The Longhorns have two great running backs returning and another prolific tailback prospect preparing for his freshman season. Their defense should be one of the best in the country.
But all anyone wants to talk about is the quarterback.
It doesn’t help that, for the second straight year, Texas will go into fall camp without officially naming a starter behind center.
After his performance in the Longhorns’ win over Cal in last December’s Holiday Bowl, the consensus among the general public is that David Ash will beat out Case McCoy for the top spot on the depth chart. But according to head coach Mack Brown, the competition for the starting quarterback job might be closer than people think.
“I don’t think it’s a done deal,” Brown said. “Everything I’m hearing is that Case isn’t giving up. He’s in better shape. He’s bigger and stronger, he’s really fighting this summer. I think this thing’s a lot closer. You always throw David out there because you’ve already made your decision. But I think you’re wrong. I think you need to wait and see.”
Garrett Gilbert was not named Texas’ starting quarterback last year until less than a week before the team’s season opener against Rice, despite starting all 12 games the previous season and none of his three challengers having completed a pass since their high school days. Ash caught a touchdown pass, threw another, and was named MVP of the final game the Longhorns played last year. He’s considered a more athletic signal-caller and the odds-on favorite to win the job.
“I thought David really managed the game well at Cal,” Brown said. “They both won significant games, one against — Case against A&M in College Station at the end of the year, David Ash in the Bowl game against Cal. So we’re coming in at a much better place this year than we were last year.”
McCoy, who led Texas to a comeback victory over BYU after Gilbert exited with a shoulder injury in the second game of last season, had his moments. He was not picked off until the regular season finale against Baylor, a contest where he recorded three touchdown tosses — as many as Ash, who was intercepted on his 22nd throw of the year, had in the entire regular season. The week before, McCoy marched Texas downfield on a drive that saw him scramble for 25 yards and set up Justin Tucker for a game-winning kick as time expired to beat Texas A&M last Thanksgiving.
“He made plays with his feet at A&M. He hung in there,” Brown said. “We didn’t play great but he didn’t get us beat. Then he had the turnovers at Baylor. I think both of them are relatively unknown quarterbacks.”
Whoever wins the job will have one of the nation’s best running games and defenses supporting them. Malcolm Brown was on pace to rush for more than 1,000 yards before suffering a turf toe injury midway through last season. Joe Bergeron was also productive before an ailing hamstring limited his effectiveness over the last five games of 2011. Texas will also have the only backfield in the country with two tailbacks that were considered the top players at their position coming out of high school, thanks to the arrival of this year’s Gatorade National Football Player of the Year Johnathan Gray.
“I didn’t really see a clear leader there in the competition,” said junior guard Mason Walters. “I think all three of our backs can [take pressure off the quarterbacks] but that’s going to have to be great play by everybody else. You can’t just have a good quarterback and a good receiver. We’ve got to block for them.”
The Longhorns lose five starters on defense, all of whom have signed with teams in the NFL, but second-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz should have one of the best units in college football. Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor could be the nation’s best pass rush tandem, while Texas might have as many three candidates in the secondary for the Thorpe Award. One of them is junior cornerback Carrington Byndom.
“It’s going to come down to who performs the best in fall camp,” Byndom said of the quarterback competition. “Our goal is to take as much pressure off them and put them in the best situation that we can. If we can do that, we’ll have a heck of a season.”