Every team faces unique challenges every season, and if these were easy to predict, teams would prepare for them well ahead of time. College sports create an environment that can swing results wildly from season to season, even though we’re well aware that the teams with better resources, facilities, coaching, and fans are going to enjoy more long term success. So without identifying one single issue that could challenge the Texas Longhorns in 2014, here are a number of unique(-ish) factors that could create adversity for Charlie Strong and his staff this season.
Texas doesn’t currently have an established backup quarterback, and David Ash has missed time in each of the last three seasons. This is a issue because Ash has been a largely effective quarterback when he has played. The last two seasons, he has averaged 8.6 yards per attempt and 65.9% completions with a 26 to 10 touchdown to interception ratio. That’s well above what you can expect from a backup quarterback, and usually sits between 3rd and 5th overall in the Big XII.
An injury to the quarterback is not an excuse for losing, because it’s not particularly challenging to build depth at the quarterback position. In 2009, the University of Cincinnati actually improved when starter Tony Pike was lost to injury because they got great production out of Zach Collaros. Collaros’ career ended up being nondescript, but Cincinnati ended up in the Sugar Bowl that year.
The health of David Ash is one of the major points of the 2014 season, and a common area for potential adversity. It is not a new issue for Longhorn fans, who have gotten used to the idea of a quarterback carosel.
Jonathan Gray, Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, and Daje Johnson are all going to struggle to find an adequate number of touches in a spread-based offensive scheme, though Texas will rely heavily on the run. It is possible in a scheme featuring 3+ receivers to run the ball up to 50% of the time with just a single back, and the main back in 2014 figures to be Gray.
The other three guys need to get their touches somehow, somewhere. Gray is unlikely to go the whole season without getting nicked up, and Brown is plenty capable of starting in the same role if his number is called. But without massive injuries, Texas is likely to use something of a back rotation to keep everyone involved. Gray is going to see at least 15-20 carries in any game he is able to take that, because he’s the one who needs to touch the ball, but we have seen Brown and Bergeron both touch the ball more times than that in a single game.
It’s up to the coaching staff if they’ll decide to ride a hot hand, or will prefer to just keep everyone involved throughout the season.
Left tackle Desmond Harrison did not perform up to expectations a year ago, and he enters a senior season with a chance to go up to the first round in the NFL draft, needing to show some improvement. Sedrick Flowers is the first option to enter the lineup at left guard, replacing Trey Hopkins. True sophomore Curtis Riser is penciled in as the right guard. Both center Dominic Espinosa returns to the lineup, and Kent Perkins takes over for at right tackle, where he started at the end of the year.
Pass protection was an issue for this group a year ago, and they’ll look to improve across the board in a new scheme while replacing both starting guards from last year. One of the first tasks for the new coaching staff will be to get this unit to play up to the bar established by the recruiting rankings. An offensive line playing well can mask a whole bunch of issues, including the top two on this list.
Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford’s scheme is one that relies on execution and reading keys, which makes it a scheme that will not be unfamiliar to any player who played high school football (i.e. everyone). The one challenge Texas may face next season is finding a pass rush, somewhere, somehow. Without a pass rush, a fairly basic scheme like the one Texas will play can be exploited by any balanced offense.
Texas can depend on an interior push from their defensive tackles as long as they don’t have to dig too far into their depth, but edge rush could be an issue if Big XII offenses can block Cedric Reed. Shiro Davis has flashed in a limited role, but it’s troublesome that he’s penciled in as the starter, and true freshman Derrick Roberson is already the main competition. If Davis can’t produce early in the 2014 season, Texas is going to have to respond to this challenge by getting creative with blitzes and alignments, and try to generate pressure on the quarterback. That’s not consistent with the philosophy of the defense, but it might be a reality of the unit in year one.