Ah, sweet football returns. Unfortunately, yours truly got pulled away to a wedding in Bend, Oregon, filled with guests who didn't think an opening weekend wedding much a problem since the Ducks opened their season on Thursday evening. While I managed not to get sucker-punched, I did fall way behind on my football consumption. Time to start getting caught up... your week one thoughts are after the jump.
- All our anxiety about Fozzy Whittaker and whether Texas could find a big play threat at tailback? Gone. The anxiety now rests squarely with Fozzy and -- with the promising debut of redshirt freshman D.J. Monroe -- whether by the time he gets healthy there will be a role for him. Setting aside what it means for the depth chart, the most exciting aspect of what Monroe brings to the team is an explosiveness Texas is going to need to run the table this year. Whether they need it in a shootout with one of the Oklahomas or Missouri, or down the road against a top-tier bowl opponent like Florida (look familiar?), Monroe is precisely the kind of offensive weapon the Longhorns need to open up the field, provide big plays, and make defenses think. As good as McCoy has been, just wait and see what he and the offense are capable of with a guy like Monroe in the mix.
- Speaking of Monroe, how good might the Texas special teams be this year? D.J. was the highlight on Saturday, but in the return game alone, don't be surprised to see if either Jordan Shipley and/or Aaron Williams run one back for six at some point this season, too. Texas has an All American-caliber punter in John Gold, a nifty niche guy in Justin Tucker, and two proven veterans (Hunter Lawrence and Ryan Bailey) pushing each other on place kicks. Throw in the nasty athleticism the Longhorns deploy on kick coverage, and you might be looking at the nation's best special teams.
- Back to the tailbacks: Sophomore Cody Johnson is one of those guys who's easy both to overrate and underrate. On the one hand, his steadiness and inability to lose yards make him a tempting choice for a featured role... if you're trying to win the 1985 Big 10 championship. (The Texas coaching staff flirted with the idea in the spring, but, perhaps fortuitously, Johnson tweaked his hammy and the coaches thought the better of it.) On the other hand, in discussing what Cody is not it's easy to under-appreciate just how much value he adds to the team as a short distance and goal to-go specialist. If it's possible there's one aspect of Tim Tebow's game that actually manages to be underrated, it's in this role; the one time Tebow came up short last season, Ole Miss stunned the Gators to hand them their lone loss on the season.
- And finally, what do we make of Vondrell McGee's performance? Obviously, rotten tomatoes on the two fumbles, but outside those two ill-fated carries, the junior accumulated a solid 77 yards on 13 carries (5.9 per), including a nice finisher at the goal line for six. The optimistic take here is that McGee's proven himself fumble-averse in the past and if he needed a reminder of its importance, best to have the slip up against ULM in the season opener. A McGee doubter may have noted Tre Newton's strong fall camp and 28 yards on 4 carries Saturday and begun to wonder whether there's about to be a logjam of competition for featured carries. Whatever your take, all should agree that the competition and increasingly promising looking set of options are good things.
- It's an absolute joy to watch Rodderick Muckelroy play football. At Texas, we're treated to scores of outrageously athletic and talented kids, but there's a third dimension to truly special players -- guys who so clearly live and breathe the game -- and Muck's got it in spades. He understands the game, wants to understand the game, drinks it all in, and plays with that unbridled passion that you can't teach. We're lucky to have him.
- Because it's our team, and our obsession, we've been hyper-focused on what this Texas defense lacks (proven play at DT, outside Houston), but I think on Saturday we started to see why the strength everywhere else led me to conclude that "it's the defense that gives me the most confidence Texas can run the table." For starters, the talent Texas is fielding at defensive end is simply unfair. Kindle got the preseason press and Sam Acho looks poised to have the breakout season we expected. And then there's Alex Okafor, who I honestly thought might have to go through a year of dealing with outsized expectations from the fanbase before breaking through; after watching him in the spring, fall, and week one, I think he's ahead of where Brian Orakpo was as a true freshman and has a legitimate chance to develop into the #1 overall NFL Draft pick in four years.
At linebacker, the situation is so strong that Jared Norton's ankle injury isn't a major concern. We've already discussed Muck, but both Keenan Robinson (one of My Guys this year) and Emmanuel Acho look more than just ready for big minutes -- they demand them. Hell, even Dustin Earnest is starting to look like he can contribute quality minutes if need be, surprising me much like Georgia fans must have been surprised by the contributions of a one Will Muschamp 20 years ago.
As for the secondary? Its quality won't be catching anyone by surprise, but even today it's worth stepping back to contemplate just how silly the situation really is -- when guys like Deon Beasley can't crack the starting lineup, Ben Wells can't crack the two deep, and someone as supremely talented as Christian Scott better get his act together (on and off the field) if he expects to play. There's simply no room for error, no matter your pedigree: kick ass or sit down.
All told, this is, at the least, a defense whose glaring weakness is a problem fans can confront without panic, and whose upside is the potential to become as good as we've seen on the 40 Acres in the last 25 years.
- I've been clamoring all off-season about how disappointed I'd be if Texas brought in Garrett Gilbert to run-run-run-punt away the fourth quarters of games. He's only getting his feet wet and we needn't overly-celebrate his delightful debut, but at least where his performance was an indication that Mack Brown and Greg Davis intend to play the second team offense, I couldn't be more pleased. If the opposition can't stop the second team, it's their problem not ours. Keep it coming, coaches.
- We've talked a lot about the competition for playing time in the secondary, but what about the army of talent at wide receiver? And how about Dan Buckner? We'll find out more about how well Texas can slide in and out of the blocking/receiving tight end sets with impunity, but the early returns on Texas' flex-threat are terrific. There aren't many defenses who can stop this offense spread out four wide, especially if the running backs are making defenses pay for selling out on the pass.
- I, for one, am glad Texas was far from perfect on Saturday night. No question, they were sufficiently impressive, but one of my worries for this team was that things would come just a little bit too easy in the early going. The Texas Longhorns online presence is a magnifiently rich one, but perhaps even more so than godfathers like Geoff Ketchum at Orangebloods, I'm not sure anyone has devoted more words to analyzing Mack Brown from a big picture perspective than I have. Part of that's five years at this website and three years writing The Eyes of Texas magazines, and part of that's just the fact that I can't control my word counts, but the biggest reason I've hammered out so many words on this topic is that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it. None of which is to say I'm the authority on Texas football (you won't find a better post-game breakdown than this guy's, for example), but you won't find many out there who have so systematically analyzed Mack Brown and the Texas program from a big picture perspective during his tenure.
I point all that out to qualify my argument that there was as much value in Saturday's bad moments as good. This should all probably be a post of its own, but for now, at least, the Cliff's Notes: First, I'm glad Colt McCoy threw an interception. One of the keys to Texas' offense improving upon 2008 depends firmly upon Greg Davis not feeling comfortable with the idea that he can just ride Colt McCoy's exceptional talents. To be sure, Texas can be very, very good just riding McCoy's coattails, but to give the team the best chance of running the regular season and, should it do so, maximize its chances of beating a ridiculously great team like Florida, the Texas offense needs to be as well-rounded and explosive as possible. We want to put Colt in a position to bring home the trophy because defenses have to key on more than just him; to the extent that Colt's early mistakes open Davis's eyes to the idea of building a more robust offense, they are a positive.
Second, I'm glad Vondrell McGee fumbled the football. Related to the first point, mistakes like McGee's in non-contests serve a dual purpose -- reinforcing among the players that the details matter, and among the coaches that the competition for playing time must be a season-long evaluation. You perform, you play. Nothing else matters.
Third, I'm glad that the defense allowed 20 points. Because right now, Will Muschamp is either literally or metaphorically out there with his defense, staring at the Jumbotron, out of his mind with rage that he has to see the number 20 beneath the visitors' name. Watching his post-game press conference was both amusing and awe-inspiring; it was literally all Muschamp could do to sit there and answer questions about a game in which his defense had mostly played well. He rushed through his answers, visibly annoyed, and visibly eager to get back in the locker room to get to work.
Fourth, I'm glad that Chykie Brown got smoked. I'm a huge fan of Chykie Brown, I love his go-go-gadget arms, his long strides, and his passion to man up a great receiver. But I'm an even bigger fan of top talent feeling challenged. A healthy Chykie Brown is as important to your defensive game plan against Danario Alexander, Detron Lewis, Dezmon Briscoe, and Dez Bryant as anything else, and this defense will be all the better if he feels as much pressure as everyone else in Texas' ridiculously talented and deep secondary to perform at the highest level possible, week in and week out.
There were other disappointments, but that's more than enough to make the point I want to hit: Mack Brown was right when he said on Saturday night that that was likely "the worst that we'll play all year," but it's important not because of what he said -- standard coachspeak, for the most part -- but because this is a team and coaching staff that seems genuinely focused on, and hungry for, excellence. This is a team and a program hitting its peak precisely because it learned the hard way that showing up with better talent only gets you so far, and that being your best means looking for and studying weaknesses, building on them to achieve your potential.
If all that sounds just a bit too abstract to consider, just remember that my big picture approach has always been an effort to better understand what we see on the field. And while a big part of that is how the players perform, at least as much is determined by Mack Brown and how he prepares them for battle. In that sense, consider me pleased that the team has plenty to work on in the weeks ahead.
- Texas fans' eyes are rightly trained on 2009 as The Year to make the run at the BCS Title, but depending on the offensive line and how much Garrett Gilbert develops this year, is there any reason to be any less excited about what's ahead in 2010? The list of important, incredibly talented freshmen and sophomores who look like they're going to start contributing now, and will be even better a year from now, is a long one: Monroe, Newton, C. Johnson, Dan Buckner, Marquise Goodwin, Malcolm Williams, Aaron Williams, Earl Thomas, Alex Okafor, Keenan Robinson, Emmanuel Acho, Blake Gideon, Kheeston Randall, Calvin Howell... We could list others, but just let that sink in for a moment. There's a reason upperclassmen like Deon Beasley weren't cracking the starting line up in August. And don't even get me started on my excitement for a number of these guys. This football program changed on November 23, 2007 and the best of that change is just getting started.