FROM THE STANDS: Spring Football – Offensive Goals

Texas lost to Michigan on Saturday afternoon in round two of the NCAA Tournament. I honestly never thought I’d be typing anything regarding “Texas” and “NCAA Tournament” this year. I thought Texas was going to win nine games this season. This is, after all, the same team that lost to Chaminade last year …  Well that’s not even true. The team that lost to Chaminade had several upperclassmen that left the program in the off-season and were replaced by freshmen. I expected nothing this year and what I got was a team that had terrific chemistry, terrific heart and the ability to absolutely house a big name opponent. This young team was the surprise of the Big 12 and produced A+ efforts in wins over Kansas, K-State, Iowa State, a regular season sweep of Baylor and a win over Stephen F. Austin. But they also had some very, very poor days on the road at KU, K-State, Iowa State and Tech. There was very little middle ground for Texas; they were outstanding or they were awful.

In round two against the Maze, they were awful shooting the ball in the first half and they didn’t seem to understand you can’t leave a red-hot shooting Michigan team WIDE OPEN at the three point line about 25 times. So maddening. I wanted it to go a different way, but I was really impressed how they shook off that terrible start and cut an 18-point lead to six before the Wolverines pulled away. No shame in losing to Michigan, the national runner up last year and Big Ten regular season champions this year. I thought they grew up a lot in that game and I was impressed they didn’t lie down, because the team last year just lies down, but that team last year never gets to the second round of the NCAA Tournament because that team last year could never do this.

So I am not mad, I am not throwing things thinking “What if?” I am excited for the future of this basketball team because everyone is coming back. EVERYONE. IS COMING BACK. If the Longhorns can just get Myles Turner another scorer they have the size and talent to tear it up. If only there were a Myles Turner guy like that with next level ability. Possibly a guy from the D/FW area? Hmm.

Nice season, Horns, let’s take the next step in 14/15.

What did I tell you about a longhorn vs. a Quaker? No contest. Now the turtle awaits. Texas vs. Maryland, Tuesday night at 6 on ESPN2. Good luck, ladies. (UPDATE: Texas lost. Stupid turtle.)

Texas is starting week two of spring practice, and the limited amount of info out there is consistent on a few things: The tempo and intensity of practice are light years beyond the way it used to be, the physicality of the practices is light years beyond where it used to be and they actually tackle. Texas has always liked to run “Thud Tempo” in practice which is an alternative to full contact tackling. In thud tempo when a player is wrapped up, the play is whistled dead. No one goes to the ground and there are few violent hits because once the defender’s arms are around the ball carrier, the play is over. The idea behind thud tempo is, “You save your players from injuries and you keep everyone fresh.” And that’s fine on a Thursday practice when the team is in shells and shorts before a game on Saturday, but at some point you have to, you know, PRACTICE TACKLING. Because if you go thud tempo all the time — Texas went thud tempo A LOT — you get BYU. Charlie Strong has no intention of having a BYU.

He also has no intention of busing players to the practice facility. The guys now walk from the field house to the practice bubble. I am not sure how I feel about that, but nobody asked my opinion so I guess it doesn’t matter.

Last week we talked about quarterbacks and seeing that the spring game is four weeks away, I am changing up the game plan. Instead of breaking down each individual unit, I am breaking down the offense, defense and special teams. This week we start with the offense.

 

Four Things — The Offense

That thud tempo thing is definitely a big talking point, but it also will affect the offense as much as the defense. Last year Joe Bergeron had to go to fumble rehab because he couldn’t hold on to the ball. But it was far from just a Joe B. problem: Jonathan Gray nearly sent the entire Texas staff packing at Iowa State — everyone is getting fired that night if Texas loses — and Malcolm Brown put it on the carpet at West Virginia in overtime. That, to me, is a direct result of not getting contact and attempted strips in practice. It’s easy to be loose and free with the ball when you never get completely tackled and if the ball carrier isn’t careful, muscle memory can take over in the worst of times. So, how do you fix that? You change the muscle memory by making it second nature to cover the ball in practice and in games. Running backs don’t like getting tackled and stripped of the ball, so they will most assuredly run harder in practice and take heed if that’s happening. Same thing with wide outs. The defense is tackling the ball carrier, so that means they are working harder to get there, which makes the offensive line work harder, because missed blocks lead to big hits, which produce fumbles, and produced fumbles mean running the same play again and/or running in general. No one wants to do that and no one wants to be the reason for that, so they are all dialed-in every play. It’s a great thing for everyone when the fall comes.

Texas has some things to sort out this spring on the offensive side of the ball, the first being what the offense will be. As I said last week, I expect a multiple offense that can open it up with five wides or bring the thunder with two or even three tight ends. But watch for this to be a no huddle approach to keep the defense from substituting. I don’t really know what that will look like yet, but I think it will be similar to the 2012 Oklahoma State attack with lots of runs and zone blocking up front. Whatever it is, it will feature the running game as Texas is pretty deep at tailback with Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. Jonathan Gray is recovering from the Achilles injury suffered at West Virginia and I expect he’ll be brought along slow and steady with two capable backs, Daje Johnson splitting time and Duke Catalon coming in this fall. Texas will be fine at tailback, but there are still some things that need to happen this spring for the Horns to be clicking when August gets here. We talked about the quarterback last week, so let’s move on to other questions about the offense and four things that need to happen for the Texas offense to be where it needs to be this fall. Here they are, with the most important being the first.

 

1. Attitude

You all know I am huge on chemistry and attitude, and I realized at some point in the last year that conditioning is a big part of creating attitude. You can be as mean and nasty as you want, but if you are too tired to stand up at the end of the game, it doesn’t matter. Pat Moorer completely changed the strength & conditioning program this off-season and the benefits will be seen immediately in spring practice. Reports from players were they had “never seen anything like it,” and it was on a completely different level than before. I still think Bennie Wylie could have turned this Texas team around had he been given the opportunity to run things his way, but he was never allowed that opportunity. With the coaching change and personnel changes, Pat Moorer has been allowed to run things his way and the result is a different team as far as conditioning goes. How that relates to the field is what is going on right now, but the first part of the Texas culture change is installed.

It isn’t easy changing the culture of a team. It’s messy, it’s ugly at times and you’ll lose guys in the process. In 2010 Mack Brown wanted a culture change because, in his eyes, Texas lost the National Title when Colt McCoy got hurt and they couldn’t run the ball. He wanted a tough-nosed, intense team that could control the clock, bloody the opponent’s nose and win a defensive game. Except he didn’t do much of anything to create that change other than state it publicly. He didn’t the strength and conditioning program to reflect what he wanted. He didn’t tailor his staff to ensure it worked. He didn’t recruit the type of guys that fit that scheme. And ultimately it was his downfall. Charlie Strong knows exactly what type of team he wants and he knows how to get it, via Coach Moorer. It’s gotten messy and ugly at times (ask Chet Moss and Leroy Scott), but the culture change is in full swing. Now it’s team to see how it looks in pads.

Whatever the offense will end up being, Texas needs to get some nasty on the field. I know the motto has always been win with nice guys who graduate, but that shouldn’t be recruiting criteria. Football isn’t a game for nice guys. Well, not your average nice guy anyway. It’s a violent, aggressive and brutal sport and the biggest, strongest and meanest guys win. I know that’s probably not a popular opinion, but it’s true. Sure, you don’t want players that kick puppies or steal lunch money, but being an appropriate adult is a far cry from nice. Don’t be rude, offensive or threatening off the field, but I could care less how nice someone is and I don’t think that should be a determining factor on coming to play football at Texas. I don’t want nice. I’m done with nice. I want nasty. There has been nasty at Texas (Kasey Studdard, Lyle Sendlein), but not nearly enough of it.

And that’s the most important thing to me. I want to see if this culture change has truly taken hold and if the PG13 has been replaced with an R rating. When Texas gets there, everything else will fall into place.

 

2. Offensive Line

I’ll not expound any further on point 1, but suffice it to say it needs to manifest in the boys up front first and foremost. A great offensive line can mask a lot of issues and cover up a lot of inexperience, so Texas creating a great offensive line is the biggest x’s and o’s priority of the spring in my opinion. Three starters, actually four, are gone from last year’s team with the departure of guards Trey Hopkins and Mason Walters and tackles Donald Hawkins and Josh Cochran, who had to retire due to a bad shoulder. There is a lot of talent up front, but it isn’t very experienced. New offensive line coach Joe Wickline is a master of retooling and refining offensive linemen, and I see no reason to think he can’t duplicate his Oklahoma State success at Texas.

 

At center returns Dominic Espinosa, who has been the starter for three years. He’s up to 305 pounds and that’s big news, because at times he has struggled with the bigger, more physical tackles in the Big 12. But now at 305 pounds he’s as big or bigger than they are. That hasn’t been the case for most of his career. I also think the (likely) zone scheme that Wickline is installing fits him better, as he is mobile enough to reach a man on his outside shoulder or a linebacker, and he’s likely not going to be asked to block one-on-one as often. The zone blocking scheme was much maligned under Greg Davis, but with Wickline looking at everything from the ol perspective, I see it being a great fit for Texas. Desmond Harrison, the big juco transfer, has been out the first week with a leg injury but I expect he wins one tackle job and Kennedy Estelle wins the other. Inside look for Kent Perkins, Darius James, Rammi Hammad, Jake Raulerson, Curtis Riser and already-on-campus-incoming-freshman Alex Anderson to compete for pt at guard and even some tackle, spelling the starters. Also expect the two deep to officially nailed down in the next four weeks.

 

This spring is about finding the five best and getting them working together. It isn’t an overnight process, but it’s the second most important thing in my mind.

 

3. Daje

Texas doesn’t have a lot of consistent playmakers on the field. Except Daje. The guy has the ability to take over a game: He scored on the first play of the game against Baylor in 2012, house called that punt against ou and is a threat to score just about any time he touches the ball. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, he’s got the size to play both running back and slot as well as line up as a traditional wide receiver. He’s got blazing speed, terrific hands and great moves and all the intangibles to be a superstar. I keep comparing him to Ramonce Taylor, but the problem is he’s had some off-the-field Ramonce-Taylor-esque issues as well. I love Ramonce Taylor, he’s one of my favorite Longhorns of all time, and he seems to have straightened out all the non-football issues in his life, and while Johnson hasn’t been arrested or charged with a felony like Taylor was, there are similarities in game and perceived attitude. Johnson missed his first-ever college game for a violation of team rules that may or may not have been related to a verbal spat with a coach. He was suspended for the Thanksgiving game with Texas Tech and again for the Alamo Bowl against Oregon. That’s three suspensions in 16 months. That is not going to fly with Charlie Strong, who’s already sent two players packing for one infraction. There was much concern that Johnson would wither under the rules and regs of the Strong regime and be out… only it went the other way.

So far this off-season, Daje Johnson has been a model citizen. He’s been going to class, making his lifts and study hall, showing up to meetings on time. Basically doing the things he might not have cared about a year ago. Some guys thrive in the tough love environment, and Johnson seems to be one of them.

As for on the field, Texas officially has him listed as WR/RB, meaning he’s playing both and I would assume spending more time with the wide outs. I expect to see him moved around a lot, going from tailback, to slot back to wide out, and possibly even sliding into the qb spot for some wildcat with Jonathan Gray rehabbing. He’s got a world of talent and so far the biggest obstacle to his being a star has been himself, but at least early on it looks like the Strong authoritarian approach is working for him.

Texas needs more than one playmaker and they certainly have more than one with Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders, Jaxon Shipley, the running backs and a host of redshirts like Montrel Meander, Jacorey Warrick and Jake Oliver, but a proven game changer is a valuable commodity. With the running game Texas can put out there, a fully dialed-in and coached-up Daje Johnson can really do some damage. I can’t wait to see what they do with him.

I think he’s going to be All Big 12 next year.

 

4. Tight End

You guys all know what a tight end is, right? The Rob Gronkowski position? You might not remember since we haven’t had one in Austin on a consistent basis since Jermichael Finley was a Longhorn. That was seven years ago, by the way. Seven. Years. Ago. There have been nice tight end moments, like DJ Grant and Blaine Irby in 2011, but Texas hasn’t had a weapon at tight end since the Bush administration was in the White House. Bruce Chambers is still the tight ends coach, but he was also the coach when Texas had Bo Scaife, David Thomas and J-Mike. You see in the NFL what a good tight end can do for an offense: He’s a safety valve at worst and a go-to matchup nightmare that can pull safeties out of the middle of the field and into coverage when it’s going well. I think Texas has some guys on the roster that can be a solid unit that can be a valuable weapon.

Geoff Swaim and Greg Daniels are back and you can expect them both to be h-back/blocking tight ends types. Both are big, strong and pretty athletic and can get behind a defense focused on stopping the run or watching the backs in the backfield; but the guy that can be a game changer is MJ McFarland. The 6-foot-6, 243-pound junior has all the potential to be a terrific, NFL-caliber tight end. He’s got speed, hands, elusiveness, basketball hops and athleticism and he’s becoming a good enough blocker to stay on the field in running situations, making him deadly effective in the play-action passing game. The problem is it hasn’t all completely clicked yet. Charlie Strong needs to make it click, as does Bruce Chambers and Shawn Watson/Joe Wickline. The guy has too much upside and has been in the program too long to still be a project. Let’s get him out there and see how it goes.

I think he’s going to see some time this spring to see if the light is coming on. If it does, look out. If it doesn’t, Swaim and Daniels and incoming juco transfer Blake Whiteley will get looks. Swaim was excellent last year, but doesn’t have the same athletic ability as McFarland, and Whiteley and Daniels are similar to Swaim but not quite as polished.

Texas can be devastating offensively if they can get McFarland’s kinks worked out. Get them worked out, please.

 

So …

An oversimplification of what Texas needs to do for sure, but I think Texas has manageable goals for the offense coming out of spring-

  • A starting five on the offensive line
  • A consistent Daje Johnson
  • A consistent MJ McFarland
  • A consistently nasty disposition

I think all of these things are doable. Texas has a very good backs in place, good wide outs in place and an All-Big 12 caliber quarterback returning. If they can get these goals in place, I think they can achieve them by the start of the season.

What did I miss?

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