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Junior tailback Ricky Williams filled the halls with laughter upon hearing the news. Williams was standing in the offices of the Piedmont Boll Weevils, the Philadelphia Phillies' Class A outpost in Kannapolis, N.C., where he was spending the summer playing the outfield. He had just heard that Longhorns coach John Mackovic plans to get him 20 to 25 carries per game this season, compared with the 17 he averaged as a fullback in 1996. "Wow, that surprises me," Williams said. "All right!"
Such positive responses to Mackovic's decisions are becoming more frequent these days at Texas, which is finally accepting its innovative, Ohio-born coach. Hired in December 1991 as a temporary fix for a team that had gone 24-21 in its previous four seasons, Mackovic was typecast as the wise outsider who could get the Longhorns back on track but not necessarily return them to college football's elite. Three straight league crowns (two in the defunct Southwest Conference and one in the Big 12) and consistently strong recruiting classes are changing that perception.
Texas's multifaceted offense exploded for a school-record 5,525 total yards in 1996, led by Williams, record-setting quarterback James Brown (page 86) and a pair of seniors, All-Big 12 wide receiver Mike Adams and All-America tight end Pat Fitzgerald. Williams's 1,272 rushing yards were the third-best performance ever by a Longhorns back. Almost 900 of those yards came after contact, which is the reason they call him Little Earl, as in 1977 Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell. The Longhorns were the only team in Division I-A listed among the top 25 in total offense (460.4 yards per game), rushing (209.9), passing (250.5) and scoring (36.0 points per game).
Despite Williams & Co.'s impressive statistics, Texas stumbled to 3-4, blowing fourth-quarter leads against Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Colorado. In a 10-game stretch, 10 players gained at least 100 yards rushing against the Longhorns, who finished the year ranked No. 86 in rushing defense.
To slow down the Big 12's physical offenses, Mackovic is switching the defense from a 3-4 alignment to a more aggressive 4-3. Anchoring this year's unit are 300-pound tackle Chris Akins, a Herculean senior who holds all of Texas's major strength records, and sophomore Casey Hampton. Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year Aaron Humphrey will shift from outside to middle linebacker.
As expected, no one has complained about these alterations. "We've changed people's perceptions around here," Mackovic says. "We're definitely making more friends."
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