Power in short supply at Texas with Cody Johnson out
Column by CHUCK CARLTON / The Dallas Morning News
Texas A&M remains one of the most puzzling football programs in the country.
Not as a team, necessarily, though Jerrod Johnson’s struggles still continue to fill my mailbag.
And, no, I don’t see Mike Sherman pulling the plug on Johnson, barring something unforeseen.
We’re talking the program, the whole big picture aspect and everything involved therein.
After A&M dropped to 3-2 with a 24-17 loss to Arkansas, more than few letters like this rolled in:
“For 10 years now, the A&M hierarchy, and specifically Bill Byrne, has preached nothing but patience with regard to the Texas A&M football program. With the fan base, alumni, money, facilities and athletes already on this team, how many more years do I have to be told that I need to be patient before someone can start laying blame at the feet of Byrne and [Mike] Sherman for the incompetence of this program for over a decade? Arkansas is a good team, but FIU and OSU are not.”
OK, the assessment is a little harsh – and Oklahoma State is a solid football team – but the tone and growing foot-tapping impatience is not. As national media have pointed out, A&M has all the built-in advantages that scream top-25 program. But the Aggies haven’t cracked the final AP poll since 1999 (cue up Prince Rogers Nelson).
Aggies want to win, to take a step forward in the Big 12 South and close the gap on Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech this season. For now, the jury is still out.
Byrne, for one, left the Arkansas game feeling progress has been made.
“I came away very impressed with our defense,” Byrne wrote in his weekly blog on the A&M athletics website. “I can’t remember watching A&M defenses flying around like that without going back to the days of Dat Nguyen and the Wrecking Crew of the ’90s. It seems as the game went along we got better and better.”
He blamed the offensive showing in part on poor field position.
“I had a lot of Aggies stop me afterward saying they were at the game last year when the game was essentially over in the second quarter,” Byrne wrote. “This year, we were throwing into the end zone on the last play of the game with a chance to win. I like the direction of our football team.”
This week could be another measure of progress. Missouri is undefeated and ranked 21st nationally. The defense features one of the best front sevens in the Big 12. Yet A&M is favored.
This could be another test, in a season filled with them, of A&M’s ability to take a step forward and get back to where a lot of people think the program should be. A loss means a 3-3 record, which will sound more than vaguely familiar.
Q: The Longhorns don’t have the offensive line to play smashmouth football. And with a lot of Texas high school teams playing a spread offense, kids aren’t being taught power football as much. How long before the Horns scrap this idea and go back to spreading them out?
CARLTON: If you listen to Mack Brown, the experiment with the power running game has been over for a while. Part of it was because of the early-season ankle injury to Cody Johnson, the 250-pound tailback best suited to the downhill running concept. Part of the decision was probably an offensive line that has been running the spread since they’ve arrived on campus. There’s a huge difference between pass blocking the spread and run-blocking in a conventional offense.
For now, the best thing Texas does is throw the ball. That said, if Nebraska has shown any defensive weakness, it’s against the run. Does Texas really want to have Garrett Gilbert throwing the ball 45 times or so at Lincoln with Jared Crick up front and a secondary led by cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard?
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Q: Is Texas running back Tre Newton hurt or just not playing? He did not play at all in the Texas/OU game.
CARLTON: Tre Newton is one those players who has to be 100 percent or close to it to be effective. He was still battling a hip injury the week of the Oklahoma game. Now he’s close to healthy. But Fozzy Whittaker and D.J. Monroe have gotten most of the snaps at tailback in practice and Cody Johnson has gotten back into his short-yardage niche. For the moment, it might be hard for Newton to see meaningful playing time.
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Q: Will Dana Holgorsen remind Texas Tech fans of the old Mike Leach offense Saturday in Lubbock?
CARLTON: Certainly, Dana Holgorsen runs a pretty familiar offense to Red Raiders fans. And it’s having the same effect at Oklahoma State that it did at Texas Tech and at Houston, where Holgorsen’s version of the spread made stars and NCAA leaders out of several quarterbacks. Brandon Weeden, along with receiver Justin Blackmon and running back Kendall Hunter, are reaping the benefits.
Then again, offense isn’t the problem at Texas Tech right now, despite that one stumbling performance against Texas. In games against Iowa State and Baylor, the Red Raiders have averaged 41.5 points and 571.5 yards. Neal Brown’s offense seems to have found a sweet spot.
The trouble is the defense, which ranks 89th nationally.
“Defensively, 500 yards of offense and the points we gave up and we caused no turnovers,” coach Tommy Tuberville said, looking back on the 45-38 win over Baylor. “We can’t continue to do that, we have to make turnovers. We have to cause fumbles and get interceptions. We’re just not making plays that we need to, to get out of jams in certain situations.
“We obviously are missing some players. We were missing three starters in the game defensively some for different reasons. Those things are going to build up on us as we get into this stretch and we are going to have some injuries.”
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Q: What is Mike Sherman doing with the offensive line? There have been a lot of penalties. Is he building depth? What are the options?
CARLTON: A lot of attention is focused on the A&M offensive line. But really Sherman has few options, with just one senior (Evan Eike) on the two-deep. True freshman Luke Joeckel committed a couple of false starts against Arkansas but drew praise from quarterback Jerrod Johnson. Joeckel is playing because he remains Sherman’s best option at the position. Because of its youth, this unit should only get better during the course of the season and especially next year. But you have to live with growing pains.
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Q: What was the deal on Texas Tech’s onside kick against Baylor?
CARLTON: All you need to know about the sheer strangeness of the play is that it has generated a Gundy-esque 3.5 million views on YouTube. Donnie Carona’s kick went 8 yards. While Carona and several teammates looked at the ball, Baylor’s Terrance Ganaway swooped in on the live ball and ran 38 yards for a touchdown. Suffice to say, we probably won’t see that play again this season from Tech, which also had an onside kick return for a touchdown at Iowa State.