As I flipped around the channels the other night, I caught the end of game five of the 2011 NBA Finals, where the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat in Dallas and headed to South Beach needing to win only one of the next two to lock up the first-ever NBA Championship for the Mavs. As I watched it I remembered how sweet it was as it was happening, because not only was the basketball team I’d been a fan of literally since its inception about to win a ring, but it was going to avenge the worst professional sports moment of my life (up to that point. Thanks to Nelson Cruz it’s been replaced). In 2006 the Mavericks were up 2-0 against the Miami Heat in NBA Finals before it all came crashing down. Dallas lost the last four in a Dwyane-Wade-to-the-free-throw-line-way-too-many-times debacle that sent my summer spiraling downward. I didn’t think they’d ever get there again. It took five years to get back, but they got back. And facing them would be the new media darlings of the NBA, the same team that beat them in 2006. Except this team was different. This was a store-bought Miami Heat team with their three-headed superstar monster and their enormous bandwagon of casual fans that were heavy favorites against the regional Mavericks, whose fans were almost entirely from the D/FW area. A series win for the Mavs would be sweet revenge for the pain of 2006. It all came back… All but the hate for Miami.
I always compared Lebron James to Alex Rodriguez: supremely talented, supremely gifted, supremely celebrated and supremely dense. As each rose the ranks of their sport, they seemed to lose touch with the sport that helped them get there. At times they couldn’t get out of their own way: A-Rod’s nonsense in Toronto, James’ decision, the photo shoot and the pep rally seem like easily avoidable PR nightmares that most people could easily navigate, but these two just couldn’t help themselves. For James the apex of jerk was those 2011 NBA Finals. Assembled to win immediately, the world assumed the Heat and the “Big Three” (Wade, James and Chris Bosh) would destroy all comers, especially the old, slow Dallas Mavericks. And the Heat wanted Dallas and everyone else to know it. Dwyane Wade taunted the Dallas bench in game one and the arrogant duo of Wade and James mocked Dirk Nowitzki after he fought through the flu. They were coming off as the spoiled rich kids that weren’t getting their way and it all came to head in the post-game press conference after Dallas won the NBA Title in Miami. A petulant Lebron James infamously showed new heights of arrogance in that press conference and he became the perfect example of the arrogant, self-righteous, insulated and pampered athlete. Just like A-Rod, James had become a thoroughly unlikeable guy to many, many people.
And then it all changed. Rather than dig himself a deeper hole, James went into hiding for the summer of 2011. He retooled his game, seeking the advice of others. He retooled his life, bringing his family to Miami and creating a familiar and comfortable inner circle. He retooled his attitude, staying away from the public appearances and stopped trying win the court of public opinion (something A-Rod has yet to do). He focused on what got him there in the first place- hoops.
The result was an NBA Championship for James and the Heat in 2012. Rather than succombing to the (bigger) media circus, the Heat, led by the new LeBron James, became even more-laser focused. And in the process they became pretty damned funny. They stopped taking everything not on the court so seriously, including themselves, and really seemed to be having fun. Another ring followed in 2013, but none of the bickering and chemistry issues that plagued the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe or even the Indiana Pacers now have shown up. It would be easy to start point fingers when things went wrong, or for one of the Big Three to be unhappy with the lack of attention/shots/adoration/whatever, but it hasn’t happened yet. Truly impressive.
I am not a Heat fan by any means and I still love that 2011 NBA Finals, but as much grief as I gave Miami and LeBron James in this column and on the radio, I feel obliged to tell the same people I no longer feel that way. The Heat seemed to have grown up and maybe so did I.
On to the Horns.
Texas baseball is always a good barometer of the coming football season. Well, not always, but there are similarities. Usually when the baseball team makes it to the College World Championship Series, it means good things for the football team. Texas made it in 2004, losing to Cal-State Fullerton, and the football team won the Rose Bowl later that season. In 2005 both football and baseball were National Champs. In 2009, baseball lost to LSU and football lost to Bama in the National Championship. It isn’t a perfect correlation, but it’s good enough. Right? Right. I bring this up because the Longhorns have all the makings of a team that could make a run for the CWS this year. A second matchup with Rice in a week, throwing the same pitcher again, didn’t go as well as they liked, but the Horns are deep, talented and, as usual, they have a killer pitching staff. The Horns lead the league with a 1.98 team ERA and are second in the Big 12 in fielding percentage. The team batting average in .269, which is seventh in the league, but unlike last year Texas is getting timely hits and, most importantly, plating runs with two outs. Ask Baylor about that. They are getting hits at the right time, the loss to Rice aside.
This is a HUGE weekend for the Longhorns as they travel to oklahoma to play the sooners. Texas (6-2) and ou (4-3) are tied atop the league standings and a series win puts someone in the driver’s seat for the regular season crown. Game one is Friday night at 6pm, game two is Saturday at 4 and game three is Sunday at 2:30, airing on ESPNU.
Let’s go, Horns. It’s 10:14 pm and…
This week we are going to talk about special teams, so let’s do that.
Spring Football – Special Teams Goals
My annual special teams disclaimer: Your casual fan is not overly concerned with special teams. Sure, there is the sensational punt return or game-winning field goal but more times than not it’s a great punt, or punts, or good coverage on kickoffs that determine the game. Actually no, it’s poor kicks, poor coverage, missed extra points, missed blocks that are killers and usually decide games. There is a reason every single coach in the world talks about three phases of the game: they are all extremely important.
We are all friends, right? I can speak frankly, then. I am SCARED TO DEATH about the punting and points team this fall. Anthony Fera is gone and with him goes an NFL leg at punter and placekicker. And in his place steps… gulp.
There are lots of athletes, lots of talent and lots of options for Texas on special teams going forward; but plenty of questions, too. Let’s take a look at what the Longhorns need to do this spring to answer some of these questions.
In case you are wondering what “points” means, it’s what I call the P.A.T. and field goal teams. What’s the goal of that unit? Points. The offense can be used to kill the clock, or drive into position for a kick, but the P.A.T. and field goal teams have one goal every single time they step on the field: points. So, I call it the points team.
Anthony Fera is not coming back through that door. A combination of Kickoff Nick (Rose), Points Nick (Jordan), Will Russ, Ben Pruitt and Michael Davidson are being put through the paces by the new staff to find out who has the ability to make big kicks and the mentality to want those big kicks, like Anthony Fera and guys like Justin Tucker, Hunter Lawrence, Ryan Bailey and Dusty Mangum before him.
No one has taken the job and run with it yet. SOMEONE MUST TAKE THE JOB AND RUN WITH IT. This is the top priority of the entire unit this spring.
This must get done.
Not only was Anthony Fera a terrific placekicker, he was also a dynamite punter. Texas got spoiled the last few years with Fera, Alex King and Justin Tucker. Now it’s time to find that next guy. Candidates are Will Russ and redshirt freshman Mitchell Becker at this point and information is scarce, but the fact that no one is getting any attention from the staff in the media tells me no one has taken the job yet. The goal this spring is to find the one guy, whoever that may be, that can separate from the rest. I don’t know if anyone can do that, but that’s goal.
Come on, Will Russ, step into the spot light.
3. Unleash Daje
There were times last year when Daje Johnson looked like Rocket Ismail back in the day. but there were other times when he looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. He was a roller coaster of terrific and “what!” and the goal this spring is to get him more consistent. He is a true game-breaker that can affect change on the field with a big return, but he must eliminate the mistakes (West Virginia).
Daje Johnson was a guy Iwas worried about when Charlie Strong was hired. For all his talent, there were off-the-field issues, and Charlie Strong doesn’t seem like a guy with much tolerance for a player that missed three of the 26 games of his career to suspension. But credit to Daje, because he’s flourishing under the tough love and accountability of Strong. He’s going to class, the weight room, meetings, etc. and making strides on and off the field.
Kick returner is never something that coaches will talk much about in spring. No reason to give the coming opponents something to plan for, right? So you won’t hear much about the progress, but know they are working on it. If it goes they way they want it to (by “they” I mean “me”) Johnson will be the main man returning kicks. I expect others like Kendall Sanders, Duke Thomas and a host of other athletes will get a shot as well, either to challenge for the punt return job or be the other return man on kickoffs, but I think Johnson is the man they want.
4. Block Party
Texas was one of the best kick-blocking teams in all of college football under Mack Brown. The ability to block kicks significantly dropped off the last four years, but Texas lined up athletes in good spots to get to the kicker. The new staff will surely do the same… Never mind. POINTS KICKER. That’s the one. And punter. and points kicker. Please get this sorted. PLEASE.
There are plenty of aspects I’m not that worried about as they relate to special teams. Things like kickoffs (Kickoff Nick is TERRIFIC), coverage of kicks and getting enough speed on the field to make the units elite are all there. Nate Boyer will handle snaps and the staff has plenty of options at holder, but there are some definite concerns to be addressed.
So let’s get them addressed. Yes? Let’s find that points kicker and that punter. If they can do that, I think everything else falls into place.