With National Signing Day in the rear view mirror, the Texas Longhorns can now get ready for the 2010 football season. With 19 seniors graduating, Earl Thomas leaving early for the NFL Draft, and Dan Buckner transferring to Arizona, the Longhorns will have a total of 21 players leaving Austin. With many new starters in 2010, it is time for the Longhorns of the future to become the Longhorns of the present.
The night before the National Championship game, quarterback Garrett Gilbert could only hope to put the 'Horns in the same position when his time came as Colt McCoy had done. Gilbert figured to watch McCoy the same way McCoy watched Vince Young in 2005. However, just minutes into the game, it was Gilbert's time to shine.
In the beginning, Gilbert looked like a true freshman quarterback against the veteran, number one defense in the country. However, as the game progressed, the Longhorns knew they had a special player in Gilbert. The true freshman connected with Jordan Shipley two times in the second half to bring the Longhorns back to within three points.
Gilbert may not have won the game, but the experience he had in the biggest game he could have possibly played in will never be forgotten. Think in October, when Gilbert will be starting his first game against Oklahoma and millions watching. Instead of the young quarterback going through his first big game, he will always have the biggest game on the biggest stage to look back to.
The Alabama defense was the top defense last year and one of the best defenses in the last five years. Gilbert has probably seen the fastest and most physical defense he will see already as a quarterback for Texas. The game will only get slower and with more playing time and more experience, he could bring the Longhorns right back to the National stage.
Along with Gilbert, the Longhorns will return all five running backs who played in the National Championship. Of the group, Freshman Tre' Newton stood out late in the season, which garnered the youngster starting honors in the championship game. Newton came on late, averaging over 5.5 yards per carry in four of his last six games, with the two games he didn't run well against top ten defenses Nebraska and Alabama.
The Longhorns also bring back a big piece to their running game in short-yardage and goal-line 'back Cody Johnson. The sophomore ran only 87 times in 2009, but included 12 touchdowns in those runs. In two years, Johnson has already hit the end zone 24 times and is proven to be one of the best short-yardage 'backs in the country.
Former starter Vondrell McGee played in only two of the last six games after a shoulder injury ended his season early. McGee ended the season with only 300 yards on the ground, but proved he could be effective in his senior season.
One player to keep an eye on is redshirt freshman Chris Whaley. Whaley was a top ten rated RB prospect coming out of high school and at 6'3" and 225 pounds, is a big, bruising back with speed as well. Whaley redshirted because the Texas coaching staff knew there was a log jam at running back, as well as, could gain valuable knowledge to hit the field quickly in 2010.
Cody Johnson is the one sure bet to stay in the same role. Johnson will receive all the goal line carries and so he should. However, the running back by committee worked well some games, but also proved to hurt the 'Horns in other games. Trying to take the pressure off Gilbert his first year starting, it will be important for Texas to find a number one running back and run the ball much more effectively.
The Longhorns lost one of the best wide receivers in the country following the national championship game in Jordan Shipley. Shipley will be missed far more than any other receiver who put up similar numbers because of his ability to take pressure of the quarterback, go over the middle and make a tough catch, and spread the field with his speed. The 'Horns also lost Dan Buckner, a wide receiver converted H-back, as he transferred to Arizona. However, all is not lost.
The 'Horns bring back three receivers who played a key role in the 2009 season. Malcolm Williams leads the trio after a solid season with 550 yards receiving. Williams, mostly known for a big drop in the national championship game, is a big receiver at 6'3" and will provide the young Gilbert a big target for 2010.
James Kirkendoll also played well for the Longhorns in 2009 adding six touchdowns in twelve games. Kirkendoll has big play ability including three touchdowns of over 40 yards. With Williams becoming more of a possession receiver, look for Kirkendoll to become Gilbert's deep threat play in 2010.
One player that cannot be overlooked is the 5'9" speedster Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin was a big contributor to Gilbert's late success in the national championship with over 70 yards receiving. Goodwin is the fastest receiver the 'Horns have and may be one of the fastest receivers in the country. For Goodwin to become more of a go to guy, he will need to get off tight coverage better and become a better route runner. However, with a season full of experience and speed that thrills, Goodwin could become much more productive in his second year.
If the trio of receivers wasn't enough to bring back for Coach Mack Brown, he brought in a plethora of receivers in recruiting. The class is led by Mike Davis, a quick, sure-handed receiver that has the makings of becoming a number one receiver quickly. Davis is joined by fellow Under Armour All-American Darius White. White is a big time playmaker who possesses good hands, size, and explosiveness that will make him a big time player as well.
With so many quality receivers, look for the Longhorns to spread the ball around to plenty of playmakers at the wide receiver position. Gilbert is young and could connect immediately with one of the younger receivers and look for both Davis and White to play a key role in the 2010 season.
The defense was key to the Big 12 champions in 2009. The Longhorns lost one of the best pass rushing ends in the country in Sergio Kindle. Kindle projects to be a first round draft pick in the NFL and will be missed by Will Muschamp and the Longhorn defense.
Earl Thomas, who left after his redshirt sophomore year, will also be greatly missed. He was a ball hawking safety that provided corners a chance to gamble at interceptions knowing Thomas would be there to help. Thomas also projects to be a first round NFL draft pick and is a great playmaker that will be missed.
At linebacker, the 'Horns lose their leading tackler Roddrick Muckelroy. Muckelroy was a sure tackler who helped guide the 'Horns to the number one rush defense in 2009.
However, with key players leaving Austin in 2010, current Longhorn players are ready to fill the void. The defensive line lost two key players in Kindle and defensive tackle Lamaar Houston. However, with the emergence of Sam Acho late in the season, it makes Will Muschamp sleep a little easier knowing he has a pass rusher with a non-stop motor back in 2010.
Eddie Jones will pair with Acho to form one of the best pass rushing ends in the country. The 6'3" senior played a key role in 2009 and will look to play more of an impact role as a starter in 2010. It also doesn't hurt knowing the number two overall recruit in Jackson Jeffcoat will also be on campus in the fall and ready to compete for immediate playing time.
Sam Acho is not the only Acho that will help the 'Horns in 2010. His brother, Emmanuel Acho, played great down the stretch and will start next season ready to make a big impact. Along with Acho, Keenan Robinson will see an expanded role in 2010. Robinson, who started for the Longhorns in '09, will need to become an anchor to defense as he will be entering his junior season.
As if two starters weren't enough, the 'Horns hooked five star recruit Jordan Hicks from Ohio, who could play an immediate role. Hicks is a top talent with speed, size, and tremendous tackling ability. He is one of the best blitzing linebackers Texas has brought in over the past decade and could hit the field in the fall ready to make an impact right away.
The secondary is the strength of the 2010 Longhorns. With three of four starters coming back and even more depth coming back as well, the secondary will be a key to success for next season. The Brown brothers, Chykie and Curtis, will be the starting corners and fellow corner Aaron Williams will play a key role for the defense. Williams played great late in the season and be play an expanded role in '10.
Blake Kideon is back for his junior season and will hold the secondary together. He will need to play more in coverage with the absence of Earl Thomas, but has started since his freshman year and looks up to the challenge.
Overall, the 'Horns will be ready to make another run at the Big 12 title and maybe even surprise a few with a national championship run yet again. Their schedule is set up well for success. The 'Horns open up against Rice, which will be played at Reliant Stadium. The 'Horns, even in a transition year, should be able to handle Rice. The following week Texas plays their first home game hosting Wyoming. The Cowboys will be a good game for the young 'Horns to get build off of and move onto conference play.
The third game of the season, Texas travels to Texas Tech, which has not been an easy game for Texas recently. However, with Mike Leach's firing and players looking for answers to which offense new coach Tommy Tuberville will implement, the 'Horns should be able to weather the storm and win their first conference game.
To finish September, Texas hosts a Pac-10 contender in UCLA. The Bruins will be better in 2010, but were too inconsistent to say they will be better than Texas to beat them in Austin. This will be a good game, but Texas, at home, should take care of business.
October 2nd is a key date to the 2010 season. The Cotton Bowl will host the annual Red River Rivalry game between Texas and Oklahoma. After a dismal season for Oklahoma, they played good in the Brut Sun Bowl to defeat a good Stanford team.
However, as Texas loses some key players, OU will as well. The Sooners will need to replace key players Gerald McCoy, a top five NFL draft pick, as well as tight end Jermaine Gresham, running back Chris Brown, cornerback Dominique Franks and offensive lineman Trent Williams. Oklahoma will also need to replace 20 seniors from 2009, so by no stretch of the matter will they be more set than Texas.
However, Landry Jones, freshman quarterback from 2009, played well in his time replacing Sam Bradford. Jones will without a doubt be the starting quarterback in 2010 and coming off a 3,000-yard, 26-touchdown season, he will only get better.
This, as always, will be a great game. The 'Horns have a veteran secondary, which will be important against a young quarterback. Both teams will have to replace many key players and it could be a game that matches two of the best sophomore quarterbacks in the country.
The Longhorns will take a much needed bye week before traveling to Nebraska. Nebraska will have a stout defense as usual, but are losing their top defensive player and likely top draft pick. This could be a struggle for a young quarterback especially after the Oklahoma game. However, Coach Brown made a decision scheduling a bye week between games.
Following two tough conference games, the 'Horns will play back-to-back conference games in Austin hosting Iowa State and Baylor. Iowa State should be a game Texas wins and it could be a good game for Texas coming off two tough road games. Baylor, on the other hand, is coming off a one-win season in the Big 12, but could turn that around immediately since losing their starting quarterback had a major impact on their 2009 season. Robert Griffin, the injured quarterback, is one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12 and could turn Baylor into a surprise team in 2010.
Texas will then travel to Kansas State for their last road game of the season. Kansas State finished the 2009 season at 6-6. However, they will bring back one of the top running backs in the country in Daniel Thomas (1,265 yards, 11 touchdowns). Texas will then finish the season with three straight home games against Oklahoma State, Florida Atlantic, and Texas A&M. Having three home games to end the season is very helpful to a young team. It could be important if Texas is tied or within a game for the Big 12 South title being able to play at home.
The schedule for Texas is headlined by the Oklahoma game and road games at Texas Tech and Nebraska. If the 'Horns could take their home games and at least two of these three games, look for them to be in the hunt for a BCS game if not the National Championship yet again. With the schedule they have, the coaching staff, and freshman who can make an immediate impact, Texas could find themselves in the hunt to surprise a few and make another run for the National Championship.
Danny Villanti is a Featured Columnists for Texas Longhorns athletics. He has contributed to Bleacher Report for one year and researched Texas athletics along with the Baltimore Orioles and the NFL. For any questions or comments, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .