I’ve been asked countless times this week my prediction for the Notre Dame game. There’s confusion that as sports editor, I foresee the news rather than reporting it. I don’t. I can’t tell you who will win. What I can tell you: Texas is in a much better place than it was one year ago. And it’s light-years ahead of the squad that faced BYU, the Horns’ second game of 2014.
It’s largely a numbers game. Last year, then-junior quarterback David Ash was the only experienced, capable option behind center. When a history of concussions – the last, in the season-opener vs. North Texas – forced Ash to retire, the Horns were left with a bumbling sophomore Tyrone Swoopes to cope. The supposedly dual-threat QB offered a great chant – “Swoopes, there it is” – but little else. Swoopes threw 11 interceptions to his 13 touchdowns, leading the Horns to a 6-7 season that ended in miserable fashion when Swoopes passed for just 57 yards and netted a 32-yard rushing loss in the Texas Bowl.
I don’t have significantly more faith in him this year – for what it’s worth, head coach Charlie Strong, assistant head coach for offense Shawn Watson and teammates do – but with a year of experience under his belt, he shouldn’t get worse. Pairing Swoopes’ potential with that of redshirt freshman QB Jerrod Heard, the Horns have two respectable contenders at the position – two more than they had facing BYU last year. We’ll take what we can get.
Further empowering this year’s offense will be its line. Last year’s ill-fortuned North Texas game was center Dominic Espinosa’s last. Espinosa had been a line stalwark, holding it together in his team-record 40 consecutive starts. Combined with the suspensions of Kennedy Estelle and Desmond Harrison, Espinosa’s broken ankle left the Horns struggling to piece together a line. The product: a group with five combined starts and no clue how to work together.
This year’s picture looks brighter. Not only will senior center Taylor Doyle anchor the line, but Strong also claims the Horns’ five backups are prepared. That’s 10 more linemen than were ready last year. For senior running back Jonathan Gray, the rushing potential skyrockets.
The final numbers gap: players suspended. Strong suspended nine players entering 2014 for violating his core values. Many were subsequently dismissed. In contrast, zero players warranted suspension in 2015. Plus Texas hauled in the No. 9 recruiting class in the offseason.
With two more quarterbacks, 10 more offensive linemen and nine fewer suspended players, this year’s Horns roster is at full capacity – a luxury of late in Texas. Whether it still will be post-South Bend is a mystery. But it seems we can only improve from last year.
The Horns must prove their talent and teamwork come Saturday. But the (plus) signs are hopeful. Just look at the math.