Morning Coffee Is Out Of Practice

Apparently, I forgot that blog posts generally, and in particular a morning notes composite, should be of moderate length and avoid digressive wanderings into the blogger's pet  theories.

Let's talk about the O-Line. The Statesman presents an opening to talk a about the offensive line with feature stories on Adam Ulatoski and how this year's unit might benefit from last year's injuries.

Let's start with Cedric Golden's article on Ulatoski, who has started 17 games in his young career. Projected to start at left tackle this fall, Golden makes a bold claim about Ulatoski's importance to this year's team:

Crazy as it may sound, Ulatoski is the most important starter on this offense, and before you e-mail my work address to the guys in white jackets, allow me to explain. There isn't a player on this roster who can do what Colt McCoy does, but if he's flat on his back every other play, who will care?

The quickest way to knock a quarterback out of a game is for a 265-pound defensive end to come unblocked off the edge at 100 mph and unload, on a quarterback who has his back turned.

[...]

If Ulatoski plays like an All-American this season, the Longhorns will win a lot of games. If he struggles in pass protection, McCoy will get pounded. So will Texas.

I don't think Cedric Golden is intending to be hyperbolic, and as an argument, looks problematic and like a pretty severe oversimplification. Though Golden is accurate in saying left tackle is enormously important, the two conclusions he draws don't follow from that general truth.

On Ulatoski being the most important player on offense, Golden's argument rests  explicitly on the premises that (1) left tackle is vital to protecting Colt and (2) "there isn't a player on this roster who can do what Colt McCoy does." But for the conclusion to follow, there's a third--unspoken--premise here: that the only way Texas can flourish offensively this season is if Colt McCoy is the quarterback.

This one we can't prove or disprove, so it's possible that Golden is right, but I'm not sure I agree. We needn't get into a lengthy McCoy v. Chiles debate here; one can easily prefer Colt be the starter while also believing the offense could succeed were Chiles to take over. Looking at the defenses across the Big 12 and the talent Texas has on its offensive roster, a successful Chiles-led offense wouldn't exactly be a miracle.

This isn't an argument worth spending a great deal of time on, but I do want to resist  the implicit premise on which Golden's argument relies. Having Colt McCoy healthy is preferable to not. But Texas' offensive fortunes can't be boiled down to "Colt or nothing."

Relatedly, Golden is arguing that Ulatoski himself is make-or-break. That is, if we assume Golden's correct that Colt McCoy at quarterback is the only way Texas can succeed this year, Golden argues that--by extension--Texas can only succeed this year if Ulatoski plays outstanding football and stays healthy. From where I'm sitting, that's just a minor variation on the first fallacy, insofar as (1) what we've seen from Ulatoski in his (admittedly young) career makes me wonder whether he's going to be a good enough player to hold on to a starting job and (2) as discussed below, depth shouldn't be a problem for the Texas line this year.

Though I'll concede that no player has yet to prove himself in live action as a superior alternative to Ulatoski, there are some impressive horses in the stable. (And bad metaphors in this post.) Tray Allen had his share of struggles as a true freshman when he was outshone by fellow newbie Kyle Hix (starting RT in the Holiday Bowl and for the '08 opener), let's not forget that Allen was considered by most recruitniks the #1 prospect in the state in 2007.

And what about Kyle Hix? Let's say Ulatoski struggles or is injured. Either Tray Allen is ready and takes over the starting position everyone assumes he'll eventually own in the NFL or--and this is entirely feasible--Kyle Hix slides over to LT and Allen or Aundre McGaskey (looking good himself, according to many observers) takes over Hix's vacancy on the right.

Left tackle is important. Exceptionally so. But at least for the Longhorns heading into 2008, I think Golden's domino theory on the rise or fall of Adam Ulatoski is an oversimiplification.

Are you there, Mack? It's me, PB. Moving on to Suzanne Haliburton's article on the playing time accrued by younger linemen when injuries befell Longhorn starters in 2007, the article provides a straightforward recap of last year's unsettled line situation and the young players (including three true freshmen) who played important minutes as a result.

(Not that I intended a 'Pick on the Statesman' day or anything, but the Statesman headline writer manages to hit one of my journalistic pet peeves with "Offensive line could benefit from last year's injuries." Could? You mean 'undoubtedly did -  just say it... Okay, I'm done.)

However straightforward the lead, the point's importance for this year's squad is difficult to overstate. We've spent some time talking about the 10-14 players who could conceivably contribute on the offensive line this year, but there's a tangential lesson in this story that's consistently proven one of the absolute hardest for coaches (in every sport) to incorporate into their decision-making: Getting young talent involved early and often is critical.

Coaches have a multitude of reasons for being (too) conservative with young players--some legitimate, some not, and among which I've long thought one has disproportionately influenced coaches' decision making: Fear of spectacular failure. The newest players to the game are more likely to make a "learning curve" error, and I think coaches genuinely fear the press conference of any loss that might (fairly or not) be attributed to a rookie mistake. In the interest of self-preservation, coaches overwhelmingly 'solve' this problem by avoiding it altogether: young talent is used sparingly, cautiously, and/or not at all.

(To be fair, both fans and the media share some of the blame here: the fanbases are quicker to turn to "Fire ____!" than ever before, so much so that many coaches in high-profile/high-expectations jobs perceive a 'rebuilding' year to be a kiss of death.  As for the sports media... well, I probably don't have to tell you. Somewhere along the line, sports journalism became a carnival.)

Shared blame acknowledged, the practice is still inexcusably short-sighted on the coaches' part. To keep things close to home, it's taken Mack Brown 10 full years in Austin (and 30 coaching overall) to arrive at the point where we are today, with sensible planning to get young talent on the field as soon as they're ready, as opposed to an arbitrary timeline. Last year, injuries on the O-Line forced  the coaches to put the young talent on to the field to develop. In some cases, they labored through growing pains, but in others (see: Hix, Kyle and Huey, Michael) they proved their mettle quickly. And in every case, those talents are an entire year closer to being championship-caliber.

And there's the key: championships. Texas can (and has) done quite well doing things cautiously, regularly winning 10 games under Mack Brown. But save the beautiful Vince Young era, the Longhorns are title-less. Zero Big 12 titles outside VY. It's astonishing when you think about the numerous accomplishments, but as they say in baseball: Flags Fly Forever. In the end, the only big winner in a 10-win season is the athletic department, which has feasted in historic fashion since Brown arrived. But for the fans, a 10-win season is good, often fun, and rarely great.

Ironically, Mack Brown last season was especially well-suited to act more sensibly about player development. The man's job is his as long as he wants it, and deservedly so: he's a national title winner. But where you'd like to see someone take advantage of his strong position to overcome the temptations of the timid, the fundamental adjustments didn't come; it took a humiliating loss to Fannypants to get the proper fires lit.

Tying it back to where we started, the challenge of how best to use young talent is complex, but in the final calculus, the net gain favors living with the losses. One reason I think Texas is on the brink of championship-level football is the offensive line, thanks in no small part to the development they enjoyed as true freshmen. Might Texas have fared slightly better at some points had true freshmen not been manning the line? Undoubtedly, and even if we could say with specificity that it cost Texas, say, one win in 2007 (it didn't), there was no championship in the cards for Texas last year, period, whether or not the offensive line was healthy, and at which point you're really just talking about the difference in mid-tier bowls. Hell, even if it were true that Texas would have made a BCS Bowl as an at-large team, that end doesn't justify the chosen means.

The goal has to be to play for championships--Big 12 and national titles. Better late than never, I think Mack Brown's head is in the right place heading into this season. The Texas staff is as aware of how well things are set up in 2009 as you and I are, but to prove that they get will mean on-field development of players who can help Texas win a championship in 2009. No more letting Robert Killebrew block a more talented player just because said player is younger. From here forward, the only thing Killebrew should be allowed to block are arteries, and I hear he's quite good in that regard.

Everyone's watching, Mack, and your legacy may well depend on getting this right.

Things to read: I had a lot I wanted to blather about above, so we'll just wrap this thing with a few links:

* The Blog Poll's preseason poll is out. Georgia #1, Texas #11

* I did a short "preview" of Texas for Deadspin yesterday, featuring Muschamp vs The Mack Clap.

* Greg Davis singles out Malcolm Williams in the crowded wide receiver field.

 

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