FROM THE STANDS: Doldrums

DOLDRUMS

noun plural  dol·drums \ˈdōl-drəmz, ˈdäl-, ˈdȯl-\

: a state or period of sadness or depression

: a state or period in which there is no activity or improvement

That is where we are right now, neck deep in the middle of the doldrums. The College World Series is going on, but we aren’t there. There are 100 games left in the Major League Baseball regular season. The NBA Finals, very popular at my house, will end this week (update: it did end)  along with the NHL. We are still a month away from NFL teams reporting to camp and seven or eight weeks away from college football teams reporting for camp. What are we left with in the interval? Yeah, doldrums.

Still, there are some interesting things in the college football world happening. Let’s take a look:

  • The minute the NFL jumped on the Thanksgiving night train, I said Texas needed to let go of that game and move it. The Horns will draw the state, but the national audience is more interested in the pros. That’s just a fact and the ratings proved it. My idea was to move that game to Friday night and get the national spotlight once again. Who plays on Friday night of Thanksgiving weekend? No one, that’s who. People have been out shopping all day and are back at the house with nothing to do, let’s give them the Texas Longhorns. Well someone else agrees with me — TCU and Baylor. The game of the year in the Big 12 and quite possibly the entirety of college football in 2014 is the scheduled for that weekend, and both teams enter the season ranked in the top 10 (top 6 actually). The way it all went down and how they both finished last year make it a national story, and both schools have agreed to have the game on Friday. Not in the day time like so many others, but at 6:30pm on ESPN. It’s a great idea for both schools as the entire country will be watching. Well done to both. I wish Texas would have listened to me and done it first.
  • The oklahoma sooners media relations department is going to have a long summer. Bob Stoops welcomes back two players who missed last season for assault: running back Joe Mixon for beating up a girl and linebacker Frank Shannon for violating the school’s sexual misconduct policy. Both are terrific on the field, as Shannon was an All-Big 12 linebacker in 2013 and Mixon was a 5-star running back and the star of the 2014 recruiting class. On the field they will make the sooners better, but off the field is where the media relations dept. will earn its money. It’s a different age now, post-Ray Rice. Teams and organizations are very aware of how they are perceived and they handle things differently. Here’s a perfect example: In 2007 Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs wrecked his car and fled. He later reported the car stolen, but then confessed that “he panicked” obviously due to the things he was doing that helped contribute to the wreck, and turned himself in. He was released on a $100 bond and head coach Lovie Smith said he would face no discipline and that Briggs’ “… spirits were good for being in a one-car accident.” Jump to 2015, when Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes fled the scene of a hit-and-run accident and abandoned his car. The Patriots didn’t tell the press about his spirits, they just cut him. Spikes’ accident was a little more serious and his relationship was not great with the Pats to begin with, but that’s essentially the same thing and eight years ago it cost Lance Briggs $100, this year is cost Brandon Spikes his job. Not a single entity wants to be dragged through the mud publicly like the Baltimore Ravens were after the Ray Rice fiasco. After already going through the deflated balls thing with all the emails and texts released, it’s no surprise New England washed their hands of Spikes rather than go through anything else like that again.  So, long story short, the sooners are going to have a hard time selling this to the general public and don’t be surprised to see some student groups not at all down with their reinstatement. Stoops doesn’t care a bit about what any of us think; he’s going to sell this as “us against them” and try to circle the wagons and be brash, blustery and all “you can go ahead write what you wanna write” like he always is and that’ll be the official team response to any questions. Unless something else happens … or they don’t play well … then the sharks will circle, and it will be up to the PR department (media relations) to handle that. I’m glad that’s not me having to do that, for a variety of reasons. This isn’t even just my opinion, their own paper said the same thing.
  • Have you ever heard Craig Way’s Bob Stoops impersonation? It’s brilliant, and when I wrote that sentence above I could hear him in my head.
  • The college conference commissioners are voting this week to decide if they will allow a 3-day early signing period for football recruiting. That signing period would come after the end of the regular season and before the bowls, likely December 16th or so. It would be available to seniors only and would be tested for two years and then re-evaluated. The Big 12, ACC, Big Ten, Pac 12, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt are all in favor while Conference USA and the AAC are undecided. The SEC is against it, so that alone makes it worth doing. It will definitely change things as far as early recruiting goes. Charlie Strong seems to like to close late, which would be a problem if the top tier kids all sign early, but most of those kids enjoy the process and want to take their time. Still, it would be a change of approach for Strong & Co if it passes, as I expect it will.
  • 11 weeks from right now we’ll be on the brink of college football. It starts on Thursday, September 3rd. The marquee game of the first night is probably the Maize and Blue debut of Jim Harbaugh, as Michigan plays Utah at 7:30 on FS1. The Big 12 kicks off opening night, too, with Oklahoma State at Central Michigan (6 pm, ESPN) and TCU at Minnesota ( 8pm, ESPN). Other games that first night are North Carolina vs. South Carolina in Charlotte, which sounds better than it is. Does South Carolina play in that first Thursday game every single year? Yes, yes they do. Moving on to Friday, the biggest game is Chris Peterson and Washington traveling to Boise State to play his former team and protégé Bryan Harsin. That should be very emotional and fun to watch. Oh yeah, Baylor begins their 3-peat quest at SMU that Friday, where they will probably score 200 points. As for Saturday, the big one is Texas at Notre Dame. And not just for Texas and Dome fans, this will be a huge game nationally. You can say a lot of things about Texas, but they will play some big names in the non-conference (looking directly at you, Baylor). Other games that day worth noting: Wisconsin vs. Alabama at Texas Stadium (7 pm, ABC), Louisville vs. Auburn in Atlanta (2:30 pm, CBS), BYU at Nebraska (2:30, ABC) and our friends in College Station, who play Arizona State in Houston (no time yet announced). Go Fork.
  • Actually the first game of the year is a little over 10 weeks from now. North Dakota State at Montana is set for 2:30 pm on Saturday, August 29th on ESPN. My gosh, those kids are about six weeks away from reporting.

But even the kids at North Dakota State and Montana aren’t putting the pads on just yet. Let’s take this totally boring time in the sports world to finish up our spring look at what possibly is the biggest question mark on the entire team.

 

Texas Spring Breakdown — Special Teams

I think the defense is going to be solid. I think the offense is going to be improved and score some points. Neither unit will look like it should to start the season, but I think you know what to expect. Special teams, however, is a complete wild card. Let’s take a look at the personnel:

The Incumbents — Nick Rose (Sr), Nick Jordan (Jr), Daje Johnson (Sr), Armanti Foreman (So), Marcus Johnson (Sr), Roderick Bernard (So)

The Contenders — Jacorey Warrick (Jr), Mitchell Becker (So), Kyle Ashby (Jr), Jak Holbrook (RFr), Matt Center (So)

The Incoming — John Burt (Fr), Ryan Newsome (Fr)

Texas lost a lot from last year with the punter, punt return men, holder and Nate Boyer all moving on. In their place steps a lot of very inexperienced and very talented young players with the potential for big plays, but also the potential for big mistakes. Also gone with that experience is a whole mess of “meh.” Texas was, at best, as average as could be last year on special teams. At worst they cost Texas two wins, sucked all the momentum out of a great effort in another and helped create a complete blowout. And there’s lots more. Allow me to elaborate:

  • A terrible punt in the UCLA game turned a 17-13 lead with three minutes to play into a loss when the returner was allowed to take the ball 45 yards to the Texas 33. One play later was a 33-yard td pass on a sluggo route and Texas lost, 20-17.
  • After scoring on the opening drive and grabbing all the momentum, Texas gave it away when they allowed ou to run the ensuing kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown. A 3-0 lead that built confidence gave way to a 7-3 deficit.
  • Playing Baylor off their feet, Texas tried a 52-yard field goal on their opening drive after stopping the Bears to start the game. It was blocked, returned for a touchdown and the possible 3-0 lead turned into a 7-0 hole. Final score was 28-7, but there’s no telling how that ends if they connect.
  • The TCU game was ugly, but it’s less ugly if the Horns played any special teams: TCU ran the punt off the game’s opening possession back 53 yards to set up a field goal, a fumble on a punt set up the Frogs at the Texas 19 and another score. It was an ugly night on national TV, one made far worse by the special teams.

If Texas doesn’t make those costly mistakes against UCLA and ou, you are likely looking at 8-4 team that potentially got the Aggies in the bowl game rather than Arkansas. What recruiting advantage would a 9-4 record have given Charlie Strong? What confidence do wins over the Bruins and sooners give the team? Who knows? What we do know is I’m not even mentioning the  other mistakes, poor decisions and just bad play that led to huge setbacks on kickoff and punt returns as well as penalties and breakdowns on coverage. The return game was non-existent, the points team was inconsistent and the coverage was spotty. The result was, well, the result. In short, the Texas special teams was a dumpster fire. That’s the bad news. The good news is it’s a new year and there’s a new voice and coach making decisions. Let’s see why that’s the case.

First of all, Jeff Traylor comes in as the special teams coordinator as well as the tight ends coach. I’ve said for years that special teams is all about emotion and energy, and it was clear last year Texas didn’t have nearly enough of either on the field. A new coach brings new eyes, new ideas and new intensity. Traylor had great success at Gilmer High School, but now he’s a guy trying to make a name for himself in the college ranks, just like the kids on the special teams unit. He wants his guys as fired up and excited to be there as he is. That attitude and emotion bleeds into the players. Remember Duane Akina coaching Texas special teams? Me, too. Traylor will bring a sense of urgency and importance to a unit that frankly I didn’t see last year. That alone is going to make things better.

Back to kick for points is Nick Rose. The senior has an exceptional leg but hasn’t been consistent so far. He seems to be getting there after a solid spring and spring game. Last season he was 14-21 on field goals and 30-32 on P.A.T.’s. You have to think he’ll be better this year by experience. A kickoff specialist for the early part of his career, he took over the points duties last fall and struggled at times, but in the spring game he went 4-5. Texas doesn’t want to kick five field goals in a game, but if they do a kicker going 4-5 is pretty good. Still, stop missing field goals. I think he’s going to be a strength this fall with that leg and that hair, plus he can do this. In all seriousness, until last fall he was a young guy that didn’t have much pressure on him and with that pressure added he struggled at times. Now a senior that has been through an entire season as the points kicker, I think he rises up and plays well, and clutch, this fall. If he struggles look for Nick Jordan (formerly Points Nick) to get another crack, but I don’t think he will.

Theoretically Texas has a terrific punt returner in Daje Johnson. He’s the guy that did this. The problem is that’s not happened nearly enough. Firmly in the doghouse in 2014, Johnson watched as the seniors fair-caught their way through the entire season. I don’t know if it was by design or if it was the players themselves, but Texas was non-existent in the punt return game. I think Johnson returns this fall with a chip on his shoulder and a purpose, and you will see it manifest in the punt return game. He has NFL skills, but he needs to showcase them if he plans to make money doing this. So far this spring and summer he’s done everything the staff has asked him to do and I expect he’ll get the first chance to return punts to make an impact. He is sudden, quick and decisive; the only problem is at times he tries to do too much, but after watching that nonsense last year I’ll take my chances. If Johnson cannot regain that form, look for Texas to turn to wide outs Armanti Foreman and Roderick Bernard. I like Bernard a lot as he seems like a natural kick returner. But he’s recovering from an acl injury suffered in late October so he might not be ready to go, or they might slow him down to make sure he doesn’t get re-injured. Foreman seems like a smaller version of Johnson with his suddenness and burst, and I think could do very well back there, but I think it’s Johnson’s to lose.

The wildcard in all of this is incoming freshman Ryan Newsome. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound wide out is an absolute demon at the return position. He’s got skills and vision like no one else on the roster in my opinion, and I am certain he’s going to lock up a position as kick returner in some capacity — either at punt returner, kick returner or both. Texas eventually will give him a shot at both spots and he will excel, but it’s a matter of when.  I think the senior Johnson holds him off and retains the punt return job, but it won’t be set in stone.

As for the kick return game, I expect it to be Foreman and Newsome. Texas needs some spice in the kick return sauce because it was bland and weak last year, which is why I’m not mentioning last year’s return guys here.

The surprise of the spring was punter Mitchell Becker. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound sophomore from Clear Lake is unknown to most Longhorn fans, but he’s been in the program for three years now, entering his redshirt sophomore season. He was a 2nd Team All District punter and handled the kicking duties (points, kickoffs and punts) for two years in high school. He punted five times in the spring game and showed great accuracy, getting two downed inside the 20. He didn’t look nervous or overwhelmed in the least and he seems to be the frontrunner in the summer. And he has Nick Rose-like hair, which can’t hurt.

With Nate Boyer off to Seattle to play for the Seahawks, Texas is looking for another long snapper and a new holder (that was Jaxon Shipley last year). Expect to see Kyle Ashby, the fourth year junior, take over the snapping duties. He was the deep snapper in 2012 and backed up Nate Boyer the last two years. He has plenty of experience and should be a steady and consistent snapper for Rose and Becker. The holder is typically a guy that can make a play with the ball on a fake or if something breaks down. I think the guy they’ll give the first look at is quarterback Trey Holtz. He also seems like the perfect fit, and since he’s the one holding for Nick Rose on the flipgoal, it seems like he already has the job. If that doesn’t work, look for someone like Kai Locksley to get a shot.

The wildcard and unknown in all special teams is filling out the coverage teams. Typically it’s the younger players that get a shot. It’s the fastest way for them to get on the field and make an impact, but it isn’t easy. It’s extra work, usually before practice starts, after it ends or while the offense and defense are on breaks (where they all have their regular positions to work out), and it takes a special kind of lunatic that wants that extra work. The good news for Texas is this incoming freshmen class is as hungry and prepared as any I can remember seeing hit The 40. Every single one of them wants to play and play now, and they want to win. That means they are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. They are excited to be here, excited to be Longhorns and ready to show the Big 12 how good they can be. That’s EXACTLY the type of players you want covering kicks and punts, because those guys are special kinds of lunatics. We’ll see who Jeff Traylor selects soon enough.

 

So …

There is no faster way to change a game than on special teams, either good or bad. Last year there was far more bad than good, and just by experience, talent level and energy alone this unit should be better. It has to be, because honestly it couldn’t be much worse. A consistent Nick Rose and Mitchell Becker can do wonders for this team. We’re still two-plus months until the lights come on, so the hope is Becker and Rose can find their groove as Jeff Traylor finds his return men and cover teams.

Special Teams was a huge liability last year; it’s time for that to change and if spring were any indication, it’s trending the right way.

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