Seth C: Is it easier to ask who isn't healthy or who is healthy for the Longhorns? Texas has really been bit by the injury bug, give us a brief summary of who is out for the game.
Wescott Eberts: Yeah, the Longhorns have been quite unlucky this season, with a number of players going down with significant injuries. It started early in the season with David Ash's concussion in the second game and he hasn't played or practice since September 21st against Kansas State as a result. The team's best linebacker, Jordan Hicks, suffered a torn Achilles in the third game against Ole Miss, a game that starting right tackle Josh Cochran left with a shoulder injury. He hasn't played since then. Cornerback Sheroid Evans went down with an ACL tear against Iowa State. Then there was the West Virginia game, when defensive tackle Chris Whaley suffered a season-ending knee injury and running back Johnathan Gray also tore his Achilles on a non-contact play.
Head coach Mack Brown was hopeful that Texas would have more luck on that front this season and it just hasn't happened -- that's five starters out and a cornerback in Evans who was expected to have a break-out season in the rotation with Duke Thomas at the boundary corner position.
Seth C: Why do you think that Mack Brown hasn't pulled the trigger on maybe a younger quarterback over Case McCoy? Obviously, continuing to win, up until last week, certainly helps. Do you think that McCoy is the best option?
Wescott Eberts: Well, the main reason there is that the Longhorns just haven't been able to develop a third quarterback. Connor Brewer was a member of the 2012 class and an Under Armour All-American whose career forecast wasn't exactly aided by the departure of former co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who had recruited Brewer at Boise State.
Brewer opted to transfer to Arizona before the season, robbing the Horns of the only quarterback behind McCoy who might have been ready to play because Tyrone Swoopes certainly wasn't a guy who was ready coming out of a 2A program at Whitewright, having barely played 7-on-7 during the summer, and having played basketball and ran track in the offseason. Then there's Jalen Overstreet, who was moved to running back in fall camp. He's known as a raw passer, but fans have seen so little of him that it's hard to get much of a read on that conventional wisdom.
And based on how much Brown seems to love McCoy, jerking around Ash in 2011 and 2012 even when it appeared that he was the future, it's hard to imagine that Brewer would even get much of a shot. It's not really that McCoy is the best option at this point -- it's just that he's only feasible option, as Swoopes really needed a redshirt season that has now been burned for little to no reason.
Seth C: After an awful start to the season, it appears that the Longhorns have turned around the defense a bit and are defensively a more sound team. What's the biggest reason for the improvement? Coaching or players playing better?
Wescott Eberts: 3. Both factors have played a role in Texas' defensive improvement. The players deserve credit for holding a meeting after the Ole Miss game and deciding that they were going to police each other better and accept coaching and advice from each other to get better. The defensive line has been phenomenal, the linebackers have shown modest improvement, and safety Adrian Phillips has bounced back from a massively disappointing junior season.
And new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has put the defense in positions to succeed, allowing the defensive line to play straight ahead instead of twisting and looping on run downs or having the defensive ends scream upfield from two-point stances, which is allowing them to influence more passing lanes and have a greater impact stopping the run.
The linebackers and defensive backs aren't being asked to know an incredible number of fire zone blitzes, with Robinson instead focused on technique and fundamentals, two areas in which former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz failed to spur improvement. The Horns have been burned on some third-down Cover 0 blitzes the last couple weeks, but for the most part Robinson had been effective with his blitzing, which he is mostly reserving for those third-and-long situations.
Seth C: I can't imagine the offensive game plan for UT being anything other than to run the ball (see OU, OSU, KSU and BU), even with the injury to Gray. Do you think this is going to be what Texas tries to do on Thursday and do you think UT will try anything different?
Wescott Eberts: At this point, there aren't really any other options for Texas. Part of the incredible and stubborn emphasis on the run game is because McCoy is so limited in the parts of the field that he can hit. Throw in his burgeoning interception rate with nine on the season now, all since the Oklahoma game, and the Horns need to run the ball to reduce risk. The problem is that Texas only has six runs of 30 or more yards this season and only one of them, an effort from Malcolm Brown that he busted open on a 4th and 1 late against Kansas, came from a healthy player (three for Gray, one for Ash, one for Jalen Overstreet).
Seth C: I asked this of BOTC, but I wanted to ask you this question as well. What's your opinion of Kliff Kingsbury? I'm leaving this intentionally open-ended.
Wescott Eberts: Yeah, I'm definitely a fan of Kingsbury. It's hard to dislike anyone that good looking unless they decide to act like Adam Devine. But seriously, what I see from Kingsbury is a guy who works incredibly hard, but also understands how to instill confidence in his team. When I talk about coaches that can enable their teams, I always think of mid-major basketball teams that make deep runs in the tournament, like FGCU last year -- their coaches make the teams more than the sum of their parts because the teams have absolute confidence in themselves, and that allows them to get more out of themselves than they reasonably should.
I'm not sure if Kingsbury is quite at that point with Texas Tech, but after the Tommy Tuberville debacle, there's no question that the Red Raiders are headed in the right direction and have a head coach in place who could be there for decades and achieve a level of success that the beloved Mike Leach couldn't quite reach on a consistent basis because of his limitations as a coach, especially as a recruiter.
Seth C: I suppose you could answer this question with either what you think will happen or what you hope will happen (or both). Who will be the head coach at Texas in 2014?
Wescott Eberts: Point blank -- someone other than Mack Brown. People also ask me for a list of candidates and the names that get thrown around are Nick Saban, Art Briles, Will Muschamp, Charlie Strong, and David Shaw, for the most part. Would Saban come to Texas? The rumor just wont' die and there seems to be something behind that, but expecting it to happen is a place that I don't want to go. And I think Briles might be even less likely to leave Waco, Muschamp's star has fallen with Florida's struggles, and Shaw is a Stanford alum, which leaves Strong, who is an appealing candidate.
So handicapping the coaching search at this point seems like a lost cause for the most part, but when it happens, and there's virtually no chance that it won't at this point, it's shaping up to be quite a ride.