Texas Football: Grading the Longhorns' Positional Units After the First 3 Games

Zach Shelton@@zachisagingerFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2012

Texas Football: Grading the Longhorns' Positional Units After the First 3 Games

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    The No. 12 Longhorns come off their bye week to open Big 12 play against the Cowboys of Oklahoma State in Stillwater for their first true test of the season. Judging by what we have seen so far, these 'Horns will be just fine.

    With its 66-31 manhandling of Ole Miss in Oxford, Texas put the Big 12 and the rest of the country on notice. With vastly improved quarterback play and a dominating effort in the trenches, this much-hyped group showed that these are not the same Longhorns that went 13-12 over the past two seasons. 

    Here are the positional grades for the Longhorns following their very impressive non-conference run as they head into the teeth of their Big 12 schedule.

Quarterback: A+

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    If you are a Longhorn fan there is no more welcome sight than the start that sophomore quarterback David Ash has had to the season, whose week-to-week improvement has been staggering. 

    Throughout the offseason fans and experts viewed this Longhorn team with cautious optimism due to the uncertainty at the quarterback position, where inconsistency had been hampering this team since Colt McCoy was knocked out of the 2009 national championship game. The ensuing battle for the starting job between Ash and junior Case McCoy only exacerbated the situation, causing fans to brace for the impact of yet another disappointing campaign.

    Those days are way in the rear view mirror.

    David Ash has started this season with back-to-back-to-back career games. The sophomore signal-caller tore through the non-conference opponents with 703 passing yards for seven touchdowns and zero picks while completing over 76 percent of his passes. 

    Ash still had his doubters following games in which he struggled to get the ball down the field against the paltry defenses of Wyoming and New Mexico. He responded in turn with the best performance a Texas quarterback has put on in years in throwing for 326 yards and three touchdowns, including four completions for 45 yards or more.

    Is Ash ready to lead this team back to a BCS bowl? Not yet, but he is getting there much faster than anyone anticipated. He is running offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin's offense with confidence and nearly flawless execution, inspiring his teammates every step of the way.

    Whether Ash can keep this train rolling remains to be seen, but for the first time in two years the Longhorns have a bona fide starting quarterback. And the talent to back him up.

Running Backs: A

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    One of the main reasons the Texas Longhorns were expected to be so good this year was the incredible depth of talent at the running back position. These guys have proven to be worth every ounce of those expectations.

    David Ash may have had his doubters after Week 1, but the running backs sure did not. Sophomores Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown each had 100-yard games and have not looked back since.

    Malcolm Brown has had two 100-yard performances already, Joe Bergeron has bulldozed his way to one of his own and freshman Daje Johnson has arrived as an immediate home run threat for the offense. In total, this group has rushed for 553 yards, racked up 209 receiving yards and scored seven touchdowns. This is excluding the output from D.J. Monroe, who is technically a wide receiver, and without any major impact made by stud freshman Johnathan Gray.

    This group is doing it all and the diversity of talent they possess makes them very hard to stop. Brown has been the total package, Bergeron is making mince meat out of would-be tacklers and Johnson is a breakaway touchdown waiting to happen. Once Gray gets going this will be among the premier backfields in the country.

    If they stay healthy that is.

    Bergeron injured his shoulder against Ole Miss and the coaches are still mum on his status. If he is out, Gray will probably get a few more touches though the majority of the workload will be placed on the shoulders of Brown. The backs should get theirs against OSU, but you would like to see Bergeron out there to help soften that defense a little bit.

Wide Receivers: A

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    The only unit on the team that returned all of its starters from 2011, these Texas wideouts have proven why continuity and experience are so valued in college football with their start to 2012.

    Returnees Jaxon Shipley, Mike Davis and Marquise Goodwin have done it all for the Longhorns thus far. They have been reliable catching the ball, effective running the ball and have blocked with a vengeance from the onset.

    The stats were meager in the first two games both because of the offensive game plan and Ash's struggles to get the ball downfield, but they hushed whatever doubters they had against Ole Miss. Davis had five catches for 124 yards and a touchdown, including two long bombs from Ash in which he outworked the coverage. Goodwin was even more impressive with his nearly 200 total yards of offense and two touchdowns.

    Even D.J. Monroe, who most thought would be phased out by the arrival of Daje Johnson, is off to a career start with a red zone touchdown in each of the Longhorns' first three games.

    This group gets an A not only for its top flight performance against the Rebels but for doing whatever it took to win in all three games, especially blocking on the perimeter. These guys have set the tone with both their leadership and on-field performance.

Tight Ends: C

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    Never to be confused for a strength on this team, this rag-tag group of Longhorn tight ends have been perfectly average to start the 2012 season.

    Average may be a strong word for tight ends that have caught only six balls for 46 yards, but that is not how they are supposed to make their living anyway. The two touchdowns they scored on those six catches are simply an added bonus for the very solid job they have done blocking.

    The Texas tight ends' job first and foremost is to block, not to catch passes. Otherwise freshman M.J. McFarland would be starting instead of sophomore Greg Daniels, who has not caught a pass in his Longhorn career.

    Maybe I am giving these guys too much credit. But Texas is averaging 5.9 yards per carry and David Ash's jersey has looked pretty clean so these guys are fine until they are not.

Offensive Line: A+

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    Aside from quarterback David Ash, the stars of the offensive show for the Longhorns have been the big uglies up front.

    Mason Walters, Dom Espinosa, Trey Hopkins, Josh Cochran and JUCO transfer Donald Hawkins have simply owned the trenches in the first three games of the season. They have kept David Ash clean in allowing only two sacks, they have paved the way for 776 rushing yards and they have controlled the line of scrimmage from the first snap of the season. And do not forget about the 101 knockdown blocks they had against Ole Miss.

    There have been a few penalties here and there but this group has been stellar otherwise in laying the foundation for a BCS-caliber team. New offensive line coach Stacy Searels has brought an edge to this group, and they are playing like the physical SEC-type linemen that this team so desperately needs to achieve its ultimate goals of returning to the top.

    Do not expect them to be as dominant against Big 12 competition, but run-blocking and pass-protecting like these linemen have so far is about as clear-cut a recipe for success as you can get.

Defensive Line: A+

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    The only unit on this Longhorn team that has been as dominant so far as the offensive line has been the defensive line, anchored by defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor.

    The output from this unit has been borderline unbelievable. Through three games the Texas defensive linemen have produced seven sacks, 18 tackles for loss and 22 quarterback hurries. And those 18 tackles for loss have resulted in over 60 yards of lost yardage for the opponents.

    The sideline-to-sideline play from the ends Jeffcoat and Okafor has been the driving force for this unit, but the tackles are also getting it done. The rotation of Desmond Jackson, Brandon Moore, Chris Whaley and Ashton Dorsey has denied everything up the middle and every game one of them has consistently found his way into the opponent's backfield. 

    This unit's continued ability to create pressure while rushing only four is going to make things much easier on the linebackers and defensive backs that have struggled at times to find their way. Opposing quarterbacks cannot be excited with the film they are seeing of this group.

Linebackers: C+

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    Outside of junior stalwart Jordan Hicks, the Texas linebackers have struggled to find consistency so far this season and could be in real trouble if Hicks misses Saturday's game.

    It has not all been bad for this young group of Texas linebackers. Hicks and first-year starter Steve Edmond are tops on the team in tackles, with Edmond really finding his way the past two games. The real problem has been sophomore Demarco Cobbs.

    Cobbs, also a first-year starter along with Edmond, has just not been getting it done this season. He is easily the fastest backer on the team, but has used that speed to go the wrong way far too often. Cobbs was exposed numerous times by New Mexico's triple option attack in Week 2 and was not much better in an Ole Miss game where his missed tackle on Jeff Scott led to a 48-yard touchdown run.

    What makes the Cobbs situation worse is that Hicks may miss Saturday's game with his hip injury, in which case Texas is going to have a revolving door at linebacker the whole game. And Texas may have to go up against a dual-threat quarterback in OSU's J.W. Walsh, which would put even more pressure on the beleaguered unit. 

    Hicks has looked like All-Big 12 material and Edmond has certainly made strides, but Cobbs' lack of progress is scary. Let's hope the bye week has put him further along the learning curve.

Defensive Backs: C

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    In another case where one player's performance has brought down the entire unit, the vaunted Texas secondary has been underwhelming to start the 2012 season.

    If this were still the week following the opening game against Wyoming, the defensive backs would be receiving a failing grade. Wyoming receiver Robert Herron torched this group for 173 yards and two touchdowns—one being an 82-yarder in which Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips each missed the tackle. In fact, the only player in this group that came ready to play this game was senior Kenny Vaccaro, whose spectacular first-half interception enlivened a fairly quiet Royal Memorial crowd.

    Since then, this group has been pretty solid. Phillips noticeably picked up his play, Kenny Vaccaro kept being Kenny Vaccaro and Quandre Diggs played like the ball hawk everyone expected him to be with his three interceptions. 

    The only exception to the improvement trend has been junior Carrington Byndom, who was supposed to be the team's lockdown corner. Byndom was burned twice by Herron in Week 1 for 45 yards or more. Then after being untested by a punchless New Mexico passing attack, Byndom got beat for a 75-yard touchdown by Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief.

    Through three games, Byndom has looked nothing like the player that stood toe-to-toe with the likes of Justin Blackmon and Jeff Fuller last season. He simply has to play better or else the high-powered offenses of the Big 12 are going to eat his lunch for the next nine weeks.