Taking a big-picture look at each unit of the offensive through the first half of the season.
This isn't an easy position to grade, especially since the season at this position can already be effectively split into three distinct parts -- the end of the Garrett Gilbert era, the McAsh era, and what appears to be the Ash era moving forward.
For Gilbert, the grade is obviously a poor one. Although he made it through the first game relatively unscathed -- he managed not to throw an interception, the oft-repeated act that ended up defining his career at Texas -- the first half of the second game against BYU ended his reign as a starter after two interceptions. Since then, Gilbert supported his teammates for several games before undergoing shoulder surgery and transferring, ending his Texas career in a matter of weeks.
Garrett Gilbert's grade: F
Through games against BYU, UCLA, and Iowa State, Case McCoy essentially played without any major errors -- no fumbles, no interceptions -- but his limitations in arm strength, running ability, and pocket presence made his long-term upside pretty clear. Fumbling twice and getting tossed around like a rag doll by Oklahoma illustrated McCoy's limitations at the current time, as well as showing little ability to identify and respond to blitzes. The coaches responded by installing David Ash as the starter against the Pokes.
There's a segment of the fanbase that still wants to see McCoy as the starting quarterback -- or at least splitting time with Ash -- but that belief rests on the major fallacy that Case is or could ever become as successful as his brother. Given that he's weaker, doesn't have as much arm strength, and doesn't seem to have his brother's ability to find passing lanes, it seems clear even this early in his career that Case has significantly less upside than his brother. As in, having barely adequate skills to succeed at quarterback anywhere in the FBS. At best.
Case McCoy's grade: C
Spring and fall practice brimmed with rave reviews for Ash's maturity, his ability to spin the football, and his accuracy. Harsin responded by creating a package for Ash that burned his redshirt early in the Rice game and was mostly made up of running plays out of the shotgun and split wide in the Wildcat that eventually resulted in his touchdown pass to Jaxon Shipley against Iowa State.
As Gilbert lost his job and Ash split time with McCoy, Ash developed his capabilities every week, adding more of the offense, specifically in the form of some play-action passes against UCLA to take advantage of the linebackers selling out against the run. By the Oklahoma State game, the Texas coaches had seemingly seen enough to make him the starter, despite two interceptions against Oklahoma.
Ash has the physical skills to make all the throws -- which McCoy most certainly can not -- and the athleticism to keep plays alive with his feet and show a nice balance between keeping his eyes down field to make plays and running for positive yardage.
Whether he can avoid the costly interceptions that have defined his last two performances will ultimately go a long way to determine his long-term fit at the position and the ultimate future upside of Texas football teams, which at the moment is far from clear. Harsin needs to continue playing Ash to aid his development and to discover those answers.
David Ash's grade: B-
Overall grade: C
This position has been all about the almost simultaneous emergence of both Malcolm Brown and Fozzy Whittaker as the most effective 1-2 combination for Texas since Selvin Young and Jamaal Charles in 2005. Brown is on track to become one of only five five-star running backs to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark as a freshman and only needs 77 yards to surpass Cody Johnson's team-leading numbers from last season.
Talk about instant impact. Well, Brown didn't get a carry in the first half against Rice, but since then he's been nails.
In addition to his major contributions in the kickoff return game the last two weeks, Whittaker has finally found his role in the Texas offense as the triggerman in the Wildcat and a reliably third-down and change-of-pace option in pass protection and on plays to the edge.
SI's Stewart Mandel opined that Whittaker has looked as fast as he has at any time in the program and while there was some initial disagreement from this author about that statement, Fozzy's ability to stay healthy and avoid the knee and stinger injuries that defined the majority of his Texas career have now disappeared, resulting in a running back who can bounce plays outside to break off big gains against defenses, but also get low and become slippery enough to break tackles.
PB has been predicting monster seasons for the Mythical Fozzy Creature for years and given good health, as well as an effective scheme including Wildcat opportunities that take advantage of his vision for the cutback lanes, he is finally living up to those expectations. The Fozzy Creature is mythical no more!
As for the other backs, Joe Bergeron has been effective in limited action and is contributing on special teams amidst comments from Mack Brown this week that he needs more carries and Cody Johnson has run hard in short-yardage situations and looks committed to helping as a fullback. As he gains more experience as a blocker, he should become more consistent, but has still laid some beneficial blocks this season already.
Overall grade: B+
What happened to all the supposed depth here? Malcolm Williams gave up his senior season, Brock Fitzhenry quit, Greg Timmons transferred, Marquise Goodwin was going to redshirt, then changed his mind, but came back to a team in September that he hadn't practiced with in nearly a year. DeSean Hales hasn't emerged into the rotation. John Harris got hurt. Darius White hasn't progressed. Chris Jones has barely made a ripple.
Out of that absolute wreckage left by Bobby Kennedy, only Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley have emerged as consistent targets, with true freshman Miles Onyegbule providing some blocking ability. And a failed pass. And, yeah, some blocking ability.
So right now, all David Ash has to work with is a true freshman who walked onto campus and instantly commanded a starting role and a sophomore who lost most of his freshman season to an injury. But still, Ash may be the next coming of Garrett Gilbert after one start, right?
Back to the receivers, though. Shipley has proven to be everything expected and more, helping the win the BYU game with his spectacular hurdle-catch and pass to David Ash late. The unfortunate problem for Ash moving forward is that his prospective favorite target has earned himself some bracket coverage of late and only threats elsewhere are going to change that moving forward.
As for Davis, the projected clear no.1 receiver this season hasn't made the expected strides. Known as a technician capable of carving up even the best defensive backs in high school and an hard worker in the film room, Davis has suddenly developed issues with his hands this fall, never a concern coming out of Skyline, as well as a decreased effectiveness on the long passes that provided such a huge boost to the early offensive production.
As much as specific personnel packages help early in the first several usages, once opponents start scheming for tendencies, a play's execution must happen at a much higher level or the coordinator has to do a much better job of integrating the constraint plays, with any mistakes showing up as essentially drive-killing negative plays.
Opponents are starting to take Shipley away with bracket coverage and until other receivers start stepping up or the running game forces defenses to commit the resources currently used to stop the sensational frosh into the box, the effectiveness of the passing game will be limited.
Overall grade: C
Except for DJ Grant's six-catch, three-touchdown performance against UCLA that was supposed to herald a breakout for both Grant and the tight end position at Texas in general, the production at tight end has been as non-existent as ever since Jermichael Finley left campus and Blaine Irby hurt his knee.
It's mostly been Grant, Irby, and Dom Jones in the rotation, though Barrett Matthews received his highest number of reps against Oklahoma State after suffering a knee injury early in the season that kept him off the field in previous weeks. In the running game, Jones has been the best blocker, but hasn't provided much in the passing game. Basically the opposite for Grant, who hasn't even shown up much in the passing game since UCLA.
And while Irby's comeback story is heartwarming and the fact that he caught his first two passes since his catastrophic knee injury is more than commendable, the unfortunate fact is that he will never reach his pre-injury level of athleticism and as much as he has been mythologized over the years, there never any guarantee that he was going to effectively replace Finley anyway. Upper-body strength added during his rehabilitation hasn't helped him much as a blocker -- he clearly tries, but seemed more effective pre-injury as an H-back.
It's not a lack of effort from any of the players, it's more that the effects of years of injuries and evaluations that didn't hit or development that didn't happen have get that all-around player from emerging who could hold down the position, excel in the blocking game and stretch the field down the seam. It's still possible Grant could emerge as that player, but it's going to take more than just some effort, often less effective than needed, and one strong game as a receiver to reach that point.
Overall grade: C
Considering what he's working with -- a line full of guards, mostly -- Stacy Searels has done a commendable job this season. For the most part, the group hasn't had many holding penalties and there seems to be a toughness lacking in recent years. In some ways, it's hard to separate the work that Searels has done from the work of Bryan Harsin, whose coherent schemes have made a major difference, and Bennie Wylie, who had a summer to starting molding the offensive linemen into well-conditioned athletes.
There have been some struggles in pass protection the last two weeks, including what appeared to be some busted assignments, for the most part, the 2011 group represents a fairly serious step forward from the last several seasons. the tackle positions are still a concern, but Searels seems to have patched it up with the move of Trey Hopkins outside to right tackle and replacing Tray Allen with Josh Cochran against Oklahoma State, even though Allen was far from a major liability.
The emergence of Josh Cochran against Oklahoma State has to count as a positive down the road, especially if he can successfully anchor that position for years to come. He looked fantastic in space, using his athleticism to get down the field and the same persistence that made him a projectable recruit out of high school. Some added weight has helped and once he develops some man strength and more refined technique in pass protection, he could be a strong performer his last two years in the program.
Along the rest of the line, Trey Hopkins has held his own at right tackle despite projecting as an interior lineman coming into college, while Mason Walters and Dominic Espinosa, slowed in recent weeks by an ankle injury that should have time to heal during the bye week, have emerged to help solidify guard and center positions. After a slow start to the season, David Snow has come on to provide more consistent play.
The group still needs some work consistently getting push in the power-running game and in dealing with blitzes and twists by the defensive line, but overall, it hasn't been the liability envisioned in worst-case scenarios and so far the group has held up despite the lack of depth behind the starters to provide rest during games.
Moving forward, the major concern is that lack of depth, which could be alleviated somewhat if another freshman, guard Sedrick Flowers, can recover from an ankle injury. This is still one of the positions on the team that cannot afford to lose a starter to a major injury -- the margin of error is slim.
Overall grade: B-
A certain element of the fanbase might be inclined to separate the last two games from the first four, but doing so misses the overall point. With a freshman now starting at quarterback, left tackle, running back, and wide receiver, Harsin clearly didn't have a lot of veteran help coming into the season. Heck, some of the oldest guys on the offensive roster -- Tray Allen, DJ Grant, Blaine Irby -- haven't even contributed much in the past due to injuries or ineffectiveness.
All told, Texas is starting to develop a strong running game led by Brown and aided by effectively combining the base Power running game with some jet sweeps and the situational use of the Wildcat package. Add in some successful trick plays and the Longhorns have been able to manufacture some touchdowns basically out of thin air.
There are certainly some concerns -- providing Ash the ability to get out of plays that will clearly not work pre-snap, scoring in the red zone, and creating big plays. In fact, the Longhorns only have nine plays longer than 30 yards, eight in the Big 12. While Oklahoma blitzed, Oklahoma State mostly opted to make sure that the Longhorns couldn't make plays over the top with consistent Cover 2 looks. Either way, in the last two games, David Ash hasn't had the opportunities present to go over the top
The honeymoon period is clearly over after Harsin the Oklahoma beatdown and a misstep against Oklahoma State by not trusting his running game on 3rd and goal at the three and then coming back with three straight passes after the safety, but those are really small concerns considering how much the new co-coordinator brings to the table above and beyond anything that Greg Davis could ever imagine.
Harsin creates packages that feature his best personnel, gives most of the roster the opportunity to play in those packages, and creates an environment that's fun because of the trick plays that he installs. Trick plays that tend to actually work in game situations, no less, with the Oklahoma game being the only exception all season. Oh yeah, and old-school running enthusiast Mack Brown loves Harsin's willingness and ability to consistently run the football.
Considering that Garrett Gilbert played himself out of his starting role and the two other options had thrown one combined collegiate pass, as much as the offense has struggled in the last two weeks, overall the group appears on schedule in development, if not slightly ahead.
Overall grade: B