hadn't been able to showcase him." With a month off before the Holiday Bowl to get his hamstring healthy, Hicks came out against Cal and had eight tackles, including a sack.Now Texas' most experienced linebacker, Hicks is slotted to play on the weak side but could also step into the middle. And he's transitioned into a role as a vocal leader. "I'm a lot more comfortable in the system," said Hicks, who was known to give Ray Lewis-type motivational speeches before Lakota West games. "I just want to be a better player and put my name out there and become somebody teams fear."COACH Q&A SI: How big was last year's win over A&M before the Aggies left for the SEC? MB: It was really important. People talked about that being the everlasting scoreboard, and for the game to be so good was a credit to the schools. For us to be down at halftime, go ahead, get down again and then come back was really, really special. SI: You've lived in Texas 14 years now. Barbecue or Tex-Mex? MB: Barbecue. Still a Tennessee-North Carolina boy at heart. SI: Favorite BBQ joint on the recruiting trail? MB: You don't have time. You grab something on the way to the next school. [But] it's obvious I like to eat everywhere. SI: In 1998 you launched a seminar in dining etiquette for freshmen. Do you still attend? MB: I do. In fact we're thinking about doing it for our freshmen and then doing it for our seniors, kind of an exit dinner because they're getting ready to interview for jobs -- just give them a refresher course.SI: What valuable things do they learn? MB: Most of us haven't been taught about all the forks and spoons and where the bread plate is. I still sit down and think, ?Do I go left or right? What do you order at an interview?? You don't want corn, you don't want a soup. You don't want to wear it. It's basic stuff, and the guys have great questions: Can you have your cellphone on? If you're sitting there with iced-tea sweetener bags and you open the little packets, what do you do with them when you put them down? This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big 12 Preview.
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