Major Applewhite could immediately improve the offense by using speedsters like Daje Johnson - Brett Deering
In the Alamo Bowl, the Texas offense will surely look extremely similar to the 2012 version under Bryan Harsin. But some small changes could add up to a big difference.
1. Pick a quarterback
While it might be healthy for David Ash and Case McCoy to continue battling for the starting job in the Alamo Bowl, the team also needs some stability at the position and needs some answers heading into the offseason.
If Ash performs well enough in practice to win the job, the coaches need to give him every opportunity in the game to show what he can do. Perhaps that means exposing him to more situations in which he struggles, but, as Scipio Tex pointed out after the TCU game, healthy programs let their players develop through mistakes, instead of replacing them at the first opportunity.
The reflexive bailing on Ash for McCoy has taken away some opportunities to recover in games, especially two-minute drives before the half. Increasing the tempo and calling for passes that move the chains against defenses content to give up underneath passes in exchange for stopping big gains can be crucial situations for developing rhythm.
The general take for the last several weeks has been that the 'Horns are back where they were last year in terms of the quarterback situation. It's true in the sense that Ash was once again taken out for reasons of ineffectiveness, leaving the bowl game starter once again up in the air, but also true in the sense that Texas once again needs to use the bowl game to provide another data point with Ash in the continuing effort to determine whether or not he can actually recover from adversity.
2. Increase the tempo
One of the changes that Applewhite is expected to make with the offense is to increase the tempo more often during normal game situations to allow the Texas offense to run more plays, a move that makes sense when considering that the offense under Harsin was one of the most explosive in the country, but ran fewer plays than any team in the conference other than Kansas State.
So, yes, that means that Kansas ran more plays offensively than Texas this season.
Why increase the tempo?
It puts defenses in tough positions -- they can't substitute and teams with issues getting calls in and aligning can often be caught with defenders out of position.
Virtually every successful spread team tries to run as many plays as possible for exactly those reasons.
3. Develop a base personnel grouping
Besides any general philosophical opposition to playing at a higher tempo and any conservatism thatmight have inflicted up on him to shorten the game and keep the defense off the field, the major impediment to running the Texas offense at a higher tempo was the fact that he liked to shuttle personnel groupings in and out of the game, which allows the defense to respond in kind.
To run more plays at Texas, the Longhorns would have to develop a base personnel grouping capable of being effective in the running game and passing game. And speaking of impediments, the struggle to find a tight end capable of catching and blocking has continued, making it more difficult to find that personnel grouping.
Dropping some of the blocking responsibilities and playing with an H-back like MJ McFarland more instead of using an in-line tight end and asking them to win battles against defensive ends. However, the drawback there is that removing the in-line tight end would essentially take the pin-and-pull play out of the rotation, which has been the most consistent running play this season, even if it was taken away by TCU and Kansas State because the tight ends were getting pushed back into the play.
Greg Daniels has been a solid blocker at times, but hasn't been particularly effective in that role. As he continues to grow in the passing game, he could become the tight end that Texas needs to run a base personnel grouping that can accelerate the tempo and provide equally effective passing and running threats. Unfortunately for Texas, that isn't likely to happen in the lead-up to the bowl game.
4. Use his weapons
The most frustrating aspect of Harsin's tenure in Austin was his lack of interest in getting the ball to the three fastest players on the team -- DJ Monroe, Daje Johnson, and Marquise Goodwin. When those players did get the ball, they had tremendous success. When they didn't, Texas had a tendency to lose.
In fact, the long carry for Monroe against Kansas State that set up a touchdown was his only carry in a loss. There's not necessarily a one-to-one correlation there, but the fact that Texas lost every game until then that Monroe didn't carry the ball does seem to be significant given that he averaged nearly 10 yards per carry on the season, numbers better even than his impressive career averages.
In the last eight games, however, Monroe only carried the ball five times, picking up 73 big yards in the process, all while Harsin made excuses about the flow of the game. Against Kansas, it wasn't until McCoy had replaced an ineffective Ash that Harsin started calling for the perimeter run game. It resulted in an easy touchdown that kept McCoy from having to complete a real pass (the push pass to Goodwin doesn't really count).
Then, against Kansas State, when Ash was replaced due to injury, Texas finally remembered that they had Goodwin and Johnson and Monroe.
Perhaps picking up big chunks of yards by using the speedsters on the Longhorns roster could help Ash better recover from adversity. Or at least make the offense more effective overall.
Just a thought.
5. Show less stubbornness with the running game
At times, Harsin was content to pick up minimal gains in the power running game in an effort to establish the play-action passing game. It's a rather conservative approach that backfired at times when the Texas offensive line struggled to win individual battles at the line of scrimmage against the better defensive lines the 'Horns faced in 2011.
As a result, Texas ended up getting behind the chains in those games, which didn't exactly help Ash develop a rhythm.
When the Longhorns were out their best late in the season in games against Texas Tech and Iowa State, they were able to produce big plays in the passing game by using the threat of the run to influence safeties attempting to help in run support.
Being less stubborn with the running game would run the risk of those safeties no longer biting so hard on fakes, but it's a risk that Applewhite may be wise to run in an effort to achieve more success on first and second downs.