Longhorns lay bricks for next year, still room to build

Christian Corona

All season long, Texas has talked about the “brick by brick” approach it’s taken to rebuilding the football program. After going 7-5, the Longhorns aren’t laying the bricks as quickly as some might like.

With a revolving door at quarterback, injuries hitting the running backs hard down the stretch and youth spread out across every unit, seven wins can seem like quite an accomplishment, especially in a conference as loaded as the Big 12. But many fans expected a record more than seven victories, especially with all the new talent and revamped coaching staff following the 5-7 debacle in 2010.

“It’s headed back in the right direction,” said head coach Mack Brown. “I think the Big 12 was the hardest it’s been, since I’ve been here, in 14 years. I’m excited about getting to the bowl game and getting No. 8, and having a fresh start next year. I think we’ll be back in the mix.”

The Longhorns made significant strides this year, discovering legitimate running threats in freshmen Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron and watching a defense inexperienced at several spots turn into one of the 15 best in the nation. Brown and Bergeron missed multiple contests while hampered by turf toe and hamstring injuries but proved they can provide the foundation for an effective rushing attack in the years to come. Gatorade Player of the Year Johnathan Gray, the crown jewel of Texas’ top-ranked recruiting class, should contribute in the backfield as well.

“I saw enough good things that we have to build on,” Brown said. “I really disrupted everything in the program this year, starting with the strength program to offense to defense to the kicking game. The kids have been resilient and they’ve done a good job. They just need to finish with their eighth win.”

But five-loss seasons aren’t normally cause for celebration on the Forty Acres. Without an established starting quarterback or a backfield that could stay healthy throughout the year, the Longhorns stumbled more often than they’re used to. Losing to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State – two national title contenders – came as no surprise, but not many fans though Texas would fall to Missouri, Kansas State and Baylor.

“I wouldn’t say it was a great year,” said freshman defensive back Quandre Diggs. “We’re 7-5, but it’s better than last year. All we can do is build off of this. Texas is going to be back on the rise and be back on top in the next few years.”

All four of Texas’ quarterbacks made headlines this year. Connor Wood transferred to Colorado before the season began and Garrett Gilbert decided to transfer to SMU midseason while David Ash and Case McCoy wrestled over the starting quarterback job. Both squandered opportunities to separate themselves and with three-time state champion Connor Brewer coming in next season, along with dual-threat quarterback Jalen Overstreet, the position behind center is still in a state of flux. Meanwhile, McCoy’s and Ash’s teammates maintain their confidence in them.

“They can win big,” said junior wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. “We have to maintain our faith in them. They’re growing up day by day, showing great leadership. It’s hard to come out there and be the brain of the team.”

Texas’ depth chart is stacked with freshmen and sophomores, 13 of whom occupy starting positions. 18 true freshmen played for the Longhorns this year, a testament to the outstanding recruiting class Brown reeled in and how badly his team needed an infusion of new talent. With another excellent group of prospects set to come to Austin next year, Texas is setting itself up for a bright future.

“I’m excited about the youth we have on this football team,” said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “As a coaching staff, I think we see where this movie ends. There’s no panic button.”

Printed on Wednesday, December 7, 2011 as: Foundation set, Horns need more 'bricks'