October 12, 2008

This Texas team can handle No. 1


These are no longer the underdog, hiding-in-the-bushes, hoping-no-one-will-notice Longhorns.

This is the new No. 1 team in all the land. And guess what? This team can handle it.

I'm not saying there isn't a dark day ahead - like we saw from the offense at Colorado (discombobulated and still scoring 38 - not bad.) Or some exposures unearthed in a defense that had three freshmen standing in against Sam Bradford on Saturday.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF 'TEAM'

But this is a different team. By now everyone knows that. You don't erase two, 11-point deficits against an Oklahoma team with the most complete offense in the country and end up winning by 10 if you don't have heart, grit, resiliency and a serious need to smack people around.

But Mack Brown said it best yesterday. A reporter said the 2005 team was known for Vince Young, then asked Brown what this year's team is known for.

"Right now this team would be known for heart, character, toughness and playing together as a team," Brown said. "There are not individuals on the team. There are not guys who walk around and talk about themselves. It's been about this team since day one.

"Everyone has questioned this team, including me. I've sat around and said, 'I don't know how good we are.' And today we played good and played team football. We've got to keep doing that. If this team doesn't play together and doesn't play with intensity, we will lose. This team doesn't need to think about what it's accomplished. It needs to go back to work and stay focused on getting better."

BLUE-COLLAR STARS

Think about the stars on this team: Colt McCoy, Brian Orakpo, Roddrick Muckelroy, Jordan Shipley, Quan Cosby and Chris Ogbonnaya. Every single one of them is a selfless grinder.

McCoy is a coach's son who fought like crazy to prove himself at a tiny, 2A high school in West Texas, who on the advice of one public speaker his dad brought in to talk to high school students, quit drinking soda in the sixth grade and took up milk instead. He studies film and meets with Greg Davis whenever he can. A football workaholic, if you will.

Orakpo is the son of Nigerian parents, who left the unrest of that African country determined to make a better life for themselves in the United States. Orakpo is a top student, who has a burning work ethic because of the values instilled by parents who grew up with nothing.

Muckelroy is a self-professed country boy from Hallsville in East Texas, who tolerates the big-city life in Austin but prefers to sit at home in his apartment and watch film than go out. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp says Muckelroy shows up at meetings with a notebook that he fills with the week's gameplan. "Then he comes back the next day with pages and pages full of questions," Muschamp said. "He cares so much. He loves football and he's such a great teammate."

Shipley is the son of a coach - Bob Shipley, who played football at Abilene Christian with Colt McCoy's dad, Brad. Jordan has such a burning desire to excel in football he rushed back from a second knee injury at Texas and it cost him. He ended up missing his first two seasons at UT, recovering from those injuries. Now, he and McCoy, who are roommates, spend most of their summers playing golf, hunting and fishing together and most of their school nights studying film and gameplans together, like they did for OU.

Cosby overcame adversity at an early age. He told The Dallas Morning News he moved in with another family in ninth grade because of unrest in his own home. It forced him to grow up fast. He did, earning an $825,000 signing bonus to play four seasons of minor league baseball in the Angels' organization. Now, at 25, he's a husband and father of two who is all about priorities, perspective and perseverance. No one played bigger than Cosby on Saturday against the Sooners, stretching the field and making key third-down grabs. With nine catches Saturday, Cosby and McCoy became the most prolific pass-catch combination in school history with 140 completions. That breaks the previous record of 131 set by Chris Simms and Roy Williams from 2000-02.

Ogbonnaya, another child of parents born to poverty in Nigeria, has lived through the death of two adopted brothers, including one in his arms. Ogbonnaya seizes each day and said he's a more mature, caring and empathetic person because of the tragedies he's experienced. Ogbonnaya is also an incredible student who will earn his second degree in December. Work ethic is a way of life for Ogbonnaya, who simply has an unshakable spirit.

LEADERSHIP AND CHEMISTRY

I've always been huge into leadership and chemistry - moreso than outright, physical talent. Look at the Texas teams from earlier this decade. Mega talent. No chemistry. Lots of losses to OU. In 2005, the players talked about how they were eager to get rid of the selfishness they experienced from some of the veterans on those teams.

"We put an end to that crap," offensive guard Kasey Studdard told me then.

This team has the same, selfless spirit of the 2005 team and it's made up for any lack of talent, although it's time to start talking about Colt McCoy in reverential tones. He is the Heisman Trophy front-runner, period. He's got my first-place vote. And he's got a ton of Vince-like qualities, especially leading his team from behind in critical situations on the huge stage. McCoy is at nine, second-half comebacks and counting. I don't care if he looks young enough to be starring in Malcolm in the Middle.

And Mack Brown deserves credit for reinforcing this team-first attitude. He also deserves continual credit for hiring Will Muschamp and Major Applewhite. Before the season, I put the following quote in a story I wrote about Coach Boom.

FROM BLUE BLOOD TO BLUE COLLAR

"I'm a blue-collar guy," Muschamp said. "And that's what I want our team to be. I want our defense to be a blue-collar, overachieving defense. I think you have to overachieve what you think you can be to maximize the talent you've been blessed with."

Does anyone think this team has bought into that mentality?

"Muschamp just kept at it," Orakpo said after posting two sacks in Saturday's 45-35 victory in the Cotton Bowl. "With them scoring and making huge plays downfield, sometimes you don't know what to do. But Muschamp is a guy who gets the clipboard and goes back to work. He says, 'Let's get this fixed.' He wasn't yelling at nobody. He was just excited because he knows we are there and can finish and make plays.

"Muschamp has made a huge difference. He brings that fire. This was the first test where we showed we can handle adversity, and Coach Muschamp is really the one who brought the fuel to the fire."

Greg Davis also put on quite a show Saturday. His offense is overachieving without the weapons he had in 2005.

"Everybody talks about chemistry, but it's hard to describe," Davis said. "And Colt, Quan, Jordan and Chris Ogbonnaya have that chemistry."
HANDLING NO. 1

You get the sense that even though there is surely an off-Saturday out there somewhere in the next six games, this Texas team has the depth of character and ability to dig deep and overcome it. With Texas now No. 1 and the front-runner to win the Big 12 and national title, it's a new kind of sensation that will permeate this team. As Mack likes to say, "the poison cheese" of self-congratulation and adulation will be lurking everywhere.

"This will be the first time people will brag on us probably more than they should, and our guys have to handle that now, too," Brown said. "They've handled the criticism, and now they'll have to handle something else this week."

Look at the leaders of the team one more time. Look at their resumes, their makeup, their resolve, their unwillingness to put themselves ahead of the team. Then look at the blue-collar coaching they're getting right now. Something tells me this team is going to handle being No. 1, and that we are in for something special.


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