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OFFENSIVE GUARD MASON WALTERS NOTICED A CHANGE IN THE vibe around the Longhorns' practice facility this spring. "Last year the mood was kind of just rebuilding, getting back to that national level," says Walters of a team that went from playing in the BCS title game in 2009 to missing a bowl in '10. "This year we're back at the national level, and now it's time to take something."
Just how the Longhorns, who closed last season's 8--5 effort by beating Cal in the Holiday Bowl, will fare depends largely upon which quarterback ultimately takes control of the offense. The battle for playing time will be between sophomore David Ash (who started six games and threw for 1,068 yards with four TDs and eight picks) and junior Case McCoy (who started five and threw for 1,045 yards with seven TDs and four picks). Coach Mack Brown says that both exercised better judgment during spring practice than they did last season. "They were smarter with the ball," says Brown. "Instead of throwing into a group and trying to force something on first down, [they knew to] bring the ball down, get your five and play second-and-five." The general consensus is that Ash, who was a true freshman last fall and has the better arm, will take the reins. "You've seen him gradually grow into this position of being a leader," says Walters.
The offense had growing pains under new coordinator and play-caller Bryan Harsin—"Last year was kind of get to know each other," says Brown—though the backfield, with its 202.6 yards per game, had its best season since 2007, even despite injury woes. Now running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are healthy, and five-star freshman Johnathan Gray joins them. The run defense, stout under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz last season, is led by All--Big 12 first-teamers Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro and should be even stronger in '12.
"At the end of spring last year, compared to where we are right now, it's not even in the same ballpark," says Brown. "We only lose 10 seniors [total] at the end of , so the next couple of years will be fun. We're not there yet, but we're getting back in the mix, and that's a fun challenge."
COACH Mack Brown (15th year) 141--39 (86--27 in Big 12)
CO--OFFENSIVE COORDINATORS Major Applewhite, Bryan Harsin
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Manny Diaz
2011 RECORD 8--5 (4--5, T-6 in Big 12)