Free DJ Monroe.
It was a mantra, a hashtag, a movement that was vocal over the course of his second and third seasons in Austin as the speed back appeared underutilized, with both head coach Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis making excuses after games for why the Texas Longhorns didn't get their fastest player the ball.
And then new co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin showed up in town, putting in a few more plays for Monroe in the spring game, like some flaire passes to punish a defense for keying too much inside.
After the Rice game, it seemed like he had been freed. By the end of the regular season, though, it hadn't happened.
It was around that time that it started to seem as if some of the problem might be with Monroe himself. His lack of dynamic lateral quickness or make-you-miss ability. His poor hands, which had him dropping numerous passes in warm ups before the spring game. Rumors of a lack of interest in the playbook. Overall complacency.
The Free DJ Monroe movement looked nearly dead, through the faults of Monroe, not the coaching staff. There was a shiny new object entering the picture, local product Daje Johnson, who burst onto the radar at The Opening in July of 2011 and turned in a spectacular senior season. He then generated a remarkable amount of buzz during fall camp for his explosiveness and versatility -- he has some true receiving skills that Monroe has always lacked.
But it seems that Monroe had started to buckle down, finally, in the spring after all that talk that he was perfectly happy in his limited role.
Monroe spoke on Tuesday about his change in attitude:
I took a lot of pride into this past offseason, us in general as a team did. We decided that we wanted to be faster and stronger in all phases of the game. We took it more serious. We took it into consideration as everyone being on time, everyone finishing their reps, everyone being accountable and making no excuses unless it came to a family issue or something like that.
The suspension to Johnson for the first game for an unspecified violation of team rules ensured that Monroe would receive the lion's share of the carries in the "T&Z" position, as the coaches are now referring to the hybrid wide receiver/running back role that mostly involves speed sweeps and flares.
Monroe took advantage, with five carries for 36 yards -- right after his career average of seven yards per carry -- and a 15-yard gain on a flare. The night included a seven-yard touchdown run, his first since the infamous C sweep play against Oklahoma in 2010 that got him vanquished to the bench for the rest of the game in favor of excuses from the coaches. The touchdown run converted a crucial 3rd and goal from the Wildcat that included Monroe taking a hit, gathering himself, and then launching into the endzone. He wanted it, badly. So he got it. Tough running for the little guy, who has never been afraid to take a hit.
Count Harsin among those impressed:
He is a guy that is an explosive player for us. We look at those and think how we get the ball in their hands. I thought the one thing that D.J. really showed in that game was down here in the end zone when we handed the ball off to him in the wild formation and he turned the corner, ducked his shoulder and he just got skinny in a hurry and physical and got in. There was a collision there, and he kept his feet and fell into the end zone. That was really something that we wanted to see. He did it through spring and fall camp, and it showed up in the game. He was being very physical in those situations, and I think that has to continue.
DJ Monroe for short-yardage tailback! Okay, maybe not.
Sophomore running back Joe Bergeron said he has been urging Monroe to play like a bigger player:
We always tell D.J. to run big. We all know what he can do in an open space. Gotta get in there and put your head down. We always tell him, "Run like you're 230 [pounds], 250, something like that. Run like [former FB] Cody [Johnson], basically."
DJ Monroe for short-yardage tailback! Okay, sorry, the second one was gratuitous.
The effort against Wyoming wasn't a surprise to Bergeron, who had seen Monroe put in the work to get better and take advantage of his final season on the 40 Acres:
I wasn't surprised. With D.J., if you tell him to do something, he is going to do it. We saw it more during fall camp. We were telling him, "You know D.J. you're going to win big this year. We see it. You've packed on some weight. You've got some muscle." So he kind of uses that to his advantage now. He's not afraid to dip his shoulder. I enjoy watching him run like that. It excites me.
As well as whatever remaining members of the Free DJ Monroe movement exist. There have been some lean times for that bandwagon, indeed.
In the new-ish hybrid position, and with Johnson's imminent arrival and then presence threatening his playing time, Monroe knew that he had to work harder on developing his hands, on his concentration looking the ball in, perhaps his biggest issue after having it handed to him his whole life:
From catching tennis balls to using the little spark ball with the swirls that are green, red and blue to keep my eyes focused. I tried to catch 100 tennis balls with [Strength and conditioning head coach for football] Bennie [Wylie] a day. He would not throw a football, he would throw a tennis ball to me while I ran my swing routes and my slants. It helped me focus, and I had to make sure it was one of the things I got better at.
As always, it remains to be seen if Monroe can actually make grabs with any level of difficulty in games, as he's never caught a pass beyond the line of scrimmage, at least in the recollection of this writer.
Running backs coach/co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite echoed Monroe's thoughts on his work catching the rock:
He has done a great job catching the ball. He has spent a lot of time in the off-season working on it. The one thing I appreciate about D.J. is that early in his career he was trying to get his feet settled in to Texas and just growing up and maturing. I have noticed that, in the past two years, what he says he does, and when he says he is going to go do something, he does it 100 percent. That is all you can ask for as a coach.
Perhaps some small confirmation that Monroe didn't have it together mentality early in his career, which included him being declared academically ineligible after struggles during the fall of his freshman year.
Overall, it was a pleasing day of work in the mind of Harsin:
He did a nice job with some of the stuff out of the back field, catching some swing throws and just getting up field and trying to get him in space. I thought that everything we asked him to do he did, and he did a nice job with it.
But now, Johnson has a chance to play after serving his suspension, so how will be the repetitions be divided?
Monroe isn't worried about his opportunities, adopting a team mentality instead when discussing Johnson:
The guy is good. He is very fast. I think he is up to where me and Marquise are. I would love to see anyone play. Speed is speed and if we got it, use it. I am all about winning, and that's what it is with us right now. It is all about winning. We are brothers. I take him under my wing and [say], "This is how I do it. I don't know how you do it but this is how I ran the package." If it is my package, he backs me up in it and if it is his package, I back him up in it. There is new stuff that the coaches come up with and we just emphasize if it is his package I need to learn it too, and if it is my package he will say, "How do you run that swing?"
Though Johnson is a more natural receiver, throughout fall camp the expectation was that the roles for both Monroe and Johnson would be similar.
Not quite the case, according to Harsin:
[It is] a little bit different. Daje has done more of the wide receiver position. He is a natural back as well. He did that in high school, and he has a feel for that. He has played more receiver [here]. We have utilized him more out there and more because of the formations. Playing receiver you get exposed to more formations and movements and things like that, and that is what we wanted to do so he felt more comfortable with it. We will get him back in that mix and see how we utilize him, if we do, in the back field.
Interesting news there -- even though Johnson in general has a better feel for the receiver position, his extensive work there has been more about getting him acclimated as quickly as possible. Last season, Harsin showed his desire to get David Ash onto the field quickly, so when he sees talent, he'll work hard to get that player involved as quickly as possible. It sounds like Johnson has been on that track, and has a role that could continue to expand throughout the fall, as long as his attitude issues or whatever got him suspended fade into the background in favor of a little bit of maturity.
Harsin didn't rule out the possibility of both being in the mix:
We will see where Daje fits in this week in the game plan. We have to make sure that we are putting him in situations where he can be successful and D.J. can be successful. That thought and idea is about speed and having speed in the back field, but we also have to balance everything out. We have to make sure that Daje is going to be positioned out there in wide receiver. How much he gets will determine how much we can do with him in those other packages.
There may not be any film on Johnson yet, but the expectation for opposing coaches will be a hand-off on the speed sweep, so the Hendrickson product has to have enough diversity to make the tendencies on a given play obvious before there is even any film on it. Yes, that can happen, just look at some the obvious screen formations that Davis used to devise.
Another interesting development -- while Monroe is listed on the depth chart as the Z receiver, Johnson is listed as the back-up at the H. Perhaps their respective roles will be quite different than expected during fall camp as news of their work trickled out through practice reports, though it seems likely that the bread-and-butter for both will still be the ubiquitous jet sweep.
Johnson remains a complete wild cart, but Monroe served notice that he won't fade quietly into the twilight after his Texas career after such a memorable appearance on the scene, scoring that kickoff return touchdown against Louisiana-Monroe on his first touch as a Longhorn.
Free DJ Monroe?