Awhile back I wrote about how starting two true freshmen along the Texas Longhorns offensive line would be a double-edged sword, and early on this year it has been exactly that. The game in South Bend was no walk in the park, and the Fighting Irish defense did exactly what I thought they would -- send the kitchen sink early and often on blitzes.
We all knew it wouldn't be pretty, we just hoped that the young bucks didn't drown as they were thrown into the deep end of the pool for the first time. Even though there weren't a ton of positives against Notre Dame, the unit as a whole has continued to improve. On top of that, redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard is capable of making his offensive line right even when they are wrong, so there is reason to be optimistic heading forward.
With three games in the books, lets see how the offensive line is looking by looking at some of their drives against Cal.
Seemed like the Cal's defensive coordinator was trying to get a feel for Heard and Norvell on this drive. Brought minimal pressure on passing downs and they ended up paying for it. As for the big fellas up front, they didn't get a lot of push in the run game out of the gate, but they were rock solid in pass pro. Heard had plenty of time to survey thefield and that prove to be key as he hit senior wide receiver Daje Johnson and senior running back Johnathan Gray for two big chunk plays before taking it into the end zone himself on a zone read play.
Freshman right guard Patrick Vahe picked up a false start penalty just before the big play to Johnson and has to learn to sit in there and hold his water. The penalty didn't hurt Texas this time, but those things can be drive killers. I want to give him a pass because he is a true freshman making his third start, but c'mon man, you know the snap count and you are playing on your home turf.
Following the turnover Texas tried to get cute with a fake swing pass reverse to Daje. Cal wasn't fooled one bit on it and I remembered thinking during the game that they may want to throw that out for now unless they got Cal fast flowing on that type of play down the line. I will say this though, if #21 wasn't all over it, freshman left tackle Connor Williams picked up his man and Johnson might still be running.
Williams moves very well in space and I can see Texas using that to their advantage in the screen game. Offensive lineman that are able to pick up linebackers and defensive backs in the open field without falling all over themselves are rare, so when you get one you better sure as hell use them.
Texas finds themselves in 3rd and long again on this drive. More good pass pro across the board. Heard has time to make a three course meal in the pocket and he finds Johnson again for a big gainer down the sideline (this was a reoccurring theme for a bit). Again Cal didn't bring extra pressure to make Heard get rid of the ball and I began to wonder if they were afraid of him hurting them with his wheels if they brought extra blitzers. I don't blame them for that, but at the same time with your front four not getting there you may want to try something different.
On the 3rd and 8 inside the 20 they only brought four again and Heard was able to hit senior tight end Alex De La Torre to move the sticks. Again, good pass pro from the hogs, Cal hasn't even sniffed Heard to this point. Unfortunately this drive stalls after sophomore running back D'Onta Foreman slips on a handoff that looked like it was blocked up well and then Heard has to get rid of the ball after senior left guard Sedrick Flowers is unable to pick up his man on a TE (tackle-end) stunt. You take the three, but obviously you want to grab six there with the way Cal's offense moved the ball all night
After Gray's terrible decision to bring the ball out on the kickoff the offense is backed up here and you just want to get out of the shadow of you own end zone at minimum. The odds are heavily against you to get points when you have to go 90+ yards (want to say it is less than 2%, but can't recall the exact number). To make matters worse Heard is flagged for an illegal forward pass that went for a big gain to junior tight end Caleb Bluiett on a pop pass that worked to perfection.
So things have gone from bad to worse inside your own five, but have no fear because the man wearing #13 makes things right. Right after the penalty, Heard has number called on a designed quarterback run on what one of my old offensive coordinators called Lucy Blast. Heard fakes the zone to the back, offensive line blocks it just like zone, back side tackle blocks down and the H-back (Bluiett) arcs for the linebacker. Backside defensive end in this case played it like he is supposed to, but he closes so hard on the dive that he doesn't have a prayer of making the play on Heard who scampers for a big gain. If this play gets blocked up right, it is frustrating as hell to stop as a defense.
From here we get a little bit of outside zone that gets blocked up nicely as one of the flowing linebackers gets caught in the trash and allows Gray to pick up a first. Right after that Heard goes play action, get good protection once again and hits freshman wide receiver John Burt with the deep ball that was a little under thrown. Two plays later Gray walks in behind freshman runnig back Chris Warren on a lead play out of the split back gun. With the offensive line seeming to have a tough go lining up and running right at people, I hope we see more of this going forward.
All and all, this as a HELL of a drive by the offense and considering where they started, it excites the hell out of me that they were able to punch it in for six.
This is a small sample from last weekend's game, but considering how bad things looked in South Bend I am encouraged by what I saw against Cal. While this group is still a long way from being able to line up and ram the ball down a defense's throat for four quarters, there is no question that the coming out party of Jerrod Heard has given this entire offensive unit a shot in the arm and it changes how a defense has to approach the offense as a whole. This helps things considerably up front as we saw with Cal, as defenses will have to respect the athleticism of Heard and they can't just recklessly blitz. The beauty of having a guy like Heard under center is that he will make his offensive line look great even when they screw up.
While Cal definitely doesn't have the best of defenses, it was encouraging to see the offensive line give Heard a nice pocket to work with for most of the night, but I want to see them get better at the point of attack in the run game going forward. Oklahoma State will be a tougher test defensively, but I think they can be had. I'm curious to see if the offense can continue to build upon last week's performance and pick up a big win against a conference opponent. Win Saturday, and you give yourself some momentum heading into a difficult stretch on the schedule. If you lose things get more than a little dicey and I think that is putting it nicely.