Kirkendoll rapidly becoming Captain Consistent. McCoy called him "solid," shortly before his roomie one-upped that with "rock-solid." For all the (probably well-deserved) buzz about Brandon Collins this fall, James Kirkendoll may be the receiver who gains the trust of McCoy most quickly when game action finally begins on September 5th. According to McCoy, the Fiesta Bowl last season went a long ways towards establishing that integral trust between receiver and quarterback:
He had a great year last year, and his role is probably going to increase a little bit this year. He is playing really well and is consistent. He runs great routes and gets open. In our offense, when you have a guy that you can count on like that for every play, it really helps. Fourth-and-three, you have to make it in the Fiesta Bowl, and he comes up with a big play. That gains a lot of trust from a quarterback's perspective. I think at that point, he earned a lot of respect from our team. He is playing really good where he is. He is smart enough to play all three receiver positions on the field, so we will be able to use him in a lot of different ways.
High praise from the quarterback for a guy who only caught 21 passes last season. Make no mistake, though, were the Longhorns more thin at that position last season, Kirkendoll would have made a bigger difference. In fact, early in the season, Mack Brown apologized to Kirkendoll after a game because the young player hadn't seen any action, despite practicing well and doing what he needed to do to get on the field.
If Brandon Collins is the supreme athlete yet to put it all together, Kirkendoll is the hard-worker, the grinder who always knows where to be and runs crisp, precise routes. With his new dreadlocks, maybe he can be Larry Fitzgerald-lite for Texas this season. Not even Jordan Shipley can individually replace the loss of Quan Cosby from last season -- he can only do so much more -- so players like Kirkendoll must step up to fill the void. And if Kirkendoll's precision on the defining play of the Fiesta Bowl is any indication, the Round Rock product can ably answer the call.
Sped up and under center. Greg Davis made no secret during the spring of the team's desire to accelerate their pace to combat college football's clock-sapping rules. What he didn't mention prominently, which has subsequently come to light in the fall, is that the desire to run downhill by going under center coincides with the desire to speed up the tempo. Several possessions during the Fiesta Bowl actually previewed what Texas will run at times this season: a fastbreak offense operated running downhill and from under center.
It won't be a predominant strategy like it was for the Sooners last season -- Will Muschamp will make sure of that, as will the likely large leads in most games -- but it will provide the Longhorns a way to punish opposing defenses for putting a base personnel package onto the field Texas can abuse with their base personnel package. Critical to the success of that base personnel grouping will be versatility, particularly from the running back position. Will Vondrell McGee or Fozzy Whittaker better support accelerating the tempo?
PB's "Beyond the Box Score" post the other day illustrates the ability of the Longhorn offense to rely less on big plays and move the ball down the field with the controlled passing game. If Texas wore down Oklahoma's defense at the Cotton Bowl last year without speeding up the tempo, imagine the Longhorns once again exploiting OU linebackers from the flex while accelerating the game. Maybe Texas starts dominating early in the second half rather than in the fourth quarter. Maybe not, but Oklahoma State provides another opportunity to punish their lack of depth and accelerating the tempo does that for Texas.
Besides the stress from not being able to substitute and the simple pace, Texas may more effectively run the from under center by allowing Vondrell McGee to play more to this strengths and by allowing the offensive line more opportunities to drive block, an ability that might unleash the inner nastiness of the unit and allow maulers like Michael Huey to better showcase their skills. In fact, the Texas offense may increasingly begin to resemble that run by Oklahoma, with more work under center to help the running game, which subsequently helps the play-action passing games. In turn, play-action passing could allow more throws downfield, highlighting what should be a strength for Malcolm Williams and perhaps even Jordan Shipley as well.
In other words, even though the Longhorns might only go under center and speed up the tempo 30% of the time, it could be the type of edge that helps put the offense over the top and, whether earlier in the game or later in the game, create the type of big plays reminiscent of the 2005 team.
Secondary growth. It's a pretty prevalent meme, this belief that the Longhorn secondary will grow by leaps and bounds this season. Could it be a pipe dream? Fortunately, since fall practice is now well under way, some key members of that secondary finally receive their turn to speak with the media. No player in the unit should make a bigger leap than Earl Thomas and the reasons are pretty simple:
After that one year, the game slowed down a lot. We're real comfortable as a whole in the secondary with our coverages. We give the quarterback different looks, different schemes, try to help the defensive line out.
Off-cited now to illustrate his growth is his interception in the spring game, but it is a vivid example of just how much difference the game slowing down can make. And that increased knowledge lets Muschamp be much more multiple than last season:
This year we just know the defense better. We're comfortable out there. You can disguise more. You can play ball now, you don't have to worry about messing up. You just go out there and play now...Disguising coverages, last year I was worried about getting my job done, and finishing plays. I had a lot of opportunities last year to catch balls and I dropped them. This summer as a collective group of defensive backs we practiced real hard on finishing plays and just trying to make plays for the defense.
Creating turnovers may not correlate extremely highly with winning in the initial studies Huck is working on over at Barking Carnival, but it may loom more largely when he manages to cancel out some of the noise. Maybe turnovers are more of a qualitative part of football -- that tangible change of momentum. The silent crowd on the road. The raucous crowd at home. The tired or confused defense coming onto the field again without having the chance to regroup totally and for the defensive coordinator to make adjustments.
It's an advantage the defense rarely afforded the offense last season and one that Thomas will play a great part in facilitating. After the loss of Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller, much discussion focused on which upperclassmen would step up to vocally lead the defense. The usual suspects are Lamarr Houston, Roddrick Muckelroy, and Sergio Kindle, mostly quieter guys by disposition, but a perhaps Thomas, an unusual suspect, may step up into that position:
Last year I was younger, this year I have to take it upon myself. Coach (Muschamp) had a meeting with me and he told me I need to step up and be a vocal leader out there because I've got to help Blake (Gideon) out. He's the quarterback of the defense, everybody knows. I don't want him to have that responsibility by himself, I want to help him out the best that I can.
Thomas mentions leadership in the context of directing the rest of the defense instead of being directed, but it may end up working in a larger context. Increased playmaking will set the tone for the entire defense and his ability to direct the secondary will give him increased credibility with the rest of the team. Perhaps Thomas doesn't become the unquestioned leader of the defense this season, but he becomes the main candidate to step up for 2010 after the departures of Muckelroy, Houston, and Kindle.
Oh yeah, there's still a Chiles here. Lost in all the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing about the depth at defensive tackle and rapidly-diminishing group of tight ends is the move of John Chiles to wide receiver. After a couple of admittedly rocky seasons at quarterback, during which time he didn't neccessarily buy into the plan for him, particularly with the Q Package last season, Chiles says that he now has grown:
I'm just starting to get older, starting to get a little more mature. I'm starting to go out to practice and just be focused on what I can do to help this team.
Despite the insane depth at receiver, Chiles knew during the spring that making the change would be better for himself and for the team. Even though he played receiver some in high school, it wasn't a completely seamless transition for him. Part of the problem was the extra weight that he carried as a quarterback, reaching 220 pounds. He's now down to 205 and that's help him regain some of the speed that made him so highly regarded coming out of high school.
The question for Chiles is whether or not he can crack the six-man receiver rotation. With Shipley, Kirkendoll, Collins, and Malcolm Wililams all firmly entrenched, that leaves only two spots open for guys like Chiles, DeSean Hales, Dan Buckner (though his move to the flex position may help him get on the field regardless), Brock Fitzhenry, and Greg Timmons, the impressive freshman.
If he makes it past that hurdle, he still must earn the confidence of Colt McCoy and finally show some elusiveness and big-play ability after the catch. Expect the coaches to run some slants and screens for Chiles to get the ball in his hands and determine how much of a threat he can be with the ball in his hands. The strange mixture of hesitation and desire to do too much that plauged him at quarterback needs to disappear. Hopefully his maturity will help in that regard and, like Sergio Kindle last year, he can finally live up to the prodigious hype that accompanied him to the 40 Acres.