Young coordinators key to UT design
By Ivan Maisel
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AUSTIN, Texas — Three days before the spring game on Sunday, Texas coach Mack Brown predicted the reaction of the fans who would come to see the new-look Longhorns.
“The coaches are all excited about everybody seeing the new stuff,” Brown said, “and we’re not going to do a lot. The fans will walk out and say, ‘Oh, same old crap.’”
Two new coordinators, three other new assistants and new strength coach Bennie Wylie indicate that Brown reacted to Texas’ 5-7 record last year as if he were a guest on TLC’s “What Not to Coach.” Brown opened his football closet and cleared the racks.
Brown hired 37-year-old Manny Diaz from Mississippi State to replace Will Muschamp, the coach-in-waiting who renounced his place in the ascension order to become head coach at Florida. Brown hired 34-year-old Bryan Harsin from Boise State to redesign the offense.
The age of the coaches is reflected in more than their new philosophies. “A booster asked [Brown's wife] Sally and I if we’d bring all the staff to a cocktail party,” Brown said. “They’re so many young children — there may be 13 12-and-under — that Sally said, ‘No cocktail party. We’ll come for a picnic.’”
One mediocre season did not dilute the Texas brand. One bowl season spent at home humbled the Longhorns but the noblesse in Austin still act oblige. If the free fall of last season is considered an aberration, the work-in-progress of next season is a gamble on youth and, in the case of the offense, a tacit acknowledgment that the Longhorns had been passed by.
Brown long has favored an early spring practice. However, even as new coordinators implemented new schemes and the new coaches attempted to blend with the old, the Longhorns staff had only three weeks after recruiting to prepare. The coaches had almost no meeting time with the players. Philosophy, expectations, scheme, all of it would be dumped onto the Longhorns from the moment spring football began. They had to drink from the fire hose.
“I thought it might be complete chaos this spring,” Brown admitted, “and even considered backing spring practice up. I made a decision that it would create more urgency. We needed to get right back to work after last year.”
By hiring Harsin, Brown hoped to acquire the Boise State offense that led the FBS in scoring from 2000 to 2009 (41.4 points per game). No one is more immersed in it.
Harsin went to Capital High in Boise. He enrolled at Boise State in 1995, played football for five seasons and, save for one season at Eastern Oregon, has been on the coaching staff ever since. He was 14 when he started dating his wife Kes. Their three children were born in Boise, and their parents still live in Boise.
Harsin recalled being in the backseat of the car with Kes on his interview visit and seeing Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and the Moncrief Football Complex last December for the first time. That’s when it really hit him. All those overtures he had turned down to stay home. That decade he had spent coaching with and for Chris Petersen.
“OK,” he thought. “You’re actually going to walk into this place and see what it’s all about.”
Brown took the coach out of Boise. He and the players hope not to take the Boise out of the coach.
“Watching the Statue of Liberty in the  Fiesta Bowl,” Texas fifth-year running back Fozzy Whittaker said, “seeing the fake punt against TCU [in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl], and seeing some of the reverse passes, and double passes and all their crazy formations, you know it would be interesting to be part of an offense like that and just have the creativity to go out and do it and make it work. Coach Harsin brings that to us.”
Diaz, unlike Harsin, has been more the typical itinerant coach. He spent last season at Mississippi State, the four years before that at Middle Tennessee. He comes from the Bobby Bowden coaching tree, a disciple of longtime Seminoles assistant Chuck Amato, for whom he coached six seasons at NC State.
“Every job I’ve been to,” Diaz said, “I’ve either been part of a first-year staff, or last year at Mississippi State, Dan [Mullen, the head coach] had been there one calendar year before I got there. Mack’s been here for so long, but it feels almost like a first-year staff because there is so much new. We’re still going to be Texas, and the boss is still the same. But it has a little bit of the same type of feel when it’s a total do-over.”
Diaz is so active on the practice field that he wears cleats, which Brown professes not to have seen before in four decades in the game.
“Manny’s in better shape than probably any of the players,” Brown said. “He sprints to every drill. He doesn’t beat them. But he does sprint.”
The attitude, if not the athleticism, is reflected in Diaz’s philosophy: attack, move upfield and attack some more. For players who have been taught to read blocks and react to what they see before them, the transition takes a lot of time.
“With muscle memory,” defensive tackle Kheeston Randall said, “you think you’re doing it, but you’re not. It’s totally different. But in the long run it will be more enjoyable because we’ll be able to make more plays.”
Linebacker Emmanuel Acho described the play when the light bulb clicked on for him.
“A coach will call a play, and if you’re not used to it, you’re not sure it will work. We had a scrimmage last Saturday. Coach Diaz always tells the linebackers to back up, like eight yards back on the goal line. We’re used to playing five yards, four yards from the goal line, trying to be closer knowing that you’re trying to protect your goal line.
“He said, ‘If you back up, you have more time to get downhill and see where the gap is going to be.’ Me and Keenan [Robinson] decided to back up and play eight yards back. The offense ran the ball and we stuffed them, tackled them for a loss. Coach Diaz said, ‘See what happens when you listen to me?’”
Harsin took one wall of the offensive staff room and had it covered in whiteboard. Last Thursday, that board was covered with the names of two dozen or so formations, each with a list of plays beneath it. Black ink represented plays the team knew. Green ink stood for plays being learned. Some formations had more than 10 plays, some a handful.
Without the time to explain why, for instance, the offense uses so much presnap motion, the Texas coaches have had to wait for the players to learn by doing.
“Eventually, two or three times of doing it, they start to see how it affects the play, how it might affect the defense, those types of things,” Harsin said. “They start to understand, ‘OK, I see why this is important.’ Really, it was this week. You start to hear guys talking to each other, talking to the coaches. ‘You know, you could do this out of that formation, too.’ So you can see it is starting to make sense to them.”
Harsin has focused so much on teaching the offense that he has refused to divulge which of the Longhorns’ four quarterbacks — junior Garrett Gilbert, last year’s starter, sophomore Case McCoy, redshirt freshman Connor Wood or early enrollee David Ash — has an edge, even to the head coach.
“I will ask him sometime, ‘Whaddya think?’” Brown said of Harsin.
“He’ll say, ‘Coach, I think we’re learning.’ He’s not ready to start choosing. I think that’s been healthy for the kids.”
It’s hard to know what the quarterbacks think. Brown made them off-limits to the media.
Just as all of the players are beginning to understand the new schemes, spring practice has ended. Both Diaz and Harsin stressed that the Longhorns will have to improve between now and the first week of August. They will have to do so by watching video and conducting self-directed seven-on-seven workouts.
The hard work, it seems, is just beginning.