Texas Football: How the Longhorns Can Turn It Around in 2012
Here we go again. The No. 25 Texas Longhorns are a middling 4-2 through the first half of the season for the third year in a row with the team primed to come completely off the rails in Big 12 play. Can they turn it around, or is there more to come?
The defense cannot tackle. The offensive line is getting bullied. And as if that weren't enough, the 'Horns just lost junior defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, arguably the best player on the entire team, for the rest of the season with a torn pectoral.
Fans are calling for the head coach Mack Brown's job after the 63-21 loss to Oklahoma pushed his record to 5-9 against the 'Horns' most bitter rival. Unfortunately for them, there is a $3.5 million buy-out standing between Brown and the unemployment line, so what's the next best option? Pull it together.
The Longhorns may be a bad team right now, but they are a bad team with a lot of talented players on both sides of the ball. With an attitude change and better personnel usage, the Longhorns could salvage the 2012 season and put this nightmare behind them.
Here's how Mack Brown and his staff can do just that.
Give the Ball to Daje Johnson
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I have been saying all year that Texas needs to find a way to get the ball in freshman Johnathan Gray's hands more often, which it did. Now it needs to do the same thing with his speedy classmate Daje Johnson.
As if Johnson's 4.3 speed was not enough to garner him significant playing time, his play thus far should seal the deal. Through the five games he has played. Johnson has averaged 12 yards per touch, highlighted by his two receptions of 45 yards or more.
The big plays are no surprise with the speed this guy possesses, but what has been most impressive about Johnson is his toughness with the ball. Johnson has proven much harder to tackle than most would have anticipated from a speed guy, especially in the past two weeks when he has had to shed plenty of tacklers in the backfield.
Against the Sooners Johnson was far and away Texas' most effective back with a 10.3 yards per carry average. He only touched the ball four times, but his versatility and strength with the ball should earn him much more field time as both a change-of-pace back and a big-play receiver.
I am sure I am going to hear it from Florida fans here, but Johnson has the skills to be Texas' version of Percy Harvin with his ability to run and catch the ball from anywhere on the field. In fact, these two are pretty much identical in size and Johnson is about a tenth-of-a-second faster than Harvin. Also worth mentioning is that Johnson's average of 12 yards per touch thus far is actually better than Harvin's 11.4 yards per touch during his freshman year.
This is not to say that Johnson is as good as Harvin was, but what does Texas have to lose by giving him the ball? The defense is not stopping anybody and the offensive line is having trouble blocking for the more traditional backs on this team, so anybody that can put up points in a hurry is worth a serious look.
Give Johnson around 40 more touches the rest of this season and just see what happens. At worst, the coaches can say they tried. At best, Johnson re-invigorates a frustrated fanbase as the steal of the 2012 recruiting class.
Get Players on the Field That Will Hit
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Not only are the Texas Longhorns not tackling very well, but they are just not hitting anyone at all. The solution? Get players on the field that will hit—hard.
One thing I took away from the Oklahoma loss that has not been brought up is that the Longhorns gave up 164 yards to Trey Millard, a fullback. Not only that they let Millard hurdle them twice in the open field, the second time being on a 73-yard reception when he was dead to rights. On that 73-yard reception, Texas safety Adrian Phillips had a free shot at Millard while he was in mid-air and fell helplessly to the ground while Millard chugged up the sideline.
And that is what drives me nuts. Any other Texas team that had guys like Derrick Johnson, Michael Huff and Earl Thomas would have blown that dude up into the stands, and everyone in the conference knew that. Nobody is afraid of these Texas Longhorns as opponents hurdle them, coast across the middle of the field and just completely disrespect them on a weekly basis.
Missing tackles is one thing, but letting the opposing offense think you are soft is something completely different. There is no way Millard tries that second hurdle on the sideline if he had been rocked the first time he did it. But he wasn't, and now he has the highlight of his career.
I am not saying play dirty or anything like that, but there is a reason nobody leaves their feet when they are near Ray Lewis or Troy Polamalu. Someone, preferably everyone, on this defense needs to step up and show the opposition that they will not just get walked over anymore. Otherwise this is just going to get worse, regardless of whether Hicks and Jeffcoat play.
Throw the Ball More
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If the Longhorns are going to get things going in the right direction this season, they may have to lean on the arm of their much-improved quarterback David Ash.
The Longhorns have been the exact opposite of what almost everyone thought so far this season. The defense was supposed to be impregnable. It's not. The running game was supposed to be unstoppable. It also is not.
On the other hand, the quarterback position was supposed to be this team's only real weakness. But it is not, and thankfully so.
Even after a tough outing against the Sooners (44.8% completion, 2 picks), sophomore quarterback David Ash is the nation's 17th-rated passer and has looked much better in his second season under center. It is time to let him prove that he is this team's starting quarterback for years to come.
So far this season, Ash has both led a game-winning drive and stood toe-to-toe with a Heisman Trophy candidate, two things he did not have a prayer of doing a season ago. And considering how he has looked so far this season and the weapons he has at receiver, he may be Texas' best hopes for winning games while we wait for the defense's flight back from Mars.
Not only can Ash handle throwing the ball 10 more times a game, but doing so could reopen some running lanes. After dominating the first three games, the Longhorns have been held to a measly 3.2 yards per carry as opponents have stacked the box against the run.
If Ash and the rest of the offense can get the downfield passing game rolling, those running lanes that have been so clogged these past three weeks should begin to open up.
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With the defense giving no indication that it will turns things around any time soon, the Longhorn coaching staff is going to need to step outside the realm of safety and take more risks with what they have.
Longhorn fans were ecstatic when head coach Mack Brown fired his overly-conservative friend Greg Davis and brought in the more aggressive Bryan Harsin as his offensive coordinator. But after turnovers derailed the Texas offense a season ago, Harsin has become noticeably more conservative in his play-calling in 2012.
The most obvious example of this change was against West Virginia after Alex Okafor's forced fumble gave Texas the ball deep in Mountaineer territory. The outcome of this opportunity was a missed field goal after going three-and-out on three straight running plays, as well as a three-point Texas loss.
The same goes for head coach Mack Brown, who watched the Mountaineers go for and make five fourth downs in the game while only going for three himself. Then in a game that he has repeatedly had trouble winning against the Sooners, Brown did nothing that caught Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops off-guard.
This was not an obvious problem heading into the Oklahoma game but with Jackson Jeffcoat out for the season, Brown and his staff need to throw convention out of the window. The offense has the skill players to make big plays, as we have all seen. The same goes for the defense and the special teams, but there is no reward without risk and Texas is at the point where it needs a few more risks to reinvigorate both the players and the fanbase.
Go for it more often on fourth down, fake a punt or a field goal, or whatever else it takes to get a play out of this team. It is always amazing how one play can change the course of an entire season, and Texas needs a play of that caliber.