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Colt McCoy's Rocky Road To The Record Book

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At one point this summer, I said in a radio interview that Colt McCoy likely would break Major Applewhite's all-time career touchdown record in late October.

I was only off by a month. In his third straight ridiculous performance to start the 2008 season, Colt McCoy tossed 4 more touchdown passes, giving him 11 on the season and 62 in a career just past its midpoint. Health willing, when it's all said and done the new career passing touchdowns record will be a three-digit number, and there's an outside shot McCoy will finish with double the number of TD passes as Applewhite's second-place mark.

This from the kid who was tasked with the impossible: Succeed Vincent Paul Young, Jr.

Colt can never fill those particular shoes--no one can--nor will he be judged solely by the bevy of records he sets (and there will be many). His ultimate legacy will properly be defined by his ability to lead his teammates to national or conference titles this year and next.

Time will tell in that regard, but for tonight, it's worth pausing to reflect both on what Colt McCoy has accomplished thus far in his up-and-down career and, in particular, this season.

2006: Easy Come, Easy Go

At the mid-point of 2006, Colt was doing precisely what the coaches were asking, managing the Texas passing game and creating enough big plays to keep defenses honest, most often via long bombs to emerging star Limas Sweed. In grading the Texas QB play after seven games, I wrote:

Quarterbacks - Colt has been outstanding doing what the Texas coaches have asked him to do. He's improved each week, which is what you'd expect, but the rate of improvement, plus his impressive learning curve as a freshman, have been eye opening. If he can gain the confidence to keep the ball on the zone read runs a couple few more times per game, he'll be right where we want him to be. For Snead, he's still very raw, but he's flashed some real signs of greatness at times. He sizzled against Sam Houston, and the improvement is showing. He's still well behind Colt, but not necessarily on talent. One wonders whether Davis might use Snead as a Tebow-esque change of pace guy from time to time. Regardless, the two freshman are handling themselves just fine. Grade: A-

Soon thereafter, McCoy led Texas to one of the most memorable comebacks in program history--against Texas Tech in Lubbock, no less. A week later, the team ranked #4 and back in the national title picture, McCoy buried Oklahoma State in Austin in what was probably his finest all-around performance to date--23 of 29 passing for 346 yards, 3 TD and 0 INT. More than a few pundits nationwide began mentioning the red-hot quarterback as a fringe candidate to be a Heisman finalist.

The Colt McCoy fairy tale comes to a brutal end.

So remarkable was McCoy that when Texas traveled to Manhattan, Kansas the following week, Longhorns fans' renewed energy and optimism was entirely founded on their faith in the freshman quarterback's ability to overcome the team's moribund rushing attack. As the game got underway, it looked once again like he would.

10 plays after receiving the opening kickoff, the Longhorns offense had traveled 79 yards to the Wildcats' 1-yard line, thanks in large part to McCoy, who completed 4 of 4 passes for 51 yards. Facing 1st and Goal from the Kansas State one, a fan couldn't have asked for a better start to the game.

What followed was a fan's worst nightmare. Selvin Young was stuffed from the one on both first and second down, and on third down Greg Davis called for McCoy to sneak it in himself. Texas was stuffed again. Finally, on fourth down, on another called keep, McCoy desperately hurled himself up and over his right guard, but as the football crossed the goal line for a touchdown, McCoy's helmet crossed the path of a Wildcat linebacker. As the vertebrae in his neck contracted like a coiled spring, a nerve neck and shoulder was pinched. Colt McCoy suffered a stinger.

The rest is history. McCoy was lost for the game, Texas lost to Kansas State, and the already-wobbly wheels exploded off the train when Colt was rushed back from the stinger injury to face Texas A&M. If a hard-charging train conducted by Colt was the perfect metaphor for Texas heading into Manhattan, the gurney McCoy rode out of DKR on T+1 was sadly apt to describe the season's collapse.

2007: Hitting A New Low

In the three weeks between Black Friday 1 and Texas' Alamo Bowl date with Iowa, McCoy recovered from his stinger enough to pick up (more or less) where he left off. He was Texas' best offensive weapon in the 26-24 win, earning the Game's MVP honors thanks to TD passes to Limas Sweed and Jamaal Charles. By spring practice in 2007, reports from training camp indicated McCoy was at full strength and in command of the team.

It was at that point that I sat down with the Texas roster in preparing the first edition of The Eyes of Texas annual. Looking at the offensive line and the running game struggles from 2006, plus the difference between Texas with McCoy and without, I concluded that Texas would become a pass-centric team heading forward, with McCoy as the centerpiece:

I'm just starting to beat my war drum - Texas will sink or swim with Colt McCoy's health and effectiveness. With new faces on the offensive line, the running game, important as it is, will need to feed off the passing game. (Which is fine. It's a mistake to think you can only open up the pass via the run; the opposite is true, as well.)

All told, I'm sold on the idea that the wins will come to the degree that Colt performs well. Which means that the pass blocking in general, and Tony Hills in particular, are far more important than anything else. That, and Greg Davis' willingness not to get overly-caught up in an "establish the run at all costs" mindset. If he sees thinks like I do (and the evidence from last year indicates he does), his game plan will work quite the opposite - spreading the field, using Colt-to-Quan/Finley as his running game of sorts, while stretching the field with Sweed and Shipley.

As it turned out, I was right: Texas passed the ball with McCoy 424 times in 2007, up from 318 in '06 and 218 in '05 under Vince Young. Greg Davis did precisely what I thought he would and built the offense around his sophomore quarterback. But if I was right about what we were going to do, I was horribly wrong about how it would turn out, writing in the same post:

Adjust your mindsets, Longhorn fans. Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson, Vince Young, and a stacked offensive line are all out. Colt McCoy and the best receiving corps in school history are in.

Used properly, and remaining healthy, that's a BCS Bowl-bound offense.

Who knows how low the Texas offense would have sunk in '07 without Jamaal Charles' resurgence?

Though the defense had a lot to say about Texas' 2007 fate, the offense was an enigma all season, plagued by inept rushing in the season's first half and a huge dip in production by McCoy, who missed dearly his freshman season rainmaker--Limas Sweed. Though the senior wideout would play through pain up through Texas' back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Oklahoma, he wasn't the difference-making player McCoy had depended on in his inaugural campaign. Without Sweed to stretch safeties, opposing defenses crowded Texas' line of scrimmage, blitzed McCoy mercilessly without fear of being burned deep, and sat on the underneath stuff on which he was forced to rely. Only an October awakening by Jamaal Charles would rescue the offense from total collapse.

By early November, SMQ' diagnosed Texas by writing:

Mack Brown’s teams here in the past have tended to be about 60 percent run overall, but the philosophy has tended to try to establish the pass first – throw to score, run to win, as they say – and has not generally succeeded; Texas has trailed in the second half of six of its ten games. So when the going gets tough, the tough hand off to the best athletes on the team. Charles led the comeback charge against TCU and had been basically effective in the losses to K-State (4.2 per carry) and Oklahoma (4.7), but only had 17 carries in each and yielded to McCoy in both cases as the ‘Horns tried to catch up from behind.

Now, after two straight barnstorming efforts to salvage previously hopeless efforts, Texas’ offensive identity finally seems clear: in the end, it’s Jamaal Charles’ show. Why wait till the fourth quarter? Colt McCoy is just living in it.

The Colt McCoy Conjecture, as SMQ called it, had been turned upside down. The final, painful nail in the '07 coffin came once again on T+1, when Stephen McGee looked like the Heisman candidate and Colt McCoy struggled on 17 of 32 passing, turning the ball over twice. I awarded the offensive LVP to McCoy for Black Friday 2, while more than a few of us wondered just when five-star true freshman John Chiles would be allowed to unleash his athleticism to help the struggling sophomore. Some fans thought Colt's days as a starter should be over. Whatever one thought about McCoy's future, the loss to A&M left fans bewildered and prompted me to wonder aloud:

Heading into next week I feel: Morbidly Curious. Is this the lowest point in the Mack Brown era? I'd guess that it is. I'm actually kind of curious to see how he handles this. I know the popular opinion is that nothing will change, forever, Amen. And believe me, I know how slow things are to change when Mack thinks things are on track. But this is as far off the rails as the 'Horns have been in some time. At least that's the feeling I've got. I'm curious to see if Mack feels the same way, and curious to see if he makes any indication that change is forthcoming. Mack Brown is a sneakily resilient man, and though I'm as disappointed as anybody right now, I've learned better than to put him six feet under prematurely.

It's going to be interesting to see what happens next. Things are as broken as they've been in Austin in some time, but the cupboard is stacked for 2008 and '09. Will we see any meaningful change before then?

Stay tuned...

2008: I Have To Admit... I Think Your Tractor's Sexy

Before things got better, they arguably got worse when on December 4 we learned that Colt McCoy's favorite song to work out to was Kenny Chesney's "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." The choice was, I and others half-joked, emblematic of why in this post-Vince world McCoy might not be the leader at quarterback Texas needed to win titles. If that dig itself was mostly an unsympathetic barb from understandably frustrated fans, a very real question lurked beneath the surface: If the '07 season was such an offensive struggle, where would Texas' yards and scoring come from in 2008, without Jamaal Charles, Limas Sweed, or Jermichael Finley?

The question was alarming, and in a January post-season wrap, I labeled Colt the third-biggest disappointment of '07 and buried six feet under my Colt McCoy Conjecture:

Instead, we learned that Texas must have a fear-inspiring running game to be successful. That's not to say that McCoy can't be a strong complement to that running attack, just that it can't be the other way around. In that regard, more aggressive/creative usage of John Chiles is something we should hope for next season. Also on the wish list is the emergence of a legitimate deep threat at receiver - someone who can create and maintain separation down the field. And of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room: who replaces Jamaal Charles?

That's a lot of big questions for the offense as we head into spring camp.

My theory that McCoy could be the centerpiece of a pass-centric offense in 2007 had been disproved in the most frustrating of fashions, but as Texas licked its wounds and regrouped for whatever might be next in 2008, an obvious problem loomed large: If not Colt, then who? On the eve of Texas' season opener against Florida Atlantic, BON's Big Roy framed the five big questions facing the offense:

1. Will the team discover its identity before Colorado?
2. Will a deep threat emerge?
3. How much will the Q Package be used and how?
4. Run-heavy or pass-heavy? Physicality or finesse?
5. Good Colt or Bad Colt?

Though each question is distinct, in many ways the first four questions are variations on the fifth, and if it's not breaking news that the quarterback is the most important individual player on offense, for the Texas unit heading into 2008, there seemed no getting around the fact that McCoy would have to be excellent for the group as a whole to thrive. At least insofar as Big Roy's questions are the right ones, my Colt McCoy Conjecture--so recently buried--appeared to be back on center stage.

So which is it? Is Texas' offensive fate tied to the emergence of a running game to help Colt, or to the play of McCoy himself? We won't know until season's end, but the junior quarterback has been the story of Texas football through three games in 2008. The stat lines themselves speak loudly:

Att-Comp Comp % TD-INT Yds Yds/Att Rushes Yards Yds/Carry TDs
FAU 24-29 83% 3-0 222 7.7 12 103 8.6 1
UTEP 20-29 69% 4-1 282 9.7 5 13 2.6 0
Rice 19-23 83% 4-0 329 14.3 8 87 10.4 1
SEASON 63-81 78% 11-1 833 10.3 25 203 7.8 2

At least through Texas' first three games, Colt McCoy has listened to the calls for him to "return to freshman season form" and dismissively waved it off, displaying instead a level of play far superior to anything we saw two years ago from the wide-eyed, skinny kid who had a knack for making things work.

But it's not just the numbers, which, we must admit, have come against three of Division 1's weakest defenses. More than the guady stats, McCoy is visibly harder, faster, better, stronger:

That run is why Colt McCoy is the subject of this lengthy post. Because even if the preceding was an accurate recap of the soap opera that had been Colt McCoy's young career heading into 2008, and even if the defenses of FAU, UTEP, and Rice provide reason to hold the champagne for the remainder of the season, there is absolutely no doubt at all whose team this is...

It's Colt McCoy's. On a week in which he enters the Texas record books for his passing numbers, it was a running play, of all things, that signaled most clearly that Colt McCoy is more than just the quarterback who followed Vince Young.

Mack Brown was fond of saying that he had to learn to appreciate and adapt to Vince Young. For many of us, the same may well be true of Colt McCoy.

Like it or not, for better or worse... I'm taking a deep breath, closing my eyes, saying a little prayer, and hoping for the best as I pull out my iPod, adding Kenny Chesney to the playlist.