When ABC-TV's Bill Flemming told Texas coach Fred Akers that he had heard the Longhorns would be ranked as high as third in some preseason polls, Akers was incredulous. "We lose 28 players from a fifth-ranked team and they jump us to third?" said Akers. "Either some people think a whole lot of our coaching or very little of those players."
While Texas's losses are severe—three of the non-returners were All-Americas, eight started on defense, 18 were drafted by the pros and four were signed as free agents—Akers restates his old Texas-doesn't-rebuild-it-reloads theme when he says, "Rebuilding years here are different than rebuilding years at most schools. We tend not to slip too far."
Still, Akers will have to surmount more than personnel losses if the Horns are to match their achievements of '83, when they finished the regular season 11-0 before losing 10-9 to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl. Texas faces a brutal non-conference schedule—Book 'em Horns—doesn't have a quarterback and has five key players hoping to recover from injury in time to play. Akers has four quarterback candidates: seniors Todd Dodge, who can pass but can't run; Rob Moerschell, a so-so thrower who lacks the speed to be a threat on the run-pass option; and Danny Akers, the coach's son, who does most things well but none superbly; and redshirt freshman Bret Stafford, who can run, pass and scramble but lacks experience. Whoever wins the job—the smart money's on Dodge—will have two premium receivers in Brent Duhon (13 receptions, 344 yards, five touchdowns in '83) and Bill Boy Bryant (14,259, three).
The Longhorns also have a herd of first-rate fullbacks, led by Ronnie Robinson, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry in '83. Finding a tailback, however, could be difficult. Sophomore Edwin Simmons is potentially Texas's best impact runner since Earl Campbell. "He can run through, over, around or by people," says center Gene Chilton. But Simmons had surgery on both knees in the off-season. "He has a chance to play," says Akers, "but it will be a major rehab job." Backup tailback Anthony Byerly is also questionable after pulling a hamstring in spring drills.
Gene, Gene the Coke Machine (that's Coke as in soda pop) is the team's moniker for the 6'3", 280-pound Chilton, who's being switched from tackle to center, where he'll anchor an offensive line that lost four of five starters, not counting both tight ends. Chilton, who has bench-pressed 502½ pounds, a team record for offensive linemen, says he's adjusting well to the change in position: "A center always has a man right there in front of him, so I don't have to go hunting all over for someone to hit."
The D is led by senior All-America safety Jerry Gray, the Longhorns' leading tackier in 1983 with 121. Gray's roommate, 6'4", 280-pound tackle Tony Degrate, will key the defensive front. The punting and the field-goal kicking are in the good feet of junior John Teltschik (43.9-yard average last fall) and sophomore Jeff Ward (a perfect 31 PATs and 18 of 19 field-goal attempts).
Akers's expectation of his inexperienced squad: "We'll be a typical Texas team. We'll scramble, bite and second-effort you all over the field. We'll find a way to win, we just may not always look right doing it."
Texas fans are likely to go for the change in the Coke Machine, who switches from tackle to center.