In some ways Chris Simms has scarcely adapted to life at Texas. Though Austin teems with trendy restaurants and terrific Tex-Mex food, Simms's abbreviated list of acceptable dining establishments is topped by Chili's. Despite having spent more than three years in the Lone Star State, he refuses to say "y'all," no matter the context. "I'm still a 'you guys' guy," says the New Jersey native. "I won't even say that word out loud."
While he may never be a true son of the Southland, Simms is now Texas's undisputed starring quarterback. It was no secret that the departed Major Applewhite was the sentimental favorite of many Texas supporters. Applewhite was a red-haired and freckled underdog, lightly recruited out of high school and generously listed at 6'1" and 207 pounds. Now a senior, the 6'5", 225-pound, blond Simms is the equivalent of football royalty. He is the son of Phil Simms, the former New York Giants quarterback and Super Bowl MVP, and as a senior in high school he was the USA Today Offensive Player of the Year.
When coach Mack Brown named Simms his starter entering the 2000 season, many Longhorns fans felt the promotion was based more on pedigree than performance. Applewhite regained the job midway through the season before injuring his right knee. Simms started all 12 regular-season games last year but threw four interceptions (one was returned for a touchdown) in a 14-3 loss to Oklahoma and threw three more in the Big 12 championship game loss to Colorado. In the latter game Applewhite came off the bench to lead a spirited rally that fell just short. Applewhite played the entire Holiday Bowl, a 47-43 shootout win over Washington. Simms's critics say he looks great on the sidelines but doesn't answer the call in big games—at least not as well as the overachieving Applewhite did.
Brown doesn't buy it. As he points out, Simms is 15-4 as a starter (Applewhite was 22-8), with three of the losses coming against Top 10 teams. And Simms's 58.3% career completion rate is a school record. "People hold Chris to a different standard," Brown says. "No quarterback plays well every single game. But Chris has great height, he can really move for a big guy, he has a terrific arm, and he spends countless hours in the film room." Simms is also a football lifer. When someone mentions a January 1986 playoff game between the Giants and the Chicago Bears, he casually offers that he happened to watch tape of that very game a few days before. As much as Simms likes to talk football, though, he's glad that there will be no quarterback controversy in Austin this season. "This year it's just me," Simms says, "and that's good for our team. The focus will be on the team as a whole."
It's a team talented enough to win Texas's first national tide in 32 years. Brown's reputation as an ace recruiter was cemented when Simms rescinded an oral commitment to Tennessee and signed with Texas in '99. In his five signing-day classes since taking over at Texas, Brown has reeled in 28 players who made USA Today's All-America team. It would be hard for a kid not to be impressed when Brown sits him in his office and lays on the charm, especially since the room is big enough to land a helicopter in and houses enough Longhorns memorabilia to launch a fair-sized museum. Though Brown chafes at his team's perennial front-runner status in the woefully inexact science of recruiting rankings—after all, if the team with the best players can't win, aren't tire coaches to blame?—he knows that acquiring talent is the lifeblood of college football. "We don't lose too many recruits who come on campus," Brown says. "Not many guys walk out of here without becoming Longhorns."
That talent haul is particularly noticeable at the skill positions. Sophomore tailback Cedric Benson is a 6-foot, 205-pound package of speed and power. He rushed for 1,053 yards—a record for a Texas freshman—and 12 TDs in '01 though he didn't start until the sixth game. When Simms isn't handing off to Benson, he can throw to the wideout trio of Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas or tight end Bo Scaife, a sublimely athletic group of juniors. None are shorter than 6'1" or weigh less than 200 pounds, and together they combined for 167 catches for 2,206 yards and 17 scores last season. Texas needs to find three new starters on the offensive line, but that's why Brown stockpiles all those high school All-Americas in the first place. On the other side of the ball the Longhorns must replace six starters on the unit that led the nation in total defense, but with standouts like junior cornerback Nathan Vasher and senior defensive end Cory Redding, Texas won't have a problem stopping teams.
Still, the Longhorns must show that they can convert all that potential into big-game victories. A daunting schedule, including a trip to Nebraska and the showdown with Oklahoma in Dallas, provides plenty of opportunities. "Our motto is, No more excuses," says Simms. "We are extremely talented, and we're not young anymore. We would like to leave our mark. This is our year to do it."