Blaine Irby

Both Case McCoy (left) and David Ash (right) will see significant playing time against Cal in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl Dec. 28. (File photo)

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Ever since Garrett Gilbert was ousted as Texas’ starting quarterback, Case McCoy and David Ash have treated the job like a hot potato. So it’s only fitting that both will see significant playing time against Cal in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl Dec. 28.

“We’ve got to get settled but we’re in a position right now where we’re going to need both of them,” said head coach Mack Brown, who will not release a depth chart until game day. “We want the kids to compete and make sure the guys that are practicing the hardest and best will be the ones that get to play in the ballgame.”

Each has started five games this year with McCoy seemingly solidifying himself as the starter after a spirited effort in a 27-25 win over Texas A&M that included a 25-yard run on the Longhorns’ final drive and no turnovers by the sophomore signal-caller. But McCoy was picked off four times in a loss to Baylor while throwing for 365 yards and three touchdowns, all career-highs.

Brown and Bergeron both healthy again

The Longhorns churned out 439 rushing yards in a 43-0 win over Kansas behind freshman phenoms Malcolm Brown, who ran for 119 yards and two scores against the Jayhawks, and Joe Bergeron, who ran for 136 yards and two touchdowns. At the time, Texas thought it had finally found an offensive identity.

“I thought we were about to be really good,” Brown said. “I haven’t seen us run the ball like that since probably 2004 or 2005. It was just unbelievable to see what happened the next game – a combination of Fozzy going down and the other two backs being banged up.”

But Brown and Bergeron each missed three of the next five games as the Longhorns’ running game and offense sputtered down the stretch. They combined to average just three yards per carry over Texas’ last four contests, a timespan that saw the Longhorns run for less than 140 yards per game, 100 fewer than their average during the first eight.

“I want to have a dominant running game,” said sophomore guard Mason Walters. “We can do that. And we know that. It’s frustrating that we haven’t been able to do that lately.”

Irby not applying for medical redshirt

Blaine Irby may have saved his best football for last. After announcing he will not apply for a medical redshirt and a sixth season, Irby will wrap up his college career against Cal in the Holiday Bowl. Irby, whose family is close to Golden Bears head coach Jeff Tedford’s, caught touchdown passes in each of the Longhorns’ last three games, including an acrobatic one-handed snag in the back of the end zone against Baylor.

“I’m just moving on with my life and staying healthy, that’s really my main concern,” Irby said. “It’s time for me to walk away from the game being on top and coming out on my own terms.”

Offensive guard Mark Buchanan and fullback Jamison Berryhill are also turning down opportunities to appeal for additional eligibility while linebacker and recent graduate Dravannti Johnson will transfer. Irby, who did not play for nearly three full seasons, cited overall soreness and tendonitis in his knees among the reasons he chose to end his Texas career

“I don’t want Blaine to walk like I do when he’s 60,” said Brown, who turned 60 this August. “He’s been a miracle. My goal for him would have been to be able to play with his children in the backyard. And then we thought about playing, I said he’d never get to start. And, all of a sudden, he starts and really helps us. He’s gotten accomplished all that he needs to accomplish.”

Akina a candidate for Hawaii head coaching job

After nearly leaving Austin earlier this year, Duane Akina is flirting with taking another job again. Akina, who has coached the Longhorns secondary for 10 years, accepted a position to be the secondary coach at Arizona in January before coming back to Texas the next month. Now, Akina could be leaving the Forty Acres to become the head coach at Hawai’I, where he coached from 1979-1983. Despite inheriting an inexperienced secondary that lost three players to the NFL, Akina helped the Longhorns boast the Big 12’s best pass defense.

“I thought Duane did his best job this year,” said Brown. “[Hawai’i] is home for him and we want him to stay but if he has a chance and if he wants the Hawai’I job, that would be a great opportunity for him.”

Brown has no regrets about 2004 lobbying

In 2004, Texas ended its regular season with a narrow victory over Texas A&M while Cal squeaked out a win against Southern Mississippi. The Longhorns came into that week ranked No. 5 in the BCS standings while the Golden Bears checked in at No. 4. Mack Brown needed his team to jump Cal in order to earn an automatic BCS bowl berth and strongly advocated for Texas to crack the top four. Sure enough, the Longhorns passed up the Bears and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl while Cal fell to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

“I would do the exact same thing again,” said Brown. “I think I haven’t taken up for teams that haven’t done well. I wasn’t trying to fight for last year’s team to be in the BCS. I never brought it up because it wasn’t an issue.”

Quandre Diggs, freshman CB

“It actually fits right into my Christmas plans. I usually go out there to spend some time with my nephews and my brother. So it’s going to be a great trip for us.”

Blaine Irby, senior TE

“I remember going back there in ’07 when we played against Arizona State. They treat the teams real nice, and it is a fun atmosphere. San Diego is a great town, so it should be fun.”

Mack Brown, head coach

“This will be our fifth trip to the Holiday Bowl, but none of the guys on this team have had a chance to play in one, so I’ve told the kids that this will be one of the best bowl experiences they’ll ever have.”


 

Column

Senior Blaine Irby makes a one-handed catch in the back of the end zone against Baylor Saturday, his third straight game with a touchdown catch.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

It’s an odd thing to call a 7-5 season a success — especially at Texas.

But, all things considered, this year was one.

Think about it. The Longhorns never found a quarterback out of their three candidates. They played 18 true freshmen. The heart of the team was lost for the season with three games left to play and the best receiver and two top running backs were hobbled for the final stretch.

Despite all of it, Texas didn’t lose a game it was truly supposed to win — excluding a weird 17-5 loss at Missouri — and won one game it wasn’t supposed to, a 27-25 thriller at Texas A&M.

2011 might not be the great wall the Longhorns wanted to build when they began their brick-by-brick mantra in early August, but it’s better than a mountain of rubble.

Let’s take a look back at the best — and worst — moments of one of the more interesting seasons in the Mack Brown era.

Best win: Texas 27, A&M 25. One for the record books, and the best game between two mediocre teams that you’ll ever see.

Best storyline: The comebacks of Blaine Irby and Fozzy Whittaker were most impressive. Irby’s was the most impressive — the tight end overcame a gruesome knee injury — as he opened camp as the starter and finished his season with a touchdown catch in the final three games, including a one-handed, toe-dragging score in the back of the end zone against Baylor. Whittaker didn’t have to battle through any awful knee injuries — although, sadly, he will soon have to — but shed his label as “injury-prone” and established himself as one of the more dynamic players in the nation, returning kickoffs for touchdowns in consecutive games, along with seven total scores on offense, in just a half a season of action.

Best quote: It’s a tie between David Snow’s “I hate everybody” (not named Texas) and Mike Davis’ “We were so high up [at the top deck at DKR during an offseason workout], I could see Shamu.”

Hero: Justin Tucker, who became the next famous Texas kicker with a 40-yard boot in the final seconds to beat Texas A&M in the last scheduled game between the two rivals.

Runner-up: The Texas defense, which kept the team afloat for most of the season.

Worst loss: The 17-5 loss to Mizzou never should have happened. And it was made possible by the crushing loss of Whittaker, who suffered a torn ACL and MCL in the first quarter of the game. If the Longhorns were given a do-over, they’d win that thing in their sleep. That sleepy game in Columbia is the difference between 7-5 and 8-4.

Best hire: Manny Diaz, and it’s not even close. Even though it had to go up against elite offenses in Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Baylor, the Texas defense finished the regular season ranked the 14th best in the nation.

Best rehire: Duane Akina, who came back to Texas after a month at Arizona in the offseason, has developed his next great crop of defensive backs. Next year will be a very strong one for the Texas secondary.

Worst development: The ongoing quarterback saga, which was played out so long that Texas enters 2012 with no answer at the position. Garrett Gilbert gave way to Case McCoy, who gave way to David Ash, who gave way to Jay Leno, who gave way to Conan O’Brien, who gave way to McCoy, who gave way back to Leno. I’m so confused.

Goat(s): All involved in the creation and distribution (or lack thereof) of the Longhorn Network. It’s a shame that a TV channel has to overshadow the Longhorns’ efforts on the field and trigger a shift in conference realignments so drastic that the Big 12 lost two 100-year-old rivalries (Texas A&M-UT and Missouri-Kansas), but no column documenting the peaks and valleys of this year can go without mentioning the Longhorn Network.

Printed on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 as: Recapping the ups and downs of 2011

Quarterback: This one is obvious. Baylor has a Heisman candidate at quarterback with Robert Griffin III. He has passed for 3,678 yards with 72-percent completion. He has led Baylor to eight wins this season, including winning four in a row. He is also dangerous on the ground, with two 100-yard rushing games this season, and is averaging 55 yards per game on the ground. Texas, meanwhile, has been struggling all year at the quarterback position, but it may have finally found an answer. McCoy didn’t have a passing touchdown and only 110 yards through the air, but he made plays when it mattered as he guided Texas to a win over Texas A&M. Baylor has a Heisman candidate in the backfield, and the definite edge at the position.

Running Back: Texas peaked here in the two-game span against Texas Tech and Kansas, but has since rushed for 353 yards in three games. The Longhorns got more than 400 against both Texas Tech and Kansas. With the injuries to Fozzy Whittaker, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, the running game for Texas has sputtered. Baylor averages more than 210 yards per game on the ground and shredded the Red Raiders for 360 yards rushing with Terrence Ganaway rushed for a career-high 246 yards. With all the injuries that Texas has suffered at the position, the advantage has to go to Baylor with Ganaway and Griffin combining for a dangerous ground attack.

Receivers: Texas got a much needed boost at this position with Jaxon Shipley returning to the lineup last week against the Aggies. Though he only caught three passes for 34 yards, he threw a touchdown pass to Blaine Irby in the second quarter and provides a much needed play-making presence to a team constantly looking for one. In addition to catching the touchdown pass, Irby has become a key to the offense and has seven catches with two touchdown catches in the last three games. Kendall Wright has been an explosive player all year for the Bears and is their leading receiver. He has 95 catches this for 1,406 yards this season. Baylor has four receivers with at least 35 catches, and three of them have more than 750 yards receiving. Baylor’s receiving corps has playmakers and experience all over the field, while Texas is relying on a true freshman as its primary playmaker.

Offensive Line: Baylor is second in the nation in total offense and is in the top 20 in rush offense this season. The Bears have allowed 24 sacks this season and are third in the conference in tackles for loss allowed, having only given up 52 so far this season. The Texas line has allowed 66 tackles for loss this season and has also allowed 24 sacks this season. Both teams can run the ball, but the Bears have been more consistent in recent weeks at running and passing the ball. The Texas line has had its moments, including some dominating short yardage situations against Texas A&M. Both lines have been solid this season, but the Bears have been putting up better numbers and has more experience.

Defensive Line: The Texas defensive line has been a force of nature of late and has been dominating Big 12 offensive lines. Texas has 88 tackles for loss on the season, with 64 of those coming in the last five games at a rate of more than 12 per game. Baylor only has 55 tackles for loss on the season and is in near the bottom third of the country in sacks with 17. Alex Okafor lived in the Aggie backfield last week and, though only credited with one tackle, was a primary part of forcing Tannehill into quick throws. Texas’ depth along the line has been a problem for opposing teams. Baylor is No. 102 against the run and has not been able to get into the backfield enough this season. The Texas line is among the best in the country, not just the conference, while Baylor’s line lags in the bottom third in the conference.

Linebackers: Emmanuel Acho has been playing at an all-conference level and has 98 tackles so far this season. Alongside him is Keenan Robinson who overcame an injured thumb to haunt Tannehill in the backfield last week on blitzes and rushes, getting to him many times throughout the game. Baylor is led by senior Elliot Coffey, who has 89 tackles this season. Baylor has a poor rush defense, and an even worse pass defense. Baylor’s linebackers have to do a better job of getting into the backfield to break up the play and forcing the backs into the defensive line. Texas’ linebackers have been playing at an all conference level over the past five games and should do significantly better than the Baylor linebackers.

Secondary: Against one of the best receiving units in the Big 12, Texas’ defensive backs had their marquee game of the season. With three interceptions, and a pick-six by Carrington Byndom, the Longhorn defensive backs had one of the best games by a secondary unit this season in the Big 12. Texas has the No. 35 pass defense in the nation but is No. 8 in pass efficiency defense. Baylor has one of the worst pass defenses in the conference and is in the bottom third of pass efficiency defense nationally. Even against a Heisman candidate, the Texas pass defense should be stout, and one of the best individual matchups of the game will be Texas’ Byndom against Kendall Wright of Baylor.

Special Teams: Baylor is one of the worst kickoff return teams in the nation and is last in the conference. Texas, even without Whittaker, is in the top 15 in kickoff returns nationally and only trails Kansas State in the Big 12. Baylor is significantly better on punt returns, but the advantage still lies with Texas, which is the top punt return team in the conference and No. 7 nationally. Although Baylor’s kicker, Aaron Jones, has made 95 percent of his PATs but is only hitting half of his field goals, missing from all ranges. Texas’ Justin Tucker didn’t have a good day punting the ball against Texas A&M, but he made the game winning, 40-yard field goal as time expired and has been money in the bank for the Longhorns all season. Texas has the superior athletes on special teams and one of the most reliable kickers in the Big 12.

Seniors play well
The senior class didn’t get the results they wanted in their final home game Saturday, but they performed well individually. Cody Johnson rumbled for a 55-yard gain in the fourth quarter, the longest running play for Texas this season. Tight end Blaine Irby caught a 36-yard touchdown pass from Case McCoy on the second drive of the second half to give the Longhorns their first touchdown in more than six quarters. It was Irby’s first score since Sept. 6, 2008 against UTEP, a fitting way to end his home career. Linebacker Emmanuel Acho had a game-high 12 tackles, with one sack and two tackles for loss. Keenan Robinson, playing with an injured right thumb, had eight tackles and one sack.

Brown and Bergeron limited
Texas had both Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, its two leading rushers, available for the first time in three weeks. But the Longhorns struggled to run the ball consistently for the second time in as many games. Brown started after missing the last two games and carried 11 times for 33 yards. The freshman lacked the explosion and power he displayed before turf toe sidelined him against Texas Tech and Missouri. Bergeron, back from a hamstring injury, rushed nine times for 40 yards. Bergeron also did not look himself. The Longhorns’ training staff will need to do a great job this week if they hope to have these two ready for Texas A&M on Thursday night.

McCoy makes case for start
Case McCoy came off the bench in the third quarter in relief of David Ash and promptly led a six-play, 81-yard scoring drive. McCoy found Irby for a 36-yard strike and went three for three on the drive. He was eight of 16 for 80 yards and had zero turnovers to Ash’s two. Ash also mishandled a snap in the first quarter that stalled a possession. The freshman fell to 2-3 as a starter and has six interceptions and no touchdowns during that span. McCoy, meanwhile, has thrown for each of Texas’ last two touchdowns. The sophomore looked more poised on Saturday night and moved the ball more in the second half than Ash has in his last two starts. It’s time to let McCoy play for an entire game, something he’s never done at UT.

Column

Senior running back Fozzy Whittaker reacts after a knee injury in the first quarter against Missouri. Whittaker has been ruled out for the season.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Sports writers don’t root for teams, they root for storylines. Something new to write about, some story to tell, something that makes this week different than last week.

For most of this season, that storyline was the comeback of Fozzy Whittaker. Injured for most of his career, the fifth-year running back was healthy. He had gotten stronger, faster. He was the consummate teammate.

That’s what makes the gruesome knee injury he suffered Saturday against Missouri — one that ends his collegiate career — even harder to stomach.

When we first saw Whittaker this year, in July at Big 12 Media Days, we swarmed upon him with questions regarding the much-hyped Malcolm Brown. “Hey, Fozzy, how does Malcolm look? What’s his personality like? Is he ready to put Texas on his back?”

Never mind that he had been discounted for somebody four years his junior, Whittaker swallowed his pride and answered everything. Forget that he himself had worked incredibly hard to get in game shape for his final season of football. Those who awaited the arrivals of Brown and Joe Bergeron as the saviors of the Texas offense had ruled out Whittaker.

In the weeks leading up to this new season, The Daily Texan crafted a long-winded feature, “The Texan’s 10 Most Important Longhorns.”

Whittaker didn’t make the cut. Didn’t even sniff it. To many, it was a matter of time before Fozzy would take a backseat. When he was listed for the Rice game as the starter at tailback, many saw it as simply a courtesy — a few last go-rounds before the talented Brown gives the coaches no choice but to start him.

Fast forward a few games, a few 100-yard kickoff returns, lots of touchdowns and total yards and many “Wild Fozzy” formations. Whittaker had indeed conceded the starting job to Brown. Never complained about it. Instead, he became the mentor to the two freshman tailbacks. In the meantime, Whittaker carved out a niche for himself: kick-returning extraordinaire, master of the red zone, leader of the team. After years of idolizing Captain America — Fozzy has a shield, shirts, backpacks, posters — he finally had become a hero of sorts of the football field.

“He really has been Captain America,” tight end Blaine Irby said. “He’s been unbelievable this season.”

Whittaker was named to the Sports Illustrated’s All-American team at midseason as a kick returner. In a recognition that carries less weight, The Daily Texan pinned him as the team’s Most Valuable Player halfway through the year. His 46.5 kick-return average led the nation a few weeks ago, and his nine touchdowns lead the team.

Fate struck an unfair blow. Injuries are as much a part of football as sweeps and power runs, sure, but how unfortunate that it had to happen to the player who was finally healthy, who had battled injuries his entire career. Whittaker’s well-chronicled battle with sprains, tweaks, scrapes and hyperextensions had become a punch line of sorts. He would never be effective, we thought. And he gladly proved us wrong, doing all the things we never thought he’d be able to do and even some things we didn’t expect — Whittaker? Returning kickoffs? For all his hard work, he’ll come through the tunnel next week for Senior Day on crutches.

The sad twist to this story reminds one of the collapse of former Texas pitcher Taylor Jungmann this summer. Enjoying the best season in the country, the dominating Jungmann cruised to a 13-0 start before losing the final three games of his career, including a game against Florida in the College World Series in which the Longhorns held a 3-0 lead. Teary-eyed afterwards, Jungmann said he had no idea what had gone so wrong.

We know what happened to Whittaker: As has been the case throughout his time here, his body simply betrayed him. It’s another storyline, I suppose. But it sure is a heartbreaking one.

Printed on Monday, November 14, 2011 as: Whittaker's career ends with injury

When he lost his shoe while scoring against UCLA, it seemed like an isolated incident. But when it happened again when Texas faced Iowa State and a third time on a touchdown run against Kansas, it became a trend.

“I can’t really explain it,” Malcolm Brown said. “My shoes keep coming off. I guess I need to tie them a little tighter.”

Whether he’s got one or two shoes on, Brown has been extremely effective this season. The freshman running back ran for 110 yards and a touchdown in his first career start, a 49-20 Longhorns victory over the Bruins, and never looked back. Brown has topped the century mark in each of the last two games and has a great chance to do it again Saturday when he goes up against a Texas Tech defense that allowed 368 rushing yards to Iowa State last week.

“I can’t say enough about Malcolm,” said senior tight end Blaine Irby. “Malcolm’s been doing great this whole year. He’s such a special, special back. Even at a young age, you’d think he’s been in college football for the last three or four years.”

Texas is running a run-first offense successfully for the first time since Vince Young played in burnt orange. Attempts to install a productive ground game last season were futile and before that, the Longhorns used its passing game to set up the run. But with Brown in the backfield, Texas has a productive rushing attack once again.

“This is what our team is built around,” said senior guard David Snow. “When we had Colt [McCoy], we didn’t really need to run the ball. He was an excellent passer. We just have a good running attack. It helps us control the game.”

David Ash had a solid showing against Kansas this past weekend, going 14-of-18 for 145 yards and a two-yard touchdown run. But he’s nowhere near the nearly 15,000 total yards, 132 touchdowns and NCAA-record 45 wins McCoy accumulated. That’s why having a running game that averages 218.9 yards per game this season taking pressure off a passing game featuring a freshman behind center.

“The offensive line did a great job making some holes for some really great backs,” Ash said. “We’re getting more physical, playing a tough brand of football and we’re running the ball really well.”

The Longhorns ran for 441 yards last weekend, their highest single-game total since 2004’s season opening 65-0 win over North Texas, when they ran for 513. In the 43-0 thumping of Kansas last weekend, Brown and Joe Bergeron became the first pair of freshman running backs to run for more than 100 yards in school history. Texas ran 72 times that game and has ran nearly two-thirds of its offensive plays this year.

“You always have to have something you can hang your hat on,” said co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. “I’ve always been a proponent of a run-first approach. You build your pass game off of that.”

Brown, along with the senior Fozzy Whittaker, has done a nice job of setting the tone early in games since we became the starting running back four contests ago. But when a 6-foot-1, 230-pound Bruiser like Bergeron begins bashing heads around in the second half against a defense worn out by Brown and Whittaker, like he did against Kansas to the tune of 136 yards and two touchdowns, it’s almost unfair.

“Joe Bergeron is a guy that, during camp, really caught our eye,” Irby said. “He’s a bigger back. Nobody realizes how fast he really is but he showed us last game.”

Brown is a particularly polite person, including “sir” in nearly every response to reporters’ questions.

But when oncoming tacklers approach him, he’s anything but cordial. He may not know how to properly tie his shoes, but Brown knows how to run the football.
 

Luke Poehlmann was an integral part in Texas' run game against Kansas. He should see extended playing time as Texas hopes to keep its dynamic run game rolling.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

The Longhorns have a new tight end. A big one.

Luke Poehlmann, a 6-foot-7, 295-pound junior, moved from the offensive line to tight end prior to last week’s win over Kansas. With Texas desperately searching for an answer to its blocking woes at that position, Poehlmann proved to be the answer.

“That’s what we’re looking for, more push and power off the edge,” said senior left guard David Snow. “He did a great job for us. He pushed off the line and that whole right side got a great push. We’re really excited about it.”

Poehlmann sealed the edge, allowing the Longhorns tailbacks to gain a season-high 441 yards rushing against the Jayhawks. Bryan Harsin, the Texas play-caller, decided to move the junior to tight end during the bye week to jump-start the outside running game.

“He dominated the 27 plays he was in there,” said head coach Mack Brown. “We’ve got to continue to grow with him.”

The decision worked so well that Harsin anticipates Poehlmann seeing more action in his new role over the final five weeks, beginning Saturday against Texas Tech.

“That helped us, just having a bigger body out there on the edge in some of those one-on-one blocks,” Harsin said. “I don’t see a reason why we’re not going to use him there again.”

But Poehlmann wasn’t a complete stranger to tight end before the move. As a redshirt freshman in 2009, he spent some time at the position in practice — albeit a brief stint.

“That didn’t last too long after he was running a couple routes,” said senior tight end Blaine Irby, smiling. “I haven’t seen him catch the ball in a while. Hopefully we’ll get him on a corner route or something.”

That could come as soon as this week against the Red Raiders, but don’t expect Poehlmann to become too involved in the passing game. His value is still as a blocker.

“He was asking if he could go out the back side (for a pass against KU),” Harsin said. “I don’t think he was quite ready for that yet. But maybe this week.”

While Poehlmann’s brief experience at tight end helped ease the transition, his background as an offensive lineman certainly came into play.

“He’s a guy that’s been in the trenches, he know exactly what it takes,” said senior running back Fozzy Whittaker, who rushed for 68 yards against KU. “He’s blocked defensive ends all the time. Having him on the edge was a big  help for us.”

Poehlmann switched his uniform from No. 77 to No. 82 to become an eligible receiver. And though he played a critical role in beating Kansas, he wasn’t immune from a little good-natured ribbing from some of his former lineman this week.

“No. 82 is not supposed to be on a guy that big,” said sophomore right guard Mason Walters, half-joking. “But at the same time he fought hard.

“He learned the technique early in the week, it’s not something we really knew we were going to do. Luke worked on it all week; keeping his hands inside, running his feet the whole time. He did a great job.”

Poehlmann missed the final 10 games of the 2010 season after tearing his ACL against Wyoming, the second game of the year. He saw limited action through the first six games of this season, and jumped at the chance to get more playing time at tight end.

“He was really excited about that opportunity and you could tell in the game,” Harsin said. “That vibe just helped across the board, just having him in there.”

Texas’ newest tight end just might be the most important one yet. He’s certainly the biggest.


 

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

It doesn’t take long to figure out who Fozzy Whittaker’s favorite super hero is.

The red, white and blue shield that hangs above his bed gives it away. It’s Captain America.

Whittaker started collecting the Marvel character’s memorabilia when he arrived at Texas in 2007; the same time he began embracing the super hero’s mentality.

“It kind of just took over, Whittaker said. “I used to play one of the video games and I always played with Captain America because growing up that’s who I liked, but I never really embraced it.

“I did a little research on him and read who he was. The type of patriotism he shows, the kind of character he is. He’s somebody that I wanted to embody.”

Whittaker’s taken all that Captain America stands for to heart and emerged as the Longhorns’ team leader this season.

The senior tailback leads UT with seven touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving and two on special teams) and is No. 1 in the nation in kick return average (46.5 yards). The do-it-all running back has taken the Texas offense upon his shoulders in his final year as a Longhorn.

“He really has been Captain America,” said senior tight end Blaine Irby. “He’s been unbelievable this season. He’s a great leader and I definitely see that Captain America [mentality] kind of following him.

“It’s great because you think of Fozzy, and you just think of a running back. And then this year you see him returning kicks in the two biggest games we’ve had and you see him in the quarterback spot playing the wildcat. Fozzy can do it all.”

It’s hard to imagine where UT would be without him.

“He’s saving the team in some aspects with his play in the kickoff game and on offense,” said senior linebacker Keenan Robinson. “He’s definitely shown up big all season for us.”

Like any great super hero, Whittaker has a budding sidekick. He’s taken freshman tailback Malcolm Brown under
his wing.

“He’s a real great mentor,” said Brown, who leads the team with 516 rushing yards. “One of the coolest guys I’ve met in my life.”

Brown said Whittaker’s willingness to share his wisdom and advice caught him off-guard. After all, the rookie wasn’t expecting the veteran to take too kindly to the Longhorns’ newest stud in the backfield.

But Captain America is not selfish, so neither is Fozzy. Actually, the Houston native is about as welcoming as it gets.

“He’s one of the funniest guys on the team,” Brown said. “You can’t really be around him and not laugh. Even when you’re having some problems, go hang with Fozzy for a little bit and he’ll cheer you up real quick.”

Whittaker, though, didn’t always consider Captain America his favorite super hero.

“I always liked The Flash just because people said I was fast,” he said. “As I got older, I faded away from The Flash and gravitated towards Captain America.”

Now, his memorabilia assortment is too large for him to put a number on. Whittaker’s collection includes: puzzles, tee shirts, pins, action figures, posters, the iconic shield and, of course, his signature Captain America backpack.

Even his twitter handle, @CaptnAmerica2, pays homage to the super hero.

“I always see him wearing the hat and the shirts and he has the backpack on him everywhere,” Brown said. “I’ve seen him bring his shield before. That’s pretty cool, pretty funny.”

But Whittaker’s success this season has a lot to do with staying healthy. The oft-injured back has missed 10 games over the last three years, mainly with knee issues, but is now in the best shape of his career.

Major Applewhite, Whittaker’s position coach, said the senior’s experience with injuries have actually helped Whittaker remain healthy this season.

“Being around the program a long time, he understands how to take care of his body better,” Applewhite said. “He’s learned the ropes. In terms of, ‘Okay, I can get this treatment now. I can go do this with flexibility. I can go do this in the weight room.’”

That knowledge stems from the strong relationship Whittaker forged with Bennie Wylie, the strength and conditioning coach. The two worked tirelessly in the offseason to get Whittaker into prime shape.

“I think he’s faster,” Applewhite said. “Probably a step faster.”

Yes, Captain America would be proud.

Longhorn tight end D.J. Grant, No. 18, moves to make a block against Oklahoma State. Grant and the rest of the tight end corps have played with both flashes of brilliance and streaks of slumps.

Photo Credit: Tamir Kalifa | Daily Texan Staff

Texas might as well have wanted posters around its stadium asking for a productive pass-catching tight end.

Ever since D.J. Grant erupted for three touchdowns against UCLA, the Longhorns’ tight ends have disappeared. There have been a few Blaine Irby sightings, an occasional Barrett Matthews appearance and even a D.J. Grant resurfacing here and there. But Grant’s six-catch outburst against the Bruins seems like a distant memory as Texas has gotten just 40 yards on five receptions from its tight ends since blowing out UCLA.

“Tight ends have been inconsistent,” said head coach Mack Brown. “That worries us because this is a tight end offense. You look at the three tight ends at Stanford and they rush for 446 yards. We feel like we’ve got some guys there that just need to continue to step up and grow.”

None of the three tight ends Brown refers to, however, has had six catches or three touchdown grabs in a game. Ever since Grant’s breakout performance, opposing defenses have focused their efforts to the middle of the field in an attempt to force throws closer to the sideline, where receivers roam. As tight ends traverse the middle of the field, they’re being left out now. But with freshman Jaxon Shipley and sophomore Mike Davis being the only productive receivers, Texas could use a tight end to step up as a reliable third option.

“Most teams don’t want to give up the middle of the field,” said co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. “They want to force stuff outside because you have a sideline out there. It’s a chess match back and forth. If we do a good job outside, then they’ve got to do something to take that away and open up the middle of the field.”

Another thing that has held tight ends back lately has been the need for them to contribute to the pass protection aspect of the offense. With Oklahoma and Oklahoma State racking up more sacks than anyone in the Big 12 except Texas A&M, Texas needed more tight ends in the trenches, where they have opened up holes in the running game as well.

“Our guys are trying to find a consistent blocker,” Brown said. “The receptions have been down the last couple of weeks because we’ve had to keep the tight end in and block because our protection has been iffy at best.”

When the Longhorns’ tight ends do get a chance to run routes, they don’t get thrown at often. In Texas’ last three games, tight ends have been targeted 11 times. If the coaches are indeed grooming Ash to be the consistent full-time starter, it may take even longer for tight ends to be productive again with the true freshman learning to go through progressions quicker.

“We’re behind him,” Irby said. “I think David is going to keep learning as he keeps experiencing more and more games. Whatever he feels comfortable with, we’re going to do.”

Irby, like Grant, has fully recovered from a knee injury that kept him out for two full seasons. He made his first two catches in more than three years against Oklahoma. The senior also took part in a grueling workout run by strength head coach Bennie Wylie, who had players run up and down the steps of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium’s upper deck. Irby, unlike some of his teammates, was fortunate to avoid vomiting on those steps.

“[Wylie’s] a crazy man,” Irby said. “It’s a part of our ‘protect the house’ routine. You see the stadium from a completely different perspective when you’re up there. You appreciate the fans that pay to come watch us play football.”

Those fans in the nosebleed sections Wylie tried to help his players appreciate have a good chance at watching Texas’ tight ends catch a few passes against Kansas. But don’t be surprised if they go a few weeks before another productive performance.