DALLAS — Tre Walker was speaking the truth, or at least something close. He was trying to be polite, respectful, all the ways players are expected to act at Big 12 football media days.
But as Walker, a K-State senior linebacker, sat inside the Omni Hotel on Monday afternoon, his words still came off as a direct shot across the Bevo. For the last half-decade, the Wildcats have owned Texas. And according to Walker, it was pretty clear why.
“They kind of laid down a little bit,” Walker told reporters. “That’s nothing to say about their character. That’s just what they do.”
Lay down? That’s what Texas does? This is what has become of the proud Texas program?
Walker, of course, has some firm ground to stand on. The Wildcats are the defending Big 12 champions, and they enter the season with a five-game winning streak over the Longhorns.
But in the big picture, Walker’s comments reveal a growing sentiment in the conference. Four years after Texas appeared in its second BCS title game in five years, some of that old Texas mystique is gone.
The Longhorns are 22-16 during the last three seasons — including a five-win debacle in 2010 — and Big 12 opponents have provided plenty of retribution and pain.
Consider: In the last three years, Texas coach Mack Brown has lost more conference games (15) than he had in the previous 11 years combined (14).
Maybe the latest batch of top-flight recruits took winning for granted. (In fact, some of the current Texas players admit to part of that.) Maybe Brown couldn’t find a suitable star quarterback to follow Vince Young and Colt McCoy. Or maybe the program just lost its way.
“We did lose it,” Brown says. “Because when you win five games you’re not gonna be as confident and have the swagger — especially in Austin, when you win 12 the year before. And we lost it very quickly.”
But three years after rock bottom, there are signs that Brown may have weathered the worst of a choppy storm. The Longhorns return 19 starters, including experienced quarterback David Ash, and, in somewhat of a surprise, long-time college football analyst Phil Steele ranked the Longhorns as his No. 4 team in the country.
Others, including K-State’s Walker, have been harder to impress. Texas was picked fourth in the Big 12 preseason media poll, slotting in behind Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and TCU.
“Every season, our main goal is to beat each and every team,” Texas senior offensive guard Trey Hopkins said. “It’s not really to pay attention to what individual guys on teams say; it’s not to change public perception or anything like that. Our goal is for the people in (our) building, the people that work out every day.
“Our motto is ‘For the man on our right and on our left.’ Not for the man writing the story, not the man saying something negative about us.”
Brown believes the Longhorns are ready to mature into a conference title contender. And that could begin with Ash, a 6-foot-3 junior, taking the next step in a career that’s been defined by fits and starts.
Ash completed 67.3 percent of his passes last season, throwing 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but he was ineffective in a 63-21 loss against rival Oklahoma and was benched in a close victory at Kansas in late October.
“There were times last year that he played like Colt and he played like Vince and looked as good as anybody in the country,” Brown said, “and then there were others times where he struggled some. But we think we’ve got better players around him now.”
This season, Brown says, the Longhorns will attempt to play faster, matching the tempo of the other super-charged offenses in the Big 12. Texas ranked sixth in the league last season in passing and rushing offense, and the return of running backs Johnathan Gray, Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown could give Ash plenty of support.
On Tuesday, Mack Brown pointed to his team’s victory over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl as a turning point. The Longhorns trailed 20-10 at halftime before rallying for a 31-27 victory, and for a half, the Longhorns felt like a vintage Texas team.
Brown hopes it can last.
“It’s time that we become that team again,” Brown said. “We’re old enough; we’re experienced enough. They’ve won enough games, they know how to win. But it’s time we do it on a weekly basis.”