Now that the toxic dust generated by the BS (cough) BCS controversies of OU and then Florida have receded into the recesses of our poisoned brain fissures, I thought it worth writing a brief (well I guess it's not so brief) position-by-position summary of the Horns through the regular season and improvements/prospects fans might expect for the upcoming Fiesta bowl. And let me say, I expect the Horns to be motivated for the Buckeyes from the ubiquitous chips that will dot the shoulders of the players until the last opponent has been trodden into the ground come January 2010. But, there are some improvements needed if Texas is to position itself for a 2009 run by beating the Buckeyes. To that end, let’s dive in.
Quarterback – Colt McCoy. What more needs to be said that hasn’t been. One of the gamest players ever to suit up in the burnt orange, McCoy will set the NCAA FBS record for passing accuracy by more than 4% (That’s like setting the record for the 100 m dash by more than 0.2 seconds, simply astonishing). His career records are nearly up to those of that VY demi-god’s, but through his own gutsy playmaking style in which brilliant plays still seem somehow unexpected. He certainly deserves the Heisman as an MVP type player (I’m reminded of Larry Bird).
All that said, McCoy needs to convince defenses that he can burn them with the deep ball if he wants to take the team to the next level. Other than in the second half of the Texas Tech game, when there was little choice, and against A&M, when it was easy, Colt simply hasn’t been excellent on deep posts or go routes and frankly hasn’t tried very much. The threat of a successful deep pass would be the best tonic to teams that currently stack their safeties to stop the run, and may be essential in getting an aggressive and talented Ohio State secondary to back off.
Backup: John Chiles is still an enigma. Some of his best plays this year were passes, such as down the seam to James Kirkendoll against Florida Atlantic and a beautiful, in stride toss to Dan Buckner against Missouri. But, for a QB whose strength is supposedly running and speed, we fans have seen precious little. I’m sure there’s a tomato or few out there with my name on it for saying so, but I somehow have a feeling that with some actual in-charge game experience and more reps, Chiles would actually be a good QB. His passing footwork and pocket presence have improved immeasurably since the summer, and as much as fans might moan and groan if McCoy were hurt, I think the team could still score enough to win most games with Chiles in the game. Take a look at his collective stat line, arguably against second-teamers during mop-up duty: 11-13 for 231 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions (but two fumbles). That’s a far cry from his 1-for 8 in 2007 and 1 for 6 in the spring game.
Running Back – PB has likened the Horns’ running attack to Cerberus, the mythical three headed dog, reflecting the co-equal status of Fozzy Whittaker, Vondrell McGee, and Chris Ogbonnaya, but I think the Horns actually have a different beast altogether that has sprouted a fourth head, Cody Johnson. Let’s call it Svantevit, four-headed god of war and divination in Slavic mythology. Fans have probably rightfully moaned and groaned about the Texas running game in all but a couple of games, but the collective season effort for Svantevit is 347 carries for 1649 yards, an average of 4.75 yards per carry, with 20 touchdowns and only one lost fumble between them. If a single back had produced that for the Horns, we’d be singing an old home gospel, although the ypc could stand to be higher.
The frustration has been related more to the inconsistency among the heads, with different heads doing the talking each week. First it was Vondrell, then Fozzy, then nobody, then Ogbonnaya for Colorado through Missouri, then Vondrell for Oklahoma State. Fozzy breathed life into the Tech game in the second half and did well against Baylor, but then disappeared into negative yardage land until his final carry against Kansas. All the heads got into the conversation against the Aggies. Cody Johnson is as close to money as it gets in short yardage situations, but, when asked, also has run well out of the spread for a fullback.
As far as the Fiesta Bowl goes, it would be nice to finally see Whittaker’s head eat the others, i.e., emerge out of the pack. He’s proven he can pick up the blitz at least as well as McGee (in fact it was McGee who failed to see and pick up a corner blitz against A&M that led to McCoy taking his biggest hit in that game) and when he catches a flair or screen, the entire stadium holds its collective breath. Maybe the reps he gets preparing for Ohio State will get him better in sync with the offensive line.
Backups: Despite being way down the depth chart here, a tantalizing fifth bud to our polycephalous running back monster was revealed in the Kansas game in the form of Jeremy Hills. He has a good combination of toughness and quickness, but we really don’t know how he would fare against first-team defenses.
Fullback – The only time the 2008 Horns really use a fullback is in the jumbo package with Roy Miller as the fullback and Pete Johnson providing his own blocking. The jumbo package might be the number one red zone rushing formation in the country.
We all hope to see this package a lot in the Ohio State game!
Tight End– I can’t recall seeing a team that has been more miserably represented at TE. Irby’s knee injury against Rice reverberated around the world (literally – I was in Tanzania when I heard), leaving the Horns with a bunch of stiffs. Texas has still used a lot of TE formations, but I’ve struggled to see how that has benefited the Horns. Some blocking schemes have left our number 1 remaining option, if you can call it that, Greg Smith trying to block a talented DE or LB pass rusher, and it’s nearly gotten McCoy killed. Smith’s missed block against Tech’s Dixon led to Colt nearly receiving a new mouth that required stitches and antibiotics.
Against Ohio State, we hope to NOT see much of the TE.
Backups: It’s hard to have a backup TE when you don’t even have one to begin with.
Grade F+ (I suppose there have been a few good blocks here and there).
Outside Wide Receiver – I can’t say enough about how much Quan Cosby means to this team. His leadership, consistent play, exquisite body control, and the best hands in America (and it’s not even close) allowed Colt to throw balls in tight spaces and move the chains and for the young receivers to gain confidence and skill at reading defenses. That said, Quan has seldom beat anybody deep, and this has allowed safeties and linebackers to guess and try to jump pass routes. On the other side of the ball, Malcolm Williams made some of the most exciting plays of the year (up and over all comers against Missouri, a force of nature against Tech) and some of the most excruciating (dropped balls against Oklahoma State). His emergence against Tech suggested he might have turned the corner, but fans have seen little since that game. Is Malcolm really the defensive nightmare we’re hoping for? Or is he still trying to get the game to “slow down?” For now he hasn’t been enough of a threat to ease the double teams on Cosby. Although the emphasis for WR is mostly on the passing game, I think both receivers have been good to excellent at blocking downfield on running plays. For example, Cosby had a key block that sprang Ogbonnaya’s 65 yard run against Oklahoma and pulled the wheels off the Sooner wagons, and Williams had several key blocks against Missouri, Baylor and Kansas.
For the Ohio State game, Williams needs to step up and force the safeties to roll to outside help, thus freeing up the hot routes and matchups with LB’s for the slot receivers. A few early catches or even open breaks deep down the field could act as a powerful decongestant for the passing game.
Backup: Dan Buckner has also showed flashes both receiving and blocking and is probably a season away from being unstoppable in the red zone.
Slot Wide Receiver– The play of Jordan Shipley and Brandon Collins has been the key to how special Texas’ offense has been. The position has done most of the compensating for the implosion of the TE position and has provided most of the “hot reads” against defenses’ incessant blitzing of the Horns. The chemistry between Shipley and McCoy has been documented ad nauseum. However, the play of Brandon Collins, who led the Horns in receiving yardage against A&M and has been making secondaries pay ever since the Oklahoma State game (with the notable exception of the Tech game), should be celebrated much more than it has. It’s my sense that Collins and Colt are approaching what Colt has with Shipley and Cosby, and that can only mean scary things for opposing defenses.
Texas’ slot receivers are the great mismatch against the Ohio State defense, as the Buckeyes don’t really have the speed at DT or outside LB to cover 4 WRs or to stop Colt from running all day if they switch to a 4-2-5. I look for Collins and Shipley to have big days in the Fiesta Bowl.
Backup: James Kirkendoll has simply been outstanding. He has shown the potential to be a receiving machine, as he caught passes on three straight plays against Kansas before Ogbonnaya finished the drive with an authoritative TD run. He may be the smartest of the young receivers and provides strong depth.
Offensive Line- As Greg Davis predicted in the pre-season, Texas has a good offensive line. But let’s be clear, Texas does NOT have a GREAT offensive line. Compared to Tech and OU, Texas has suffered twice the rate of sacks, and half of Texas’ turnovers (and even more almost turnovers) are the result of pressure in the pocket. So what’s up? The first thing is that, as in 2007, the OL is a walking orthopedic ward. Adam Ulatoski is All-Big 12 and was the top-graded OL for the Horns in virtually every game. So what’s not to like? Early in the season Ulatoski was a rock, but in the practice before the Tech game, he reinjured his left elbow (the same dislocated elbow that kept him out of 3 games last year). A left tackle’s left arm might be the most valuable appendage in football after the QB’s arm because it is the one thing standing between a fast outside rusher and the QB. Since his re-injury, Ulatoski has been a shell of himself, and didn’t play particularly well against the Raiders or Aggies. Injuries also removed center Chris Hall, the blocking assignment-caller for the line and second-team All-Big 12 player.
The second issue is the play at left guard and right tackle, which is handled, respectively, by Charlie Tanner/Michael Huey and Kyle Hix. These are the least experienced OL starters, and collectively they have responded poorly all season to complicated blitz schemes. LG in particular has been weak in pass protection all season, and it is the middle pass rush from that side that has flushed Colt from the pocket more often than not. A BONer commented earlier in the year that Colt always seems to scramble to the right. Well, that’s where you go when some DT or blitzing LB is just behind your left shoulder on too many plays. Kyle Hix was overwhelmed in some games in the middle of the schedule (Oklahoma State, Tech) but has played somewhat better lately.
While pass-blocking has been good to decent for the entire season, run-blocking is a different story. Many expert watchers on BON and Barking Carnival have commented on UT’s dysfunction, so I won’t elaborate here. However, my sense is that the problem is mostly one of timing. The Svantevit monster at RB makes it difficult for the OL to know exactly how long to sustain blocks, since each back takes a different amount of time to get to the hole(s). I’ve seen backs get to the hole ahead of the linemen on the great Texas counter play or linemen leave their block too soon. I’ve also seen some of the most beautiful run-blocking in my over 30 years of watching the game – the blocking on Chris O.’s 65 yard run against the Land Thieves was a symphony. Vondrell McGee had a 24 yard run against Oklahoma State that was equally well-blocked.
So, the potential is there, and this is one area that might most benefit from the weeks leading up to the Fiesta Bowl. First get Ulatoski and Hall healthy, then get Fozzy as the number one back, and then get the blocking-running coordination to flow like a waterfall. tOSU’s biggest weakness on defense is their defensive line, and a threatening running game will be the best way to exploit that. I haven’t seen the run set up a play-action pass more than a handful of times this year (I know, I know, GD likes to set up the run with the pass, but sometimes you need it to go the other way). A big play or two off the run fake could blow the game wide open, and it starts with a maestro-like performance from the OL.
And one more thing. This whole music analogy makes me pull up short and realize that the entire line seems to lack confidence and meanness. Their body language is one of worrying about what to do rather than how to make the guy in front of them look like outdoor carpet. If zone blocking turns your linemen into pansies, GD, then maybe it’s time to re-think the whole strategy. I don’t think that has to be true, but the OL needs to get a lot more confident.
Backup: David Snow, as a true freshman stepping in to call the blocking assignments and play shotgun center or guard has been nothing short of outstanding. He might even be better at center than Chris Hall, and he is certainly more dominating. However, I think the play of the whole line is better with Hall than without. But mark it down, an injury-free Snow will be an All-American before he’s through.