Texas offense re-developing power running game identity

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Despite emphasis on run game versus Oklahoma, Major Applewhite says the offense's identity is "playing their ass off."

All of a sudden, the Texas Longhorns offense looks less like the spread-and-shred up-tempo unit promised in the offsesaon and more like the heavy group run out by former co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin.

Sure, there aren't H-backs and tight ends coming out of helicopters and holes in the ground any more, as new co-offensive coordinator and play caller Major Applewhite has abandoned the shifts, motions and trades that Harsin used to out-leverage opposing defenses, but with move blocker Geoff Swaim pancaking opponents and tight end Greg Daniels setting the edge against Oklahoma on Saturday, as well as fullback Alex De La Torre working some in short-yardage from the I formation, Texas was strong with their secondary blockers -- even running backs Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown, and Joe Bergeron each had several good blocks.

There's no question that Harsin was right about the lightly-recruited Swaim, whom he found at Butte Community College in California due to old Boise State connections. The 6'5, 250-pounder has the size to work in line, but he's been at his best as an H-back and a fullback with his high-level ability to engage defenders in space and the hand placement and persistence to finish blocks -- Swaim had five pancake blocks against Oklahoma and 11 more strong efforts, all without notably missing an assignment.

He's lucky to have a pass play called for him once a month, but it hasn't impacted his blocking ability. Call him a grinder, a blue-collar player, whatever, Swaim gets the job done and clearly doesn't complain if he doesn't get to touch the football. Texas would have been a better football team last year with a player like Swaim available to Harsin and they are most certainly a better team this year with Swaim in the mix.

Along the offensive line, effort and intensity resulted in a significant reduction in missed blocks, as even offensive guard Mason Walters missed only three blocks, a low number for him at this point, and center Dominic Espinosa was also excellent on the whole. Only sophomore offensive tackle Kennedy Estelle struggled much at all, having drawn the unenviable task of blocking Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker coming off the edge, a mismatch for offensive tackles, as Striker has proven all season.

Texas did it with more formations from under center instead of the preferred Pistol attack that was supposed to keep the quarterback triggering from the same spot on nearly every play. Instead of the extreme simplification to encourage a higher level of execution and less thinking on the field, the injury to David Ash and the need to run against packed fronts has resulted in the change in philosophy to protect Case McCoy as much as possible.

Having two blockers of the caliber of Daniels and Swaim has changed things for the Longhorns, too. Instead of converted wide receivers or an undersized player like Blaine Irby coming back from a catastrophic knee injury working at H-back, Swaim is the prototype in size and blocking ability.

And Applewhite clearly learned the lessons from the Iowa State game, mostly dropping the packaged plays on which the Cyclones were forcing pass reads nearly every time and calling straight running plays instead, using the lead draw effectively to combine with the staple run plays of Power, inside zone and outside zone. The introduction of so many two-tight end sets makes one wonder what happened to the old standby of pin-and-pull, the play that so often heralded success for the Texas offensive line last year.

Regardless of why that isn't part of the playbook, as well as every player involved in the blocking game performed against Oklahoma, the Sooners still had quite a bit of success in limiting big plays -- other than the 38-yard run on 3rd and 10 from Gray on the lead draw, Texas only had two other runs that went for 10 or more yards. Stubborn running the ball on first and second down, the Horns had nearly 10 of 25 runs go for two yards or less, but responded on second down with 4.3 yards per carry (stats courtesy of Max Olson's film review).

Oklahoma knew what was coming. Everyone watching the game knew what was coming. And the Sooners couldn't stop it, even if they were often able to contain it.

A great deal of the difference came from the running backs. Brown ran harder and with better pad level than he has at any time in his career, no easy task for a taller running back, demonstrating that Texas doesn't have to rely on the now apparently fumble-prone Bergeron to pick up crucial yardage in short down and distance situations or just when the offense goes into grind mode in general.

And Gray ran just as hard as Brown did, though he still doesn't quite have the same ability to move piles and pick up yards after contact. He also got behind his pads better just before contact and did a better job of driving his legs through tackles, one of his only significant weaknesses in what is quickly becoming a superb all-around game for the former prep star.

The front for Bob and Mike Stoops was surely hurt by the losses of nose tackle Jordan Phillips and top linebacker Corey Nelson, so the Longhorns will face more stiff challenges from the TCU and Oklahoma State defensive fronts, if not the Texas Tech and Baylor fronts as well, but those facts don't take away how impressive it was to see the offensive line that got man-handled by BYU step up and win battles simply because they wanted it more.

Bottle that up and break it out before every game the rest of the way.

And for a team that wasn't supposed to care about possessing the ball, the Longhorns held it for more than 35 minutes against Oklahoma, 10 more minutes than the Sooners had it. Some of that was a result of Oklahoma missing on 11-of-13 third-down attempts, but some of it was because the Longhorns slowed the pace of the game -- Texas ran a play every 25.8 seconds last Saturday in the Cotton Bowl, compared to a play every 20.9 seconds against BYU.

The coaches before the season talked about being balanced, changing the offensive emphasis and tempo based on the situations. Against Oklahoma, Applewhite went heavy and wasn't worried as much about the tempo except situationally.

According to Applewhite after the game, the Longhorns started to establish their identity on offense, something they've struggled with a bit when it became clear that teams weren't going to let Texas run into even-numbered boxes with spread looks.

"Playing their ass off," Applewhite said. "Bottom line. That's our identity. It has nothing to do with plays. It has to do with fighting, believing in yourself, and playing your ass off. Period."

Continuing to hone that identity means that it doesn't matter if Texas has to throw the ball to win a particular game or turn to the running game, or go up tempo or slow it down, play like they did against the Sooners on Saturday, and the Horns started to look like the team head coach Mack Brown talked up heading into the season.

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