The football adage, "Strength punishes, speed kills", has only grown truer. DJ Monroe certainly has elite speed but can he be a killer threat in Texas’ offensive scheme? Monroe has shown he has the talent to contribute to special teams. Sixteen returns were all it took him to break the school kickoff returns for touchdown record. His role on offense is a different story.
At 171 pounds, he is too small to be a multiple-down back and at 5’9", he is not a multifaceted threat at wide receiver. From the slot, he excels at the same speed routes – slants and drags – as Goodwin. Unlike Goodwin, Monroe does not great hands, height, or experience as a route runner. As a result, I sense that Greg Davis sees Monroe as a quick strike threat from a few plays that utilize his skill set. The catch is that a smart defensive coordinator will only let us get away with each play once.
For example, there are eight minutes left in the second quarter of the National Championship. As depicted below, Gilbert lines the Horns up in a balanced formation with a tight end. Monroe, the slot receiver, comes in motion and receives a well-timed handoff. The play is blocked well enough for Monroe to burst twenty-eight yards down the sideline. It is successful largely because Monroe’s acceleration catches the Alabama defense off guard, causing under-pursuit.
Remembering its earlier success, Greg Davis returns to the jet sweep in the following quarter with the same personnel in the same formation but -- more logically -- runs it to the wide side of the field. However, the offensive line leaves the defensive tackle unblocked and he consumes Monroe for a five-yard loss. It would not have mattered anyway because as soon as Monroe came in motion, the linebackers and strong safety moved to intercept him at the line of scrimmage.
Other than in special teams, the best use of Monroe is to put him in situations where he can capitalize on his speed. The jet sweep is a great example but the pre-snap motion allows defenses to react before he even has the ball. The logical reaction is to run play action off the motion. The TE could run a quick hitch or pop-pass into the void created by Sam and Mike chasing Monroe. You could run an entire package based on punishing defenses that over-commit to the sweep.
The other place in which Monroe can excel is in the screen game. It was Monroe who deflected the shovel pass into enemy hands right before halftime. Regardless of outcome, it is still the type of play that turns Monroe into a weapon. Had Tanner kept his feet moving, Monroe could have had the ball with fifteen yards all to himself. Screen passes give Monroe an easy catch and space to get up to speed before defenders can react. With an inexperienced quarterback and offensive line, opposing defenses should be blitz-happy. Screen passes, especially with Monroe, keep defense coordinators in check.
The trick is to get Monroe on the field in plays not designed for him to avoid tipping our hand. It does not take Will Muschamp to watch for motion when Monroe is in the slot or screens when he is at tailback. The problem is that his diminutive size makes him a liability in blocking running plays and Texas already has enough questions at receiver. Monroe should always be given the ball in the wide side of the field. He excels in space, give it to him.
This is all irrelevant if Monroe cannot stay healthy, a problem that arose early in the Spring Game. Coach Brown did not seem too sympathetic, "D.J. Monroe again pulled a hamstring on the first kickoff so he didn’t play any more today. We have to figure out where D.J. fits in all this stuff. I told them all, we’ve just got some guys that are banged up a little bit and I want this team to be a tougher team by fall." Brown also has to have his run-in with the law in the back of his mind.
The question is not whether Monroe can be a threat; we have already seen he can be. The question is how he fits into the renewed focus on a traditional offense, how to use him without tipping our hand, and if he can avoid injury and legal trouble.