In the breathless language of college football recruiting, some analysts called the collection of players signed by Texas coach Mack Brown in February 2002 the greatest recruiting class in history. The gurus fell all over themselves trying to quantify the athletic potential preparing to descend upon Austin and ferry the Longhorns to the top of the mountain. It's all dust, of course; a recruiting class is ultimately measured not by its high school hardware but by its production in college.
The players nevertheless drank big mouthfuls of the hype. Nine of them, including All-Everything quarterback Vince Young of Houston's Madison High, were invited to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 5, 2002, in San Antonio. The Texas-laden West squad won that game 26--6, Young was named MVP, and future Longhorns weren't talking among themselves about winning just one national championship. "We believed we were going to win four of them," says Aaron Harris, a member of that class and now a senior middle linebacker. "We figured the sky's the limit."
The limit has in fact been considerably lower. In three years the recruits of 2002, some of whom redshirted as freshmen but many of whom played, have gone 32--6. Last year they went 11--1 and led Texas to its first BCS bowl, in which Young brought the Longhorns from behind to beat Michigan 38--37. They finished No. 5 in the nation. On the flip side, that group hasn't beaten Oklahoma, hasn't won--or played for--the Big 12 title and hasn't won a national title. Of all the power programs in the nation, none is more vigorously maligned for underachieving than Texas.
Says senior defensive tackle Rod Wright, one of the '02 freshmen, "When we got here as a group, we talked about winning the Big 12 and winning the national championship. With all the hype we had coming in here, nothing less will be acceptable at this point."
Young's creativity and athleticism should carry an offense that also brings back four starting linemen (plus the tight end) but must replace tailback Cedric Benson, the No. 4 pick in the NFL draft, and groom young receivers. The most seasoned wideout on the roster is 6'5", 215-pound Limas Sweed, who caught 23 passes a year ago. No other wide receiver caught more than seven.
The major defensive loss is more significant. Co-coordinator Greg Robinson, who returned to the college game in 2004 to awaken the Texas defense after 15 years in the NFL, left to coach Syracuse. Under Robinson, Texas improved its rushing defense in one year from 152.5 yards a game to 107.4 and its scoring defense from 21.5 points per game to 17.9. "Coach Robinson brought a whole different style to the defense," says Wright. "He has all this energy, and he emphasized 11 guys running to the football." Duane Akina, the other co-coordinator, returns to that position. Robinson has been replaced by Gene Chizik, defensive coordinator at Auburn for the last three seasons and last year the winner of the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant. "Coach Chizik is aggressive, likes to get after the offense, but the terminology is different," says Harris. "We're adjusting to some things." Texas is also replacing linebacker Derrick Johnson, the team's leading tackler a year ago and a consensus All-America, who went 15th in the draft. However, nine starters do return, including the entire defensive line.
The Longhorns have also prepared with unusual resolve. As early as mid-June more than 70 players turned out for midweek evening workouts. Unlike summer sessions at most schools (and in previous years at Texas), linemen also attended, expanding the usual seven-on-seven drills to a full 11-on-11. "The linemen get a chance to get down in their stance and move their feet," says senior tackle Larry Dibbles. "Plus, there's a tremendous amount of camaraderie out here."
The Longhorns get tested earlier than usual, at Ohio State on Sept. 10, in the country's biggest early-season game. Four weeks later they face Oklahoma in Dallas. As in the past Texas will know before Columbus Day if a Big 12 title run--and more--is realistic. For the recruiting class of '02, the difference is that it will be the last chance for all of them to make that run together. --Tim Layden
2004 RECORD 11--1 (7--1, 2nd in Big 12 South)
FINAL AP RANK 5 RETURNING STARTERS 17
KEY RETURNEES (2004 stats)
QB Vince Young (Jr.) 17--2 as a starter, 59.0% completion rate
DT Rod Wright (Sr.) Most ferocious Longhorns run stuffer
RB Selvin Young (Jr.) New starter has returned three kicks for scores
LB Aaron Harris (Sr.) 118 tackles, including 10 for losses
Rushing yards in '04 by Texas, the only team to top 3,500. The Longhorns were second in yards per game (299.2) and per carry (5.8).
After Vince Young, the Texas player most capable of scoring from anywhere on the field is sophomore running back--wide receiver Ramonce Taylor. A rushing-receiving-return threat in the mold of USC's Reggie Bush, the 5'11", 195-pound Taylor last year averaged 13.0 yards on 47 touches. (Bush averaged 10.1 on 231 touches.)
Sept. 3 LA.-LAFAYETTE
10 at Ohio State
Oct. 1 at Missouri
8 vs. Oklahoma* 15 COLORADO 22 TEXAS TECH 29 at Oklahoma State
Nov. 5 at Baylor
12 KANSAS 25 at Texas A&M
* at Dallas
DOUGLAS JONES/ICON SMI
FATE IN THEIR HANDS
After years of near-misses, seniors Harris (2) and Cedric Griffin (8) want to go out on top.
CALEB SIMPSON/ICON SMI