The non-conference season is over and conference play started off well with the win over Kansas State, so with the bye week looming at a fortuitous time for a banged-up team, it's time to hand out some grades, starting with the offense.
If the quarterback position was a big part of the problem for the 2010 and 2011 teams -- and it was -- the situation in 2013 is far more positive. The play of starter David Ash didn't result in the loss to BYU and the efforts of back up Case McCoy against Ole Miss and Kansas State were good enough to win both games.
Part of the key here has been avoiding turnovers -- the quarterbacks haven't lost a fumble yet and after throwing two interceptions in the space of four passes against New Mexico State, Ash has now gone 73 passes without an interception. Meanwhile, McCoy has attempted 57 passes of his own without having one fall into an opponent's hands, meaning that the two quarterbacks have combined to attempt 130 passes without an interception.
Coming into the season, McCoy had thrown three interceptions in his previous 33 attempts, which included two interceptions in three attempts spanning the end of the TCU game and the start of the Kansas State game.
As a result of the BYU game, the completion percentage and yards per attempt for Ash have gone down from his strong finishes last season, but his interception rate is at a respectable 2.2% after his poor start and his quarterback rating is No. 27 nationally.
If the greatest imperative coming into the season for the running backs was keeping juniors Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron healthy, consider the first four games a success. And with much of the early struggles in the running game due to the ineptitude of the Texas offensive line, the Texas running backs get a little bit of a break for not taking over any of the first three games.
But what's going on with Malcolm Brown? In the previous two seasons, he was remarkably productive before injuries completing destroyed his explosiveness and left him grinding away at the rate of a few yards per carry. This season, he's completely healthy, but he's averaging only 2.75 yards per carry, with a mere 55 yards on 20 attempts. His longest carry has gone for 13 yards.
As for Bergeron, he's been relegated to third-string carries, perhaps in part because he insists on bouncing everything outside. Even after losing 20 pounds, he still doesn't have the ability to take the edge on quicker defensive backs, significantly reducing his effectiveness. After gaining 79 yards on nine caries against a tired and overmatched New Mexico State squad in the opener, his last 11 carries have gone for only 27 yards. Unless he can change his habits, he's essentially relegated himself to spot usage for the rest of his career.
Meanwhile, Johnathan Gray has clearly established himself as RB1, as evidenced by the fact that he has 66 carries to 20 each for Brown and Bergeron. In fact, the greatest competition that he faced was from Daje Johnson, who carried the ball to open the games against the Aggies and the Cougars, but his injury has allowed Gray to take center stage over the last two games, during which Gray has carried the ball 47 times.
One of the few bright spots in the games against BYU and Ole Miss, Gray averaged 5.7 yards per carry in those contests, though he was only able to find the end zone once. Texas fans hope that his career-best 141 yards last weekend are a sign that he's ready to finally produce at the level expected after his record-setting high school career and consensus ranking as a top-10 player nationally and the best running back in the 2012 class.
In terms of the overall grade here, the performance from Gray on Saturday bumps the group up a whole letter grade.
It hasn't been an easy fall for the wide receiver corps -- senior Mike Davis and junior Jaxon Shipley entered fall camp with nagging offseason injuries that limited their participation early before sophomores Marcus Johnson and Kendall Sanders suffered injuries during camp, as did junior Bryant Jackson.
When healthy, Johnson and Sanders took advantage of the increased reps, as did freshman Jacorey Warrick, though he hasn't made an impact once the games started.
Shipley has returned to health to form his typical reliable option over the middle with some increased blocking acumen in some tough assignments tracking down defensive backs from the slot, while Davis produced two explosive touchdowns against BYU to highlight the Texas offensive attack in that game.
Against Kansas State, Johnson emerged with his best performance as a Longhorn replacing Davis, while Sanders helped fill the deep threat role with his 63-yard touchdown. Both were also effective as blockers in the game as well.
Like the quarterback position, the wide receivers haven't been the problem for Texas. Faced with serious questions about their ability to make the new offense work with their blocking in the run game and screen game, the wide receivers have stepped up, even after losing two of their bigger assets in Cayleb Jones, who transferred, and Jackson, who suffered the fractured foot.
In the passing game, this group has essentially been a non-factor -- with the move of John Harris back to an outside wide receiver position instead of the flex tight end that he was supposed to play this year, the position has accounted for only three catches that have gone for a combined total of 25 yards.
The good news is that both Geoff Swaim and Greg Daniels have been effective as blockers, which allowed Texas to employ some two-tight end sets against Ole Miss that featured perhaps the strongest blocking from the position that the Longhorns have had in years. If Daniels can get healthy and Ash can't play later in the season, the offense could easily morph into a heavier unit with a greater focus on the running game, especially if freshman quarterback Tyrone Swoopes ever ends up seeing any action.
And the breakout season for MJ McFarland? Yeah, not exactly happening, as the redshirt sophomore from El Paso doesn't have a single catch on the season and hasn't even seen that many reps with Daniels and Swaim getting most of the work because of their superior blocking ability.
As a whole, the unit was responsible for the inability to create space for the running backs early against New Mexico State, a weak team against the run, and got absolutely dominated in both pass protection and run blocking by BYU before failing to deal with the twisting and slanting employed by Ole Miss to slow the running game in the second half. None of those things are acceptable for a unit that was the most experienced in the country entering the season.
And the failures have told in the high number of tackles for loss allowed with 25 through four games, nearly half of the total from the entire 2012 season, though at least the six sacks allowed are pretty average. Not factored into that equation are all the hits that Ash has taken on passes this season that didn't result in sacks -- and there have been a number of them.
The two weakest links have been junior center Dominic Espinosa and senior guard Mason Walters, who have combined to whiff on roughly 30 run and pass blocks through the first four games. Increasingly, what's happening with the Texas offensive line is that the left side is playing well behind senior tackle Donald Hawkins and senior guard Trey Hopkins, but the the rest of the line struggles to create holes. Last weekend, that was in large part because sophomores Sedrick Flowers and Kennedy Estelle are both learning on the job, fact that will at least benefit next season's line, which will have to replace Hawkins, Hopkins, and Walters.
As with the running backs, the grade here reflects a major bump due to the strong performance against Kansas State, which saves the unit from a failing grade.
Let's start with the major positive -- despite injuries to the wide receiver positions, the Longhorns have enough bodies ready to produce out there and the blocking effort there has been excellent overall, no small task given that there are hardly overwhelming physical advantages for the high-rep players Texas is employing at the position.
But offensive line coach Stacy Searels hasn't been able to coax significant improvement out of his unit, though the Kansas State game was a positive move in that direction, even with two starters out along the line. While the overall results haven't been there, depth is now at a point where two missing starters doesn't cripple the entire operation.
Lastly, co-offensive coordinator and play caller Major Applewhite hasn't exactly proven himself to be the star that head coach Mack Brown was making him out to be before the season. In particular, his excessive use of Ash in the running game and insistence through several games on using the Wildcat package in short-yardage situations without ever calling the constraint plays necessary to make sure that Gray would have a chance running Power have both come under scrutiny and, indeed, criticism. Warranted criticism, at that.
He also had to abandon his sideline experiment to head back to the booth to call the plays and was rather stubborn early in the New Mexico State and BYU games in trying to run the ball early even though it wasn't working and the Cougars in particular were giving Texas major cushions on the outside.
Thoughts, comments, concerns, or areas of disagreement?