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April 2, 2011

Chip's 2011 Spring Game Preview

Every time I think about Sunday's spring game, the same words keep popping into my head: measured expectations.

For all the excitement surrounding Mack Brown's hires of Bryan Harsin and Manny Diaz and the return of Duane Akina. For all the intensity Bo Davis, Stacy Searels, Darrell Wyatt and Bennie Wylie are exuding. For all the chemistry there seems to be between Harsin and Major Applewhite, I keep coming back to the same thing:

Measured expectations.


Anything beyond that right now is wishing and hoping.

I'll be the first to admit I gave last year's team, including Garrett Gilbert, the benefit of the doubt that the level of excellence Mack Brown had established for the previous nine straight, 10-win seasons - most of them anchored by Vince Young and Colt McCoy - could continue. To the point of embarrassment.

For all of that, I will take full blame. After watching McCoy pick up where Young seemed to leave off, I seemed to get lulled into the same false sense of security and entitlement that ultimately paralyzed last year's team.

The pain, anger and disappointment of last year's 5-7 season is still idling below the surface in every Texas fan. It's time to move on. But those dark feelings are still within reach. Fans are ready to move on by investing in 2011. But the question is how much? Could those dark feelings resurface in 2011?


STARTING OVER: Let's address all that by talking about right now. The Texas offensive line is starting over. So is the Texas defensive line. Both units have lost senior leaders (Sam Acho, Micheal Huey) and are looking for starters. Not depth. Starters.

Who will play defensive tackle next to Kheeston Randall? Who will play left and right tackle on the O-line. At last glance, there are still very open auditions going on for those positions.

Maybe the new coaching staff has so completely captured these players that everything is soaking in. That every piece of coaching is being perfectly mirrored on the field. But it still hasn't been road driven for four quarters on a fall Saturday.


UNTESTED: There have been no turnovers. No sudden change defense. No big-plays given up. In other words, no adversity. How will the players from last year's team respond when all that does happen? What will the leadership look like? Sound like?

Moving down the roster, we don't really know what Texas has at quarterback, running back, receiver or tight end. Seriously. Even Mack Brown said last week Texas hasn't run the ball effectively for the last "four or five years."


Think about that for a moment. We think there's talent on the roster. But is Foswhitt Whittaker going to stay healthy? How do Cody Johnson and D.J. Monroe really fit this offense? Is Jeremy Hills or Traylon Shead ready for prime time? Is Malcolm Brown?

Receivers are looking good in practice - Mike Davis, Darius White, John Harris and DeSean Hales. But a lot of things were looking good in preseason practices last year.


WHAT CAN YOU TRUST? You don't know what to trust right now. It's an uneasy relationship. And if you were to just throw your trust behind Mack Brown and the team to the tune of 10 wins again this season - as if 2010 was some kind of aberration, you might be doing a disservice to yourself … and to Mack Brown.

Mack can't come out and say everyone should be bracing for anywhere between 7 and 9 wins in 2011. But he's probably thinking it. And he's right.

Just a couple months ago, he, himself, was booking flights for prospective coaches to come in and interview because his operations staff was gone (Cleve Bryant on paid leave, and George Wynn went to Florida).


FROM THE GROUND UP: All the coaches have been hired. But this team is starting over from the ground up. Mentally, physically and emotionally.

Seasons like last year are not merely forgotten. If this team faces some adversity against BYU or on the road at UCLA and doesn't handle it well in 2011, there could be a real crossroads moment for the team in September and a backlash from the fan base.

But shouldn't we almost expect some adversity in the non-conference? And shouldn't this team be allowed to grow through that adversity with the support of the fan base?


LET'S GET REAL: Last year was brutal on everyone: Mack Brown, his assistants, the players, the fans. But merely expecting Mack Brown and Co. to get it right in 2011 because the fans feel they are owed that after 2010 probably isn't realistic, either.

You have to look at the talent. You have to look at the transition to a new offense and defense. You have to find leadership. You have to find playmakers.

Look at what was lost from last year's team: veteran receivers John Chiles and James Kirkendoll; tight end Greg Smith; three fifth-year offensive linemen; Sam Acho; Aaron Williams; Chykie Brown and Curtis Brown.

You can chuckle at some of those names and say, "Addition by subtraction." But those were some of the leaders at their positions from last year's 5-7 debacle.



LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: Will all of the players behind them be an improvement? You'd probably feel more sure about that answer in 2012.

Then, look around at the competition. BYU brings back a ton of offense. UCLA, which beat Texas by the largest margin in Austin in the Mack Brown Era (22 points), brings back a ton of offense and a pretty salty defense (minus LB Akeem Ayers and S Rahim Moore, who both declared for the NFL Draft as underclassmen.)

Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Baylor - all teams who beat Texas in 2010 - bring back their quarterbacks, leading receivers and at least four experienced offensive linemen from last year. And Texas has to play Kansas State every year now. (That was a joke - sort of.)

I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer. I'm trying to be realistic. As bad as 2010 was, 2011 could have some turbulence, too. The reaction to that turbulence by the fan base and observers will play a role in how the team responds to it.

There's no doubt the talent on this team should be more ripe and battle-tested in 2012 than it is this season with the exception of linebacker. (But there's even promise at LB for 2012 with Jordan Hicks, Demarco Cobbs and the arrivals of Steve Edmond, Chet Moss and Tevin Jackson.)


THE EYES OF TEXAS (AND EVERYONE ELSE) ARE UPON YOU:The bottom line is that Mack Brown has never had more at stake while trying to get things back on track. Fair or not.

He is one of the biggest reasons ESPN could announce with a straight face it was sinking $300 million over 20 years into a Texas network. Networks want consistency in programming. And ESPN committed to big bucks at Texas based on all those 10-win seasons Mack Brown was delivering before 2010.

And now Mack Brown has to try and get his football team back to that winning standard with television cameras pointed at his program 24-7. The cameras of his school's own, unprecedented TV network.

The network Brown helped create now needs as much football programming as possible as Brown tries to lift Texas out of a once unthinkable location - the Big 12 basement. No matter what, it should be compelling TV for ESPN. But it comes at a time when Brown may want to work in private to protect the fragile psyche of a rebuilding football team.

That won't be an easy tightrope for Brown to walk.

You don't think Brown is worried about a national TV audience watching a spring game in which Texas can't even field a complete second-team offensive line (because of limited numbers until five true freshmen arrive in June)? Think again.


MACK'S LAST STAND: Brown could have walked away with his national title and said I don't need to start over again with virtually a whole new staff at age 59.

Darrell Royal called it quits at age 52 and went off to a life of golf and glad-handing at Barton Creek Country Club. His legendary status secured despite a 5-5-1 record in his final season (1976). Brown probably could have done the same by handing off the program to Will Muschamp despite 5-7.

But Brown didn't want to leave like that. He recommitted to Texas with a promise to get it fixed. He said he's treating this season like his first at Texas. He deserves credit for working non-stop to restore UT to the place he brought it in 2005 and 2009 and nearly again in 2008 - the top of the food chain.

That climb will be no easy feat. And it may get downright frustrating this season - to the tune of 7 or 8 wins. And, in my opinion, everyone should not only be prepared for that. They should probably expect it and then be pleasantly surprised if it doesn't happen.

It all starts Sunday with the Orange-White game. That's our first chance to see what Mack and Co. have been working on behind closed doors. It may be exciting. It may be paint drying. It will be on ESPN. And it will be dissected every way imaginable.

But at the end of the day, it will be one step in a very long reclamation project. And after 2010, it makes you realize how fortunate fans have been to have someone like Mack Brown, who maintained a level of excellence for nine straight years leading up to 2010 that was unprecedented in terms of victories in all of college football.

But the words "work in progress" have probably never carried more meaning. Manny Diaz said last week there's not a player on the defensive line anyone would be afraid to block right now. Bryan Harsin is talking about how much MORE of the offense still needs to be installed in the fall.

So while there should be excited anticipation on Sunday. There should probably be patience … and measured expectations.


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