Fiesta Bowl benching motivated McGee. Riding the pine against Ohio State sparked a fire within junior running back Vondrell McGee, providing the motivation to work hard in the weight room this off-season to become stronger. Anyone with the talent to play major-college sports is almost by definition confident and prideful and McGee is surely no different. He says it "hurt a lot" ($) not seeing the field against Ohio State, but he turned it into a positive by working hard on becoming a more complete back -- improving at picking up the blitz and catching the ball out of the backfield.
Two other factors may be just as important as his hard work during the off season. According to Chip Brown, McGee now feels more comfortable running the football and more capable of using his vision in the zone-running game instead of looking for a pre-determined hole, critical because cut-back lanes often open up on the backside in that scheme. The Longhorn coaches told him that they recruited him because they liked his vision and are now encouraging him to use it to instinctively make plays. McGee agrees:
I think I have [gotten more comfortable]. If you don't have vision, you can't run the ball here. I've had to step my game up on that too...In the beginning I was focused on going where the ball was supposed to hit, and wasn't really looking for other pathways to go.
The second factor is perhaps one of the underrated storylines of the 2008 season. In the first game against Florida Atlantic, McGee had his knee viciously twisted underneath his body. For a less stout player, it could have meant a ligament tear and a lost season. For McGee, it meant that he played through the pain for the rest of the season:
There were a lot of games that I was banged up. I got hurt in the first game, hurt my MCL. But I didn't really let it affect me. I just put a knee brace on and kept going. Some games, I didn't really feel like I was 100 percent, I didn't feel like I was full speed. But I still went out there and gave it my all.
All the reports out of fall camp have him faster and stronger this season, perhaps even capable of shouldering most of the load at running back for the Longhorns. The move under center at times should only help him, as will his improved versatility. This season, Texas fans may finally see the Vondrell McGee who entered school with high expectations after a stellar career at Longview. It's Bulldozer time, baby!
Defensive tackles will substitute early, often. Since game time temperatures on Saturday will be in the mid to upper 90s, not including whatever heat the new turf will add to the equation, Will Muschamp plans on substituting his defensive linemen frequently during the game to keep them fresh:
My philosophy, especially early in the year, is that when the big guys run out of gas, they're done. I don't want the big guys to play more than six or eight snaps in a row. I want to get them out of the game so they can rest and get the next guy in.
Even after hearing about the incredible talent of ULM from Mack Brown on Monday, with the outcome almost certainly not in doubt, one of the major storylines will become the play of the young and/or inexperience players in the middle of the defensive line. Will Kheeston Randall show why coaches are raving about his play in fall camp? Can Ben Alexander take up double teams or play on passing downs? Will Lamarr Houston play primarily as a three technique or at nose tackle? How much can players like Calvin Howell and Tyrell Higgins provide? Will Tray Allen get any snaps at defensive tackle?
That's a multitude of questions and one game against what was a mid-level Sun Belt team last year will not even begin to answer all of them, but the game will provide some insight. According to Muschamp, the player who will probably take the biggest step is sophomore Kheeston Randall:
Randall has had an outstanding camp. He's really worked on the things we've talked about as far as his flexibility, his pad-level and his motor. He's one of those guys that we earmarked as needing to have a great camp for us and he's done that.
Brown indicated that Allen likely won't play in obvious pass-rush situations, since he's going to be more of a space eater than bull rusher. As for Howell, Muschamp said that the true freshman has a natural understanding of blocking schemes and leverage, which speaks well for his ability to contribute this season.
Later in the season, expect to see Sam Acho and possibly Eddie Jones working inside on obvious passing downs, but Muschamp probably won't show that look until the Big 12 season begins. Muschamp on how he plans to use Acho inside:
Sam will rush inside in some pass-rush situations. It shows his versatility but, more than that, it shows his intelligence as a player. He's able to learn two positions. We can really get a mismatch on a guard, and that's what you're always trying to look for. We're not going to ask Sam to play three-technique against two backs when they're running the ball down hill. We're asking him to, situationally, go inside and rush when he should be a better athlete than a guard.
Tevin Mims will also get a look inside this season, but Muschamp said that he is behind Howell and Alex Okafor right now in his understanding of the defense, pushing a target date for any contributions from the former Stony Point star much deeper into the season.
The Longhorns may end up pulling away from the WarHawks by the middle of the second quarter, if not sooner, but the play in the trenches will remain worth watching well into the fourth quarter. You can be sure the coaches will be evaluating every WarHawk snap with a great deal of interest.
The Predator is hungry. WarHawk quarterback Troy Revell may not be the safest person on the planet this Saturday. In fact, I'm not sure you could pay me enough money to line up under center for ULM on Saturday with an angry and hungry Predator (v. 2.0) relentlessly seeking the blood of whatever quarterback happens to line up behind center for the WarHawks. Kindle hasn't been the happiest defender this fall chasing after Colt McCoy in his black jersey, but unable to hit the precious starting quarterback. It's frustrating:
We can't even touch Colt, so it feels like you're chasing a ghost.
Kindle isn't the only defender ready to unload on someone, anyone, after holding up all fall instead of delivering a big blow. Lamarr Houston, wearing a massive smile in anticipation, feels the same way:
It will feel like a great release. It will feel great to finally unplug on somebody.
The Longhorn defenders had good reason to make sure they held up before hitting McCoy, as Mack Brown laid out quite the threat for anyone who dared touch the Heisman contender:
I told them if anybody hit Colt that it would be worth it for me to take away their scholarship and fire their coach. I told them they couldn't get inside the cylinder and to stay off of Colt's legs.
Considering that McCoy is healthy and in one piece, it's probably safe to say that Brown didn't have to remove anyone from scholarship.
The moral of the whole story, though? Watch out, Mr. Revell. They're coming fast and they're coming hard and they're ready knock the snot out of you.
Shipley won't return punts or kicks early against ULM. In an effort to make sure that wide receiver Jordan Shipley stays fresh the entire season, Aaron Williams and Malcolm Williams will return kicks against the WarHawks and Earl Thomas will return punts. The reason, Mack Brown said on Wednesday, is that he felt Quan Cosby took too many hits last season between his work in the return game and catching passes that it wore on him so much he eventually couldn't make it through the Texas Tech game.
In fact, Shipley might not even return kicks or punts until later in the season. It makes sense to try to save the wear and tear on Shipley as much as possible because he will take so many hits in the passing game and the Longhorns need to get a long look this season at the other available candidates in the return game for next year. Against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, though, look for Shipley on the field returning kicks and punts.
DJ Package? It wasn't too long ago that DJ Monroe was buried on the depth chart at receiver and didn't look likely to play much as a redshirt freshman. Not too long before that it looked like Monroe might never play at Texas at all because of grade issues last fall that kept him out of spring practice. Now, after news broke early in camp that the staff was working on a package with Monroe at his high school position of tailback, the coaches are saying the former high school track star may get some carries against Louisiana-Monroe. Besides the simple reason of getting more speed on the field, Greg Davis said that a strong fall camp helped push Monroe into the mix:
He has really stepped in there and done a heckuva job. He bring speeds to the table and, because he's spent a year at receiver, you can bring a personnel grouping onto the field and you're in an empty (set) and he's not a fish out of water. He's brought a spark because he's quick. He's amazingly strong for a guy that doesn't carry more weight (5-9, 170) than he does. He runs with good natural strength. We'll use him in some limited packages but you can't get him into too many pass-protection situations.
If Monroe does indeed see the field on Saturday, which is hardly a guarantee despite the praise from Greg Davis and Mack Brown, it will be interesting to see how Texas does use him. Will he motion into the backfield a la the counter play that Florida ran with Percy Harvin? Or will he line up as the single tailback? As Davis mentioned, the Longhorns probably won't check down to passing plays much when Monroe comes into the game, so the coaches must be wary about defenses stacking up for the run when he comes into the game. If Colt McCoy does check down to a passing play, expect Monroe to then motion out to leave an empty backfield. Whatever happens on Saturday, during the week it's also exciting to know that the coaches are working on getting the ball into the hands of one of the fastest players on the team.
Offensive line may dictate offensive success. As easy as it often is to make fun of Kirk Bohls, occasionally he does manage to write something that is at least worth reading. Such is the case with today's article about the Texas offensive line. While Mack Brown readily admits that this line probably won't approach the nasty unit that paved the way for Vince Young in 2005 and, mostly intact the following year, repeatedly blew the Sooners five yards off the ball, he does believe they will be an excellent pass-protecting unit:
That was the best we've had. I couldn't at this point say this line's as good, but the potential is there. They just have to prove it. But we're much better than we were a year ago.
I think we can be really good there. But I don't think we'll be what fans consider an old-fashioned type that will line up and knock you in the face. I do think it will be one of the best pass-protecting lines in the country.
The part about being better than last year may be the key. Not only did the line have trouble consistently opening holes for the running game, but they also gave up 26 sacks compared to 1the 6 given up by Florida and 13 by Oklahoma, only good enough for 65th nationally in pass protection. Keeping Colt McCoy healthy this season is obviously a major priority -- just re-read Brown's comment above about taking schollie's away -- and one major area for improvement that will help McCoy this season is not allowing so many defensive players into the backfield, particularly against delayed blitzes. In fact, even though he famously doesn't know how to slide, the biggest injury danger probably doesn't come from McCoy running the ball, but rather major hits underneath his chin when stepping into a throw -- McCoy isn't going to bail out and throw an incomplete pass or interception just because he's about to get hit. He's too tough for that.
The good news is that after I put him on notice recently, the coaches sang the praises of Chris Hall this week. According to offensive line coach, that praise, remarkably, isn't even for "bleeding for the program":
Chris Hall, in my opinion, is the best of the five. Every time you can turn the film on, I can point to him as an example. I don't think he's the most talented of the guys I have, but he does everything we ask. If you have a team full of him, you'd sleep a whole lot better at night.
Improved play from Hall will help the line overall, but none of the comments by the coaches indicate that the line will be an improved run-blocking unit. In some ways, that isn't always the point, as the Longhorns won't often try to force the running game. McCoy has enough freedom in the offense to check down to a passing play if the defense decides to stack the box. In fact, that's what he did with an incredible amount of success last season, completing 36 passes on 38 checkdowns, averaging a little more than six yards per completion on those plays. Given how successfully the Longhorns throw the football, they can probably achieve almost every goal this season just by keeping McCoy's jersey clean.