You’re coming off back-to-back 13-1 seasons, in which most of your fans believe that you were a healthy quarterback and a tick-of-the-clock shy of two national championships. Your record setting, two-time Heisman finalist quarterback is leaving the 40 acres. And in the upcoming season, you’ll be breaking in a new quarterback for the first time since 2006.
But if you are Mack Brown, you aren’t answering the what-ifs of past seasons, or questions about your new signal-caller. It’s the same old question that lingers; a question that he’s been trying to answer for the last few seasons.
What about the running game?
UT’s spread offense has been piling up the points since 2004, when Vince Young ran the zone read to perfection, culminating with a dramatic national championship victory in 2005. When Colt McCoy took over in 2006, the zone read was still a large part of the offense, but it has slowly morphed into the pass-centric, spread offense that UT employs today. Yet you wouldn’t be talking Texas football if you didn’t acknowledge the critics and their grass-is-always-greener concerns of one of the more successful programs of the last decade.
Never mind that the ’08 and ’09 seasons saw the ‘Horns ranked fifth and third in the nation in offensive scoring, respectively. Forget that UT put up over 40 points a game in that stretch, a mark that nearly every program in the country would love to be able to claim. So what if McCoy set all-time completion records on his way to leading the Longhorns to two BCS bowl appearances and the all-time NCAA record for wins (45) by a quarterback. For the last two seasons, the Longhorns have been doing it all through the air. And for Texas fans, that just isn’t good enough.
Much of the Longhorn fan base lives by the old school edict of Darrell K Royal that “there are three things can happen when you pass the football, and two of them are bad.” And Brown must be paying attention to all the message board Monday-morning quarterbacks, because despite all of their recent success, the Texas Longhorns are trying to rediscover an old identity on the offensive side of the football.
“We've done it all before,” said Brown during a post-practice press conference early last week. “We think what we're doing is probably inching back more toward the Major (Applewhite), Chris (Simms), Ricky Williams offense.”
Truth be told, the ‘Horns could benefit from getting back to their roots. As highly touted as their new golden boy quarterback Garrett Gilbert might be, it’ll be tough to ask the sophomore to complete his passes at the same rate that his predecessor was able to. They aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, because as Brown likes to point out, “we've thrown it as well as anybody in the country.” But Brown does want his offense to run downhill more effectively. Gilbert will be asked to take his snaps from under center more often than the previous two quarterbacks before him. Moving forward, for Texas to be able to be as successful as they want to be, they will need to find a reliable running game.
“We'll have a quarterback under the center more and still have the ability to do what we want to do in the passing game,” said Brown. “We want to have the ability to run it and be physical running when we want to. We really haven't had that for four years. What we'd do every time we'd start to try to do it and work back toward it, Colt would complete 78 percent.”
They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over and expecting different results. If the Longhorns want to have a consistent, physical running game, they are going to have to examine the deficiencies of season’s past to get the kind of results that they are looking for.
Since Jamaal Charles left after 2007, UT has not had a running back eclipse 600 yards during the course of a season. But it hasn’t been for a lack of success in recruiting blue-chip running backs.
Brown landed the number three running back in the nation in 2006 in Vondrell McGee. Coming out of high school, McGee was regarded as the best running back prospect from the east Texas area since Adrian Peterson. But McGee has fallen way short of the hype. Whether it’s been from battling through injuries or being unable to separate himself from the pack, McGee has been unable to find his niche in the backfield. He finally topped the five-yards per carry mark in 2009, but was limited to only 56 carries on the year, due to injuries and inconsistent play.
McGee isn’t the lone blue-chip recruit that has failed to live up to expectations. In the class of ’07, the Longhorns inked the number two running back out of Texas (Cody Johnson) and the number six all-purpose back in the nation (Fozzy Whittaker). Johnson has been effective in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but hasn’t shown the consistency to be counted on as an every-down back. Whittaker has shown glimpses of the explosiveness that the ‘Horns covet, but the injury bug has plagued him, too, during his time so far in Austin.
The class of ’08 brought in Tre’ Newton, who led the ’09 team in rushing as a redshirt freshman with 577 yards. Chris Whaley was the lone running back recruit in the class of ’09. Built like a Brandon Jacobs clone, Whaley redshirted in 2009 and has yet to see the field. Traylon Shead was brought in with the 2010 class. And the Longhorns are after Cibolo Steele prospect Malcolm Brown, one of the nation’s elite running back recruits for the 2011 class.
Newton is probably poised to be the team’s lead option heading into 2010, unless McGee or one of the bigger backs (Johnson or Whaley) can take advantage of UT’s new downhill running schemes. The lack of a running game going forward can’t be attributed to a lack of options. Whether the Longhorns want to play a smaller speedy back, a big bruising back, or a combination of the two, Texas most likely has that runner in its stable. But somebody is going to have to step up and seize the opportunity when it’s presented.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Longhorns had a dominant running game. In 2004, senior Cedric Benson led the second ranked rushing attack of the ‘Horns with 1,834 yards. The ’05 version saw the Horns finish ranked second again, this time on the legs of Vince Young and freshman Jamaal Charles. Besides the immense talent that these guys possessed, much of their success was in large part due to the hog mollies up front.
The 2005 national championship Longhorns saw five of their top six offensive linemen go on to have NFL careers. And three of those guys hold starting positions on their respective teams today. With that kind of talent paving the way, it’s no wonder Texas was successful on the ground.
Since the middle of this decade, Texas has failed to recruit the type of dominant linemen that helped lead them to their 2005 national championship. Brown signed two three-star recruits in ’05, Charlie Tanner and Chris Hall. Both were starters for the ’08 and ’09 teams, but neither player was a true force on the line. Tanner and Hall were able to make it through their senior seasons, though, which is a lot more than you could say for the next class of linemen.
The class of ’06 was a complete whiff. Texas signed four offensive linemen in the class, including blue-chip recruits Buck Burnette and J’Marcus Webb. The 6’8”, 310 pound Webb played in every game as a freshman in 2006 and was poised to be a centerpiece on the line for seasons to come. But after the spring of 2007, Webb decided to transfer, citing that playing time (read grades) played a factor in his decision. Strike one.
After that same spring, Roy Watts (from the same ’06 class) also decided to transfer. He, too, decided that the competition for playing time would be too stiff, and he would be better served to transfer. The decision came after his redshirt season, so he never actually had the opportunity to step foot on the field while he was in Austin. While not as highly regarded as Webb, Watts would have at least provided the Horns with depth on the line. With four years in the program and three seniors graduating after the most recent season, Watts could have worked himself into a prominent role for the 2010 season. Strike two.
Strike three came at the hands of the great Facebook fiasco of 2008. On Nov. 5, the Wednesday after the 2008 presidential election, Burnette was kicked off the team following racial slurs that he made about newly elected Barack Obama on the online networking site. Burnette was the back-up center as a sophomore in 2008 and would have pushed for valuable playing time in the ’09 and upcoming ’10 seasons.
Only Steve Moore is left from that class, a three-star lineman that has played only in a back-up role the last few seasons. The class was basically erased, and it not only affected 2006, but it also had a huge affect on the 2007 class.
The transition from high school to college is most often the most difficult for offensive line recruits. Most programs prefer to have linemen come in and redshirt to spend a season in their strength and conditioning programs. Sometimes linemen are asked to contribute in their second year in the program, but they aren’t typically asked to be starters until their third, fourth and fifth years.
Since 2006 was basically a lost class for the Longhorn’s along the offensive line, three of the four 2007 recruits were asked to contribute as freshman and skip the chance to redshirt during their first year on campus. All four of the recruits in the ’07 class were blue-chippers, but they have developed at a slower pace than anticipated. This can largely be attributed to the lack of a redshirt year.
The lack of prospects left from the ’06 class, coupled with the slow development of the ’07 class has been felt the last two seasons. Add in the fact that one lineman at most will be drafted from the ’08 and ’09 units, and it becomes easier to understand why the ground game has failed to get going.
While Longhorn fans have heard Mack promise a new and improved running game numerous times over the last few springs, there may be some more substance behind his latest pledge. The Longhorns have brought in bigger and more physically imposing, elite-level talent along the offensive line over the last few classes. And for the 2011 class that is currently under construction, Mack has gained oral commitment from five of the top prospects from the state of Texas…and he might not be done.
UT’s spring game is coming up on April 4. After a full spring’s worth of workouts and practices, Texas will have the opportunity to show off a more physical ground game through a revamped offense. But since we’ve heard it all from the halls of Belmont before, we’ll most likely have to wait until the season opener, September 4 against Rice to see how different the offense will look.
Until then, Mack…What about the running game?