Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: There's a new sheriff in town, and his name is Charlie Strong. The former Louisville head coach takes over the reins at Texas, where Mack Brown had ruled the roost since 1998.
The 2013 campaign, Brown's last at the school, resulted in an 8-5 record, with seven of those victories coming against Big 12 foes. The season started with a bang as the Longhorns thumped visiting New Mexico State, 56-7. From there however, the team stumbled in losses to BYU (40-21) and Ole Miss (44-23) before reeling off six straight wins in conference, the biggest of which being a 36-20 decision against Oklahoma in the annual Red River Rivalry game.
A 38-13 setback to Oklahoma State brought the club back down to Earth, and a 30-10 loss to Baylor (Big 12 champion) in the regular-season finale cost the team a shot at the conference crown and BCS bowl bid.
As it was, the 'Horns settled for an Alamo Bowl clash with Oregon, and the Ducks prevailed easily in that one, 30-7.
Strong has said all the right things since he was hired, and he is quick to point out that he fully intends to continue to legacy left by his predecessor.
"I followed an icon in Coach Brown -- 16 seasons at the University of Texas, did an unbelievable job, won a National Championship. The foundation has been laid. Now it's up to us to continue this foundation and continue to build on it."
OFFENSE: Running the football was the strength of the Texas offense last season, as the unit averaged just shy of 200 yards per game (196.2) on the ground. That aspect of the team's attack should be the least of Strong's concerns this year, as senior Malcolm Brown (904 yards, 9 touchdowns) and junior Johnathan Gray (803 yards, 4 touchdowns) are back to handle the bulk of the carries.
Quarterback and offensive line are the two areas that may take some time to develop, although junior David Ash is coming off a season in which he completed nearly 61 percent of his passes while throwing for 7 scores against only 2 interceptions. Other signal callers waiting for their chance include former USC Trojan Max Wittek, as well as promising youngsters Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard.
The loss of three starters up front hurts, but senior center Dominic Espinosa is a workhorse who has started every game since arriving in Austin, and he will make it his mission to mold the group into a cohesive unit sooner rather than later.
The UT receiving corps has had its share of problems recently, as junior Kendall Sanders and freshman Montrel Meander were dismissed from the team after both were charged with sexual assault earlier this summer. Strong also booted running backs Joe Bergeron, Jalen Overstreet and Chet Moss, as well as defensive backs Chevoski Collins and Leroy Scott. He has suspended running back/receiver Daje Johnson, offensive tackle Desmond Harrison and safety Josh Turner for at least the first game of the season, so clearly he isn't willing to put up with much with regard to off-the-field transgressions or violating team rules.
The one bright spot as it pertains to pass catchers still on the Texas roster, senior Jaxon Shipley is back after securing a team-high 56 receptions last year, although his 589 yards and single touchdown were far off the pace set by former wideout Mike Davis (727 yards, 8 TDs).
DEFENSE: The 'Horns were a middle-of-the-road defensive unit at best last season, permitting more than 25 points per game while yielding nearly as many yards (407.2) as they generated (408.7).
Back to help improve the numbers across the board are seven players with starting experience, the most notable being senior defensive end Cedric Reed (79 tackles, 10 sacks). Junior Malcolm Brown should be able to stand his ground at defensive tackle, while the linebackers fly all over the field making plays both against the run and in pass coverage. Seniors Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmonds, and junior Peter Jinkins could form one of the finest linebacking units in the Big 12, but staying healthy will be the key.
In the secondary, seniors Quandre Diggs and Mykkele Thompson will lead by example, and junior Duke Thomas is fresh off a year in which he picked off three passes. Pressure from the front seven will go a long way toward alleviating any issues the defensive backfield may have, at least until the unit as a whole settles into a rhythm.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Finding a replacement for former standout kicker Anthony Ferra (2013 Lou Groza Award finalist) won't be easy, but it appears as if junior Nick Rose may have what it takes after handling kickoffs the last couple of years. Another guy who could figure in the mix is sophomore Nick Jordan. As for the punting job, senior William Russ could be the guy after serving as Ferra's backup in 2013.
The return game needs a shot in the arm after averaging just 21.2 yards per kick return and 11.5 yards per punt return last year. Daje Johnson is one of the guys who could blossom there, once he is done serving his suspension.
OUTLOOK: The Longhorns kick off the campaign versus North Texas, followed by a rematch with BYU, both games taking place in Austin. A bout with UCLA in Arlington, Texas is next, and then comes the conference opener at Kansas.
Back-to-back bouts with Baylor and Oklahoma will tell Strong how his team stacks up against the best in the Big 12, and should they perform well, a second-half run that includes winnable games versus Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and TCU could have the 'Horns in a favorable position come season's end.
"You expect expectations at the University of Texas because you're looking at a premier program,' said Strong at the Big 12 media event last month. "But it's all about our players and just making sure we go compete. We as a coaching staff need to make sure the preparation is there."