As the daily countdown to the UL-Monroe game begins, I started thinking about how this Longhorn team, with so many apparent pieces in place, will be different and need different things than last year's to achieve an undefeated season. The coaches have already alluded to the need for new leaders, as Roy Miller, Chris Ogbonnaya, and Brian Orakpo, 3/4 of the heart and soul of the 2008 Horns with Colt McCoy, have journeyed on to the NFL. And that made me think about who on the 2009 burnt orange needs to STEP UP.
As a point of reference, the 2008 team was all about players "stepping up." In fact, watching players of purported talent but little experience blossom is one of the things I like best about college football. In 2008, Texas had Roy Miller emerge from the third guy in a 3 DT rotation in 2007 to All Big 12, Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP, and third round NFL draft choice. There was Brian Orakpo, the oft-injured Mad Dog creation, who emerged from perceived threat to consensus All-America and winner of three national defensive player awards. How about Henry Melton, who emerged from his spectacular failure at running back as a sophomore and obscurity as a junior to lead the team in quarterback hurries and become a 4th-round NFL draft choice? Earl Thomas rose from virtually unknown redshirt freshman to be a pre-season All Big 12 safety for 2009. On offense, Jordan Shipley rose from a valuable third receiving option in 2007 to the biggest offensive impact player on the team.
So who will be the "Step Up Guys" in 2009? I really don't know. But I do have a wish list. And this list is related to what I see are the biggest weaknesses on the Horns, especially relative to their two toughest opponents Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Here are my top 6, ranked in order of need for the biggest improvement. Clearly all would need to improve over their 2008 performances, in terms of production and playing time. Several of these players have been discussed at length in different threads, but some, as expected, are still under the radar.
1. Jared Norton
2. Kyle Hix
2. Christian Scott
4. David Snow
5. Lamarr Houston
6. Malcolm Williams
I explore the reasons in more detail after the jump
Why these six?
1. Jared Norton. Point #1.As evidenced in last year's games against Oklahoma State and Ohio State, Texas's defense, which is increasingly designed to emphasize speed and quickness in order to match up with spread offenses, is vulnerable to power rushing attacks. These appear as various formations with one TE and a blocking back or 2 TE's, both of which create a broader "surface" against which to attack defensive linemen and linebackers. Texas proved vulnerable to plays that focused blocking on the strong side edge. For example, in 2008, 56% of tackles by DE's and LB's were by strong side players (Melton, Norton, etc.) in the game against the Cowboys, where the Horns struggled in defending the run, compared to only 37% in the game against OU, where Texas had much better success defending the run. Point #2. Texas features slanting defensive tackles, which means that the DT's charge through gaps at the snap. This practice in fact weakens Texas' dependence on having great DT's because attacking the gaps tends to tie up offensive linemen even if the DT is a stiff. However, slanting leaves one extra gap to be filled by linebackers, and there are at least two unfilled gaps generated by a power running offensive front. This puts enormous pressure on the LB's to sniff out the right gap to fill.
With the expected and somewhat unavoidable inexperience and lack of talent at DT (more below about Lamarr Houston), inside and strongside linebacker play will be critical to the Horns' success in 2009. This points the giant fingers of a foam Hook-Em hand directly at Jared Norton. Number 11 has shown flashes of talent in the past two seasons - I recall him blowing up several plays and getting a QB sack in the big (at the time) win against TCU in 2007, and he had a couple of nice stuffs against Beanie Wells in the Fiesta Bowl. However, these "flashes" have been relatively few and far between. A more powerful memory is watching Norton being apparently eaten by the monster otherwise known as TE Brandon Pettigrew in the Oklahoma State game and chasing Kendall Hunter from behind all over the field. In general, Norton struggled throughout 2008 with choosing the right gaps, and Blake Gideon, that champion of of the bone-crushing hit (Not!), had to come to his rescue repeatedly. Texas needs a major upgrade from Norton in the "head for football" department if opposing teams are to repeatedly enter the the third-and-long "sack zone" for clean-up by Kindle, Jones, Acho, and Okafor.
2. Kyle Hix. General and loud lamentation and woe on various blogs has blamed problems in the Texas running game on scheme, recruiting, injuries, and backs that can run but can't block (Yes, Vondrell we're talking about you). That all might be relevant, but I think there's nothing wrong with Texas' running game that an upgrade at right tackle wouldn't fix. I watched the film of several games: UTEP, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, and Ohio State, and it struck me that Point #1, Texas rushed for an average of two yards less per carry when running to the right (Kyle Hix's side) than the left, with the exception of Chris Ogbonnaya's Sooner killer run. Point #2. Backs seemed to have trouble reading Hix's blocks, and thus "did the dance" on many plays, as if they were uncertain whether Hix would push his defender outside or inside. On the zone sweep that Texas' runs so often, the tackle needs to seal the DE to the inside or kick him out strongly to create a cutback lane, and all too often, this didn't happen in 2008. Point#3. Hix was often late in arriving on leftside counter plays (or possibly the backs rushed the hole too soon). Timing was off somewhere.
Kyle Hix had starts as a freshman in the offensive-line-challenged year of our Lord 2007, and much was expected of him in 2008. Reach-blocking, the technique central to success in the zone-blocking scheme used by the Longhorns, may not be his strength. He was OK in pass-blocking, but often had help from a TE or RB, leaving Ulatoski on an island on Colt's blind side. Starting as a freshman lineman at Texas speaks to considerable talent for number 64; the fans are waiting to see it in 2009.
3. Christian Scott. One of the more memorable series of plays in 2008 occurred when Blake Gideon suffered a concussion at the hands of Kansas running back Angus Quigley, and Christian Scott entered the game and, on the next play, knocked the stuffing out of Quigley and the ball out of his hands. Ever since, the cries for Christian Scott to take the field have amplified to the point of screechy feedback. No screeching has been louder than that of coach Will Muschamp, who longed to put Mr. Scott on the field but couldn't because he "didn't know where to line up."
As Texas shifts more fully to a 4-2-5 base defense, Christian is one of the few players Texas has who can play the critical hybrid linebacker-safety position (although Nolan Brewster may fill in there). The possibilities are both exciting (he looks to be an elemental force) and frightening (how high is his football IQ), as that "rover" position needs to be manned by someone who recognizes formations and can make decisions about whether to drop into coverage or attack the line of scrimmage. Clever offensive formations can also isolate smaller, quicker receivers on Scott, and it remains to be seen whether he is up to the coverage nightmare. It was encouraging that number 6 did make it onto the field with the first team defense in the spring game, but it will be important that he develops an understanding of the game sufficient to deal with the likes of Jermaine Gresham and Dez Bryant if the Horns are to have a truly dominating defense.
4. David Snow. The other piece of offensive line play that needs upgrading is the interior play of the guards. Yes Chris Hall is a physically maxed out but very smart player who might be irreplaceable in making the line blocking assignment calls. However, Michael Huey and Charlie Tanner are highly replaceable in my view. Both have been badly overwhelmed at times by smaller, quicker pass ruishers and have underwhelmed in their ability to pull on counter plays or switch blocks in the zone running game. Snow represents the best hope for an upgrade, as he, a true freshman lineman who saw significant playing time in 2008, paved the way with beautiful, annihilating blocks on several touchdown runs last season. His physical presence and tools seem better than those of either Tanner or Huey, and fans and coaches are still twiddling their thumbs waiting for Trey Allen to emerge. It may be difficult for Texas' running game and overall offensive performance to improve if Snow doesn't "step up" to claim a starting guard spot.
5. Lamarr Houston. For all the reasons outlined for the importance of Jared Norton's improvement, improved play by the 2009 DT candidates is also paramount. The encouraging thing is, we fans have been here before. With the departure of Frank Okam and Derek Lokey after 2007 and the immature career self-destruction of Dre Jones, many questions existed about the the DT position last August. Roy Miller was the only experienced incumbent, and no one foresaw him as a physically dominant presence on the line. Thus 2009 feels like deja vu. Two seniors have departed, leaving a converted DE with less than overwhelming statistics, Lamarr Houston, to lead a thin group. Lamarr's tramsition to DT was pantingly awaited at the beginning of 2008, but the show turned out to be Roy Miller's, not Lamarr's. So now we arrive in 2009 and the question is, can "Lamarr be a starr"? Let's sell T-shirts.
I think Lamarr can be a "starr" for several reasons. One, he is playing at 300 pounds instead of the marginal 275 he played at last year. Two, he's had a year to make the transition - that time did wonders for Henry Melton last year. Three, nearly a third of his tackles went for loss last year. Fourth, Lamarr's biggest problem was running himself out of plays, that is, playing DT like a DE - see reason two. Fifth, Lamarr might be the best overall athlete ever to play DT for Texas. If he stays healthy, the Big 12 media will be saying "Gerald who?"
6. Malcolm Williams. If I had a dollar for every blog post salivating over the prospect of Malcolm Williams getting open deep or outjumping some poor safety for an end-zone fade in the last six months, I'd be rich enough to retire. I don't need to go into details - the man has incredible potential to dominate games at the WR position with his speed, jumping ability, and size. His ability to push safeties five yards deeper and keep them from jumping the short routes Colt likes to throw are of incalculable value. You'd think he was the second coming of Vi... OK that's enough. Malcolm showed flashes in 2008 with a high-flying TD reception against Missouri and the two TexasTech-back-cracking(but eventually not breaking) long TD's. But he also looked lost in blocking on running plays (how can a TE-sized guy not just smother the DB on a running play?) and had a few drops. The competition to get on the field at the WR position is intense, and in game situations, Williams hasn't been consistently up to it. So despite being rubbed with anointing oil and having the altar prepared, number 9 still must show it in the real games on a consistent basis for Texas to have a highly effective passing game.
There are others who could stand to "step up," like Chris Hall, Fozzy Whittaker, Blake Gideon, Deon Beasley, etc. but I felt Texas' depth would make them unmissed in the case that they failed to do so.