We continue our midseason positional reviews with a look at Texas' tailbacks.
There's an ancient Chinese proverb which says: "He who does not protect his goods should not expect more goods in the future."
Okay, I definitely made that up, but if there were an ancient Chinese proverb about goods protection, I'd be using it to note Jamaal Charles' killer fumble problems. The trouble dates back to last season and, perhaps not coincidentally, the beginning of Texas' current four game conference losing streak. Charles put the ball on the ground late in the game against Kansas State just as Texas seemed to be wrestling back control of the contest. (Or, if you prefer, two games before that, to Lubbock, where Charles lost two fumbles and Texas barely escaped with a 35-31 comeback win.)
In the 2007 opener, Charles fumbled against Arkansas State, though the replay officials reviewed the play and ruled him down. Charles then coughed up two fumbles against Central Florida, enabling the Knights to hang around a game Texas should have won comfortably. And then, of course, there was Saturday's disastrous turnover on the one-yard line versus Oklahoma. On the opening drive of the third quarter, Texas marched down the field and was in terrific shape to take a 21-14 lead. Charles was given the ball on the five, had a clear path to the end zone, was hit by a diving linebacker at the one, and had to watch helplessly as the ball squirted away. The Sooners recovered and won by a touchdown.
Some fumbles are a matter of misfortune, but the best running backs fumble infrequently because of the way they protect the ball. It's a skill like any other, and Charles hasn't developed it yet. He must, if he wants to reach his full potential. There's simply no room in the gameplan for a tailback who can't protect the footbal.
Vondrell McGee has impressed in his limited role this year, including a wowing performance to close out the Rice game. Currently, he's being used only in goal line situations, a usage pattern which will be discussed in the next section.
Chris Ogbonnaya has proven not to be much of a rushing threat, but he's a superb blocker and pass catcher. Antwaan Cobb has done a very nice job as fullback; if Texas evolves into a team running more I-Formation sets, Cobb will be a fine player to use in that role.
At what point does Charles' fumbling cost him playing time? And at what point do the coaches, like with John Chiles, decide it's time to see what they have with Vondrell McGee?
This isn't to say that Charles isn't a useful player. Or even that he's not a damn good player. He is both. This is just elementary personnel management. Honestly, one has to wonder just how much mental damage the Simms-Applewhite debacle did to Mack Brown. He's been protective of starters ever since, mortified to use the young kids with upside, embracing an "avoid controversy at all costs" attitude about personnel decisions.
Unfortunately, that's a reactionary attitude. One gets the impression that Mack Brown has grown so sensitive to the fickle media and Texas fan base that he's decided to dig in his heels and just Do Things His Way. Most of his ways are things which benefit the team and the program, but this resistance to using creatively and generously his young talent has become - ironically - controversial.
There is not only the question about whether limiting the young kids' touches hurts the overall performance of the team, there is the question of whether it will begin to have an effect in recruiting. It hasn't so far, but the recruiting world is a bizarre, crazy, ever-changing one. There's nothing which guarantees young kids will forever look past the likelihood that they won't be featured for 2-3 years.
Mack's done a fabulous job getting guys like Jamaal Charles and Vondrell McGee to Texas. He's done a fabulous job of creating a program that has enough talent to compete for big prizes pretty much year in and year out. But he's become needlessly defensive and over-protective about some of these tougher questions. At $3 million per annum, that won't do. The best and the brightest are fluid with what they do. They learn from mistakes and seek outside criticism to help improve.
Admittedly, this is a damn abstract way to talk about adjustments in the running game. But the problems with this program right now have much more to do with what's happening in the coaches' heads than what they players are capable of on the field. There's no use talking around it. Even if they aren't listening.