Texas offensive brain trust working as a committee

Offensive coordinator Joe Wickline - Matt Strasen (USA TODAY Sports)

Wait, wasn't the offensive coordinator supposed to call the plays?

For the first time, the new offensive brain trust for the Texas Longhorns met with the media, about a month and a half after being hired by new head coach Charlie Strong.

And to call the group a brain trust is more fitting than at any point since at least the start of the Mack Brown era at Texas. As all offensive decision-making transitioned from longtime offensive coordinator Greg Davis to Bryan Harsin and his Boise State system to Major Applewhite's single season at the helm, since Brown took over, it's always been clear who was ultimately making the decisions.

That isn't quite the case any more, as the offense is currently being billed as a collaborative effort.

Back at Charlie Strong's introductory press conference, the head coach was adamant that offensive coordinator Joe Wickline will be calling plays.

"Joe Wickline will call plays on offense," Strong said in mid January. "He is the offensive coordinator, he will call plays but Shawn has been the guy who also-and Les has called at Mississippi State. So all three will collaborate together but it will be a system when you look at it offensively you have three coordinators there but Joe will call the plays on offense."

On Wednesday, things weren't quite as clearly defined.

Assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson referred to decision-making between the offensive coaches as a committee approach and didn't exactly echo Strong's thought on the play-calling situation.

"We will work our way there," said Strong's former offensive coordinator at Louisville. "Right now, we are working together and just putting it all together. We have been the last three weeks really working to put our offense together and the direction of it. Just putting all the pieces in place."

According to the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Wickline said that he will call plays, but then said twice that things will operate by committee, though those comments did not end up in the official transcript released by the school.

Whatever happens with the play-calling situation, it will unquestionably be up to Watson to figure out the quarterback situation.

If David Ash can't stay healthy, the Horns will likely have to turn to still-unproven sophomore Tyrone Swoopes, but the new coaching staff doesn't have much of a take on where Swoopes is in his development yet.

"I don't know if I have a true evaluation of Tyrone because of the way he was used," said Watson.

Watching all of Swoopes' snaps from last season doesn't exactly paint much of a picture of Swoopes and the new staff is probably lusting after that wasted year of eligibility.

Of course, Ash should stay healthy at least through the spring, as the quarterback won't be subjected to any contact drills, a tidbit that is only mildly newsworthy given that few teams hit their quarterbacks -- when the Longhorns did so with Swoopes during last year's spring game, it was an extremely rare occurrence.

With the rest of the players, the coaches are set to evaluate the roster throughout spring practice in an attempt to help establish a concrete direction for the offense.

"Spring will be the answer to a lot of our questions because we really don't know yet," said wide receivers coach Les Koenning. "You want to judge, see how well they retain, see how well they perform, and you will be able to answer a lot of those questions."

Running backs coach Tommie Robinson, for instance, hasn't watched film of his running backs yet because he wants to enter spring practice without any preconceived notions about his players.

"I'm looking for everything that'd you look for in recruiting freshman," said Robinson. "Because to me, it's all fresh. It's all new. This is my second year having to do this and I took the same approach last year at USC and things worked out pretty good, so I want to take the same approach here. I don't want any preconceived notion. I want to go out and just see them for myself and see where it goes."

Of course, Robinson won't have a lot to work with this spring, as Johnathan Gray is rehabbing his torn Achilles, leaving only Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, and Jalen Overstreet at the position, assuming that the latter doesn't change positions again.

And it's hardly unsurprising at this point, but the coaches spent quite a bit of time talking about how much chemistry there is with the current staff. Koenning was quick to point out, however, that the staff hasn't faced the type of adversity that occurs during games. And the players are still in the mode of trying to impress the coaches in order to secure playing time.

Koening himself is trying to identify playmakers, particularly at the wide receiver position, which lost deep threat Mike Davis to graduate and will have to replace that big-play ability. Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson look like the contributors most easy to step into a larger role in that manner, while Jaxon Shipley remains a consistent presence in the intermediate areas of the field.

But can any of the younger receivers step up, especially one with height like Montrel Meander, who redshirted last season? The Horns have struggled to find big, physical outside receivers who can win on slants and fades in the red zone.

Until practice starts, the coaches are working on sharing ideas, holding a true dialogue about what they believe in offensively and what has worked for them in the past.

"We all know, for example, how to run the inside zone play but the art form is how it is taught," said Watson. "I have learned in the last three weeks with Joe just how simple that could be. I think in the passing aspect of it and the protection aspect of it he would say the same thing back. So it has been a really good marriage that way."

Still, sharing ideas isn't exactly establishing an offensive identity. So far, Strong, Watson, and Wickline can agree about at least once thing, stemming from lessons that he learned at Oklahoma State.

"I really think this, and Coach Strong believes in this and Coach Shawn Watson believes this, it's about balance," said Wickline. "If you really look at what Coach Gundy tried to get done and what we tried to do as a staff, we're not going to be one-dimensional."

"We're not going to be throw, throw, throw. We're also not going to be run, run, run. We're also not going to run, run, run on first down."

Breaking tendency is only part of achieving true balance, however, which requires an understanding of how to attack different parts of the defense, running the base plays in different directions or from different formations and then running constraint plays off of those.

"It's about balance," continued the first-year Texas offensive coordinator. "It's about balance run-pass. It's about balance when you run inside outside. It's about balance on types of runs. It's about balance and obviously having a great play action pass that takes them off your running game. It's about speed and tempo. Each year it was different, we were just very fortunate to have had success running the football."

While Wickline talked about balance, Watson had another buzz word in mind.

"Multiplicity is the key word because you want to give defenses a hard time defending us in terms of how we present ourselves in personnel groups and formations," said Watson.

Look complex, but be simple -- it's a common mantra from coaches, who want to maximize the ability to execute base plays through repetition, but still want to present enough formational complexity to opponents to slow the reads of defenders and perhaps then force some confusion through some pre-snap shifts, motions, and trades, a hallmark of the Boise State offense Harsin ran at Texas.

"The other aspect, and what I think is a real important part of the multiplicity, is the speed part, the no huddle part, which we have all been apart of. At Louisville last year, we did that quite a bit to help us out with some injury situations. Joe [Wickline] has a great background with that and so has Les [Koenning]."

One of the strengths of the staff besides pure experience is the fact that the three major offensive minds do all have that extensive experience running tempo offenses, with Wickline and Koenning standing out in that regard from their previous coaching stints in the offenses run by Mike Gundy and Dan Mullen.

"Everybody has had experience with it but everyone has had a unique and different experience," said Watson. "So we have tied those things in with Joe and Bruce knowing the league and using that aspect to help us put together our package and how we will do it."

The interplay between Watson and Wickline will be key to the chemistry of the offense moving forward. Wickline doesn't see that as being a potential problem based on his interactions with Watson so far.

"It's good to work with a guy that doesn't have a giant ego," said Wickline. "He doesn't need to prove to anybody, 'I'm this or I'm that." He kind of understands where he's at and where we're all at. He knows, this is my job, this is your job and how can we get this done better? It's been a blast and I love it."

On Twitter, the quick take was that Wickline was taking a crack at his former boss Mike Gundy, but in the context of the conversation, it was merely the second quality that the former Oklahoma State offense line coach listed about Watson that he appreciates, also calling his colleague "unbelievably intelligent."

Koenning used the word excited four times in his comments and Wickline said that the process of getting together as a staff to talk about the direction of the offense has been a fun experience.

"It's been a lot of fun because you're hearing new ideas, you're seeing people and how they did things," said Wickline. "When you get with one area for a long time and you hear the same thing, it's refreshing to get back and hear other ideas and things and concepts as a group. As far as how it's going to work, we've all put this thing together. First of all, we're going to do what Coach Strong wants us to do. Are we going to run the ball? Are we going to pass the ball? Are we going to run the option? Are we going to run trick plays? What are we going to do to get chunk plays?"

Entering the spring with a new coaching staff, the offensive coaching are seeking to establish an identity based on the what the team can do best. There aren't a lot of answers to the numerous questions surrounding that process, but the new staff is bringing new energy into the program and the players for the most part are reciprocating because they have been forced out of their comfort zones.

And because of that new energy, at least in regards to the possibilities for the 2014 football team, hope is springing eternal.

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