Injuries in football are as regular as clockwork. They affect every team, and every team is expected to deal with them accordingly.
The 2013 Texas Longhorns have not only dealt with their fair share of bumps and bruises, they have been inundated with them across the board. After declaring quarterback David Ash out for the rest of the year, it is fair to contemplate how much these injuries have derailed their season.
Ash is now the fourth Longhorn starter to be shut down until 2014. Linebacker Jordan Hicks has been out since Week 4 with a torn Achilles, and both starting defensive tackle Chris Whaley (ACL) and running back Johnathan Gray (Achilles) succumbed to season-ending injuries against West Virginia.
On offense, that is the conference's most-experienced quarterback in Ash, and Gray was its third-leading rusher at the time of his injury. Hicks, a 5-star recruit, was expected to lead the team in tackles while Whaley was in the middle of his best season at tackle.
Feel free to add starting right tackle Josh Cochran, a former freshman All-American, to the mix as well. He has missed seven games due to a shoulder injury, and now backup Kennedy Estelle is expected to miss Thursday's game as well.
That is five of Texas' national-leading 19 returning starters that will combine to miss, on average, seven games apiece if you include the bowl game.
Granted, the Longhorns have done a good job adjusting for the most part. Though Case McCoy's 6.5 YPA pales in comparison to Ash's 8.7, the backup has led Texas to impressive wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma. Even in spite of his three-interception performance against Oklahoma State, the argument can be made that McCoy has produced exactly the same wins as Ash would have.
Meanwhile, Hicks' injury has also allowed Steve Edmond to emerge as the team's leading tackler and most consistent linebacker. And there was virtually no drop-off from Cochran to Estelle, with the 'Horns turning in three 200-yard rushing performances while the sophomore anchored the right side.
But it has not all been pretty. The absences of both Gray and Whaley were glaring in Texas' 38-13 loss to Oklahoma State.
Like Gray, "backup" Malcolm Brown is a 5-star recruit with serious talent. But Brown is more of a bruiser, while the injured sophomore brings more breakaway speed and quickness.
In tandem, the two backs were stellar against Oklahoma, TCU and Kansas. With Brown softening the middle and Gray stretching defenses to the sideline, they combined for 575 yards and six touchdowns in the three wins.
Without Gray to give him room up the middle, Brown struggled against the Pokes. He could only muster 73 yards on his 25 carries and was repeatedly stoned at the line of the scrimmage.
In Whaley's absence, the defense experienced similar struggles. The Longhorns failed to record a sack for just the second time all season, allowing its first Big 12 opponent to average better than four yards per carry.
This is cause for concern, because Whaley was a key cog in one of Greg Robinson's go-to defensive looks. And there's nobody available to replace him in such a role.
Texas' new defensive coordinator relies on zone blitzes to create pressure, or at least the illusion of pressure, on the opposing quarterback. Often times, he would drop Whaley into coverage to confuse the quarterback. This resulted in the defensive tackle's only two career interceptions, including a pick-six against Oklahoma.
Robinson was able to do this with Whaley because the senior, though a load at 296 pounds, has nimble feet courtesy of his days at running back. He had the agility to drop back in coverage, as well as the size to be a disruptive tackle. Add in his leadership, and Whaley is downright irreplaceable up front.
Fortunately for the 'Horns, the coaching staff had a bye to figure out how to replace Gray's and Whaley's production against Texas Tech. Still, it's hard not to wonder what could have been.
Would Ash have been able to stretch the field and keep up with Oklahoma State? Would Clint Chelf have rushed for 91 yards and two touchdowns had Whaley been active? How will the absence of Gray play out against Texas Tech, a team he gashed for 106 yards in 2012?
The easy answer is that a program like Texas should have enough depth to overcome such losses. Maybe, at least in the case of Gray, it would if Daje Johnson were not suspended.
But consider this. Yank AJ McCarron out from under center from Alabama, and see if it could have beaten Texas A&M. Subtract Aaron Donald, the nation's leader in tackles for loss, then watch Pittsburgh crumble.
These are extreme examples, but they are proof that losing just one great player can derail an entire season. Losing five good ones can just as easily do the same.
Whether that will serve as a real excuse for Texas when it concludes the season is another matter. But there is no doubt that the losses of these players have resulted in losses on the field.
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