I am sitting poolside, something hoppy in clear plastic glass as I stare at the waves, a mid-day MLB game on the TV at the bar, Johnny Football’s antics being replayed over, and over, and over, and the promise of beach football when this glass is empty (hint: there will be another glass). My mind is on football as we get oh so very close to kickoff. This is the last installment of the 2014 preview, because next week it’s ON. We start on Thursday night with A&M/South Carolina, which kicks off five straight nights of live college football (six if you count the ACU/Georgia State game on Wednesday night. Let’s do that. Six straight nights) and smack in the middle of that sit the Horns, who host the Mean Green Saturday night at DKR. It is almost upon us, peeps. Almost.
See you guys next week for the start of the season.
2014 Texas Longhorns — The Offense
This is the elephant in the room. It’s the reason Texas is ranked No.24 and not No.14. A back-to-back bowl team with a returning starter at quarterback, two NFL-ready tailbacks and experience at wideout, yet no one trusts them enough to even consider them a contender for the Big 12 Title. Is it the new staff? Is it the losses on the offensive line? Is it issues at tight end? No. It’s the quarterback. Let’s start right there, shall we?
On paper, David Ash has all the assets to be an All-Big 12 quarterback. 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, athletic, agile, a big arm and multiple years as a starter … but there are no concussions on paper. Ash has all the tools to be a terrific college quarterback, and according to Jordan Shipley who threw with him this spring, he has the all the tools to be an NFL quarterback. But he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He played in all 13 games as a freshman in 2011, splitting time with Case McCoy and Garrett Gilbert, and started six of them. In 2012 he seemed to take the next step towards separating and taking the job for himself, but an injury the week of the TCU game completely negated his abilities on Thanksgiving and knocked him out of the K-State game in the season finale. And we all know what happened last year. There were rumors — lots of them — that Ash was done with football after the concussion at BYU and the repeat early against K-State. No one would blame him for that. He more or less disappeared from the public eye for the next four months and a lot of people assumed he was not coming back. But he did come back, worked his way through the off-season and eventually was cleared to participate in spring practice. And then he broke his foot. That injury cost him the rest of the spring and the majority of the summer as he waited for it to heal. He’s back and ready to go, but the general feeling is, “please just stay healthy.” Because if he can stay healthy, he’s got the ability to be an upper-echelon Big 12 qb. It’s Bryce Petty and then … who? Davis Webb? Trevor Knight? Jake Waters? JW Walsh? All fine quarterbacks, but, with the exception of Walsh, none has played as much as David Ash. He’s the one that will make this offense go with his athleticism, arm and mind for the game. Just please stay healthy.
Behind him is likely going to be true freshman Jerrod Heard. The 6-foot-2, 199-pounder from Denton was 36-8 in high school and led his team to back-to-back state titles, accounting for 10 touchdowns in those two state championship games. He’s got a nice arm, great wheels and is supremely confident … But he’s a freshman. Check that, he’s about to be a freshman. Tyrone Swoopes is technically listed as the second team quarterback, but I think it will be Heard taking over if David Ash suffers a long-term injury. Please just stay healthy.
Texas took a hit in the skill positions with suspensions/dismissals/injuries. Lost outside are Kendal Sanders and Montrel Meander, and injured outside is Jaxon Shipley (hamstring). And Marcus Johnson is recovering from nasal surgery, which kept him out of the first few days of practice. At tailback Joe Bergeron is gone, Jalen Overstreet is gone, Daje Johnson (who will also play wide out) will miss some game time with a suspension and freshman Duke Catalon is out with a pulled hamstring. But there is good news. Malcolm Brown is ready to go.
The 5-foot-11, 222-pound senior running back is bigger than his listed weight, I believe. I think he’s closer to 230, but we are splitting hairs. The guy is rocked up and hungry. He finished 2013 the team leader in rushing with 904 yards and was 2nd Team All Big 12. He has taken to the new training regimen and coaching staff and has been the workhorse of the offense. He’s got power, stamina and good speed. He isn’t the fastest running back in the Big 12, but he’s probably the most punishing and he seems reborn. I think he’s in for a monster 2014 that is going to end with all conference honors and an NFL roster spot. Also good news, the return of Jonathan Gray. He ruptured his Achilles at West Virginia, but his recovery has been meteoric. He’s back, he’s ready to go and in full contact and full participation. Expect to see the very familiar 1-2 punch of Brown and Gray with MB getting the start.
More good news is the arrival of D’Onta Foreman. The 6-foot, 215-pound twin brother of Amanti had transcript issues and needed a summer school class to become eligible. He took it, aced it and now he’s here and ready to get to work. He wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, but Texas likes his big frame and the power running he can provide. And with 4.4 speed he’s got the ability to bust a long one after contact. With 4-star incoming freshman Catalon on the shelf for (likely) the remainder of fall camp, Foreman has a chance to lock up the No.3 tailback spot. He will need to show the staff he can block and catch the ball, which was something Catalon had done very well in the summer and early fall camp. He’s not out for the year or anything, but his injury has opened the door for Foreman to get reps that he might not have gotten. The end result is two very good tailbacks fighting for likely one spot. I think Catalon will hold onto that spot if he returns and has no lingering effects, but anything can happen. The x-factor is Daje Johnson. The junior has NFL ability and, from what I heard, was a monster on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom this summer. There were eligibility concerns (he missed the bowl due to academic ineligibility) and buy-in concerns from the outside, but he answered both emphatically — he’s a Longhorn. But something happened and he’ll miss game time this fall. I think the reason no length of suspension was given was because it’s entirely up to the players. If they come in with good attitudes, work hard and do what’s asked (like practicing with the true freshmen on the first day rather than with the veterans), their suspension time can be minimal. So far it seems the 5-foot-10, 178-pound Pflugerville native is doing everything asked of him. He’s got a gear that few on the team have and his ability to catch, run and make plays in the open field make him equally as dangerous as a running back or wide out. He’ll play both, it’s just a matter of when he gets the chance.
When everyone is healthy/unsuspended, the running back corps will be very, very deep. As of right now, though, it’s Malcolm Brown and J. Gray carrying the load with the bulk of the carries going to Brown, who seems ready to explode all over the Big 12.
No position has been hit harder with injuries/felonies than the wide out spot. Going into the season the top five were: Jaxon Shipley, Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders, Daje Johnson, Montrel Meander. We talked about DJ already, Sanders and Meander are no more, Shipley is out with a hamstring and MJ is recovering from surgery. Johnson is back and Shipley will be back and everyone knows what these two bring to the table: terrific routes, great hands and hard work. Johnson’s big play ability out of the slot was outstanding last year and with a quarterback that has a stronger arm, he should be even more dangerous. But there are three spots open Behind them, and up for grabs. The three that are jumping into the mix right away are Jacorey Warrick, Armanti Foreman and Lorenzo Joe. All bring different things to the table. Warrick is a Ryan Broyles-type that excels at the screen game, using his speed, quickness and elusiveness to find a crease outside and explode to daylight. He’s slight at 5-foot-11, 172 pounds, but he’s great as a slot receiver and terrific in traffic. Foreman (brother of D’Onta) is, and I quote, “Daje-like.” He’s got 4.43 speed like Johnson and could excel in the backfield or outside, just like Johnson. He’s been the biggest surprise of camp so far, showing big play ability and that 4.43 speed he has. With the pending suspension, look for Foreman to get those D. Johnson reps and “Daje-like” opportunities, moving all around the field to find mismatches to make plays. Lorenzo Joe is the biggest of the three at 6-foot-2, 201 pounds. The true freshman is big, polished and has great hands. He isn’t nearly as fast as the other two are, but he’s a big guy that can make plays by out-muscling and out-sizing the defender. If I had to pick one to step into the third or fourth spot, I’ll go with Foreman. He’s had the best camp of the three and is a bit of a combination of the other two. At 6-feet, 190 pounds he’s bigger and more physical than Warrick and that 4.43 speed means he’s faster than just about everyone on the team, Lorenzo Joe included. Assuming Shipley is back for the opener (I do) and Johnson is out for the opener (I do), the top three would be: Marcus Johnson, Shipley, Foreman. Moving into the four and five wide sets, include Warrick and Joe. Both are going to play and play a lot, but I think Foreman is a little higher up the ladder at this point. A guy to keep an eye on is Jake Oliver. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound redshirt freshman is getting a lot of attention at h-back (hybrid fullback, lead blocker, tight end) and is doing very well. He’s got excellent hands and size and his ability to block is getting him reps. He is not disappointing. Also not disappointing, walk-on Ty Templin. The sophomore isn’t the biggest guy out there (6-feet, 195 pounds) but he’s far from the smallest. He runs good routes, has shown great hands and knows where to be and when to be there. It’s another terrific story of a guy working his way to the top for PT. It gets everyone paying attention: the five-star recruits that are getting beaten out, the walk-ons wanting a fair shot and everyone in between. Good luck, Ty.
The move of Oliver to the h-back spot might be foreboding for the tight end corps. Geoff Swaim is a guy the staff is expecting a big year from. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound senior has emerged as a team leader that is vocal and leads from the front. He makes sure everyone is putting in the work and handling their business and his teammates respect him. He’s going to be more involved in the passing game this year as he showed the ability to catch the ball well in the spring and summer. He’s going to be a good safety valve for the quarterback. Greg Daniels is a solid blocker, but not a pass-catching threat. MJ McFarland should be the guy playing h-back, but it’s Oliver getting the reps. What does that mean for McFarland? It doesn’t sound good, does it?
I like what Texas is going have out there when everyone is healthy. Shipley and Johnson are play makers, and the addition of Foreman and the return of Johnson will free up everyone to make more plays as there are too many weapons for the defense to focus on. Assuming everyone is healthy, I think the Texas passing game is going to overwhelm people who are expecting 75 rushes a game.
But an offense is only as good as the boys up front. It doesn’t matter how good your quarterback is, how deep your running back corps is or how talented the wide outs are, if you can’t block you can’t move the ball. Texas struggled many times in the last few years blocking and they paid for it. Charlie Strong brought in the best ol coach in the country in Joe Wickline to rebuild and reshape the boys up front. He’s a real teacher, explaining and critiquing as plays and drills are happening, and he will absolutely get on someone’s behind if he isn’t doing it right. But it isn’t about yelling, it’s about learning. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be berated if they aren’t learning something from it. He’s teaching footwork, body position and angles all the time. And the result will be the technically sound machine you saw at Oklahoma State. The real question is how fast it will take. He has some excellent tools to work with.
At center Dominic Espinosa returns. The 6-foot-2, 308-pound senior is an awards candidate and looks like he’s beefed up enough to handle the workload at center. At times over the last few years, he’s struggled with the bigger and stronger defensive linemen in the league, but he’s holding his own with guys like Malcom Brown and Hassan Ridgeway. That’s been the only knock on him, and it seems he’s addressed it. That’s terrific for Texas because he’s the anchor up front that does a great job of making the protection calls. Also returning is Kent Perkins, who I raved about plenty recently. The guy has all conference ability and I think with a full year of starting this fall you’ll see it, as will the coaches in the Big 12. He’s a monster at 6-foot-5, 330 pounds and is working his way back from injury; he should be ready to go by week one, it’s just a matter of where he plays. I think he starts outside at tackle with Desmond Harrison’s suspension. About Harrison: the senior has NFL abilities, and that’s not just me saying that. At 6-foot-8, 313 pounds, he towers over the line and has the range and ability to cover so much ground outside it’s scary. Wickline is slowly turning him into that next level player, but he’s suspended at least one game. When he returns, I think Perkins slides inside to guard and the duo is going to mash. MASH. On the other side Kennedy Estelle returns at tackle, where he started eight games last year. Not quite as big as Harrison at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds, he’s still an imposing figure with good feet and athleticism. The one spot up for grabs is at guard, where Taylor Doyle, Sedrick Flowers and Rami Hammad are battling for. It seems, to me at least, that it’s more of a Flowers-Hammad battle, though Doyle is holding his own (rooting for you, Taylor- I know your childhood nanny). But Wickline doesn’t just want a starting five, he wants guys that can move around and play in different place. Interchangeable guys that can jump in there and take over seamlessly. He’s mixing and matching, moving guys inside and outside to find where they fit in best. Jake Raulerson started at tackle one day and then was the backup center the next. He’s tweaking it, fine-tuning, on the fly to find his best combination and best depth. I expect that will continue the rest of camp, but when Texas steps on the field against North Texas I think the lineup will be this: Perkins, Doyle, Espinosa, Flowers, Estelle. When Harrison returns look for it be Harrison, Perkins, Espinosa, Flowers, Estelle with Raulerson, Doyle, true freshman Alex Anderson and Darius James (out with a foot injury) being the main guys off the bench, filling in where they are needed. (Rami Hammad has next level talent, but he’s gotten crossways with Joe Wickline and is openly talking about transferring. We’ll see)
It won’t be flashy and it might take a game or two before everyone understands their roles, but I think the Texas ol is going to be LIGHT YEARS better this fall than you’ve seen them in a very long time. The talent is too good and the coaching too good to expect it to be anything less than much better.
There are issues: David Ash has been hurt. A lot. The offensive line is a shuffle-in-progress. The injuries, suspensions and dismissals have decimated the skill positions, leaving untested players in the starting lineup and anorexic depth at wide out and special teams. But there are knowns: Malcolm Brown, Jonathan Gray, Marcus Johnson. Texas has talent on the offense, and as long as David Ash is good, I think Texas is good. The running game is legit and will open up the passing game, and there are some serious play makers out there. It’s up to the boys up front to make that running game click, and with Joe Wickline in charge I think they will. Will it be perfect from the start? No, but as long as it’s going in the right direction you’ll hear no complaints from me. That’s not true at all. I will complain.
See you next week for game one!