The single most pronounced change in the Texas Longhorns offense in 2013 under new playcaller Major Applewhite will be the tempo at which the Longhorns get off plays offensively.
But the benefits will go beyond the offensive side of the ball and extend to the defense, since that group has to go against the tempo now being employed every day in practice.
Head coach Mack Brown thinks that is a pretty big deal:
It really helps our defense. The defense has learned more about tempo probably than they did all of last year because they actually substituted at times yesterday while tempo was going on with the big guys. So we feel like that it's helping our defense and sending the message to them, that they have to be in great shape to play. And against this type offense day-in, day-out, you will get exposed if you're not. And when you throw your hands on your hips and you get your head down or get down on one knee after a 12-play tempo drive, it shows you that whatever condition you're in is not enough, so eat better, sleep better.
One area in which the increased tempo in practices will help the entire team is in terms of conditioning, according to Brown:
Tempo has been fun for the coaches on both sides of the ball, but really stresses the guys and makes you be in great condition and makes you have energy when you come to practice because you are running the entire time.
And though it's the type of comment that every program makes every spring, the Longhorns should be in better shape come next fall because the players know that they will have to be in excellent shape to get on the field, especially on the offensive side of the ball -- the goal for the coaches there is to keep from substituting to wear out opposing defenses, which will leave few opportunities for the offense to change personnel.
To work towards the goal of having one of the best-conditioned teams in the conference, video review will help target those players who appear to be out of shape in practice, said Brown:
And also, we are taking all of those clips of anyone who looks like they are in less than top condition and showing it to [Assistant Athletics Director for Strength & Conditioning] Jeff Madden and [Assistant Athletics Director for Football Operations] Bennie Wylie, and they will help these guys out through the summer.
While the conditioning of some players in the past could have been camouflaged or hidden in practice because the pace wasn't as quick, that's no longer the case. In basketball, they like to say that the ball don't like (or at least Rasheed Wallace likes to say that). For Texas this spring, practice footage doesn't lie, especially the film from Thursday's scrimmage, said Brown:
It really pressed the defensive guys, ‘til you're able to take film clips out of this guy with his head down this guy with his hands on his hips between plays. And it's really significant for the off-season program to show them that you're a ten-play guy right now because you can't play 12 plays in a ballgame because you're out of shape. So it answers a lot of questions for parents, and it answers a lot of questions for the guys because the big guy in the sky don't lie. You got it right there. So you can show them.
More than conditioning, the tempo creates an energy in practice, a liveliness and intensity that probably wasn't there every day in previous years.
Starting quarterback David Ash has been enjoying it:
It's been a whole lot of fun. Spreading out, doing all sorts of different things. There's a lot of good players on this football team. We want to get them in the open field and let them run with the football. It's fun to just go play. Everybody's coming together and enjoying it. I think it's helping the defense get used to playing at a fast tempo. I think it's a win-win. I am really enjoying it.
For a quarterback who sometimes thinks too much and gets stuck in his own head, the tempo should help him do exactly what he mentioned -- just go play.
The word that Brown associated with the new tempo was also "fun":
The other thing is all the guys are loving the tempo on both sides of the ball. The defense doesn't like it, but they know it's going to help them. And they are seeing that it's exposing anybody right now instead of in the fall like we got exposed last year. And at the same time, the running backs are loving the tempo which is something you were concerned about when you go to this, but they like it as well. And we scrimmaged without coaches on the field yesterday. Everything was like a ballgame from the sideline. We had Big 12 officials out there, and we made them try to snap the ball between 15 and 18 seconds. So it's really been fun, because it also simulates more of a game-type atmosphere.
Last season, the Longhorns tried to simulate the tempo of teams like West Virginia with the scout team in practice. The problem, obviously, is that one week of preparation is not particularly enough to deal with the pace at which the Mountaineers get off plays. And the level of competition provided by the scout team is nowhere close to what Texas saw on the field from players like Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz agreed about the value of the defense practicing against tempo and creating a more game-like environment for his group:
It's a godsend for us. It's the world that we live in. I've been around it both ways. It's so hard to simulate, so when you see it every day in practice it helps everything you do. It adds to the energy in practice, because there's no time to wait around. It's been great. Practices have been very competitive and back and forth.
Now the defense is dealing with the tempo and the speed that the 'Horns are now putting on the field with packages that include Daje Johnson, Kendall Sanders, Johnathan Gray, and Malcolm Brown all out there together, or some combination of those four, something Brown likes:
I'm excited with our offense that we're getting the tempo thing, and we've got a lot of fast guys on the field getting the ball and that's fun. At one time yesterday, you had [RB/WR] Daje [Johnson], [WR] Mike Davis, [WR] Jaxon Shipley, [RB] Malcolm Brown and [RB] Johnathan Gray on the field and there was a counter-play that ended up giving it to Daje for about 25 yards. But each one of them could have touched it and made something happen with it. So they can all catch screens, they can all run.
Playcaller Major Applewhite sees one of the most significant positive results of using more tempo as having those playmakers on the field more often, instead of shuffling in out and with the different personnel packages that former playcaller Bryan Harsin liked to used:
That is the great thing about tempo. If you are trying to go fast, you can't substitute, but there is a rule that the umpire can stand over the ball and give the defense an opportunity to substitute. So if you are really trying to go fast, you are not going to substitute a whole bunch so put your best players out there, keep them on the field and go fast. If you keep the same guys out there, one of those five or six are going to get it. If you got all of your good guys out there, if you have Mike [Davis], Daje [Johnson], Malcolm [Brown], Johnathan [Gray] and Joe [Bergeron] or whatever combination it is, someone is going to get the ball.
Not only will one of those players get the ball by necessity, there will be more touches overall for the playmakers as the tempo allows the 'Horns to get off more plays every game.
Four teams in the Big 12 ran 1,000 or more plays last season, with Texas Tech not far behind at 993. Reaching that same level would require the Texas to run approximately eight more plays per game, a number that doesn't seem particularly hard to reach.
For a player like Daje Johnson, that may mean that he plays 40 or more snaps per game instead of roughly 10 or 20, as he did last season. Considering that Johnson averaged 10.6 yards per touch last season, if he gets even two or three more touches per game, the opportunity to create explosive plays should increase substantially against defenses that are more tired, have less time to line up, and can't key on Johnson as much as they did before because he will spend more time on the field.
And all that without having to take away touches from other players.
The defense will be better conditioned, but they should also have more margin for error, especially good news for those who believe that the linebackers may not improve enough from 2012 to get the defense back to a respectable level, while tackling concerns also remain from last season.
The practice preparation will make a difference for that group, too, just as it helps get the ball into the hands of the playmakers more often.
As a result, the Longhorns should be a better team on both sides of the ball in 2013.