"So far, I've been bouncing around a lot. It just depends on the team we play to see how I'm going to be used that game. I guess it's good if (Coach Muschamp) is making me do it. I'll tell you what; you have to be in shape for it. You're constantly moving. It's a lot thrown at you, and a lot of different things you have to know, because of where you have to move and how soon you have to get there. It's kind of hard to pick up, but I think I'm getting it."
-- Linebacker/defensive end Sergio Kindle about his new defensive role.
Yes, opposing offenses will need that GPS. The Kindle quote above gives a snapshot into how Muschamp will use his versatile defender this year, often moving him all the way across the defensive line before the snap. IT's Ross Lucksinger provides a snapshot ($) of what that looks like:
For example, Texas will line up in its traditional 4-3 set then have Kindle suddenly step backwards, switching the front seven to a 3-4 (DT Lamarr Houston will typically slide over to DE in this situation). Kindle will then run down the line, jumping into several gaps, before finally ending up on the far side from where he started and ready to blitz from the outside.
While the Longhorns probably won't reveal much of Kindle bouncing around the formation pre-snap in the early games against Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, and UTEP, expect a heavy dose of it against Oklahoma in an attempt to confuse the inexperienced Sooner line. And believe that Kindle will cause confusion in the protection schemes of opponents as he feints into different gaps before the snap.
Against teams like Missouri and Texas Tech that use wide line splits, expect Kindle to be even more effective, as those offenses provide more open lanes to get to the quarterback. In fact, Missouri had so much trouble with Brian Orakpo changing his alignment pre-snap that they tigthened up their splits relatively early in the game, without Orakpo even moving into a stand-up role like Kindle. Forcing those two teams to tighten their splits helps the edge rushers, as they don't have as much space to cover to get to the quarterback -- one of the major reasons for even using the splits at all.
If last season's Sergio Kindle was like a slightly dulled pocket knife with only one working blade -- Go get the quarterback! -- this year's Kindle will be a premium Swiss Army knife with a variety of blades that can deploy at any time. With the basics out of the way and after two off-seasons of work with his defense, expect Muschamp to really begin using his shiny new Predator knife to help offset the lack of depth on the defensive line's interior and slice through opponents. He's about to help you break that bank, Sergio.
Dual separation. The opening quote for the last "State of the Union" yesterday came from Mack Brown talking about how the first week of pratice is long enough to create some separation among the tightly-contested positions. Perhaps no position is more tightly contested and only defensive tackle surrounded by more questions than the running back position. After the first week of pratice, Brown indicated that Vondrell McGee and Fozzy Whittaker are currently the co-starters at the position, with Cody Johnson trailing them and remaining at the short-yardage back, but interestingly, also as a fullback.
So it seems the "Johnson-as-fullback" experiment begins anew. Recall that part of the reason for Johnson struggling with his weight is that the coaches wanted to try him at fullback going into fall pratice last year and asked him to put on a bunch. After a running back failed to emerge, they scrapped the plan. It's back, apparently, in some form or other. Though there isn't anything to suggest that Johnson is set to displace Antwan Cobb as the top fullback on the depth chart, Johnson did block well when the Longhorns ran quarterback draws for Colt McCoy last season and Johnson does have 30 pounds on the somewhat-undersized Cobb.
After falling behind in the summer after his hamstring injury in the spring, using Johnson as a short-yardage specliast and fourth-quarter bludgeon still makes the most sense. He doesn't have much nearly as much as experience as Cobb at the fullback position and doesn't have Cobb's pass-catching ability (a skill that lead to some discussions of Cobb staying in on third downs). Don't hold your breath waiting to see Johnson at fullback.
Unlike Johnson, both McGee and Whittaker worked hard during the summer and succeeded in becoming stronger, more well-rounded backs. The elephant in the room, however, is that neither of them are complete backs yet. Whittaker still doesn't have the size to be a strong pass protector for Colt McCoy, while McGee is still working to understand his protection responsbility. McGee doesn't catch the ball as well out of the backfield, while Whittaker probably won't ever have the durability to be a workhorse back.
What the Longhorns have are two players who can hopefully compliment each other and the offense well. That's the hope, anyway. McGee looks noticeably quicker this year now fully recovered from the knee injury that slowed him down last season. As much as his struggles in pass protection kept him off the field, having his knee twisted underneath him early in the FAU game probably had as much to do with his season being disrailed as anything. If McGee can become more comfortable running the outside zone plays, he could earn himself 10-15 carries every game.
McGee could also be the best option at running back when the Longhorns go under center and hurry up the offense to let him run the ball downfield. Likewise, McGee often played last season when the Longhon offense was inside the 25-yard line, scoring two touchdowns from 14 yards out and one from seven among his four scores. Ostensibly, the short field dictates a quicker passer game by eliminating long-developing routes and, therefore, the necessity of having a back strong in pass protection.
Whittaker provides a much more natural pass-catcher out of the backfield than McGee, while also providing a little more burst and a little more elusiveness. When the Longhorns go want to really spread the field by splitting out five wide receivers, expect Whittaker to replace Ogbonnaya in that role. Hey, you can't have trouble in pass protection when you're split out wide. Whittaker matched up against a linebacker in space is probably a match-up Greg Davis will take advantage of this season. Perhaps against OU and incapable-of-adjustment Brent Venables? The key for Whittaker is of course to remain healthy for the fall, a dicey proposition at this point.
Here's a possible scenario, then: Johson probably stays as the short-yardage back, with McGee working inside the 25 or so, with Whittaker a stronger option with a longer field. However, as Brown emphasized in his press conference the major emphasis is holding onto the football. If either of McGee or Whittaker start putting the ball on the turf, expect a quick hook. Think Rick Barnes after a Varez Ward three-point attempt last season.
Tanner can't handle Houston. During Thursday night's practice, the defense clearly won the night and a major reason for it was the play of Lamarr Houston. Perhaps feeing comfortable for the first time at his new position, Houston disrupted nearly everything the offense tried by doing his best Roy Miller impression and slicing through the attempted blocks of Charlie Tanner at guard. The fact that he was up against Tanner and Lucksinger's comment about Houston moving down to defensive end indicates that Houston may not see a ton of time at nose tackle this season in an effort to help him avoid double teams.
Thursday night clearly demonstrated his ability when lined up as a three-technique defensive tackle against the opposing guard -- a dangerous player with remarkable quickness for the position. Instead of wasting Houston by asking him to hold ground against double teams -- an ability he hasn't yet shown -- I think Muschamp will work to maximize his skills by leaving him one-on-one against guards or as a defensive end in a 3-4. The other thing to consider is that Roy Miller was able to knife into backfields by slicing through double teams as a nose tackle using his quickness. If Houston can show the ability to do the same thing, he may see some time at the position but the overriding point remains -- the kid is just not a space-eater and asking him to do so wastes his prodigious talent. Leave the space-eating to Ben Alexander
Speaking of Charlie Tanner -- you're on notice, buddy. One night of practice is too small of a sample size to blow this out of proportion, but the play of Tanner against Houston is concerning considering that last year revealed him to be one of the weaker members of the offensive line. David Snow more than ably filled in last year as a true freshman, an extremely difficult task at a position that almost always demands experience and time in the program to develop physically, made even more impressive by the fact that Snow often played the most difficult position on the line -- center.
It's clear that Snow has much higher upside than the elder Tanner. Now that the three terrible linebackers from the dark days are gone, talent and abillty to execute supposedly trump "having bled for the program." Whether an ineffective Charlie Tanner continues to play over David Snow may be one of the biggest tests of that transformation this season. And while I'm at it -- you're on notice too, Chris Hall.