Texas Football: 5 Longhorns Who Must Step Up for the Conference Schedule

Zach Shelton@@zachisagingerFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2012

Texas Football: 5 Longhorns Who Must Step Up for the Conference Schedule

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    For the sixth year in a row the Texas Longhorns are 3-0 after their 66-31 handling of Ole Miss vaulted the 'Horns back into Top-10 territory. But with a tough conference schedule looming, this team is far from a finished product.

    Here is what we know so far about the Longhorns. The offensive and defensive lines are as good as we have seen in a long time. The Longhorns offense has the most playmakers fans have seen since the 2005 national championship team. And, most importantly, sophomore quarterback David Ash is improving at a very impressive rate as evidenced by last week's 326-yard, four-touchdown onslaught against the Rebels.

    However, we also know that this defense has some holes at linebacker and in the secondary, and there are big plays to be had against the group as a whole. Even worse, Texas is about to head into conference play without any sort of reliable kicker unless Penn State transfer Anthony Fera can return next week.

    With the conference schedule beginning in only 10 short days, here are the players that must up their level of play to give Texas the best shot at surviving the three-game gauntlet that looms on the horizon.

CB Carrington Byndom

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    Projected to have a first-round-prospect type season for the 'Horns, junior cornerback Carrington Byndom is off to a rough start to 2012 and his play must improve for his team to have a chance against the high-powered offenses of the Big 12.

    Through the first three games the most notable problem for the Longhorns defense has been missing tackles. And no individual player has been exposed more in that department than Byndom, who was the 'Horns shutdown corner a year ago.

    In the Longhorns' season opener against Wyoming, Byndom missed a tackle on receiver Robert Herron that led to an 82-yard touchdown that gave the Cowboys an early 9-7 lead. On the next series, Byndom was beat for 45 yards by Herron once again on his way to a 173-yard, two-touchdown performance.

    Byndom came out unscathed the following week against punchless New Mexico, only to be exposed again against Ole Miss. He was beat again on Donte Moncrief's 75-yard touchdown in the third quarter and missed another tackle on the Rebels' first scoring drive.

    If this were anybody else, I would say you have to bench this guy and let someone else do the job. But Byndom proved last year that when he is on his game, there is nobody better as he proved last season against Justin Blackmon and Jeff Fuller.

    The Longhorns have gotten by to this point because they have been playing decidedly weaker competition, but they cannot afford Byndom to be a no-show any longer. Byndom's counterpart Quandre Diggs has been lights out so far, so teams are going to test him early and often until he makes them pay. If he does not, it could be another frustrating season for Longhorns fans.

K Nick Jordan

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    For all of Carrington Byndom's struggles in the secondary at least he is not freshman kicker Nick Jordan, who has been totally ineffective thus far in 2012.

    After watching Jordan kick through the first three games, it is easy to see why Mack Brown and the coaching staff worked so hard to get former Penn State kicker Anthony Fera. So far Jordan has missed four of his seven attempts, and has made nothing inside of 40 yards. He also had one attempt blocked in the first game against Wyoming.

    The importance of a kicker, especially with two of Texas' biggest tests coming in the next three games, cannot be underestimated. And Jordan's inability to connect on anything beyond 40 yards is a major concern if the Longhorns are in close games.

    Provided that Fera does not return in time from his groin injury, this team is in serious trouble with Jordan in these ever-important conference tilts.

LB Demarco Cobbs

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    Another defensive player that has underperformed thus far is sophomore linebacker Demarco Cobbs, who has struggled to make an impact in any of Texas' first three contests.

    Despite his impressive speed and athleticism, Cobbs has looked lost in the strong-side linebacker spot. He recorded only one tackle in the first game against Wyoming and was obviously targeted by the opposing offense in both the New Mexico and Ole Miss games. 

    His struggles against New Mexico are understandable because the Lobos' triple-option attack puts a lot of pressure on opposing linebackers. You can even forgive him for struggling against Wyoming because that was his first start. But his performance against Ole Miss was discouraging.

    Cobbs missed assignments both in coverage and against the run, and also smoked a tackle on Jeff Scott's 48-yard touchdown run. Really, his head has just not been in the game.

    Cobbs is young and supremely athletic, which could mean he is relying far too much on his physical abilities. If that is the case he has a lot of work to do before he faces experienced quarterbacks like Landry Jones and Geno Smith, especially if Jordan Hicks misses significant time with his groin injury.

RB Johnathan Gray

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    It is probably past time that the Longhorns took the training wheels off star recruit Johnathan Gray, and there is certainly no better time than the team's first bye week.

    Gray has had a slow start to the season playing behind the 1-2 punch of Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, but showed marked improvement in putting up 50 yards on nine carries against Ole Miss. And while it was not serious, Bergeron's shoulder injury against the Rebels should set off alarms that Gray needs to at least be ready to carry a heavier offensive load.

    Although Gray is just a freshman, he is the most complete runner this team has. He has the speed to run outside and the strength to run between the tackles. And he can run the Wildcat formation and is the team's best option in zone blocking schemes due to his quickness.

    Gray's ability to run the Wildcat and be yet another explosive option for this offense make him must-have when this team goes against three very good offenses in Oklahoma State, West Virginia and OU. If he gets the reps and the opportunities, he must be ready to capitalize.

LB Steve Edmond

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    Though he has played very well through the first three games, sophomore middle linebacker Steve Edmond must be ready to ramp it up for the Longhorns come conference games. This is especially so if a certain someone is still out with injury.

    Through the first three games Edmond has been ahead of the learning curve. His 22 tackles are second on the team, and his 22-yard interception against Ole Miss has been the defensive highlight of the season thus far. Unfortunately, the team still needs more from him.

    Top linebacker and team leader Jordan Hicks left Saturday's game with a hip injury in the first half, leaving Texas short its leading tackler and defensive signal-caller. After that point, the defense looked disjointed and gave up two plays of 45-yards or greater.

    That means Edmond, especially with the lack of depth at the position and the struggles of Demarco Cobbs, is going to have to pick up the slack. There is a possibility that Hicks could use the bye week to recover and be ready for OSU, but groin injuries are a fickle beast as Anthony Fera has taught us.

    The veteran leaders both along the line and in the secondary should find a way to make things easier on the young linebacker, but Edmond needs to be prepared for the extra responsibility. And you best believe that opposing teams are going to target this inexperienced group early and often. Let's hope Edmond is up to the challenge.