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February 26, 2010
Texas was a weakened shoulder away from possibly winning last season's national championship, and their quest to remain in the national championship picture now falls heavily on Garrett Gilbert's shoulders.
Gilbert, a sophomore, replaces Colt McCoy, the winningest starting quarterback in FBS football history. McCoy was knocked out of last season's BCS national championship game early because of a shoulder injury that rendered his passing arm numb.
Although he threw four interceptions and lost a key fumble in the loss to Alabama, Gilbert also threw two touchdown passes and played well enough to show quarterback still can be a strong point for Texas even without McCoy.
Preparing Gilbert to take over the offense will be the Longhorns' primary focus this spring. But they also need to work hard on bolstering the running game and filling holes at defensive tackle.
Positions of strength
Even though All-America S Earl Thomas opted for early entry into the NFL, the Longhorns remain loaded in the secondary with four returning starters. Junior S Blake Gideon will enter his third year as a starter, and Chykie Brown, Curtis Brown and Aaron Williams each started more than six games at cornerback or as the nickelback. The linebackers project to be solid, too, with Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho having starting experience.
Help is needed
The Longhorns have quantity at running back, but there is a need for someone to emerge as a feature back. The running game that ranked just 61st in the nation last season must be bolstered, especially with QB Colt McCoy heading to the NFL. Tre' Newton, who led the Longhorns with 552 rushing yards, tops a list of veterans that also includes Cody Johnson, Vondrell McGee and Fozzy Whittaker. Redshirt freshman Chris Whaley also may challenge for playing time. Tight end is another problem area, with no legitimate receiving threat there. Converted WR D.J. Grant is coming back from injury and could make an impact.
Three guys to watch
QB Garrett Gilbert: Although he faces the unenviable task of succeeding McCoy, Gilbert showed some promise by throwing two touchdown passes when pressed into duty in the national championship game. He needs to make progress this spring and show he's capable of maintaining the high level of quarterback play Texas has come to expect.
DT Calvin Howell: A four-star prospect in 2009, Howell made four tackles in four games before missing the rest of his freshman season with a leg injury. He has good size and quickness. He also has a great opportunity to get into the lineup in place of departed starters Lamarr Houston and Ben Alexander.
S Christian Scott: He showed potential as a redshirt freshman in 2008, but was academically ineligible for the '09 regular season before becoming eligible for the national title game. He needs a strong spring to show he can be an adequate replacement for Thomas.
The pressure is on
DE Eddie Jones: The pressure obviously is on Gilbert as he tries to replace McCoy. Then again, quarterbacks always are under pressure. The guy who really needs to pick up his game Jones, a fifth-year senior who arrived as a highly touted recruit but hasn't lived up to his billing. He has to show he can consistently produce or risk falling behind sophomore Alex Okafor. The impending arrival of star recruit Jackson Jeffcoat in the summer puts more pressure on Jones to produce this spring.
The Longhorns have been on a quarterback roll over the past 15 years: James Brown to Major Applewhite to Chris Simms to Vince Young to Colt McCoy. All eyes will be on Gilbert this spring for signs that he can maintain that level of play and keep the Longhorns in the national championship picture. The eyes of Texas also will be on a committee of underachieving running backs and on the offensive line. The running game, which in recent seasons has been mediocre at best, must improve.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.