|The team has reported and is practicing. Saturday afternoon Mack Brown had his annual press conference to kick things off. It mostly went as expected, but there was a surprise or two. Some of the highlights if you missed it:
* Quite possibly made up by me
I was really surprised to hear the news on both Harris and Norton. I don’t know what to think about Sherrod Harris. Maybe he’s just ready to move on. Buy why now, before his senior year? He has worked his tail off for 4 ½ years and now, when he gets the media guide attention afforded to a senior and the spotlight on Senior Day in November he walks away? It isn’t about playing time, otherwise he would have moved on long ago. It doesn’t add up to me. I think GG is going to miss having an older guy who has been to every stadium and seen every scenario on the sideline to talk with, but it is what it is. Best of luck, Sherrod. And welcome back, Jared. I was nearly 100% certain that Jared Norton would never see the field as a Texas Longhorn again and, at one point this summer, I was told he probably wouldn’t come back to the team. I’m glad that was wrong and I am happy he is getting another shot. The guy is a sledgehammer in the middle against the run and I hope he can get back to where he was before the injury. I was also surprised to hear that all the freshmen are eligible. There wasn’t anyone I was specifically worried about, but you just never know with players that aren’t on campus yet.
Disappointing to hear about DJ Grant and Blaine Irby. Grant blew out his knee last fall camp and is still dealing with the rehab and hasn’t been cleared for contact yet. He will be back; it is just a matter of time. I expect it to be before the season starts, but he will be behind the tight ends out there now. It was encouraging to hear that Irby was participating in 7-on-7 drills, running and catching the ball. He moves well in one direction, but the cutting is where he is still limited. I don’t expect him to be cleared for contact this year, but as horrific as that knee injury was it is fantastic that he is walking and running and even on the path to come back. Tray Allen better get himself together quickly or Mason Walters is going to take his job. To a man, the o-line says Walters is as nasty as anyone that has come through the program in recent memory, and with his talent he could easily slide into that starting guard spot that the senior Allen locked down when Walters was out.
Now word comes late Monday that Tray Allen has reinjured that foot and will miss all of two-a-days, so Walters is the man with no experience behind him. Someone needs to fill that second team hole and that is exactly what camp is for, to figure who wins these jobs and who breaks away from the pack. I’ll have more on camp as info comes out. Let’s get to it.
This week we break down the Big 12 South and where I think everyone sits in the race for the division title. Next week we break down the Horns as we prepare for GAME ONE! As always, we go worst to first.
Big 12 South
For the first time that I can recall, everyone in the Big 12 South has questions. How will Tommy Tubberville handle the spread this time? How is Robert Griffin’s knee? Can Oklahoma State’s defense carry an inexperienced offense? How is the Texas offensive line? Ditto for ou. Can Texas A&M stop anyone on defense? The ability to address these areas of concern could determine a bowl game, or better, and the inability to address these concerns could be disastrous. So who looks like they are addressing their concerns the best as fall camp starts? We start at the bottom and work up, and for the first time EVER the first school we talk about is not Baylor.
Just about everyone you’ve heard of from Oklahoma State is gone. Quarterback Zac Robinson, tackle Russell Okung and wide out Dez Bryant are off to the NFL and Mike Gundy returns only eight of 22 starters in 2010. Last year was supposed to be the year the Pokes broke through, but Dez Bryant got suspended and Zac Robinson and Kendall Hunter were injured and they finished 9-4 and in the Cotton Bowl. As for this year, the goal should be making a bowl. Any bowl.
The good news is Kendall Hunter is back. He rushed for 382 yards and only one score last year after hurting his ankle. When he was healthy in 2008 he led the Big 12 in rushing. He is healthy now. He should be the centerpiece of the offense with a new quarterback. At 5-foot-8 and weighing 195 pounds, he can get tough yards inside and has the ability and suddenness to break it outside and get downfield. Can he carry an offense? He made defenses pay in 2008 when they focused on Dez Bryant and tight end Brandon Pettigrew, but he doesn’t have those first round NFL talents around him now. He needs the passing game to open things for him.
The new starter at quarterback is Brandon Weeden, who backed up Zac Robinson last year. Weeden is a former New York Yankees minor league pitcher and at 26 he has the ability to lead a young team. He has a big arm and at 6-foot-4, 224 pounds he certainly looks the part. He’ll make some throws, but he will not be able to take pressure off Hunter with his feet like Zac Robinson did, because he is a classic drop back passer and not the dangerous dual threat Robinson was. Who will he throw it to? I have no idea. I didn’t see anyone last year that was remotely scary at the wide out spot. Maybe they were in shock with Bryant out and they will develop, but I don’t know if they have enough talent outside. They will certainly get their shot as defenses focus on shutting down Hunter and try to force the passing game into action. With one returning starter up front, the line will need time to gel, and with a new quarterback they won’t get it. I expect Hunter will be very good, but this offense is going to struggle with defenses that can shut down the run.
With the new guys on offense the hope is the defense will be able to carry the day. Last year they were decent defensively, ranking fourth in the conference in total yards at 332 and fourth in points allowed at 21.7. The problem is six of their top seven tacklers are gone. Uga Chinasa returns up front and the defensive line should be pretty good, but the back seven is pretty much brand new and the way Big 12 offenses throw the ball I don’t see how they improve on their 236 yards per game allowed through the air last season. The secondary starts three new players and their two deep features zero seniors, so the future is bright. But “future” means later, not right now. Similar to Texas in 2008, the new secondary is going to give up some big plays and make mistakes and the hope is the front seven will be able to get enough pressure on the offense to off-set that (which Texas did in 2008). They won’t be able to consistently, meaning sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t. I see some games early on where they will look very good, but then the better offenses in the Big 12 are going to have their way with them.
The kickers are pretty good, but the coverage was abysmal last season (24 yards per return allowed) and Perrish Cox and Dez Bryant aren’t there to return kicks anymore. Oklahoma State had some of the better special teams in the country the last few years, but now they are starting over. It seems to be the theme across the board for them.
Can they go bowling? Sure. The non-conference is very tame and they should be 3-0 going to A&M on September 30th and 4-1 going into Tech October 16th. That means they need to win two of their last seven games to get to the post-season. The problem is Texas, ou, and Nebraska are three of those games, and I don’t see them winning any of them. I also don’t see them beating Baylor, meaning a bowl will come down to road trips to Kansas and K-State. They could win them both, but I don’t think they do. No bowl in ’10 for you, Pokes. Tell my friend I said “hello.” Just don’t make eye contact with her.
It’s all about the rehabbed knee in Waco. If quarterback Robert Griffin is healthy, Baylor is going bowling. The energy at Baylor is high and for good reason. Robert Griffin is back on the field, the wide outs are fast and the Bears skip Mizzou and Nebraska in the North, getting home dates with K-State, Kansas and a roadie to Colorado. All three of those games are winnable and I expect, with a healthy Griffin, Baylor to be favored in all of them. The Bears should be 4-1 coming to Dallas to play Tech on October 9th and could be 6-2 when they travel to Austin on October 30th. I know you are probably saying, “Whoa! Tap the brakes on the Baylor bus,” but all of that could happen. If that knee is right.
Robert Griffin is a terrific quarterback that has the same ability to make plays and elevate his teammates that Vince Young had. Now, I didn’t compare him to VY, but I think he has some of the same traits and the potential to take his team to a new place. For Texas that was the National Championship, for Baylor that means post-season play. In 2008 as a true freshman he threw for 2,091 yards and 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He completed 60% of his passes and set an NCAA record with 209 consecutive passes without an interception to start a career. He did all this as a true freshman. At Baylor. He also rushed for 843 yards and 13 touchdowns that year. Again, at Baylor. His ability to run opens up the offense for the zone read, allowing running backs Jay Finley and Jarred Salubi more room to operate and putting more pressure on the defense. If the defense focuses entirely on the running game, Griffin has proven he can burn them with his arm. His favorite target is junior Kendall Wright, who exploded on the scene with Griffin in ’08 and had 66 catches for 740 yards and four scores last year with RGIII out. At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, he isn’t going to overpower many defensive backs, but when he gets off the line watch out, because most won’t be able to catch him. The Bears need someone to replace both David Gettis and Ernest Smith, the team’s second and third-leading receivers last season, but Lanear Sampson and Terrance Williams have played and know the offense. They will benefit from the attention Wright gets, at least enough to take some pressure off of him. I think they are in decent hands at wide out.
They lose two starters up front and are shuffling the line-up as the starting tackle moves inside to center. Everyone has experience, but with guys moving around to different spots it tells me they aren’t sold on who should be where. While they aren’t going to remind anyone of the early 90’s Dallas Cowboys offensive line, they are going to be good enough to open holes for the running game, and the elusive Griffin is going to make those 31 sacks allowed last season go down. An athletic, running quarterback can make any offensive line look pretty good, so expect Griffin to do that for his line.
While the offense is going to be fine, the defense needs to make strides and carry their weight. Last season they ranked 94th nationally in total defense and were dead last in the conference in rush defense, allowing 178 ypg. They were slightly better in scoring defense, ranking ninth in the Big 12 at 27.2 points-per-game allowed. That isn’t good, but it is better than last, right? They lose four of their five top tacklers off the defense, including mainstays Joe Pawelek and safety Jordan Lake. They must improve on their 18 sacks last season, which was 11th in the Big 12. They have size up front with 355-pound Phil Taylor, a Penn State transfer, but so far Taylor & Co. have been mild in the pass rush department. The defensive line did a decent job of allowing the linebackers room to operate, and with another year of experience under their belt I expect them to be better this year. The starting linebackers, led by Antonio Johnson, aren’t as talented as they were last year, but the unit is deeper and that should equate to similar production. The secondary is going to be lightning fast, but not very experienced. It doesn’t matter if four Pro Bowlers are starting back there; if the Bears cannot get a pass rush offenses will eat them up. Baylor’s defense is going to keep them in the lower tier of the Big 12 because they can’t stop anyone running the ball and can’t get to the quarterback.
The special teams have Terrance Williams returning kicks and he is terrific, averaging 24.1 yards per return on kick offs, which made him third best in the conference in 2009. Unfortunately the converse is the case when it comes to covering kicks. They are terrible, allowing a league-worst 39.3 yards per return. The punter is solid and the kicker is new, replacing a bad kicker from last year. The Bears need to capitalize on anything Williams can give them on a return, because field goal attempts aren’t going to win too many games for Baylor.
Like I said above, this all about Robert Griffin’s knee. If he stays healthy I see Baylor playing on ESPN sometime around Christmas, maybe in Fort Worth. If he isn’t, they aren’t playing anywhere and are looking to next year. I think he does, and I think they will be bowling.
I read a tidbit from Chip Brown on Orangebloods.com that said Mike Leach made Taylor Potts wear tape on his jersey with “Nick” written on it in practice because he thought Taylor was a girl’s name. Good lord, I can’t imagine why anyone would play for that guy. Tommy Tubberville is in and everyone is excited about the future of Texas Tech football. Things are going to be different and don’t let anyone tell you they won’t be. Tubs is an old school coach that isn’t going to pop off in the media about A&M’s fondness for the military, give college sportswriters dating tips, make his team have a cookies-and-milk party when the lose, etc. He is going to be fairly cliché. He is going to play defense and run the ball. He won’t be going for it on 4th & 7 from his 23 in the second quarter, or screaming down referees in the post-game show. He is going to bring that Auburn-style to the plains and that is a good thing. Fundamentally his approach has greater success, but I don’t know if he has the personnel to do that this year.
Officially Tech will run the spread with former Troy offensive coordinator Neal Brown in charge. They want to run a “fast break” offense similar to oklahoma’s in 2008. I think it will start that way, but like I said, Tubs is an old school coach and I have a feeling that the first time it stalls he will back off some and go to a more traditional approach. His track record with the spread has not been good. In fact, you could argue that the spread was the last nail in his Auburn coffin. We’ll see if it works.
The big difference between what Tech will run this year and what they ran last year is how much they will run ball. Expect to see more from the terrific Baron Batch between the tackles. Batch led the team with 884 yards rushing and a league-high 14 touchdowns last season and should see more traditional runs off tackle and up the middle this year. Because he plays running back at Tech, he has great hands as well, totaling 395 yards and one score on 57 receptions. At 5-foot-10, 204 pounds with 4.4 speed, he has the tools to be a star. We all know Tech has receivers to burn, led by Detron Lewis, and we know what they bring to the table. The quarterback spot will be interesting because both Nick and Steven Sheffield are as injury-prone as anyone in the conference. Potts, who has NFL size, and Sheffield, the Pflugerville native, traded the starting job last year when they each got hurt. I think the team wants to follow Sheffield, but Potts has more physical tools to make plays. I expect them to flip flop again this fall, but watch for Potts to start the year with Sheffield out last spring with a foot injury.
The key to this offense will be the line. In the past the line had three-yard splits and pass blocked as well as anyone. They were giant, mammoth men that were 360-plus pounds, making them mountains that defense linemen had to run a long way around to get to the quarterback. Now with this up-tempo style these huge guys won’t make it to halftime without passing out. That means they either have to slim down significantly or leaner, more basketball-type linemen will see the field. And this is where I can see the offense becoming an issue for Tubberville. You can’t duplicate an entire game in practice and they won’t know which linemen can run this system for 60 minutes. Maybe all of them can. Maybe none of them can. I remember watching the ou offensive line in 2008 in the second half of the Texas game. They were absolutely gassed. What happens if Tech gets a lead? What happens if it stalls out? What happens if sacks start piling up in the fourth quarter because the line is tired? I see Tubberville slowing it down significantly to eat the clock, changing the offense. I see potential issues galore with this system. Maybe I’m wrong.
Defensively Tech switches to the 3-4. This will immediately raise the stock of nose guard Colby Whitlock, who is terrific. At 6-foot-2, 287 pounds, Whitlock is a fireplug in the middle that can hold the line and control the interior, allowing middle linebacker Bront Bird to make tackles inside. Linebacker Brian Duncan, the team’s leading tackler last season, will move to a hybrid spot at defensive end/linebacker. The staff wants the 6-foot-1, 240 pounder to use his speed at the line of scrimmage to make plays in the backfield. Watch for him to be stunting and blitzing from the outside. With the loss of 34 of the team’s 41 sacks to graduation/the NFL, the move to the 3-4 was done to get more athletic linebackers in places to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. That means that the staff does not have a lot of confidence in anyone on the defensive line not named Colby Whitlock. Jamarr Wall is a Dallas Cowboy and a redshirt freshman will start in his place at cornerback. Three starters return in the secondary, but they must improve on their 11th ranked -.46 turnover ratio in the Big 12 last year. The new staff wants a blitzing, stunting aggressive defense that I think will look like K-State’s in the 90’s when it goes right.
You know who the Tech punter is? Russell Erxleben. Yes, he is related. The placekicker is the guy that won a halftime contest and came out of the stands to kick. Doesn’t that sound like it should be at A&M? Isn’t that 12th man? And this year I expect they will be used for special teams. I don’t think Leach took specials seriously and it showed. Expect them to be solid across the board now.
A new coach means new energy and you will see that at Tech. They will be more fundamentally sound, but I don’t think they have the personnel in place to do what they want to do just yet. I also think you will see what a great play caller and adjuster Mike Leach was while at Tech.
The Aggies are excited. Whoop! They beat Tech last year, almost-didn’t-run-out-of-time against Texas and were 18 or 19 plays away from beating Georgia in the bowl game. They have the media’s top quarterback returning with an offensive arsenal and they are about to make a run at the Big 12 South. The Ags are going to return to dominance and send the sips and the okies back to the middle tier as the Wrecking Crew seeks and destroys .… Sorry, got a little too into my Aggie-fan character.
I kid because I care. That isn’t true. I just kid. Anyway, the Aggie offense is going to be excellent. The key piece is quarterback Jerrod Johnson. The 6-foot-5, 243-pound senior led the Big 12 in total offense last year and was third nationally averaging 314 yards per game. He completed 59% of his passes, going 296-497 with 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His attempts and td’s were both league highs. He can sling it anywhere on the field and has the legs and athletic ability make plays with his feet when things break down. Johnson is a great talent that is going to play in the NFL and I expect him to have even more big games this year. His favorite two targets are Jeff Fuller and Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill, also the backup quarterback, led the team 46 catches, finishing with 609 yards and four touchdowns. At 6-foot-4, 216 pounds he reminds me of Kerry Meier at Kansas. A great athlete with great hands, he gets open and uses his size to make plays. Jeff Fuller is ready for the NFL now. He was a star on a bad team in 2008 and then broke his leg in week two of his sophomore year last season. Many thought he was out for the season, but he missed about five games and still finished with 41 catches and 568 yards, including the torching of the Texas defense in November. He has NFL size at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds and showed how tough he was last year, working through a broken leg and shining despite how the team is doing. Uzoma Nwachukwu (a team-high 708 yards receiving last year) will come off the bench and be the third receiver and deep threat, showing his speed with the team-best 17.7 yards per catch average. Going into the season, A&M definitely has the best passing game in the South.
Their running game isn’t bad either. With the two-headed monster of Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael, the A&M ground has the potential to burn defenses too worried about the passing game. At 5-foot-10, 196 pounds each they are interchangeable. Michael is a bit more complete and polished as a running back, but they both have excellent speed and vision. They combined for 1,601 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns with 10 from Michael. The ground game isn’t the focus but both guys have the ability to hit a home run with the ball in their hands.
Can they block well enough to make the ground game more of a threat? We will see. They only return two starters up front and it seems they are counting on a true freshman to start at tackle. Yikes. On one site where depth charts are listed they don’t even have a center on there. It just says “—.” That can’t be good, can it? Like I said about Baylor, a mobile quarterback can make an offensive line better. I think that will be the case for A&M and, while they are going to have their struggles with better defenses, the offense will be good.
The defense will determine how far the Aggies go. I, for one, think they will take a step forward this fall under new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. They were dead last against the pass, 11th against the rush and last in scoring defense in the Big 12 last year. So it has to get better, doesn’t it? DeRuyter comes in from Air Force and brings the 3-4 with him. I don’t see any stars on the defensive line but they have some talent at linebacker, led by Von Miller and his NCAA-leading 17 sacks from 2009. You probably don’t know the other starting three lb’s, but they are pretty athletic and should help improve on the 11th ranked rush defense.
As for the secondary, I don’t know how they can be worse. I’m sure they can be, but they will have to be creative to make it so. A new dc is going to energize everyone and that will show in the secondary, where they will be better but still far from good.
Randy Bullock is solid and Cyrus Gray can make plays when returning kicks, but the punting and kick coverage are both terrible. Have you noticed how many times I’ve said that in the Big 12 South preview? It seems everyone in the conference stinks at covering kicks.
There is no reason A&M shouldn’t be 4-0 when they play Arkansas, and the fact that Nebraska and ou are in College Station will give them a puncher’s chance. I see improvement and a better bowl.
More people are killed by bees than by sharks. Did you know that? But bees aren’t interesting. If they were, there would be Bee Week on the Discovery Channel. Most sharks live to be about 30 years old, but the spiny dogfish and the whale shark have life spans that can reach more than 100. The Dermal denticles that cover a shark’s skin are so tough and hard that before the invention of sandpaper, shark skin was used to polish wood. Let’s see a bee do that.
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From The Stands – Trey McLean
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