I had the privilege of spending two afternoons this spring interviewing Frank Denius for this year's preview magazine, spending the the entire first day talking about his legendary service during World War II, before devoting the second day entirely to Texas football.
On three separate occasions during the course of our conversations, Mr. Denius mentioned what I thought at the time a rather curious sentiment. "If I needed 8 yards for a first down, I'd just give it to DJ and tell him to go get it."
I honestly thought he misspoke the first time he said it, but by the third time it was obvious that like everything else of which he spoke, Mr. Denius was crystal clear about what he was saying. (The man has the memory of an elephant, able to recall, for instance, the details -- including down and distance -- of key plays from the 1954 game against TCU. Spending an afternoon talking Texas football with Frank Denius is essentially to have direct access to the last six decades of program history. Mr. Denius was there for every game and most of the practices, and he remembers it all. Amazing.)
From the number of times he repeated it I assumed Mr. Denius' feelings were derived from his direct observation of Monroe in practices, and I came ever-so-close to tabbing Monroe as one of "My Guys" for 2012, but I also wondered if Mr. Denius feelings might be influenced by just knowing and really liking the kid -- that he might be affirming his faith in Monroe as a player, rather than offering an observation.
So when on Saturday night DJ Monroe absorbed and then powered through a would-be Wyoming tackler to get to the pylon for a touchdown, while most Longhorns fans were raising their eyebrows, I just shook my head and chuckled, imagining a delighted Frank Denius cheering vigorously for Monroe while reminding everyone around him what he'd always said about the undersized tailback.
More thoughts on Texas' 37-17 victory over Wyoming after the jump.
Harsin-odical. More than a few Texas fans immediately took to hand wringing over the performance of the offense last night, bemoaning the lack of any reason to believe that the unit was improved from a year ago. Time will tell what it's ultimate ceiling is, but I admit to being thoroughly surprised by the number of people who were dispirited after last night's game. We'll get to the defense in a bit, but just focusing on the offense for a moment here, I thought it was obvious that a substantial amount of our offensive limitations against Wyoming were self-imposed, by design.
It didn't take long last season for me to see that Bryan Harsin is among the most methodical football coaches imaginable. His approach to constructing, developing, and deploying an offense is highly systematic -- both across a season's slate of games and within any given game. At the season level, Harsin lays a foundation and builds on top of and out from there, methodically adding layers of depth, diversity and variation; within a given game, he does much the same but on a smaller scale, methodically laying his foundation, probing the defense, and building out based on what he sees and learns.
Both of those methodologies could not have more clearly been on display against Wyoming. Many fans were deeply troubled by the poor results on Texas' interior runs early in the game; to my eyes, though, they looked like calculated losses. Wyoming committed aggressively to structuring its defense to deal with Texas' power rushing game, but while this fact that was surely not lost on Harsin, he nevertheless declined to vary from his approach -- to the great frustration of many fans.
When he did introduce some movement and varied the approach Texas started to find success, but the reason he stayed the course on the opening drive -- accepted some losses, even -- is attributable to Harsin's focus on developing broader projects, in which the highest order purpose of a play or drive may be something other than immediate success. Harsin's methodology is "penny wise, pound foolish" in reverse; he's not only willing to absorb some short-term losses, but in some instances does so by design.
Not all, but many of Texas' offensive limitations -- and certainly a number of the ones causing fans to complain -- were products of Harsin's commitment to developing broader objectives. Harsin operated methodically at the game level, both by the manner in which he eased David Ash and the offense into the season's live action with the two most foundational running plays the team runs, Power and Inside Zone (even when the defensive look made them low-success plays), and through his systematic approach to probing Wyoming's defense by establishing tendencies and then seeking to exploit vulnerabilities.
And operating on top of all that were Harsin's broader objectives as pertain to the season. Other than winning the game, the single most important objective of the season opener was a successful, confidence-building performance by David Ash. The downfield passing that was lacking on Saturday night is unquestionably a part of the broader objective, but Saturday night's play calling made clear that Texas' offensive coordinator calculated that there was an intermediary step that needed to be made first. Bryan Harsin designed the offensive approach around developing David Ash's comfort, poise, confidence, and decision-making.
Fans can disagree with Harsin's calculated approach and are right to point out actual deficiencies with the team, but a substantial amount of the complaining after the Wyoming game mistakenly characterized the former as the latter.
About Ash. Moving from Harsin to David Ash himself, let me complete the thought here by noting that I was thoroughly pleased with how he performed against Wyoming -- particularly because of the encouraging ways that he improved and grew increasingly comfortable as the game progressed. Anyone who wants to bark about how we ultimately need David Ash to be more than he was against Wyoming is both right and completely making the wrong evaluation of his performance.
Absent from Saturday night's game was even a single instance of the confused presence and befuddling decision-making that featured so prominently in Ash's baptism by fire a year ago. He completed 20 of his 27 passes, had two or three more catchable passes that were dropped, and made the right decision throwing the ball away twice. His performance against Wyoming doesn't guarantee anything about where he'll ultimately wind up, but I struggle to understand how it can be characterized as anything other than meaningful, substantial and encouraging improvement.
If it turns out there's nothing more there, sure, we'll all be talking about its inadequacies. But those who would conclude from Ash's performance on Saturday that there's nothing more there have it backwards: it provided reason to believe that he is capable of developing into a strong quarterback. That -- not whether Ash is already all the way there -- was the single most critical question heading into the 2012 season, and in that regard we could hardly have asked for a more encouraging opening game, particularly considering the way that he improved and grew more comfortable as the game wore on.
Starting Slow. Speaking of which, while the team's performance early in the game certainly left plenty to be desired, that too strikes me as an odd source of complaint. It was the season opener -- the team's first live opponent, and quite a solid one at that. While I certainly would love to see Texas open the season with a team that's capable of thoroughly obliterating a solid opponent from the opening gun, with respect to this Longhorn team and weighing the slow-ish start versus the clear and marked improvement (and, ultimately, suffocation of Wyoming) as the game wore on, I would have imagined the latter being assigned much greater importance.
If someone had to struggle... Pause, block out Saturday night's game against Wyoming for a moment. and imagine that before the opener you were asked to rank the units in order from (a) those for which a poor showing would be most alarming, to (z) those for which a bad night would raise the lease cause for concern? There's room for debate about the ordering but I'm confident that most would rank good showings by the quarterbacks and offensive tackles as among the most important to see, and characterize disappointing performances by the linebackers and defensive backs at the other end of the spectrum -- as problems the team is well-equipped to address and correct.
When you compare that ordering with how the units actually wound up performing against Wyoming, the units for which a good showing was most critical were among those that played well, while the units that struggled the most were also the ones that provide the least cause for concern going forward.
In other words, not all struggles are of equal import: a poor showing from David Ash would have been devastating to the season outlook, while a subpar outing by this secondary provides little if any cause for concern. And if the team had to struggle in some regards and we could choose the units to which they be apportioned, most of us would want to draw it up pretty much as it actually went down.
Which is a long way of saying that I'm not going to indulge a discussion worrying about Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs; they could have played a lot worse and I'd still feel fine. Nor am I going to lose any sleep about our linebackers, being in Manny Diaz's care as they are. This is a young and inexperienced group of linebackers, but also a unit which there is literally no reason not to expect to improve every game of the season. And despite its early mistakes, on the whole the defense showed plenty of reason to expect excellence this season. They're going to be more than fine.
Now that? That might be a problem. None of this is to say that there was nothing a Texas fan could legitimately cite as a potential limitation and cause for concern. Dominic Espinosa's first quarter struggles rekindled painful memories of Casey Walker plowing into the backfield for a sack and forced fumble. It's also still hard to shake a pessimistic view of our receiving corps.
And most importantly, although I saw a very good rushing offense, it didn't look so strong that it won't encounter its challenges when facing a top defense. The questions at tight end remain open at best, Espinosa's aforementioned struggles are potentially alarming, and I didn't see many instances of effective lead blocking from Ryan Roberson at fullback. All of which does highlight the importance of Ash and his receivers continuing to improve and provide more assistance to help open things up.
With that said, the only limitation potentially inferred from Saturday's performance would be Texas' status as a national title contender this season -- and at least to my viewing, if the performance spoke to anything it was less to this team's ceiling than to cementing its high floor.
And for a season opener, that is rarely something about which to complain.
Up Next: New Mexico. And with that, it's over and out with respect to Wyoming, and on to next week's opponent, New Mexico. With a game under our belts and a substantial dip in quality of opposition, the standards next week will be higher, but through one game: so far, so good.