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Whither the Offense?

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When FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger described the Longhorns as being soft, my first instinct was to desire a game plan emphasizing lining up and blowing the Owls off the line of scrimmage. With a variety of backfield talent and an improved offensive line, it seems like a viable option. Run John Chiles, Vondrell McGee, Cody Johnson, and Fozzy Whittaker at them. Triple options, zone reads, I-formation. Rotate the offensive line freely. Heck, most spread offenses run no-huddle to wear out the defense. Why not go no-huddle and "three yards and a cloud of dust"? Wear out the Owl front seven. Think they can hang against the Texas o-line? Schnellenberger thinks he's getting a "soft" Texas team? Just like the defense made a statement (SMASH!) to yappy Rudy Carpenter before serenading him (Ruu-dyyy, Ruu-dyyy, Ruu-dyyy), now the offense must take its turn. Mack Brown downplayed Schnellenberger's comments in the media, but you have to believe it will be different behind closed doors.

Beyond the opening game against a team Texas is still heavily favored against (oddsmakers have UT by 23, PB by 28), the question of how the Longhorns will attack the Owls offensively hints at larger questions about the offensive identity...

Brief History Lesson

Pre-Vince Young, the Texas team ran a pro-style attack with Major Applewhite and Chris Simms at the helm. To better utilize Vince Young's skills, the offense adapted to a shotgun spread option offense. In 2006, Texas ran the same offense with lightly-recruited Colt McCoy, even though Colt's inability to run the football in the zone read rendered the offense's best play largely ineffective. McCoy didn't even run the ball in high school, running a pro-style offense instead. Still, the team had a chance at a BCS bid after beating Oklahoma, but the lack of a short-yardage back against Kansas State sunk McCoy and the offense. Wildcat defenders knocked McCoy out of the game, before returning two weeks later against Texas A&M and taking a vicious (and dirty) hit from 2006 Enemy of the Nation Kellen Heard that added a couple of years of blathering idiot to the end of his life. Note to Jevan Snead: Thanks for bailing on the program when your teammate was too concussed to play. Your teammate. You made a commitment to him when you made a commitment to the team. I hereby order at least two blindside shots on you, Jevan Snead. But only when you're concussed.

Enter 2007. Injuries, injuries, injuries. Both fullbacks were hurt and the offensive line suffered mass casualties without having experienced replacements. Limas Sweed injured his wrist in fall practice, leaving McCoy without a deep threat. Instead of throwing six touchdowns and three interceptions between the 40 yardlines, McCoy threw six interceptions and two touchdowns. Instead of forging the offense around strengths, it had to compensate for weaknesses. By the way, it didn't work out well.

2008 Outlook

Mack Brown loves explosive plays, and for good reason. He spends a lot of time talking about them in his press conferences. Explosive plays are game-changing plays. If the team does not quickly establish players capable of turning in explosive plays, the offense may have to shift the priority to longer, more sustained drives. With a deep stable of offensive lineman and running backs, long drives have the added benefit of limiting possessions for explosive Big 12 offenses and wearing down opposing defenders. A benefit of the improved offensive line will be an increased ability to stay on schedule and have fewer negative running plays. If the Longhorns choose to alternate series with John Chiles, staying on schedule is even more important considering his questionable throwing abilities.

Performing well on defense matters, too.  The offensive identity of this football team will necessarily intertwine itself with the performance of the defense. It will be given ample opportunities to give up big plays in the passing game. If it does so, the offense will often be playing from behind, forced the abandon the running game and throw the football.

Greg Davis says the Longhorn offense will retain the shotgun spread look with some new wrinkles:

I think what you're going to see is a few more personnel groupings than we've played with in the past. We'll continue to expand the package with John and Colt...But we're going to be basically a shotgun, one-back team. We'll still do a lot of zone-read stuff, we'll empty the back field some. So we just want to continue to do some things that the personnel grouping that's out there doesn't dictate to the defense what we have to do.

...

We're going to look a little bit differently, but at the same time, there will be a whole lot of similarities. We'll continue to do some two tight ends with two wide receivers. We'll continue to do some empty stuff. Base formation will still be tight end, trips, one back...We'll continue to use some (I-formation). Last year, it was about 15 percent of the time, somewhere in that area. So we'll continue to use that. But it will fall very similar to where it did last year.

None of that is a surprise, really.  I don't think anyone is calling for wholesale changes in the offense, but the last sentence of the first paragraph is important.  Part of the problem with the McCoy/Chiles package last year was that the offensive personnel did dictate what they were doing.  That needs to be solved as one of the most burning questions for the Horns in 2008...

Five Questions for the 2008 Longhorns Offense:

1. Will the team discover its identity before Colorado?

Greg Davis is optimistic, but as Chip Brown writes, "The joke has always been that Texas won't try anything new until after losing to Oklahoma." Show me a Texas fan that disagrees with that statement and I'll show you a closet OU fan. I don't think I'm alarmist in saying this has been, and remains, a huge problem. Huge. Think Bill Walton hyperbole huge. Texas plays OU in the second game of the conference schedule. The fifth week. Has been that way and will be that way. Wonder why Mack Brown has one Big 12 championship? Check the record against OU. Under Mack Brown, 3-7. Don't beat OU, have little shot of winning the division. The non-conference slate is quite winnable, but once league play starts, the offensive identity must be established. If not, then Texas may find itself 0-3 in conference and in a worse position than last year. CU, OU, then Mizzou. Yeah, that could get ugly quickly. With so many question marks on offense (running back, tight end, wide receiver), Greg Davis must do one of the best coaching jobs of his career. I suggest throwing as many different looks on the wall as possible early and see what sticks. Of course, since this is Mack Brown's team, those different looks will be limited by skill position inexperience and too few reps in practice to assure proper execution. Note the sarcasm. There is no excuse for not getting the most talented players on the field. None.

2. Will a deep threat emerge?

Ongoing developments (or apparent lack thereof), may influence the offense. Mack Brown mentioned playing more two receiver sets if a third wide receiver does not demonstrate the desired consistency. Malcolm Williams hit a wallThen he didn't. This year, the experience and depth on the offensive line should give McCoy more time in the pocket. That's important for several reasons. One, the Longhorns can run more double moves with Jordan Shipley from the slot, taking advantage of his ability to accelerate from a standstill and come into and out of breaks. Recall his touchdown catch against OU in 2006.  Or this one against Tech.  Secondly, McCoy will have time to develop a go-to deep receiver, possibly youngsters Malcolm Williams and Dan Buckner. Much of the 2006 offensive success was built on go routes to Limas Sweed after big turnovers. OU and Nebraska quickly spring to mind. The Longhorns pounced quickly on defenses still shocked by the quick change. Last year, because of the offensive line and the injury to Sweed, the offense lacked that explosiveness. McCoy had no time and was unable to develop the same rapport with another receiver he had with Sweed. It's likely he will have that time this fall.

3. How much will the Q Package be used and how?

I attempted to address this question in my post about John Chiles. This is the biggest offensive decision for Texas since moving to the shotgun zone read. Greg Davis and Mack Brown cannot afford to mess it up. The problem is, nobody really knows anything about the Q Package right now.  All the talk about a lack of separation at running back and receiver? Enter John Chiles. He can play both those positions. Oh yeah, and a little quarterback, too. Remember the Lessons from Jeremy Maclin? Get the best athletes on the field. Mistakes? So what. Apparently you don't need to run routes well if you're a badass. Surprise! So, Chiles on the field early and often. Get. him. the. ball. Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley has a touch chart. Chiles needs 20 touches a game and should be at the top of that list for Texas.

4. Run-heavy or pass-heavy? Physicality or finesse?

It's not necessary for an offense to be either/or. But the offense must determine what it does well. Greg Davis indicated on August 25 in his post-practice chat (can't link it, but it's on the front page of MB-TF) that he wants to continue running the three-wide, shotgun spread. But he does like two tight ends and it's commitment to the power running game-not a bad idea with the depth of the backfield. I've had a saying for several years, to the effect that there are certain times in every football game when it becomes imperative to physically assert yourself upon the other team. Not only does it gain critical yardage, it damages the opponent's psyche. Both TheElusiveShadow and Beergut point out well the value of running the football in the comment section of Lessons from Jeremy Maclin.  Worth reading.  Two issues with the two-tight end approach: 1) the tight end position lacks depth with the injuries to Josh Marshall and Ian Harris, and 2) it limits the ability of the offense to spread the field, particularly because I can't imagine that 6-4, 295 pound Greg Smith runs particularly well. Not as well as the prospective third receivers, at least.

On the other side of things, with spread offenses in vogue across the country and fast players on the Texas roster, it makes sense to put as many of those fast players on the field together as much as possible. Gary Pinkel has resuscitated the Missouri program (temporarily, at least) by doing just that. The value of recruiting so many extraordinary athletes (and Texas has) is that they are...Wait for it, extraordinary athletes. The coaching staff seems to forget that occasionally.

Ultimately, the Longhorns offense will have to be versatile to take advantage of opponent weaknesses and execute situationally.  The inability to gain yards on the ground when necessary cost the Longhorns two games in 2006.  Those situations will be critical against good teams.  As will explosive plays in the passing game.

5. Good Colt or Bad Colt?

Good Colt is, well, good. Bad Colt? Yeah, he's bad. The good news is that he's no Chris Rix out there. You might get mad at him, but you don't want to strangle him. Kinda like a puppy. And he's not a source of amusement to other fanbases because of his ineptitude, like Sean Glennon or Rex Grossman. His biggest problem last year was turnovers, as any blogger who is even half-witted will tell you. His interceptions jumped from seven his freshman year to 18 in 2007, although 10 were tipped or deflected.  He also has a tendency, as many quarterbacks do, of not protecting the ball well when scrambling behind the line of scrimmage (hey there, Michael Vick!). Colt claims that he was like a reckless young driver last year, and has gone back to the basics.

So while Daddy Greg may take the keys away from his reckless son, the 2007 turnovers weren't all his fault.  Davis alludes to the offensive identity last season when he admits he had to adjust to the young offensive line by running more quick routes and used the short passes as pseudo-running plays.  Defenses adjusted too, jumping short routes.  McCoy threw 10 interceptions on first down, two more than he has thrown in his career on third down (four each season).  With an improved offensive line, I expect Colt to have a much better season in 2008, especially if he keeps running the ball well.  His 70-yarder in a scrimmage this fall bodes well for that.