Flavor of the Week at running back: Tre' Newton. It's been quite a season for this feature -- numerous running backs stepping into and out of the starting role in the Texas offense, but never able to hang onto the job. In all, my biggest regret is not giving Jamison Berryhill the Flavor of the Week Award after his performance against UTEP -- I just couldn't do it because of his fumble. Just in the last month and a half, Fozzy Whittaker looked like he earned himself the job with a strong game against Oklahoma, then it looked like Whittaker and Johnson were a strong one-two punch before Johnson carried 19 times for only the second 100-yard rushing game of the season against Baylor. Then, Johnson had a mediocre eight carries for 15 yards against Kansas and perhaps the coaches felt like his coming into the game too strongly signalled a running play -- probably because it did. Combined with his lack of ability to split out in the passing game and Johnson fell by the wayside with Vondrell McGee and Whittaker, carrying the ball only once against A&M.
The star of that game at running back was Tre' Newton, who received his first extended action since the Texas Tech game against Baylor when he broke off a 45-yard touchdown run and then came back with 12 carries for 66 yards and three catches for 36 yards against Kansas. Fully recovered from his concussion, Newton showed the ability that had some calling him the perfect fit for the Texas scheme after his strong performances against Wyoming and Tech early in the season.
What is it about Newton that makes him so valuable to his team? Perhaps his most valuable skill is his ability to pick up the blitz. It's obvious at this point that Texas is a passing team first and foremost, sprinkling in just enough running to keep the defense honest at times. Newton has been as good picking up the blitz as he was advertised to be in the spring -- his work in that respect by have been the most underrated part of the Texas win on Thursday, as he did not appear to miss an assignment at all during the game. At a solid 6-0, 200 pounds, Newton has the build that Whittaker does not to pick up blitzing linebackers and stop them in their tracks.
Combined with his blitz pick up abilities, Newton can also catch the ball, as he showed against Kansas, but there is still room for growth in that area and it will probably have to happen with Garrett Gilbert because McCoy clearly does not have the same trust with Newton that he did with Chris Obgonnaya, hardly surprising since Newton has gotten little work with the first team, while McCoy worked with Ogbonnaya for three years.
Running the football, he's hardly spectacular, but he has an excellent sense of when to be patient and when to hit the hole hard, as evidenced by his 16 carries for 107 yards and touchdown, only the third 100-yard game by a Texas back this season. What sets him apart from Fozzy Whittaker is his vision -- where Whittaker tries to bounce everything outside, which probably cost him his job, Newton doesn't get caught stretching plays horizontally when he can get up the field. And while he isn't the fastest running back around, he hasn't been caught from behind and his size makes his speed somewhat deceptive, which is just about as effective for blowing up angles as is a pure, 4.4 burst. After the Baylor game, Mack Brown probably expressed it as well as anyone could -- he said that Newton simply plays fast in pads, he has football speed.
It also looks like Newton has a nice stiff arm, as well:
That stiff arm delivered to an Aggie defender segues into the next point -- since Newton doesn't necessarily have breakaway speed, he does have to break some tackles, which he accomplishes by running with good pad level and finishing by driving his legs. He's a tough guy to bring down, as several Aggies got taken for a ride late in the game (with an assist from EBS):
In other words, Newton is basically a bigger, faster, stronger version of Chris Ogbonnaya and that's an excellent sign for the future of the running back position.
Return of the zone read. While Colt McCoy picked up some serious yardage on scrambles and quarterback draws, his Heisman moment on Thursday night came on his 65-yard touchdown run on a zone read, that staple under Vince Young that McCoy struggled running early in his career because he wasn't making the proper reads and was rarely used this season as the coaches sought to protect their star quarterback. Well, it's back and in a big way.
At least for the Texas A&M game, that is. It's hard to say how effective it will remain for a major reason -- the Aggies didn't seem prepared for it. During the game, they eventually adjusted by having the read man get upfield and force the handoff, but Nebraska and Florida/Alabama if the Longhorns win on Saturday may use the now tried-and-true technique of forcing the quarterback to keep the ball by crashing the read man down the line of scrimmage, then scraping a linebacker to that side to cover the quarterback -- basically the way that teams stop the zone read these days.
Doing that, however, may take a scraping linebacker out of the play on the straight inside zone, which could open up holes for the running back and allow a lineman to even get to the third level of the defense. Basically, running the zone read should open up the running game for Texas because the defense has to decide where to commit resources -- to stopping the running back or stopping McCoy by scraping a linebacker and leaving the Longhorns with even better numbers on the inside zone.
Here's a perfect example from the A&M game -- obviously the Aggies were caught off guard with the zone read, most likely just thinking the Longhorns were running the inside zone, but adjusted at halftime by sending the read man upfield to force a handoff:
The read man on the play gets upfield, giving McCoy a give read. The Aggie player on the right end of the line of scrimmage runs himself out of the play for some reason, perhaps concerned with McCoy, while the offensive line does an excellent job of sustaining their blocks and getting to the second level to take out the linebackers. It's a perfect example of how the threat of McCoy running can open up the running game -- Newton picked up 20 yards on this play extremely easily.
if teams get lazy and forget about McCoy, the Texas quarterback will gash them for big plays with his feet. If teams focus too much on McCoy, it opens up the inside zone for Tre' Newton. In other words, using McCoy in the running game is the best way for Texas to run the ball consistently and with him becoming a threat in recent weeks, it puts a ton of pressure on the defense and elevates the Longhorn running game from inconsistent and sporadic to a serious threat.
Malcolm Williams continues his emergence. Rivals has a scouting report ($) up from an opposing Big 12 coach about the Longhorns, from the context probably an Oklahoma coach because he talks about being physical with Shipley and Texas not having another dangerous receiver. Clearly, that coach hasn't watched the Longhorns over the last several weeks as Malcolm Williams and James Kirkendoll have emerged as excellent no. 2 and no. 3 options for McCoy. Of course, the same coach also said that McCoy "doesn't look like a substantial guy," so he clearly doesn't really know what he's talking about. Have you seen his guns the last two years, dude? The guy is ripped and has been for some time.
The bigger point here is that Texas is at a much different point right now with their receiving corps than they were a month and a half ago after playing Oklahoma, a game in which every receiver other than Marquise Goodwin had a bad day and Goodwin even made a huge mistake late by going behind the defender on a slant. Since then, Williams has accounted for 27 of his 35 catches, 411 of his 494 yards and both of his touchdowns. In the last two games, Williams has caught 15 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown -- nearly half of his receiving yards on the entire season and the second and third games of his career with more than 100 yards receiving. So, for that coach who hasn't been paying attention -- check out what Malcolm Williams has been doing, because it's pretty impressive.
More than pure numbers, though, Williams has opened up the Texas offense by providing a threat down the field, as well as a physical presence in the short passing game who has the ability to break a tackle and pick up big yardage. On one play in the second quarter, the Aggies failed to put a safety over the top of Williams and tried to jam him with Justin McQueen. As soon as McCoy saw him walking up on Williams, he pointed and made eye contact with his big receiver, perhaps making a sight adjustment on the play. Williams did an excellent job using his hands to get the inside release and then ran by McQueen, catching the pass at the first-down marker and accelerating downfield.
The play would have gone for a 75-yard touchdown had McQueen not made a shoestring tackle on Williams to limit him to a 28-yard gain. A productive play, but one that ended up essentially costing the Longhorns points because they were not able to score on the drive -- had Williams recognized that McQueen was right behind him and done something that a lot of running backs do well in chopping his feet high and hard, he might have broken the tackle and scored on the play.
Even with that small complaint, the play illustrates just how close Williams is to breaking big plays consistently. In fact, had McCoy hit him on several targeted deep passes, the Garland product and former track star may have easily eclipsed 200 yards receiving on the day -- it's clear that he and McCoy aren't quite on the same page consistently on deep passes. Part of the problem is that Williams seems to get caught up in hand fighting with defensive backs instead of trusting his speed to get him downfield, something that has caused McCoy to overthrow him twice in the last two weeks on plays that could have gone for touchdowns. If the Longhorns can get past Nebraska this week, then McCoy and Williams will have a little more than a month to get ready for a national championship game and connecting on deep passes. With how far they have come in a month and a half, that extra time could lead to some big plays even against good defenses like Alabama and Florida.
One key for McCoy might be to not try to lead Williams so much, but rather to make sure that he has a chance to make a play on the ball, even if he has to slow down to do so. Slight underthrows also make it more likely that a defensive back will interfere with the play and though that isn't as big in college football as it is in the NFL, 15 yards is still much more helpful to a drive than an incomplete pass. A perfect example of his came on the first drive of the third quarter when the Longhorns tried a play-action pass off their jet tempo look -- McCoy had some pressure in his face and had to get rid of the ball a little early, but overthrew Williams to the inside instead of giving him a chance to make a play on the ball.
Tracking: special teams play. For the second straight week, covering kicks was an abject disaster. The first problem is that unless he has some wind behind him or is in the thin air of Wyoming, Justin Tucker can't seem to put the ball in the end zone, forcing the Texas coverage kickoff unit to cover every single kick. The reasons for the other problems -- failing to fill lanes, missing tackles, not getting off blocks -- are harder to explain, but they need to get fixed and soon.
Virtually everyone on both the kickoff coverage unit and the kickoff return unit are to blame for the poor performace against the Aggies. Outside of the touchdown return from Goodwin, the Longhorns averaged a paltry 15 yards per return on the first six Aggie kicks -- that's a terrible average that would rank dead last in the country over the course of a season.
Here's a look at each kickoff return:
- 1st return: An Aggie player comes completely free from the right edge of the Texas return team, while Aaron Smith and Malcolm Williams both fail to get blocks inside. Shipley never has a chance on his 13-yard return.
- 2nd return: A high, short kick by the Aggies gives the coverage excellent time to get down the field. Goodwin fields the ball at the 14 yardline and heads up behind the wedge of Eddie Jones, Aaron Smith. and Antwan Cobb. The blocks are good initially, but as Goodwin tries to get arond Jones' man, the Aggie defender disengages and makes the play. If Jones could have help the block longer and done a better job of sealing the defender inside, the return might go for a big play. However, it was destined to come back because Kenny Vaccaro absolutely tackled his man on the right side of the unnecessarily.
- 3rd return: Another high, short kick by the Aggies field at the 14 by Goodwin and the wedge never forms because Aaron Smith gets absolutely blown up and Nolan Brewster gets beat on the edge, keeping Goodwin from getting quickly upfield. He does manage to take the corner and picks up 22 yards, a good return on this evening.
- 4th return: Goodwin fields the ball at the 6 and heads upfield, but has no chance to get up into the wedge because Nolan Brewster misses his block on the edge so badly that the Aggie hits Goodwin in the legs at the 16, a tackle the speedster escapes before he gets hit on the left side of the field at the 22 by an Aggie who was unblocked on the play. Had the blocking been better on the edges, Goodwin still wouldn't have had much of a chance, as Cody Johnson missed his block and Aaron Smith didn't manage to block anyone. The Longhorns start at the 22 after a 16-yard return.
- 5th return: This was a really bad play for the Texas running backs. Cody Johnson misses a block in the wedge that forces Goodwin outside after his catch at the 2 yardline, while both Fozzy Whittaker and Jeremy Hills miss blocks on the right side of the return. Kenny Vaccaro also misses his block early in the coverage, so basically everything on the right side broke down. Goodwin bounces it outside left, then tries to cut back, eventually getting to the 17. Unfortunately, Hills, in his attempt to get back into the block, gets a cheap, unnecessary block in the back call at the end of the play that didn't even help Texas. The Longhorns end up backed up inside their own 10.
- 6th return: Goodwin catches the ball at the 3 yardline, then heads upfield into the wedeg. Oh wait, there is no wedge on this play because Cody Johnson and Aaron Smith both fail to block the single Aggie coming at them. Guess who eventually collapses the play? Yeah, that guy who didn't get blocked. Goodwin gets 19 yards out to the 22.
- 7th return: Ah yes -- the seventh time is the charm, apparently. This time, Cody Johnson and Aaron Smith knock down an Aggie trying to split their block, then keep him on the ground. On the other side of the wedge, Eddie Jones blocks one Aggie, while getting in the way of another -- looks like one of them got out of their lane pretty badly to allow that to happen, while Vondrell McGee walls off another Aggie behind Jones. Meanwhile, Nolan Brewster gets an excellent block on the edge, despite getting a hand to his throat and facemask. An unblocked Aggie comes from the right edge, but Goodwin blows up his angle with his speed, as the Aggie slips trying to make the tackle. At this point, Goodwin is up in the wedge with a beautiful running lane and needs only to get a block from Malcolm Williams and beat the kicker. Williams overruns the last Aggie in hole, but recovers to get a piece of him as Goodwin sprints by. Now, it's just Goodwin and a short, fat, dumpy kicker in the open field. Goodwin cruises for the last 30 yards of his game-changing 95-yard touchdown return, the 11th non-offensive touchdown for the Longhorns this season.
It's hard to say that the return unit made up for the consistently poor blocking the rest of the game with one good effort, but considering how much that one play changed the game, it's probably not out of line to say that. However, it doesn't excuse the poor effort by some of the same players on the coverage unit, particularly Kenny Vaccaro. A special teams standout since the Oklahoma State game, Vaccaro had by far his worst game as a Longhorn, with only one good block that was close to being a hold on kickoff, while committing another holding penalty and a late-hit personal foul on the return after Goodwin's touchdown when he jumped way late into Ryan Swopes and the two Longhorns pushing him out of bounds.
Vaccaro clearly walks a fine line between playing with near-reckless abandon and playing out of control. Against the Aggies, he was clearly out of control and he needs to reign himself in if he wants to keep playing on special teams because both of those penalties were extremely harmful to the field position in the game -- after his personal foul, the Aggies started their drive at the Texas 36 yardline, an extremely short field. Add in the penalty on Jeremy Hills and the special teams accounted for three of the six Longhorn penalties on the evening.
In the punting game, Justin Tucker was adequate, averaging just over 43 yards on his two kicks and Colt McCoy continued his streak of killing the ball inside the 20 on his pooch punts, punting for 33 yards and pinning the Aggies inside their own 8 yardline. The Longhorns also ran a fake punt, hiking the ball to Antwan Cobb, who pitched it to Malcolm Williams, who ran the option with Justin Tucker. The Aggie forced the pitch and Tucker got within two yards of the marker, but Nolan Brewster missed his block and Keenan Robinson could get not outside fast enough to get his block. The timing and position on the field of the call were questionable, but the Longhorns would have made it if it had only been 4th and 4 instead of 4th and 6 or possibly if Brewster could have made his block.
The special teams has disturbingly trended downward throughout the latter part of the season, as the kickoff return game has stalled at times, Jordan Shipley has fumbled twice, Justin Tucker's punting has been inconsistent, and the kickoff coverage has cratered over the last two weeks, giving up around 25 yards per return, which would put them in the bottom seven in the country over the course of a whole season. As it is, ranking 63rd in the country, right behind North Texas and Ball State, is hardly something to brag about. The Longhorns have some serious work to do if they can escape the Big 12 championship game against Nebaska before they move on to a possible national championship game, as both Florida and Alabama both rank in the top 15 in kickoff returns and Alabama ranks sixth in punt returns.
Tracking: third-down conversions. The Longhorns rank second this year in converting third downs, picking up nearly 48% of their attempts. Against the Aggies, Texas was slightly below their season average in conversions at 42% or five of 12.
Here's a look at each third down:
- 3rd and 11 Texas A&M 41: Texas A&M brings a linebacker, a safety, and a standup end or linebacker and though the Texas offensive line mostly holds up well, Adam Ulatoski allows enough pressure on McCoy and the coverage downfield is good enough that he has to throw the ball short of the first-down marker to Jordan Shipley for a five-yard gain. The Longhorns ran their unsucessful fake punt attempt on the next play and came up short.
- 3rd and 10 Texas 45: After dropping back to pass and scanning the field without finding a receiver open, McCoy heads heads towards the line of scrimmage and pumps fakes one A&M defender before breaking the tackle of another to get close to the first-down marker. The Longhorns sneak the ball on fourth and short to pick up the fourth down -- the third-down scramble doesn't go down as a conversion, but basically works as such since the Longhorns couldn't have gone for it and fourth and long.
- 3rd and 5 Texas A&M 40: The Longhorns line up in 10 personnel with Buckner as the flex tight end. A&M brings a blitz from the defensive back lined up over Buckner and there isn't a safety close enough to stop Buckner after McCoy finds him on a short route over the middle. Buckner does a nice job of planting his foot and making one defender miss to pick up 12 yards on the play.
- 3rd and 2 Texas 35: Ah yes, the Heisman moment: Texas lines up in 11 personnel and the Aggies bring a blitz from the weakside. McCoy does an excellent job of waiting just long enough for a defender coming free from his left to get too far upfield, while another defender coming on the blitz bites hard on the running back. Adam Ulatoski and Charlie Tanner both get good blocks and then McCoy simply outruns two defensive backs to the end zone for a 65-yard touchdown.
- 3rd and 4 Texas A&M 41: This is the possession where Malcolm Williams nearly broke the short pass for a long touchdown, but got taken down from behind. McCoy drops back and scans the field, then checks down to Tre' Newton over the middle, who can't hand onto the catch just short of the marker -- the only real mistake from Newton on the evening. Had he caught the ball, the Longhorns might have gone for it just over midfield. The second-down play also led to the lack of a third-down conversion, as McCoy misfired on a short pass that Shipley couldn't hang onto that would have been about a yard and half short, setting up an easier third down.
- 3rd and 8 Texas 39: The Longhorns are in 10 personnel with Buckner as the flex tight end. The Aggies blitz and Williams runs a hitch, pushing McQueen well off the ball, then using his superior size and a stiff arm to get the last several yards to pick up the first down. A perfect example of the physical dominance Williams possesses over 95% of college cornerbacks.
- 3rd and 8 Texas A&M 50: This looks like almost the exact same play as the previous third down: the Aggies blitz and McCoy hits Williams on a hitch. This time, McQueen does a better job of making the tackle and Williams appears to be inches short, but gets a poor spot nearly a yard from the first-down marker. The Longhorns go to the quick-snap sneak one time too many and get stopped -- it would have been a perfect time for the Jumbo package.
- 3rd and 1 Texas A&M 13: Chris Fowler calls this a zone read on the broadcast, but it's really power, with Davis Snow pulling into the hole and picking up a good block for Tre' Newton, who picks up six yards on the play.
- 3rd and 8 Texas 22: Aganst an 11 personnel look from the Longhorns, the Aggies bring both linebackers and though Tre' Newton does an adequate job of picking one up, the defender collapses the pocket, forcing McCoy to step up into the rush of a defensive tackle who knocked Charlie Tanner onto his back and Von Miller, who used a nice inside move that knocked Ulatoski off balance. McCoy is sacked for a loss of six yards.
- 3rd and 10 Texas 8: This one really comes down to poor plays on first and second down. On first down, Williams dropped what would have been a five or six yard gain, making playcalling on the next two downs much easier. Then, on second down, McCoy gets himself in trouble by stepping up in the pocket, which helps a defensive lineman disengage and nearly takes a safety before overthrowing Malcolm Williams downfield. On third down, the Longhorns go to empty and the Aggies drop nine into coverage to take away any scrambles by McCoy, who forces a pass to a covered Buckner and overthrows him on the play.
- 3rd and 12 Texas A&M 47: This is the touchdown pass to James Kirkendoll. See here for analysis.
- 3rd and 7 Texas A&M 50: This is the final play of the game -- victory formation for the Longhorns.
Taking out the final play and putting the two fourth-down sneak attempts in, the Longhorns finished at 46% for the game, close to their season average. The major blemishes were the two three and outs in the third quarter, which had more to do with more plays on first and second down than poor playcalling or execution on third down. Those two drives illustrate just how important it is to pick up yardage on first and second down -- this is why Greg Davis doesn't mind callilng short passes -- two short passes to set up third and short end up being extremely effective. What stands out here is that McCoy targeted Williams on two consecutive third and long plays and Williams converted the first and nearly converted the second, as his size and strength makes him difficult to stop when the cornerback has to respect his ability to go deep.