December 5, 2009 was one of those rare nights in sports. That night was supposed to be a coronation for Mack Brown and his third-ranked Texas Longhorns. After a bitter disappointment in 2008, his Longhorns fought through a tough 2009 season and arrived at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington for the Big XII Championship Game one win away from a second trip to the National Championship Game in four years.
At the helm that night was senior quarterback Colt McCoy. McCoy had recently become the winningest quarterback in NCAA history and was on the cusp of becoming just the third Longhorn to win the Heisman Trophy. In a year in which no competitor seemed capable of putting the trophy away, McCoy had put on a brilliant performance at Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night, including a signature play with his 65 yard dash up the gut of the Aggie defense. The trophy was his for the taking.
All he had to do was be Colt, one more time. All the Longhorns had to do was take care of business, one more time. It seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Hours later, McCoy’s Heisman hopes were lying shattered on the JerryWorld turf, littering the landscape like the confetti that was raining down. The Longhorns did indeed win that night, but the celebration that followed was more like a sigh of relief than anything else. They didn’t deserve the win that night and they all seemed to know it.
What no one knew at the time was that Mack Brown’s Longhorns, the ones that had made 10 win seasons mundane and had dug out a semi-permanent place in the Top Ten, were done. The high level of play, the high stakes games, were soon to be a thing of the past. The Longhorns as they had existed for a decade, were broken that night.
That night, the 20th ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers, who entered that game with a record of 9-3, exposed the Longhorns for all the world to see. Their defensive line destroyed the Texas O Line and tossed McCoy around like a rag doll. Their secondary suffocated the Texas passing game and left McCoy scrambling to make plays.
If the Huskers had any offense at all that season, they would surely have beaten the Longhorns convincingly that night. As it was, they could do nothing against the best defense Will Muschamp would field at UT and that defensive effort would keep Texas alive long enough for Colt to be Colt, kind of, for one last drive.
That night, the Horns were exposed, but for those who were paying attention, the events of that night were not a surprise. I had noticed it a year before, in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl. That night, Texas somehow found a way to let an outclassed Ohio State team not only stick with them, but almost beat them. They seemed to take control of the game with a dominating third quarter, then proceeded to inflict .357 Magnum sized holes in both feet. It was an uncharacteristic sloppy performance on a big stage for Mack’s boys then, but it would soon become commonplace.
The problems that caused these sloppy near misses would come more into focus in 2010 and continue to haunt the Longhorns today. The depths to which the Longhorns talent base dried up in the last half of Mack’s time in Austin were in ample display during Saturday’s Spring game, during which a converted wide receiver had to play second team quarterback, a converted quarterback was the number two running back and one of the best defensive backs on the field was a walk-on.
During Mack’s early career, he had been dubbed Coach February for his ability to sign top flight recruiting classes (the term was derogatory because it was insinuated that he couldn’t win the big games). Mack lived up to that name upon arriving in Austin, and promptly restocked the Texas program with tons of NFL-caliber talent.
Somewhere along the same time he finally won the Big One and removed the Coach February tag from his resume, he and his staff got lazy. Instead of engaging enemy programs for the best talent around, Mack’s staff began looking for the easy commits. It became more important to lock up their classes quickly than to really get down and dirty and evaluate the players they were offering.
As it turns out, Mack had everybody fooled, including himself. He had developed such a reputation as a recruiter that if Texas was hot on the trail of kid, his stock shot up. Mack continued to bring in highly-rated class after highly-rated class, just like clockwork. The problem was, the results weren’t there.
One of the first position groupings to show the cracks was the offensive line. The 2005 O Line that propelled Texas to the National Title may have been one of the best in school history, but once the remnants of that line moved on after the 2006 season, it was never the same. Looking back at the players Texas brought in, it’s hard to imagine exactly what they were going for. The weren’t going for size, in fact, Texas finally had to delve into the JUCO ranks for Donald Hawkins and Desmond Harrison because there just weren’t any pure tackle prospects on campus. The target seemed to be mobile linemen who could play up or down the line. Whatever the rationale, line play at Texas dropped like a rock.
You could see it in the production of the running game, or rather the lack of production in the running game. Since Cedric Benson graduated after the 2004 season, only one Texas RB has rushed for 1,000 yards in a season. That was Jamaal Charles in 2007 and it took a monster second half of the year for him to get that.
Granted, Texas has employed a running back by committee approach since 2005, but part of the reason for that is the decreased talent level at the position. When Mack tried to get away from the spread offense in 2010, he was so devoid of backs that he even tried to make short yardage specialist Cody Johnson his featured back. That’s a pretty steep drop for a program that’s featured backs like Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams.
The talent drop-off became so great that securing the commitment of Malcolm Brown for the 2011 class was seen as a must have. Mack summoned all his prowess to sign Brown, but he has hardly been the answer. As he enters his senior year, Malcolm Brown has become more a grinder than a gamebreaker. Could it be that everyone was wrong about Brown’s talent coming out of high school, or did Mack and his staff just goof it up?
All over the offensive side of the ball, talent dried up. The 2005 team didn’t have big names, outside of Charles and Vince Young, but big plays came from everywhere. Guys like Billy Pittman, Ramonce Taylor and Limas Sweed quickly faded away, but they left in their wake so many great plays and found memories.
Four years later, the Texas offense was Colt McCoy, Jordan Shipley and…um, yeah. That’s pretty much it. The fact that they pretty much carried the Texas offense on their own in 2009 is both a testament to their greatness and condemnation of Mack’s inability to surround them with better talent. For every Jaxon Shipley or Mike Davis, there has been a Traylon Shead and a James Kirkendoll. And a Brandon Collins. And a Tre Newton. And…
The defensive side of the ball wasn’t immune either. The current crop of linebackers leaves Texas fans longing for the good old days of Derrick Johnson and Aaron Harris. Shoot, they leave you yearning for the good old days of Scott Derry. (OK, maybe not). While Muschamp was able to turn Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho into quality Big XII linebackers, Manny Diaz proved to be as ineffective at recruiting linebackers as he was coaching them.
And for a school that proudly calls itself DBU, the drop-off has been substantial as well. Yes, Earl Thomas and Kenny Vaccaro were ballers, but other than those two guys, it’s been a calamitous drop. The recent output of DBU has been either the incredibly smart but talent deprived players (Blake Gideon), talented but inconsistent players (Carrington Byndom) and athletic guys who can’t get on the field (Sheroid Evans). The lack of overall talent and player development has left an inconsistent and poorly-coached defense that the Big XII’s explosive spread offenses have exploited at will.
The Orange-White game was just another example of how far the talent level has fallen. Question marks are everywhere. Is Tim Cole really on the two-deep? Do we have anyone to man the safety spots? Can we find five quality offensive linemen? How did this happen at the University of Texas?
It has been clear from the start that Charlie Strong and his staff have had their work cut out for them. It will take several recruiting classes for Strong to rebuild a decaying talent base, and then only if he can also develop that talent, another area in which Mack failed miserably at the end. That’s a discussion for different time.