When the Texas Longhorns walked off the field after the National Championship game, questions started swirling right away about how the 'Horns would deal with the losses of such stars as Colt McCoy, Jordan Shipley, and Sergio Kindle. To make matters worse, Coach Mack Brown found out that top safety Earl Thomas would be leaving early for the NFL Draft.
However, as always, Texas still finds themselves as Big 12 contenders and even National Championship contenders.
The depth Texas has year in and year out is second to none. The 2010 season will show exactly how deep the Longhorns really are. Texas will need to replace a two-time Heisman runner-up at quarterback, an All-American wide receiver, and four starters on the line.
And that's just on offense.
The defense will need to replace four All-Conference players in Earl Thomas, Sergio Kindle, Lamaar Houston, and Roddrick Muckelroy. All four of those players should have a new team come May, which could include two first round picks in Thomas and Kindle.
If losing eight All-Conference players overall wasn't enough, the Longhorns will also need to replace Big 12 Championship hero and kicker Hunter Lawrence.
After key losses on both offense and defense, there are many players who will need to step up and keep the Longhorns at the top of the Big 12. Here are the 10 key players that will mold the 2010 Longhorns.
Jackson Jeffcoat makes the list of players that will need to have an impact in 2010 mainly because it will be important for him to gain valuable experience in his true freshman year. It will be great for the future if Jeffcoat can earn a spot in the rotation on the defensive line and rush the passer as well as he did in high school.
Jeffcoat was a huge prospect for the Longhorns to gain and received a lot of hype before and after making his selection. A lot of people felt Jeffcoat signed because of the recent success of such defensive ends Brian Orakpo and Sergio Kindle.
Both of them were big time prospects but were late bloomers. It seemed both players had the physical tools, but it took them awhile to put everything together on the field.
If Jeffcoat turns into either of those players, then he would be doing just fine. However, if Will Muschamp can turn him into the pass rusher off the edge sooner than later, Longhorn fans could get excited in 2010.
Cody Johnson is a very valuable part of the 2010 team because he gets in the end zone and is great in short yardage situations. Johnson is extremely important on a team with a young quarterback because he can come in on third-and-one and goal line situations and prolong or finish drives.
Johnson is coming off back-to-back 12 touchdown seasons. With a smaller running back in Tre' Newton probably getting the bulk of the carries, Johnson will be even more important to the Longhorns.
Even if not for anything else, Johnson provides toughness in the backfield that no other back can show. He has the ability to run over smaller defenders and move the pile in the middle of the field. Another 12 touchdown season is a high possibility especially with a young signal caller.
Look for Johnson to be a big part of the 'Horns in 2010.
Keenan Robinson is going to be a very important player in the 2010 season because he is the only starting linebacker from last season returning. Robinson will return to the starting front seven again and will need to help young players, such as Jordan Hicks, grow both in the pre-season and regular season.
Robinson is trying to build off a great season that ended with over 90 tackles and two sacks. Robinson was an impact player in the Big 12 championship when he had 10 tackles, including one for loss. He is coming off a Big 12 Honorable Mention season and is poised for a breakout season.
With Roddrick Muckelroy out of the middle, Robinson will need to be a sure tackler, as he as showed in the past, and should lead the Longhorns in tackles. It would not be a stretch to see Robinson as part of the All-Conference team and possibly as one of the nation's top linebackers in 2010.
James Kirkendoll will be a key part to the 2010 Longhorns because of his senior leadership. The 5'11" senior will need to help young quarterback Garrett Gilbert with maturity. Kirkendoll is a sure-handed receiver that runs good routes and is good at creating separation from defenders to gain yards after the catch.
Kirkendoll had decent numbers as a sophomore in 2008 and then more than doubled them across the board in 2009. Kirkendoll was second on the team with six receiving touchdowns and seemed to have a knack to find the end zone.
Without Jordan Shipley and Dan Buckner in the mix in 2010, Garrett Gilbert will need to have a big play receiver come up big a few times a game. With the ability to run after the catch and find the end zone, look for Kirkendoll to enjoy a solid senior season.
Tre' Newton was named the starting running back for the national championship game, which provided a little separation for both the title game and the 2010 season. Newton is a smaller back with speed and shiftiness that makes him a tough back to tackle.
Newton will play a major role in the 2010 season as the running game will be a big focus of off-season workouts. Texas coach Mack Brown knows that Garrett Gilbert will need a running game to help him in his first season as the Texas starter.
When Colt McCoy entered his first season at the helm, he was able to rely on running backs Selvin Young and Jamaal Charles to help take the pressure off him. As Newton may not be as experienced as Young was or as polished as Charles was, he does run great from the spread offense and is fast enough to get the edge on outside defenders.
If Texas is going to be as successful as they have been on offense in recent years, they are going to need to become a little more balanced and Newton will need to be the man to step up.
Having an experienced wide receiver was very important for Garrett Gilbert in the title game. Jordan Shipley proved his worth whenever Gilbert needed a big play as he went right to his big play receiver.
Now, without Shipley, he will need Malcolm Wiliams to become his big play receiver. Williams had over 500 yards and two scores in an '09 season that let the receiver take the back seat to Shipley before turning into that No. 1 guy.
Now, Williams will need to become the top target for Gilbert. Williams is a big target for the young signal caller at 6'3" and 220 pounds. Gilbert found Williams down the sideline in the end zone in the title game, but Williams couldn't come down with the ball and dropped it.
However, it did prove that Gilbert could get the ball down to a big play receiver and if Williams can become sure handed, look for this connection to become much greater in 2010.
David Snow will be a critical part in the growth of quarterback Garrett Gilbert. One of the most important pieces to a young quarterback is having a line in front of him that he can trust. Snow is going to be the lone returning lineman for the 'Horns and will anchor a young offensive line.
The 'Horns proved to be a great line in 2009 until hitting a rough patch at the end of the season in the Big 12 Championship game. However, the line did a great job bouncing back against Alabama, and if there is any hope for this team, it will start in the trenches led by David Snow.
A quarterback and his center have a very important relationship, and for the next couple of seasons, it will be very important for the maturity of Gilbert to have a trustworthy center blocking in the middle. If Snow can be able to anchor the line, get the snap counts down, and make quick reads, look for Gilbert to enjoy success sooner than later.
Sam Acho is a tremendous talent, who was vastly underrated last season. Acho played great all year long for the Longhorns, and it looks like he will continue to be the force off the end the Longhorns have had over the last couple years in Brian Orakpo and Sergio Kindle. Acho played great down the stretch and was a standout defender in the national title game with six tackles and one sack.
As a junior, Acho was very overlooked for postseason awards. Looking at his season in '09 compared to Brian Orakpo's season in 2008, you would think both players won the Butkus Award for top defensive player of the year.
Instead, Acho earned Big 12 Honorable Mention for his 44 tackles and 10 sacks. The year prior, Orakpo won every defensive player of the year award for his 40 tackles and 11 sacks. Now that Acho has become a big name player, look for him to be rewarded come December.
On Jan. 7, Blake Gideon was getting ready for the 2010 season coming off another very solid season.
On Jan. 8, Gideon may have become the key to the Longhorn defense for 2010 when All-American safety Earl Thomas announced that he would be leaving Texas early for the NFL Draft.
Gideon is going to be as important as anyone on the Longhorn roster in 2010 because he will now have to roam the middle of the field and be the safety valve that they will miss without Thomas.
Thomas was a great ball-hawking safety as he ended the season with eight interceptions, second best in the entire country. Gideon proved that he could make a major impact in the secondary as well as he was an honorable mention selection for the Big 12 conference.
Gideon, going into his third season, has started every game as a member of the Longhorns. His impact this year will without a doubt be the key to the Texas defense and possibly the Texas season.
If he can stand in as the safety valve in the secondary and play a centerfield similar to the way Earl Thomas played, Gideon could find himself as a first round talent next April.
He will need to become a little better in coverage and a sure tackler, but with his abilities he showed the last two years, look for Gideon to become the next first team All-Big 12 safety.
Garrett Gilbert will have the most impact in 2010 mainly because he will have the run of the offense and the ball in his hand more than anyone else.
Gilbert showed the strides coaches hope to see in a couple of games in one game. He went from a freshman quarterback who showed little poise to a calm and collected freshman who was about to lead his team to a national championship.
Gilbert proved in high school that he has a big time arm and could make all the throws. However, in the national championship, he did something that he may never have to do again: He faced the best defense in the country on the biggest stage.
Alabama was led by a great defense with potentially three first round picks. Gilbert did have some moments where he looked like it was his first major playing time, which there was nothing wrong with. However, he did show flashes of true stardom, bringing the 'Horns within three points.
Gilbert also demonstrated great arm strength and accuracy as he hit Jordan Shipley twice for touchdowns and made a beautiful pass to Malcolm Williams in the end zone, which went through his hands. He showed good pocket presence moving in the pocket well and seemed to have a good feel for the most part against a very stout defense.
This season won't be fully on the shoulders of Gilbert as coach Mack Brown will try to run the ball and make the offense more balanced.
However, the quicker Gilbert can show he can throw the ball 35-40 times a game and make good decisions, the better Texas will be. If Gilbert can build off his national title experience and learn the things that held him back a little in that game, the sky is the limit for him and the Longhorns.
Danny Villanti is a Featured Columnists for Texas Longhorns football. He has contributed to Bleacher Report for one year and researched Texas athletics for the 9 years. For any questions or comments, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.