Texas Football: 5 Bold Predictions for the Longhorns' 2014 Season
Under Charlie Strong, the Longhorns are going to be a completely different team. They will be tougher, more physical and more motivated than they have been through the past four lackluster seasons.
Fall camp is now almost entirely in the books, and the Horns come off as a running team that will lean on its front seven to do most of the work on defense. That means huge seasons for Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown, while making defensive end Cedric Reed a candidate to become the Defensive Player of the Year.
Strong and the fanbase would certainly be happy with those results, but the true goal is to pile up numbers in the left-hand column. To do that, the team will have to pull off an upset during the early-season gauntlet.
Strong was hired to do just that, and getting it done will be just one of his great accomplishments in his first season.
Will Upset Baylor at Home
Even taking a casual look at Texas' schedule, it's impossible to miss the four-game, early-season stretch that includes UCLA, Baylor and Oklahoma. How the Horns play during that stretch will define their season, so it'll go a long way when they upset one of these potential top-10 programs.
That upset will be at home against the Bears.
Not to say that Texas is better than Baylor, or really any of these teams, but Strong is going to pull this off. He was hired in large part because both the administration and the fans were sick of watching Texas lose big against good teams, punctuated by last year's 21.6-point average margin of defeat.
One of those floggings came at the hands of Art Briles and Co. in the de facto Big 12 title game, a 30-10 defeat that never even seemed that close. This go-round in Austin, the Horns will get their revenge.
Aside from the spark provided by Strong, Texas has several factors working in its advantage. The team gets two weeks between UCLA and Kansas, the last game before Baylor comes to town, meaning the staff will have a some extra time to scheme for Briles' offense.
Then there's the Baylor D, which was vastly underrated in 2013. This unit finished fourth in the Big 12 in both scoring and total defense, allowing just 4.8 yards per play to tie for the conference lead.
According to Phil Steele, the Bears return only four starters from that side of the ball, losing four guys from the front seven alone. That will allow the 'Horns to play keep-away with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray throughout the game, while the defense gets enough pressure to keep Bryce Petty somewhat in check.
This win, along with competitive losses to the Bruins and Sooners, will show enough progress to provide Strong with some much-needed equity with both the fanbase and recruits.
Cedric Reed Will Be the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year
With last year's winner, Jackson Jeffcoat, trying to hack it in the NFL, Reed stands alone as Texas' best defensive player and the most dominant end in the conference. Up to 273 pounds, the 6'6" Reed is ready to improve on a 2013 campaign in which he racked up 77 tackles, 10 sacks, four pass breakups and five forced fumbles.
Reed and Buffalo's Khalil Mack were the only players in the FBS to record numbers like that, and the bookend's expanded role suggests those numbers will go up, per HornSports' Jeff Howe.
Sometimes I'll be in a three technique (outside shoulder of the guard), I'll be in a 4i (inside shoulder of the tackle), sometimes I'll be a five (outside shoulder of the tackle) and sometimes I'll be an outside linebacker. This defense is very multiple.
Just as helpful as far as creating mismatches for Reed will be the interior of the line, anchored by rising junior Malcolm Brown. Any team loading up on Reed will leave themselves open to the wrath of the 320-pound tackle, who is a legitimate NFL prospect as a junior, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr.
All of Reed's numbers will go up in 2014, which should put him way ahead of the competition.
Led by Brown and Gray, Horns Will Lead Big 12 in Rushing
Baylor will be the heavy favorite to lead the conference in rushing again in 2014, but its defensive woes will force Bryce Petty to throw more than last season. While that's happening, Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown will carry Texas' offense on a weekly basis.
First off, Texas finished third in the conference last season with 196.2 yards per game. That's with Gray missing the last four games, Brown only carrying it 23 times through the first five contests and Case McCoy's 5.9 YPA running the offense.
All three of those mitigating factors will be in the rear-view this season. Gray and Brown have been co-starters from the moment the former was cleared to practice, while David Ash's arm talent will keep teams from loading up on these two.
Charlie Strong said #Texas RB coach Tommie Robinson said today, "Why can't all our players practice like Johnathan Gray?"
Also helping this cause is offensive line coach Joe Wickline, whose units have paved the way for a 1,000-yard rusher in six of the past eight seasons.
Not to say that either of these two will finally break the 1,000-yard mark, but don't rule it out. That's less than 80 yards per game over a bowl-eligible schedule, a pace Gray easily set and Brown crushed over his last eight games.
Jerrod Heard Will Be One of Several Starting Freshman
Jerrod Heard and several other of his classmates will start and hold their own during the 2014 season. In fact, Heard is further from the field than some of his 3-star counterparts.
However, those labels have done little to deter the coaches from taking a look at the new crop of talent. Physical safety Jason Hall has been taking first-team reps and looks like he will be starting sooner rather than later. Receiver Armanti Foreman has also made an early statement, and it'd be surprising to see Texas place anyone ahead of him in four-wide sets.
As for Heard, the true freshman lost the camp battle to back up David Ash according to Strong, who went with Tyrone Swoopes' experience. Heard still made the decision difficult, and Jeff Howe's observations after watching him and Swoopes practice says that Heard simply needs to catch up on the playbook.
[Swoopes'] movements are clunky, his footwork still needs a ton of work and his accuracy doesn't appear to be much better than it was from the spring.
Heard on the other hand is the opposite. He struggled some with his accuracy when throwing to targets but he was more consistent than Swoopes and seemed to settle in as practice moved along, and while the physical tools seem to be there you can tell from watching him that he's trying to keep his head above water this early in camp.
Unfortunately, it's only a matter of time until Ash, who has never played a full season, succumbs to injury. When that happens, Heard will join Hall, Foreman and the other freshmen who have seized some early opportunity.
Texas Will Not Have a 1,000-Yard Receiver
Once again, the Longhorns will go through a full season without a 1,000-yard receiver. So long as quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson is spreading the ball around, that shouldn't be a problem.
Until Jaxon Shipley's hamstring gets healthy, junior Marcus Johnson remains the only candidate to reach this mark in 2014. Johnson is fast, has reliable hands and displays impressive awareness when working the sideline.
Johnson is set for a huge year, but Watson wants to spread the ball around. Even with Teddy Bridgewater throwing for just under 4,000 yards in 2013, no Louisville Cardinal hit the 1,000-yard mark, though 10 players caught more than 10 balls.
Texas won't have quite that volume of pass-catchers, but there will be plenty of mouths to feed. There's the previously mentioned Armanti Foreman. Jacorey Warrick has played well, John Harris put in "an outstanding camp," per Howe, and walk-on Ty Templin has even drawn some first-team work.
Add in the increased work for the tight ends, and it's clear Texas doesn't want to ride one receiver in the run-first offense.