The University of Texas ’s Orange-White game this Easter Sunday will mark the end of a month’s worth of practices for the Longhorns. And the scrimmage will be a bittersweet one for Longhorn football fans.
It will be the first time since the BCS National Championship game that they will get to see their team in live action. But it will be the last time that fans will get to see their team before it goes into hibernation for five months.
Sunday will provide most fans with their basis for the upcoming season’s expectations. The fanatics in attendance will analyze every snap and try to convert the spring-time scrimmage into on-field predictions for the fall. And as thousands of fans descend upon DKR Memorial Stadium to take in this last bit of football action, there will certainly be some questions that most would like answered before the end of spring. (Five months is a long-time to dwell on a team’s imperfections, after all.)
So as we head into the final day of Texas football, here are some questions that the Longhorn faithful will hope to have answered by the end of Sunday’s game.
What will the identity of the offense be ?
Gone is Colt McCoy, the all-time winning-est quarterback in NCAA history, and his All-American roommate, Jordan Shipley. So, too, are three senior offensive linemen from last year’s squad. And with a new signal-caller at the helm, with zero starts under his belt, the number one concern on the minds of Longhorn fans everywhere is how will the new offense look?
Every indication to this point is that the Longhorns are 100 percent committed to establishing a powerful, reliable running game. Mack Brown has talked about it. All the players have talked about it. And in the two practices that were open to the public this spring, it appeared as if the ‘Horns were actually trying to make the transition.
“We were going to do some things, we were going to go back under center some, and we've done some things to try to adjust to our talent,” offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “We set things up the last two years for Colt to win the ball game. We'll still throw the ball a great amount of time, but we want to be able to take some pressure off of Garrett with the run game.”
So how often will Garrett Gilbert be under center? And how comfortable will he be in the new offense?
Gilbert’s high school offense ran a similar scheme to what the Texas team did last season, so he has worked strictly from the shotgun since Pop Warner. But despite the offense’s limited time working on taking snaps from under center, they seem to feel good about the progress they have made.
“We’re real comfortable with how our offense has changed,” running back Fozzy Whittaker said earlier this week. “We’re more dynamic, running the ball, and we’re just excited for Sunday.”
How has the offensive line progressed ?
It has been discussed ad nauseum at this point, but the offensive line struggled mightily in 2009. They ranked 61st in the country in rushing offense, and were 96th in the country in sacks allowed. All this from a line that was anchored by three senior starters.
It’ll be important for the Longhorns to establish a balanced offense in 2010. Despite his immense talent, Gilbert will probably need some time to fully grasp the offense and adjust to the speed of the game. So whether last year’s woes were caused by the offensive scheme, attitude, personnel, or a mixture of each, something has to change in 2010 if the Longhorns want to reach their goals.
“What I've seen form the line through 14 practices is that we're doing some things different in the run game to help them a little bit,” said Davis. “I see them really excited about it. I see an edge developing. We're not where we need to be yet, but I'm really pleased with the progress they've made this spring.”
The offensive line from the 2005 national championship team had a mean-streak about them. They could line up across from the defense, tell them what play was coming, and run it successfully because they had the attitude that they weren’t going to be denied. Can this 2010 version develop some of that attitude? Will the shift in offensive philosophy put them in more of a position to succeed? If Davis and his offense can get the running game going, tomorrow’s scrimmage will give Longhorn fans plenty of hope going forward into the new season.
Which wide receiver is going to step up ?
Since Shipley’s bid for a seventh year of eligibility has fallen through, the ‘Horns will need to find a replacement for a guy that caught 116 balls last season for nearly 1500 yards and 13 touchdowns. He will be missed most on third downs, where Shipley was automatic as McCoy’s safety valve. There was rarely a time that he wasn’t able to shake loose from a defender and find himself open just beyond the first-down marker.
Although nobody has stepped up consistently to this point, the talent is there. According to Davis, it seems the two candidates most likely to take a lead role in the offense are Malcolm Williams and John Chiles.
“I think Malcolm Williams has really come on this spring. He is such a big, fast guy that he's hard to press, and he's made a bunch of big plays. We moved (Chiles) to the slot receiver and he has done a heck of a job in there…probably the thing about the receivers is how well John adapted to moving to the slot position.”
Williams’s speed was especially on display in 2008 in Lubbock, where he hauled in four catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns (including a 91-yarder). But he’s been known to drop a crucial pass or two, like in the first half of the national championship game against Alabama. And Chiles, fresh off his move from quarterback to receiver, showed flashes last season. But he really faded down the stretch and was a non-factor in the final three games.
Sophomore Marquise Goodwin could also be a key contributor next season. His stats were far from gaudy as a true freshman, but he made big plays in a win over Oklahoma and in the BCS title game. Goodwin has missed the entire spring due to track obligations, though, so he won’t be participating in the Orange-White scrimmage.
Who will emerge as the defensive star in the Orange-White game ?
Since Coach Will Muschamp has arrived on the 40 acres, there have been very few worries when it comes to the Texas defense. Earl Thomas is gone. So are Lamarr Houston and Sergio Kindle. Yet even with Texas annually losing some key defensive playmakers to the NFL, the influx of talent that Muschamp and the Texas staff brings in affords them the privilege of reloading rather than rebuilding.
It was in last year’s Orange-White scrimmage safety Earl Thomas introduced his elite play-making ability to Longhorn fans. Early in the contest, Thomas jumped in front of a Colt McCoy pass after a great read, and returned the interception for a touchdown. Coaches had been raving about all the progress Thomas had been making in practice and it was finally put on display in the scrimmage.
Just like he did with Thomas, there is little doubt that Muschamp will put his players in a position to succeed. No matter if he has to spin-down a defensive end to the tackle position, Muschamp will have his defense set-up for success.
“We're going to get the best 11 in there and if we have to move a smaller guy, then we'll move and change gaps a little bit more than we have in the first two years,” Muschamp said earlier this week. “We'll fit our scheme to what our players can do.”
Could it be Christian Scott that steps into stardom in place of the departed Earl Thomas? Will Alex Okafor be the next great pass-rusher after Brian Orakpo and Kindle? It’ll be interesting to see if anybody propels themselves into the 2010 season by having a big scrimmage on Sunday.
Coach Brown has mentioned in a few recent interviews that the ‘Horns will use more trick plays during the season. And the Longhorn invited Boise State assistant coaches down to Austin earlier this spring to share their wisdom on some of the unconventional play-calling that the Broncos use so well. Boise State’s gadgetry played a huge role in their upset victory over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, and again in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl over the TCU Horned Frogs.
“I want to have more fun,” Brown told reporters prior to spring practice. “Chris Petersen and Boise have done the best job with it. I want us to have more innovations.”
Will the ‘Horns show off any of the trick plays that they have been working on? I’d expect them to keep most of their plays under wraps until the season starts, but don’t be surprised if a fake field goal or flea-flicker is mixed into the game plan on Sunday.