John Chiles at Texas. Nearly dead? I wrote last week that I thought Connor Wood's commitment gives the Texas coaches more reason not to redshirt Garrett Gilbert. John Chiles is basically dead to me at this point as a Texas quarterback, unless he shows me three things during spring practice: 1) That he can consistently make accurate throws, 2) shows some ability to make defenders miss running the football, and 3) doesn't make decisions like bracing himself with the football. With Gilbert not enrolled in the spring semester, there won't be a direct competition, but Chiles will be competing against himself throughout the spring to earn the back-up quarterback job. Besides the defensive ends battling for playing time, following Chiles is a top storyline.
While Chiles has undeniable speed, he has struggled at Texas running the football, often seeming like he wants to break a huge gain on every play. Besides pressing, Chiles also hasn't shown the feet that define great runners, actually demonstrating little ability to make defenders miss, limiting the effectiveness of his excellent speed.
To compound the problem, Chiles has been making poor decisions in the option game, likely a big part of the offense if he ever takes over the quarterback position full time. As a corollary to his pressing with the ball, Chiles hasn't made the pitches that he should and often keeps the ball when he should pitch it. Such poor decision-making won't help him get on the field and could cost him the back-up job, regardless of what he does throwing the football.
Speaking of which, Chiles showed immense improvement passing the ball over his freshman season. He still didn't throw the football much, attempting only 12 passes, but completing 11 of them, a huge difference from his one completion on nine attempts as a frosh. The current offense puts a premium on accuracy and getting the ball out quickly -- if Chiles can do both of those things, then he will have a chance to contribute as a quarterback. Chiles also threw the ball well down field on his only attempt, hitting Dan Buckner in stride on a deep route late in the blowout against Missouri.
Spring practice this year will be the defining moment for Chiles in burnt orange. Impressive performances in practice and at the spring game will go a long way towards securing the back-up quarterback job and put him in good position to start for a year in 2010. If Chiles plays poorly in the spring, he could take his remaining two years of eligibility and play them out at another program.
Separation at receiver. Jordan Shipley isn't participating in spring practice, giving more practice reps to the likes of Malcolm Williams, Brandon Collins, and James Kirkendoll -- the receivers with some game experience. Fighting for the two vacated spots in spring are a variety of players, from a big, outside receiver like Dan Buckner to smaller, inside receivers like DJ Monroe and DeSean Hales.
For the first group, the coaches and fans have a sense of what they provide. Williams may help stretch the field and demand a safety over the top, which wasn't possible last year. That frees up Collins and Kirkendoll on the other side of the field or isolates Williams one-on-one. Ask Tech how that works.
Both Monroe and Hales have the ability to fit into the offense in a versatile way unmatched by the pure receivers. Hales and Monroe could maximize their abilities by occasionally motioning into the backfield to run the option or provide misdirection. The positive about using them as decoys is that it imposes constraint plays on the defense, making them pay for committing serious resources to stopping the passing game.
The Predator unleashed, version 2.0. Prior to the start of the season, Sergio Kindle was a happy football player -- Will Muschamp was about to unleash him. In a moment of brutal honesty with Inside Texas last fall, Kindle admitted that his assignment in high school was, "See ball, hit ball." In his own words, if he was backpedaling, something was really wrong. Taking that lesson to heart, Coach Boom unleashed Kindle as a pass-rushing machine, allowing him to play down hill and finally showcasing the talent that took the expectations for Kindle into the stratosphere when first recruited.
With Brian Orakpo lost to graduation, Kindle will play an even more important role than last season as the best pure pass rusher on the defense. Using the off season to work on his pass rushing technique will only help Kindle, who returned to school to make himself a pile of money by giving NFL scouts a much longer look at his ability to be an impact player in a 3-4 defense.
Wanted: defensive tackle depth. Dominant play along the defensive line allowed the youngsters in the secondary to slowly work themselves into good college football players. That dominant play also kept teams from running the football effectively, making them one-dimensional and much easier to defend. Had the Longhorns not held the middle of the field to the extent they did, the season could well have ended with another loss or two.
Whether or not the Longhorns can come close to controlling the line of scrimmage nearly as effectively will be a decisive factor in the Longhorns stepping onto the Rose Bowl field at the end of the season. Lamarr Houston is the only known commodity along the line, with a group of players like Michael Wilcoxon, Jarvis Humphrey, Kheeston Randall, Calvin Howell, Derek Johnson, and Ben Alexander fighting for spots in the rotation. Early word has Houston playing some zero technique as a nose tackle -- the position played by Roy Miller last season. Coach Boom will expect Houston to command double teams at the nose tackle position and then rely on the other players in the group to win their one-on-one battles.
The undersized Alexander isn't expected to contribute much as a senior, but he could spell Houston at the nose tackle position, as eating space is Alexander's best attribute, perhaps making him a critical component of the plan against Oklahoma State, probably the best running team on the schedule in 2009. Alexander will also likely spell Houston on running downs in the middle.
The question with the freshmen and Kheeston Randall is the ability to play with good pad level to maintain position. All three struggle with their leverage, which could cause significant problems in stopping the running game. The lack of proven depth heightens the value of Lamarr Houston, who is the most indispensable member of the team after Colt McCoy.
It's difficult to overstate how important the play of the defensive line will be in vaulting the Longhorns to the Rose Bowl in 2009. With the narrative setting up perfectly for Colt McCoy's senior season, losing a chance at the national championship game because of difficulties getting to the quarterback or stopping the run would be absolutely devastating. Time for some guys to step up.
Mr. Versatility. I wrote about the open competition at the tight end position until Blaine Irby comes back and the name that stands out is freshman Barrett Matthews, who is not enrolled this spring. Even though he won't participate in spring practice, what makes Matthews appealing and worth talking about is his ability to play multiple positions -- fullback, tight end, and h-back. Cue Mack Brown:
He has the ability to stretch the field and catch. But he's also a very good blocker. Very tough. Since fullbacks are so hard to find, we're really looking at finding the person that can play both.
With Texas focusing on a more power-based running game, particularly late when trying to kill the clock, Matthews figures to play a prominent role. Mack Brown is committed to running more plays from under center and incorporating the fullback, not only in an effort to become a more physical team, but also to take advantage of the skills of Vondrell McGee and Chris Whaley. Matthews helps make a lot of that happen because he becomes a match up nightmare in a base package. Part of playing with increased tempo relies on being able to gain yards with your base personnel to keep the defense from being able to substitute.
None of the other tight ends have the versatility to keep the scheme multiple -- that's why Greg Smith kills me. No ability to provide multiplicity for the scheme. Just the back up center running into the flat or failing to play the tackle position adequately. See Texas Tech game. Because he's not a tackle. Or a tight end. I digress.
Since teams will continue to blitz the Longhorns, pass protection from the running backs remains as crucial as it was last season. Without OG, another player must step forward. The coaches like Tre' Newton because he has experience playing a similar role to OG, which means that he could be used when the Longhorns want to accelerate tempo and show some 0 personnel looks. Newton has also drawn raves from coaches about his ability to pick up the blitz -- something McGee has struggled with despite spending three years in the program.
With the lead, using Matthews as a fullback, h-back, or splitting him out wide as a receiver creates match-up problems for the defense and allows Texas to become a physical football team that still has some explosiveness. When Matthews plays h-back, I would love to see the Longhorns run the shovel triple option that Florida uses to get the big guy the ball and let him run some people over. Known as a player with the nasty streak every blocker needs, giving Matthews the ball would only increase his aggressiveness and possibly provide the team with a strong emotional lift, too.