Texas hopes to start rebound against Rice
AUSTIN, Texas (AP)
The Texas Longhorns will soon find out if all those changes behind the scenes will make a difference on the field.
After last season's 5-7 meltdown a year after playing for the national championship, coach Mack Brown overhauled his staff, threw every position open and challenged his players to earn their roster spots.
Texas opens the season Saturday night against Rice, a team the Longhorns routinely crush. But the Owls have a veteran team with an explosive offense that could disrupt the entire Texas rebuilding project.
The Longhorns are unranked to start the season for the first time since 1998, Brown's first season in Austin. Texas players say they have a lot to prove after last season's debacle.
''Things have got to change,'' senior guard David Snow said. ''And it's time to change them.''
One thing that didn't change was quarterback.
Garrett Gilbert, who threw 17 interceptions against just 10 touchdowns last season, won a four-way battle for the starting job in training camp. He had to fight for it. After Texas' first scrimmage, he was bumped down to third team, then won the starting job after a better performance in the next one.
Gilbert has as much to prove as anyone. The former high school All-America selection who was supposed to slip right into the role of Texas' next great quarterback floundered in one of the team's worst offenses in 20 years.
If he struggles with turnovers against Rice, a crowd of about 100,000 will be wondering when backup Case McCoy, the younger brother of former Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy, will get his turn.
Brown said he'll keep it simple: If Gilbert protects the ball and gets the Longhorns into the end zone, he'll play. Last season, Brown let Gilbert play through a five-interception road loss at Kansas State and he'll have a much shorter leash if turnover problems continue.
''If he moves the ball and scores, he'll keep it,'' Brown said.
Rice coach David Bailiff expects his team will see a much better Gilbert this season.
''The weight of the world was on that young man to perform last year,'' Bailiff said. ''I'm sure he is a lot more confident going into this year.''
Gilbert is far from the only question mark for the Longhorns.
New coordinators Bryan Harsin (offense) and Manny Diaz (defense) bring their own schemes from Boise State and Mississippi State, respectively. And they are just two of the seven new coaches on staff.
On offense, Texas lost two of their top three receivers from last season. A running game that was practically non-existent last year will rely heavily on often-injured senior running back Fozzy Whittaker and freshmen Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. They'll be running behind a line with just 36 career starts from tackle to tackle. Snow has the bulk of those with 19.
For Rice to have a shot, its defense will have to be much, much better than last season. It surrendered an average of 449 yards - 6.4 per play - and 38.5 points per game as the Owls finished the season 4-8.
The secondary is getting used to a new coach and lost senior safety Travis Bradshaw to a career-ending injury in camp. Still, the defense should get a boost from the return of senior defensive end Scott Solomon, who sat out last season with a broken right foot. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound Solomon led all Conference USA defensive linemen with 63 tackles in 2009.
Rice, however, tends to live by its offense and it will have dual-threat quarterback Taylor McHargue back.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound McHargue missed eight games last year with a sprained shoulder, then completed 24 of 37 passes for 345 yards and four touchdowns in season-closing victories over East Carolina and UAB. He will have playmakers around him, including Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie, now a junior, who led Rice in rushing (883 yards) and receptions (39) last season. Also returning are junior tight ends Vance McDonald, who led the Owls with eight touchdown catches, and Luke Willson, the team's leader in yards receiving (425) in 2010.
Facing them will be a Texas defense with big questions at defensive tackle and cornerback. And the Longhorns can't even count on home-field advantage: After going 66-6 in Royal-Memorial Stadium in Brown's first 12 years, Texas went 2-5 at home last season, drawing boos from the fans on several occasions.
''Losing five at home, that's absurd,'' Brown said.
In 1998, Brown rallied a Texas program that had gone 4-7 the year before to a 9-3 finish with a win in the Cotton Bowl. But that team also had Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams.
Can this team pull off a similar turnaround?
''I don't know,'' Brown said. ''I don't have any idea.''