The mercury in Texas continues to rise above the century mark.
And that means football is coming.
It is year three of Texas head coach Mack Brown's rebuilding program, a project that began after an abysmal 5-7 record in 2010. Following two years of improvement (8-5 in 2011 and 9-4 in 2012) the Longhorns are (finally) in a position to push for a conference title.
The grueling process is close to paying dividends, as the right pieces appear to be falling into place for the Longhorns to crack into the BCS—in what would be their first appearance since the BCS National Championship Game following the 2009 season.
The buzz is beginning to brew in Austin. New offensive flavors, a wealth of experience on both sides of the ball and an overall craving for success have been big talking points leading up to the 2013 season.
But beneath all of the talk and media attention, the Longhorns are hard at work for what figures to be a wild year on the 40 Acres.
Who is generating the most buzz, you say?
The talk of the town figures to be junior David Ash, who is fully expected to make even bigger leaps in what will be his first full season as the undisputed No. 1 quarterback.
In each of his two previous seasons, Ash made plays with his legs—something that the Longhorns will need more of in 2013. In 2012, his completion percentage (67.3) rose more 10 points from that of his freshman season, and he threw 19 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. The Longhorns plan to go more with an up-tempo attack, and with the faster tempos, Ash's ability to make quick and accurate decisions will be the ignition for the Texas offense.
Physical play aside, Ash appears to be more comfortable in his leadership role, qualities that oozed from campus QB legends like Vince Young and Colt McCoy. Ash's performance during adversity will be a telling sign of whether Texas fulfills its potential this season.
Remember, Young and McCoy did some big damage during their junior campaigns, winning the 2005 national championship and 2008 Fiesta Bowl, respectively, following up-and-down sophomore seasons for both.
For Ash to be the guy everyone is expecting him to be, he will need to break out this season.
Texas' defense said goodbye to safety Kenny Vaccro and defensive end Alex Okafor, as well as defensive tackle Brandon Moore. But the Longhorns are happy to welcome back Hicks, a linebacker who missed 10 games in 2012 with a hip injury.
Hicks figured to be an integral part to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's defense last season. He was counted on as a veteran presence who could help foster the development of youngsters Steve Edmond, Kendall Thompson and Peter Jinkens.
But Hicks injury against Ole Miss left an inexperienced linebacker crew vulnerable to huge breakdowns in the middle in of the field.
Now with a year of experience under its belt, the linebacker corps, led by Hicks, appear to be a more promising unit, though there are some lingering questions about consistency and health.
The defensive end is another big piece to the Texas defense who is returning from injury. With Okafor moving onto the NFL, the 'Horns defensive line will need Jeffcoat's nastiness and playmaking ability up front.
Jeffcoat, who is coming off surgery for the second consecutive offseason, finished the 2011 season on a tear (eight sacks, 17 tackles for loss in seven games) and started strong in 2012 (four sacks, 11 tackles for loss in six games).
Those stretch of games show great promise as Jeffcoat heads into 2013, but given his injury history, one wonders how long it will take for him to find his groove.
In the speed department, the Longhorns regret the departures of wide receivers Marquise Goodwin and D.J. Monroe, but Johnson, a sophomore, provides the same home-run potential, if not more.
As a freshman, Johnson appeared in 12 games and averaged 7.5 yards per carry and 15.1 yards per reception in accounting for 490 total yards on 46 touches as both a receiver and a ball-carrier. But with the absence of other speedsters in this year's Texas offense, Johnson's contributions appear due for a boost.
There is little debate about it. Johnson will be a huge X-factor in Texas' up-tempo offense.
Many pointed to the interior of the defensive line as a weak link in the Texas defense. But sophomore defensive tackle Malcom Brown is starting to come into his own.
The interior line is crowded with bodies. Seniors Ashton Dorsey and Chris Whaley should have an edge with their experience, but Desmond Jackson and Brown are expected to be fixtures in the rotation, as both bring more raw, physical power than their more seasoned teammates.
Brown was a must-get recruit in the Longhorns' 2012 recruiting class, and he is among four young players—including Johnathan Gray, Peter Jinkens and Johnson—expected to make significant contributions in 2013.
A junior-college transfer, Harrison has not even arrived on campus yet, and already there is some buzz about the hulking 6'8" offensive tackle.
Many wonder if Harrison is the type of plug-and-play left tackle who can add some depth and experience up front, giving offensive line coach Stacy Searels plenty of bodies to go around—and ones that make a difference.
Harrison is expected to arrive during the second half of the summer, but he is the kind of newcomer that will have the attention of the masses.
The junior cornerback has been one of the most consistent contributors from the 2011 class. Diggs is expected to assume Kenny Vaccaro's role as the nickel corner. Diggs may lack the size that Vaccaro brought to the table, but the former Angleton standout can be every bit as physical.
Diggs has morphed into a sound, defensive leader. Along with senior corner Carrington Byndom—another player to keep an eye on in 2013—Diggs is part of a secondary duo that rivals the best pairs in the Big 12.
The wide receiver returns for his senior season, which is a huge plus for the continuity of the Texas offense.
With Davis, who hauled in 57 passes for 939 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012, the Longhorns will retain their ability to challenge a defense deep. Just as important, Davis' speed opens up the underneath routes for a guy like Jaxon Shipley, who caught a team-high 59 balls last season.
With the general lack of experience and consistency at the receiver position, Davis' presence this year is one that cannot be overlooked. Ash started developing a nice connection with the 6'2" Davis, and 2013 may be the season the duo blows up the box score.
The true freshman running back was every bit as good as advertised coming into the program.
With Malcom Brown missing five games, Gray was thrown into the fire early and responded with significant contributions both as a runner and a receiver.
Brown and Gray bring some dynamic abilities to the table, but they both have their drawbacks. Injuries hampered Brown during his first two seasons, but he nevertheless led the running back trio—Gray, Brown and Joe Bergeron—with a 5.3 yards-per-carry average.
The versatility and talent in the backfield is potent, and it will be interesting to see just how the three backs complement one another when fully healthy.
The Bottom Line
Sophomore linebacker Peter Jinkens deserves a shout out as a player to watch, but it is apparent that the Longhorns are fully loaded on offense as seven of the players listed play under co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite.
In a season where Texas looks to have something to prove in a seemingly down year in the Big 12, the Longhorns have geared themselves up for a wild ride, independent of the season's final results.
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