When I google'd the definition of "refreshed" this morning, the first definition that popped up was "to give new strength or energy to; reinvigorate." After watching what the Texas Longhorns and Jerrod Heard were able to do against the Rice Owls on Saturday night, that's exactly how I feel about this Longhorn team. Led by the redshirt freshman at quarterback, the Texas offense was able to generate big plays and get into the end zone, something that unit hadn't be able to do for a while.
The five takeaways...
1) Jerrod Heard -- To sum it up in a few words, he was exactly what Coach Strong and the Longhorns needed... But more so, Heard breathed life back into a seemingly lifeless offense that had been struggling to find any sort of direction to go in for far too long. Heard started from the very beginning of the game and he never looked back. He made big plays when Texas needed them. And he brought an energy to the position and onto the field that had been lacking for what has seemed like an eternity. I feel like Texas fans every where can begin to breath again.
The main positive everyone will takeaway from this game is the amount of big plays Heard generated. Whether he was using his legs to scamper around defenders or using his arm to drop long passes into the hands of Longhorn receivers, he was the spark that ignited the flame on offense.
What should also be noted was his demeanor. After big plays, he was either running down the field to congratulate his teammates, he was pumping up the sideline and crowd, or doing a push-up celebration. It was an energy and positive vibe that was contagious throughout the entire team and stadium, not just the offense (meanwhile, Swoopes was reportedly by himself away from the team down the opposite end of the sideline...).
Malik Jefferson reiterated the effect Heard had after the game, "All the guys wanted to see [Heard] play. He'd been held back, like in a prison cell." You have to wonder what camp was really like for the rest of the team while the "QB Competition" was going on between Swoopes and Heard.
As good as Heard was, Texas will need more from him through the air in future games. Though he faired particularly well on the passes he threw, he was only asked to attempt seven passes. As the season goes on, I imagine there will be a handful of games where he will need to average 15-25ish passes per contest. Anything beyond that could spell trouble for the Longhorns. He just isn't a quarterback that can effectively throw a huge variety of passes right now. And that's just a reality that Norvell/Texas will have to continue to recognize and work with.
Though mistakes will happen, Heard did just about everything he needed to do in his first ever start as a Longhorn quarterback. And now, finally, Texas looks like they have a quarterback to build a foundation and identity on.
2) Norvell/Offense -- Though it was a small sample size (Texas had the ball for just 15:58 minutes compared to the 44:02 Rice had it for), I walked away from the game pleased with Norvell's game-plan and play-calling.
His play designs highlighted what Heard does best, which is running with the football. I didn't see him call on Heard to make plays he isn't equipped to make (advanced throws or tough reads of the defense). And he also took calculated shots down the field. Norvell (with the help of Traylor, I assume) really did a nice job. And yes, I know, it was against Rice (hey, many picked them as second best in CUSA this season)... But at this point, Texas desperately needed a game like this on offense regardless of who it was against.
A couple of the main areas of concern still are the offensive line and getting the running backs going. The offensive line did play a bit better, though they were also playing a weaker defensive line than last week in South Bend. But for their sake, it also helps having a quarterback that can actually outrun the pressure when the blocking breaks down up front. I still see this as a group that will improve as the season goes on.
D'Onta Foreman (a guy I've been high on ever since I was covering him for Rivals during his high school days when UTSA was recruiting him) was clearly the best running back for Texas last night. And though it's great to see a young back find positive yards when given the opportunity, it's concerning that the former two-star recruit (Foreman) played better than the former five-star recruit (J Gray).
Though Gray is good, and in some cases even great, at a lot of things, he isn't elite at any one thing. Walk with me as I explain this... Gray is a tough running back, but he isn't a powerful running back. Unlike D'Onta Foreman (and freshman Chris Warren and former Longhorn running back Malcolm Brown), Gray doesn't have the power in his thighs that those running backs have. Yes, he does a good job of keeping his legs churning and leaning forward into a pile when he enters one, but he doesn't always bounce off tacklers with the force that Foreman/Brown/Warren are able to. And though Gray does have some good speed and quickness to him that allows him to make cuts to get upfield, he rarely is able to break open a run on a cut back with the speed seen from guys like Jamaal Charles or Daje Johnson when they have the football in their hands.
Gray is at his best when he is able to use his vision to find the holes in an offensive line that then allow him to make decisions to get upfield vs the second and third levels of an opposing defense. He has a good feel for the angles to take to get up field. Unfortunately for him, his offensive line is struggling to create lanes at the moment. Hopefully Gray finds more production sooner than later, but it may take some time depending on how quickly the offensive line can improve.
3) Special Teams -- More often than not, special teams is just a minor point us talking heads and fans pay any attention to unless it's a huge headache after a game. On Saturday night, the special teams play for the Longhorns was a big factor in their ability to put up more than 40 points in a game for the first time since mid-October of last season when they hung 48 on Iowa State.
Thanks for coming to the party Daje Johnson... He showed up in a big way. And if Texas wants to end the season with a winning record, they will continue to need more big plays out of Daje and the special teams unit.
It should be noted that Texas (especially on special teams when more reserves generally play) was the bigger and faster team on the field for these plays. That definitely helped Johnson's (and Duke Thomas') ability to get by defenders. But none-the-less, it was a good sign to see the special teams unit make plays like this. It had also been a long time since we'd seen Texas have returns like that.
4) Defense: The Ripple Effect -- Call me old fashioned, but I'm a big believer in the importance of winning in the trenches. I view the success and struggles in the trenches like a ripple effect you see when you throw a rock into the water.
The woes on defense for Texas start up front and in the middle. For the second week in a row, the opposing offensive line basically had their way with the Longhorn defensive line. All night, Rice gashed the middle of line. The bleeding never stopped in that regard. And that should be a major area of concern for Texas. When they play teams that can not only run it successfully, but throw it, it will get this Texas defense on its heels in a hurry.
From the looks of it, the defensive tackles are simply having a tough time of shedding their blocks. Too many times, a running back is within their reach but they are tied up with their block and unable to either shed the offensive lineman or push the lineman into the hole to plug it up. I don't know the simple answer to fixing this. But Texas has to improve here or it will continue to create short third-down opportunities for opposing offenses after they run it successfully on first and second down.
Behind the line, there are also areas of improvement. Freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson is the best talent on defense, and that's exciting. But being that he's a freshman, that's also saying something about the guys around him. My main concern being the secondary.
We all need to remind ourselves why junior safety Dylan Haines was originally a walk-on at Texas. He lacks top-end speed and isn't the strongest at the point of attack when tackling. As a safety, you don't need top-end speed to be successful. But if you don't have that speed to help recover when you do make mistakes, then you have to make the right decisions more often than not to be in the right position to make a play. His decision making is what helped him make an impact last season. But for whatever reason, this season he's already been out of position way too many times. And it has me wondering when DeShon Elliot will be 100% so we can all get a sense of what he can bring into a game.
The next disappointing defensive back has been John Bonney. At times, he is able to stick with his receiver. But for every solid play he has, he blows a coverage that leads to completion for the opposing team. Yes, he too is young (redshirt freshman). But the disappointment and lack of trust appeared to effect Bedford and his staff enough to give freshman Kris Boyd, freshman Holton Hill, and sophomore Antwuan Davis opportunities to show what they could do. I don't have anything against Bonney. I was actually expecting him to play well this season based off what was said about him during camp. But Texas all hands on deck and needs to play the best players they have. And if that's not Bonney, then they shouldn't play him.
5) The Youth Movement -- I can't remember a Texas team, let alone a Division 1 college football team, that needed this many true freshman on the field making plays. Charlie Strong and his staff have to be ecstatic with how his 2015 class has already been performing. At the same time, it's very telling of what state this team was in when Charlie Strong inherited it from Mack Brown.
It's not outlandish to think that by the end of the season, at least a third of the starting 22 on offense and defense could be true freshman. Below are all the guys I could see as starters when it's all said and done for 2015 (including the ones in bold already starting).
- Malik Jefferson - LB
- Connor Williams - OT
- Patrick Vahe - OG
- John Burt - WR
- Kris Boyd - CB
- Holtin Hill - CB
- Breckyn Hager - LB
- DeShon Elliott
Eight true freshman could be in starting roles by the end of the season. And I'm sure you all have suggestions of other true freshman you personally could see in a starting role as well. It truly is astounding to think about. And on one hand, it speaks to Strong's ability to recruit. On the other hand, it really reminds us what Strong inherited and is working with in these early years of tenure as Head Coach of the Longhorns.
There's a lot to takeaway from this game. And as Strong reiterated during his post-game press conference, this team is no where near where it needs to be. Most importantly though, Texas earned a much needed win. A win led by their new starting quarterback. And a win that they will look to build off of as they do their best to end the season with a winning record and a shot at playing in a bowl game.