Texas eyes 2012 as time to return to elite
The Texas Longhorns spent 2011 just trying to get back to winning. With that accomplished, they figure 2012 is the time to return to their place among the nation's elite.
If only their quarterbacks will let them.
While the defense grew into one of the Big 12's best and the running game had moments of dominance, the Longhorns were held back last season by the spotty play of quarterbacks David Ash and Case McCoy. Those two rotated in the starting job all season because neither was able to seize it outright.
If Texas hopes to challenge for the Big 12 title this season, it will depend largely on whether Ash or McCoy develops into a playmaker who can avoid the turnovers both struggled with last season.
Although Ash took every snap of Texas' Holiday Bowl win over California, the Longhorns opened training camp with Ash and McCoy still battling to start the opener against Wyoming on Sept. 1. Ash said he spent his summer studying how to be a better leader. McCoy added 15 pounds to his lanky frame to bulk up to 200.
Coach Mack Brown said the first order of business is cleaning up the turnovers he figures cost Texas at least two games last season.
''Our quarterbacks have to understand you need to manage the game and take care of the ball,'' Brown said.
While McCoy, a junior, brings swagger to the position, his swashbuckling plays sometimes create as much damage as good. His scramble in the final minute against Texas A&M set up the game-winning field goal. But his five turnovers doomed Texas in a loss at Baylor, and after that he take the field in the bowl game.
Ash, a sophomore, was a steadier if underwhelming steward of the offense when the running game kicked into gear in midseason. He never got comfortable as a passer. Ash said he'll take on whatever role he's asked to play in order to win.
''If it's a game manager, OK,'' Ash said. ''If it's a touchdown thrower, OK. If it's a ball hander-offer, that's OK, too.''
McCoy said the Longhorns can win with either quarterback.
''Whichever way we decide to go, I know it's going to work. We have a lot of players on this team who have decided to make it work. That position (quarterback) will not define this team,'' McCoy said.
It did when Vince Young and McCoy's older brother, Colt, were leading the Longhorns to four Bowl Championship Series games and two national title game appearances from 2004-2009. Texas went 69-9 in that stretch, but is just 13-12 over the last two seasons, including a paltry 6-11 in Big 12 play.
Brown overhauled his staff with seven new assistants after the 5-7 disaster of 2010, but made no changes after an 8-5 finish last season. Brown said the continuity breeds confidence now that the players and coaches all know each other and the playbooks.
''This thing is headed back in the right direction,'' Brown said. ''We took a little dip, (but) everything is positive and everything is moving forward and I've never been more excited about the challenge. We are not that much better than everybody else like we were at one time, so got to coach. But it's a fun time for us.''
It could be a fun season for Texas if the defense delivers on its promise.
Anchored by ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, the line should be the best in the Big 12 and is supported by a talented and playmaking secondary. Safety Kenny Vaccaro considered entering the NFL draft, where some projected him as a first-round pick, but he chose to stay for his senior season.
''I wasn't ready to go. I needed to grow as a man,'' Vaccaro said. ''I wasn't ready to have that kind of money.''
Okafor and Vaccaro were involved in an offseason disturbance when they were arrested at a downtown pizzeria for not leaving when asked to by police. The misdemeanor charges were later dropped but both players said they were embarrassed by the incident.
''I told the guys I was more embarrassed for them than me. I want to represent this program as well as I can,'' Vaccaro said. ''Coach Brown sat me and Alex down and said we needed to be leaders for this team.''
Texas seems to have solved a problem on special teams. The Longhorns struggled to find a reliable placekicker in spring practice but have since enrolled Penn State transfer Anthony Fera, who was 14 of 17 on field goals for the Nittany Lions last season.