Texas finished last season 11-2 (7-2 Big 12), including a 44-14 stomping of Carolina in Austin, and a 47-43 winner over Washington in the Holiday Bowl. Loaded with talent, Texas has eight players on a watch list for various postseason awards, and three players on the Walter Camp Player of the Year watch list. Many experts predict that the Longhorns will compete for the national championship.
"Texas has a tremendous amount of talent up and down the field," head coach John Bunting said Tuesday. "They have a great offense, special teams and can play defense."
The Texas offense is directed by Chris Simms (6-5, 225), who is on the watch lists for the Davey O'Brien, Walter Camp Player of the Year, and Unitas Award watch lists. At the end of last season, Simms was replaced by Major Applewhite in the Holiday Bowl after a three-interception fiasco against Colorado in the Big 12 title game.
Simms has no challenger comparable to Applewhite this season, and he and the Longhorns have high hopes for his senior campaign. Against North Texas, Simms completed 16-of-26 for 186 yards, and had one touchdown pass against no interceptions. Last season, Simms was 38th in the nation in passing efficiency, completing 214 of 362 attempts, had 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Bunting said of Simms, "He is a very talented player, just as his dad (Phil Simms) was. It appears that he is taking on a greater leadership role this year and that is very important for your team. He is establishing himself and we are going to have to put pressure on him or he will kill us."
Texas also has a running back gaining a national reputation in Cedric Benson, who is on the Doak Walker and Walter Camp Player of the Year watch lists. Benson broke onto the scene last year as a true freshman, and was named a first-team Freshman All-American by The Sporting News. He rushed for 1,053 yards in 2001. Last week, Benson struggled against North Texas, gaining only 49 yards on 18 carries.
The offensive line boasts two linemen, Robbie Doane (6-6, 315, left tackle) and Derrick Dockery (6-6, 345, right guard), who are on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, and Dockery is on the watch list for the Lombardi Trophy as well. Doane is a preseason All-Big 12 selection, while Dockery was selected as a preseason first-team All-American by Playboy and The Sporting News. The offensive line has another 300-pounder in junior Tillman Holloway (6-3, 315, left guard), while huge right tackle Jonathon Scott (6-7, 297) and sophomore center Jason Glynn (6-2, 275) round out the starting five. Surprisingly, North Texas sacked Chris Simms eight times last week and the Longhorns managed only 27 net rushing yards against The Mean Green.
Senior wide receiver Roy Williams (6-4, 210) is the third Longhorn on the Walter Camp Player of the Year watch list. Williams, hampered somewhat last season by ankle problems, still totaled 836 yards receiving, averaging 5.6 receptions a game and 12.5 yards per catch.
Michael Waddell will be matched up against Williams, as he was in last season's matchup.
"Michael was matched up against Roy Williams last year and did a good job," Bunting said. "Can he do a good job again this year? Time will only tell. He is still very talented and I hope that he really focuses in this week in practice and has his best game of the season, because we are going to need it."
B.J. Johnson, another serious threat at the wide receiver position, had 539 receiving yards last year.
The tight end position received a blow when Bo Scaife, who had 396 receiving yards and 30 catches a year ago, was lost for the season with an injury. Senior Chad Stevens (6-4, 265) starts instead. The fullback in the Texas offense is mostly an afterthought, and starter Mark Trissel had only five carries last season for 26 yards.
On balance, almost all of the key players from an offense that averaged 412 yards and a Big 12-leading 39 points returns this season. Texas scored 40 points or more in 9 of 12 contests last season, and there is no reason to suspect, despite the rather lackluster outing in their season opener against North Texas, that the Texas offense will be any less powerful and high-scoring in 2002.
As good as the Longhorn offense promises to be, the defense may be better. It begins with Cory Redding (6-5, 270), who is on the Lombardi and Nagurski Award watch lists, and is a consensus first-team pre-season All-American (Athlon Sports, Football News, Playboy, and Street & Smith's). Redding recorded five sacks, 14 tackles for loss, and 18 quarterback pressures last season, earning first-team All-Big 12 and second-team All-American recognition by the Associated Press. Redding intercepted a pass last year in Austin against the Tar Heels and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown.
Bunting said of Redding, "They have a defensive end, Cory Redding, which reminds me a lot of Julius Peppers. So you know he is a very talented football player. How we contend with him will be a key, because he has the ability to take over a game."
The nose tackle is returning starter Marcus Tubbs (6-4, 305), and he is flanked by senior Miguel McKay (6-1, 275). The other end is the youngster of the group, sophomore Austin Sendelin (6-3, 265).
The linebacker position also has a player in the national limelight in sophomore Derrick Johnson (6-4, 220), who is on the Butkus and Nagurski Award watch lists. Johnson, the weakside backer, was named as the Freshman Player of the Year by The Sporting News. The middle linebacker spot is held by junior Reed Boyd (6-3, 235), and the strongside backer is senior Lee Jackson (6-3, 223).
In the secondary, junior cornerback Nathan Vasher (5-11, 180) is on the watch list for the Thorpe award. Vasher recorded a Big 12-leading seven interceptions in 2001, and had 18 pass breakups. Vasher is also an excellent return man, as the Tar Heels found out last year in Austin, when Vasher returned a punt 44 yards for a touchdown. Vasher is joined at corner by returning starter Roderick Babers (5-10, 187).
The starting safeties are junior Dakaroi Pearson (5-10, 185) and red-shirt freshman Michael Huff (6-1,190).
There are few people who follow college football even casually that do not know that Mack Brown left North Carolina in 1997 to accept his current position at Texas. Brown, always known as an excellent recruiter, is seeking his first Big 12 championship.
The Longhorns often use multiple-receiver sets, on occasion using five receiver sets. The Tar Heel secondary will face the best wide receiver corps it will see this year in Williams and Johnson, and the Longhorns have other weapons at that position such as Sloan Thomas (6-2, 200) and Tony Jeffrey (6-2, 175).
"We are going to play a lot of defensive backs," Bunting said. "They will spread the formation and send five receivers out. So we are going to have to play a lot of cover guys. They will be under some real serious pressure to perform, along with our defensive line putting pressure on Simms."
The question is whether the Tar Heels can pressure Simms. The Texas offensive line is huge, talented, and has some experience. Their performance against North Texas has to be regarded as an anomaly, and they have had a bye-week to work on offensive line issues. The performance of a young and inexperienced Tar Heel defensive line against the Longhorn offensive line may be the key to the game. If Simms has adequate time to throw, he and the Texas receivers could have a big night.
The other question for the Tar Heel defense is whether they can slow down the running game of Texas, lead by Cedric Benson. If the Horns can consistently pick up good yardage on first down, it will be a long night for the North Carolina defense.
This will also be a huge test for the Tar Heel offense. They will not likely face another team with the speed of this Texas team, including Florida State. The key matchup here will be the play of the North Carolina tackles, especially the play of right tackle Willie McNeil against the All-American Redding. The Tar Heel tight ends, notably Zach Hilton, may have to lend a helping hand to keep Redding out of the backfield.
In 2001, Texas led the Big 12 in rushing defense, and was sixth in the nation in that category. North Carolina has had its problems getting the running game going and this Saturday night promises to be a difficult one for the UNC running backs.
The pressure will fall squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Darian Durant, as he will have to find a way to get the ball to the Tar Heel receivers in the teeth of a determined Texas pass rush.
Bunting summed it up this way, "We have a heck of a challenge ahead of us. Our fans are excited about this game. I know that our players are gearing up for the game. If we want to have any chance at winning we are going to have to prepare extremely well this week in practice."
(All photos by Allsport)