When we first asked the following questions about the 2013 Longhorns, we said the right answers would go a long way in determining whether coach Mack Brown’s declarations that Texas would be a BCS bowl contender again were valid.
That was back in early August. At the time, optimism ran high. Of course, the time was the start of fall camp. What team isn’t optimistic then?
Now, about two months later, the Longhorns are sadder, wiser and definitely not undefeated, with a 2-2 record. On their first open weekend — their next game is Thursday night, at Iowa State — it’s a good time to re-examine those questions to see how they’re being answered a third of the way through the season:
1. Is David Ash finally ready to be the offense’s Alpha Male?
No question, the offense is more efficient and dangerous when the junior quarterback is in the game.
“If” is a huge word, though, because Ash has been out about as much as he’s been in.
He missed the end of the 40-21 loss at BYU with a concussion, and was not allowed even to be in the stadium for the 44-23 loss to Ole Miss. He returned for Kansas State, but lasted only a half before concussive symptoms reappeared.
Texas medical personnel long have taken an extremely careful and cautious approach to head issues, so questions likely will continue to linger even if/when Ash is cleared to resume playing.
Before the injury, Ash definitely seemed to have transformed from the shy introvert into the unquestioned commander of the offense. Despite limited playing time, he ranks third in the Big 12 with seven touchdown passes and is tied with Texas Tech’s Baker Mayfield for second in total offense, averaging 304 total yards per game.
Ash proved he can throw the deep ball as well as anyone with a 63-yard scoring strike to Kendall Sanders vs. Kansas State, and he again demonstrated he can make plays with his feet with a 55-yard scoring run against New Mexico State.
2. Is the offensive line now an area of strength?
Even with all five interior starters back from 2012, not really.
There is better depth, though. And position coach Stacy Searels has needed it because the right side of the line — guard Mason Walters (knee) and tackle Josh Cochran (shoulder) — have been injured. Kennedy Estelle has shown flashes playing the last two games at Cochran’s spot and Sedrick Flowers has filled in when Walters has been out.
Desmond Harrison, the nation’s top-ranked junior-college tackle by 247Sports, has been a disappointment. His development was interrupted when he missed most of preseason camp because of an academic dispute over an online course he took through Brigham Young.
Texas remains solid on the left side behind tackle Donald Hawkins, who is playing at an extremely high level, and guard Trey Hopkins.
The Longhorns are averaging 5.1 yards per rush, compared to 4.5 last season, but that’s a bit misleading since 359 of their 842 yards came against a porous New Mexico State defense. In their other three outings, they are averaging 161 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry.
3. Can the defense rebound?
Brown made the first in-season coaching change of his 30-year head-coaching career when he replaced defensive coordinator Manny Diaz with Greg Robinson after just two games.
Does that answer the question?
Diaz’s Texas tenure ended the day after BYU, when Texas allowed a school-record 550 rushing yards. Robinson has spent the past two games trying to improve the fundamentals of tackling, as well as getting the Longhorns to be at least adequate at defending the quarterback-option run game.
The defense looked better vs. K-State — it limited the Wildcats to 115 rushing yards — but the bottom line it’s allowing a Big 12-worst 466 yards per game, which if it stands would destroy the school record for futility of 404.2 yards per game established last year.
For the second straight year, Texas also most overcome the early-season loss of linebacker Jordan Hicks. A team leader, Hick’s season ended last Saturday with a torn left Achilles tendon.
4. How effective will the new offense be?
Texas elected to go with a no-huddle approach to speed up the tempo and work in more plays. After averaging 68.5 plays per game in 2012, the hope was to hit about 80 plays per outing this season.
At the moment, the Longhorns are averaging 77.3 plays through their first four games.
The offense is averaging 6.3 yards per play, identical to its average for all of last year. Per game, Texas’ norms are 483 yards and 32.8 points, compared to 434.6 and 35.7 in 2012.
5. Will the kicking game be reliable?
Anthony Fera, who was sparingly used and largely ineffective last year with a groin injury after transferring from Penn State, looks like a new man now.
As the punter, Fera is averaging 43.5 yards per attempt. His nine punts inside the 20-yard line — including two that have been downed at the 1 — are tied for most in the Big 12. As the placekicker, he’s made 4 of 5 field goal attempts, with a long of 47 yards against Ole Miss. His miss was a 45-yard attempt.