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ATX Longhorn Sports 2013
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The Texas off-season: Coaching, returning and what to expect

I don’t hear you unless you knock, Curtis:

  • Both the basketball teams won last weekend, the women snapping a 9-game losing streak and the men a 5-game losing streak. It was the first win of 2013 for both teams.
  • Did you guys know Ray Lewis was retiring?
  • Is Drew Allen leaving ou?
  • Baseball is nearly here. The Longhorns had their first official spring practice last Friday and the Alumni Game is this weekend at 2 pm at The Disch. Two weeks from Friday Texas opens regular season play with a three-game set against Sacramento State at home.

I am keeping the typing to a minimum as I have a broken finger and typing SUCKS. This week we get into what Texas is doing/trying to do this off-season before spring practice starts.

I’ve said this before, but it's worth repeating — the off-season is awful. I don’t mean for the fans (but it is for them, too) but for the players. It’s a lot of lifting, running and specialized drills that feel as if their only purpose is pain. Don’t take my word for it. From Ken Mannie, the Strength and Conditioning Coach at Michigan State University:

The true substance of success goes largely unnoticed because its foundation is always built in small, inconspicuous stages. It's January …. There are no fans in the stands, no pep bands, no media hype. These are just ordinary days, but it is the time for hard work and preparation for the special days that lie ahead. Remember: Champions are made on a thousand invisible mornings.

I love that quote: Champions are made on a thousand invisible mornings. Who is putting the work in when the fans are focused on basketball and baseball? Who is sweating, straining and pushing when no one is watching and no one cares (yet)? There is no glory to be had in the off-season, but it sets the table for success in the fall.

Texas is knee-deep in their 1,000 invisible mornings with Bennie Wylie. Let’s take a look at what needs to happen in this time before spring ball for Texas to get where they want to be in 2013.

Texas Longhorns: 2013 Off-Season

Let’s break this into three sections: Coaching, Returning and What to expect. They should be fairly self-explanatory.

Coaching: As you remember, former OC Bryan Harsin is now the head coach at Arkansas State. Major Applewhite was promoted to play caller, but will maintain the title “Co-Coordinator” with wide outs coach Darrell Wyatt being promoted to “Co-Coordinator” alongside him. With Applewhite moving over to coach the quarterbacks, Texas hired Arizona State running backs coach Larry Porter for the same role at Texas.

Texas didn’t get hit with the coaching turnover that many wanted (you know who you are), losing only Harsin. That means the defensive staff is back for 2013, as is everyone else but Harsin. With Major Applewhite moving to play-calling duties, expect more of an aerial assault this spring. For all his celebrated gadgetry, Bryan Harsin wanted to run the ball. And when consider Mack Brown wanted an Alabama-style power running game, the focus was definitely on the ground.

Brown has softened on that ground-first desire and is more open to being more open on offense. Applewhite will bring more of a spread approach: faster tempo, more “check with me” at the line of scrimmage and more passing. If you can see in your head how ou played last year, quickly lining up and then after a brief scan of the defense the entire unit looked to the sideline for the play, that’s what this Texas offense will look like. I imagine with Applewhite already on staff, the team will not need to learn a terminology or playbook, only variances within what they already do and know.

Larry Porter will spend the next few weeks getting to know his running backs, but everyone else on staff already is very intimate with his group, which is the upside to little or no coaching turnover.

Returning:  The first thing you notice about this Texas is team is the sheer number of guys returning in 2013: There have been some retirements and seniors have moved on, but it looks like all but about 20 guys return for the coming season.

Of the two-deep, which the Texasssports.com website has 76 spots on (yes, 76 on the two-deep), and Texas returns 64 this fall. More specifically (and realistically), the Longhorns return nine starters on offense and eight on defense. All the kickers (except super punter Alex King) return as do the snappers, holder and punt return men. Oh yeah, and of the eight starters returning on defense, neither Jackson Jeffcoat or Jordan Hicks are in that listing since both are returning from injury.

There is plenty to like about what Texas has coming back. Quarterback David Ash returns, as does the entire starting offensive line. Also returning, all the running backs. Outside Jaxon Shipley returns, as does jack-of-all-trades Daje Johnson. Someone will need to fill the roles of DJ Grant and Ryan Roberson as well as the huge shoes of Marquise Goodwin, but there are about 20 (literally, there might be 20) fast, talented and skilled wide outs ready to step in.

Also gone are Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro on the defense, but Texas played a lot of young guys last year up front and Jeffcoat and Hicks should return to bring some much-needed senior leadership. There are holes, to be sure, but I like what Texas has coming back: 17 starters returning (19 if you count JJ and Hicks) and a roster full of underclassmen who got their feet wet last fall. “How many underclassmen, Trey?” Excellent question.

There were 42 spots on that ridiculously long two-deep that had “FR” or “SO” listed by the name. I don’t want to sound too much like a burnt orange apologist, but when half the players you are counting on are either new to playing or new to college entirely, it’s going to have an effect. With the spring here, those “FR” turn to “SO” and those “SO” turn to “JR,” meaning a spring of maturity and knowledge awaits them — and that alone would make this a better team.

Think about it: a bunch of teenagers and 20-year-olds that were playing (for the most part) with their high school technique and experiences were on the field for Texas last year; but those guys now get an entire year (or another entire year for the “SO”) of college coaching, college weight and strength training and their own college football experiences to fine tune their game. How can that be bad? It can’t.

What to Expect: We went over this a little bit, but let’s dig deeper. Here are some things Texas needs to accomplish this off-season before spring practice starts in about a month:

  • Change. Major Applewhite, in the post-game press conference at the Alamo Bowl, said “We want to get in here in the off-season. It's not about the Xs and Os, it's really about just the culture of our program and demanding more of our guys, demanding more of our coaches, strength coaches, trainers, just getting guys tougher, and that's where we're going to improve as a ball club. You can call any play you want. That's why we've got to have an off-season and we've got to be uncomfortable as coaches, uncomfortable as players, and that's where you find your largest growth.” He sees that changes in the approach need to be made. He sees everyone needs to step up and be more accountable, more aggressive, more everything. And the best news of all is it seems Mack Brown trusts him to instill all of this. The off-season program has been ramped up to new levels or agony, new levels of accountability. That’s going to make step two even easier...
  • Superb conditioning. Bennie Wylie is a master at what he does, so expect to see this team leaner and fitter when they put the pads on. I can’t tell you enough how important conditioning is to running that up-tempo offense. Every player has to be able to keep up, because if they can’t it changes the entire rhythm of the offense. And with an up-tempo offense, it means more players need to be ready to play. The idea is to prevent the defense from substituting regularly, wearing them out by not huddling; but there will be breaks and many times wholesale changes will occur because the breaks are fewer and farther between. Four and five wide-out sets mean Texas needs more wide outs ready to play and more linemen ready to spell the starters. Texas needs more than the starting 22 in up-tempo condition; they need the top 36 ready to go, if not more. With (alleged) new freedoms to do things more his way than last year, expect to see this Texas team come out of the off-season in as good a shape as they have ever been.
  • David Ash to own the room. The best thing that happened to David Ash this spring was the return of Vince Young to Austin. With VY back in school and working for the Longhorn Network, he has access to Ash. Or, rather, Ash has access to him. Say what you want about Young as a pro, but his career at Texas was outstanding. He was a leader, famously writing on the board in the locker room, “If you want to beat Ohio State meet me here every night at 7 p.m. for 7-on-7” in the summer of 2005. He’s told Ash already this spring to start throwing with his receivers immediately. Ash seems to be coming out of his shell some, taking the microphone at The Drum when the football team was honored for the Alamo Bowl win at halftime last week. As the quarterback, he’s the highest profile player on the team and the guy that needs to lead from the front, both verbally and physically. It has to be that way. If Texas is to take the next step this must happen. It seems like it has started.
  • Nos. 4, 5 and 6. With Texas going to more spread-oriented plays, it means you’ll see more wide outs on the field. Expect to see the Horns with plenty of three and four wide receivers playing at once. With established guys like Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley and Daje Johnson (he’ll swing between the rb and wr units), Texas needs to find a fourth and fifth receiver. And, as I said earlier, with the tempo Texas will run, fresh substitutions are a must — meaning a sixth receiver will be needed. Cayleb Jones, Bryant Jackson, John Harris, Marcus Johnson and Kendall Sanders are all battling for the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 receiver spots. I suspect they are out there with David Ash throwing right now.
  • Defensive confidence. The Texas defense was a train wreck last year. There were flashes of what it could be, but nothing consistent. That has to change. Bennie Wylie will not only be their conditioning coach, but also their therapist and motivational speaker. While Wylie works on rebuilding the player confidence, Manny Diaz needs to take a good, hard and honest look at what worked and what did not. He is getting a chance at redemption that many coaches don’t get. He must take advantage of that by adjusting and learning from 2012. With Jackson Jeffcoat and Jordan Hicks coming back and the kids (Tevin Jackson and Peter Jinkens) returning at linebacker, it should help. There are also rumors of Quandre Diggs moving to safety to take over for Kenny Vaccaro, which means sophomore Duke Thomas would replace him at cornerback. That is not set in stone and it will surely be a work in progress through spring practice, but it’s a smart move to shore up one of the big holes to fill on defense. That will come, but right now it’s all about learning from the past and getting stronger, bigger and confident.
  • Leadership. It’s been a while since Texas had really strong, vocal leadership on the team. In fact, 2009 was probably the last time it was there. That has to change, and it has to change now. This is the time leaders emerge: when it’s cold, when no one is watching, when it’s easy to pull up. This is when the strong personalities on the team, the strong personalities that play and have a work ethic, demand that everyone else give it their all every time. They police and encourage their own to make the team better. Every great team has them. Who will that be for Texas? It sure seemed like Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro were the prototypes for that last year, but I just didn’t see it come to pass. My money is on Diggs, Mason Walters and Jordan Hicks. David Ash is trying, but it isn’t a natural thing to be outspoken and out front for him. Who will it be? We will know soon enough.

In conclusion

It's probably oversimplified, but I think that hits the basics of what Texas needs to do this off-season before spring practice starts. There are so many young players on this team that got experience last year, it can only be good for the future. And by “future” I mean 2013. I love Applewhite bringing new demands and new energy into the locker room, and if Texas can learn from the defensive horror show of 2012, I feel pretty good about the future.

And we didn’t even talk about the recruiting class coming in, did we? Next week is National Signing Day, so we will hit the class of 2013 then.

See you guys next week.

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Trey writes "From the Stands" for the University Co-op. Follow him on the University Co-op Game Day page or on Twitter @TreyMcLean.

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