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Texas vs OU: Beating the Sooners in September

Maybe the thing that most drove me crazy during the previous coordinator regime was the way that the Texas offense would so often tip-toe through as much of the early season as possible. It was a tendency that afflicted Texas for many years and manifested itself in a variety of ways, from holding back contributor-ready freshmen like Cedric Benson, to playing things as vanilla as early season opponents allowed.

Under the old approach, we would begin trying to unleash our full range of capabilities only when finally confronted by the most dangerous opponents -- more often than not, on the first Saturday in October, or even more frustrating, the week after. In virtually every case, it was too late.

There are two fundamental problems with such an approach. The first is a self-inflicted wound: it takes time and practice to develop something -- whether a player, or play, or series of plays constituting a broader game plan. It's great to have weapons at your disposal, but weapons aren't most effective until you sight their scopes; it takes some repetition and some honing before they start to become dangerous, and you want to do that work before your biggest battles.

The second problem is an aid to the opposition: such an approach makes the job of preparing to defend exponentially easier, allowing defenders to play fast and aggressively, without having to do too much thinking. Even a split second of hesitation caused by thinking can be the difference between a defender arriving in time to make a tackle and only getting an arm on the ball carrier. While an offense can do some new things on game day to try to make the defense start to think -- to hesitate -- the limits on how much it can effectively debut mean the costs to the offense quickly overwhelm the benefits. With rare exceptions, you're not likely to reinvent yourself successfully in one week, and with little to fear, and little to think about... defenders have little reason to hesitate.

The Harsinwhite Approach

In sharp contrast to the old approach, Harsinwhite have been busy this September systematically and strategically building out a diverse and dynamic offense, and using/developing all of the contributor-ready personnel. Harswhite played 8 true freshmen (Ash, Brown, Cochran, Flowers, Bergeron, Moss, Onyegbule, and Shipley) in the season opener versus Rice -- as many or more true freshmen in one game, on just one side of the ball, than the total number of freshmen (both sides of the ball) who saw the field in 2000 (8 freshmen played), 2001 (6), 2003 (5), and 2004 (7). Two weeks later against UCLA, 23 different players took snaps... in the first quarter alone.

To re-emphasize: all this has been very systematic. Eight true freshmen played against Rice, but most have been brought along a thoughtful schedule. Though he could have pounded out 25+ carries a game, Malcolm Brown was limited to 16 carries against Rice (mostly in the 2nd half), 14 against BYU, 22 at UCLA, and 15 against Iowa State, shielding him from excess pounding, keeping him fresh, and limiting his exposure to injury. Likewise, David Ash has been used incrementally more in each successive game, adding more and more to his arsenal each week. Both Flowers and Cochran got their toes wet early and though still learning are now out there swimming in the ocean. The net result is that because these young players have already been given time and direction in development, they're in much better position to contribute well this Saturday than they would have been had they gotten their first meaningful action in the big game itself.

The development of the playbook has developed in lockstep with the personnel. Although each week Texas has expanded upon and added variations to the offense, the full, dynamic template was there in the opener. There was no restrained offense for more manageable opponents, nor any thought of trying to save away a more dynamic version of the offense for tougher opponents down the road. Likewise, there has been no thought of hiding away expansions and variations on the base offense. To the contrary, expansions and variations have been regularly and systematically introduced, each building or expanding on the foundation beneath it. 

Like with the personnel, the net result is a deep, broad, flexible, complex, and dynamic offensive foundation that provides us with a huge volume of options, and a dangerous layer of interplaying variations. Take, for instance, Fozzy in the Wildcat (except when it's Jaxon, of course), a play with nearly a dozen options that we've seen, and several more that you can't assume we won't run just because we haven't yet to date. We've seen Fozzy play action to the right and sprint out to the left edge. We've seen Fozzy play action to the left and run a counter draw up the middle. We've seen Fozzy hand it off to a receiver to pass. It's hard to keep track of everything we've seen out of that one base look. We've seen Fozzy hand it off to start a reverse flea flicker, and we've seen Jaxon Shipley as the point man in the Wildcat. Without going back over the play-by-play box scores, I'd wager no Texas fan could accurately list each variation we've run from that one set of looks.

Which is, of course, the point. Showing the defense something simple and understandable doesn't leave defenders worried about what you're hiding; it merely simplifies their objectives and focuses their actions. By contrast, it is difficult to imagine not hesitating while trying to defend Texas when it lines up in the Wildcat. Among the thoughts racing through a defender's head pre-snap: "Okay, is it Shipley or Whittaker taking the snap? Is the setback to his side or are they doing that stack thing? They're unbalanced on the left, which coach said they do one of two things from here, one to the left, one to the right, except also to be aware of the play fake and pass."

There are a dizzying number of variations on the same and similar plays and formations, and it can be a challenge to keep track of even while carefully reviewing film one play at a time. In live action, it's got to be awfully difficult not to lean, or guess, or -- God forbid -- hesitate, any and all of which Bryan Harsin is watching for like a hawk from the skybox. The whole system is built around creating those small advantages, and running subsequent plays very specifically designed to exploit precisely those advantages.

To be sure, no amount of intelligent design can overcome the fact that this young Texas offense will have to execute well to score touchdowns and beat the Sooners. But in a year in which Oklahoma is at a peak in the talent cycle and Texas is ramping back up from a valley, it's incredibly encouraging and exciting to see the way that this offensive staff has systematically developed both the playbook and personnel. We are a deeper, more flexible, and more dynamic offense than we would or could have been under another approach, and consequently we are a more difficult offense to prepare for, more difficult offense to key in on, and an offense more capable of finding and exploiting advantages that can help us compete.

And to think, this staff is just getting started...

Hook 'em