FROM THE STANDS
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT UT SPORTS
By TREY McLEAN
•Congratulations to the Alabama Crimson Tide for winning their second National Title in the last three years. They absolutely dismantled the No.1 LSU Tigers in their own backyard Monday night, shutting them out and making them look completely inept offensively… Well, Alabama did most of it, but LSU also helped.
The Tiger O was awful and dropped snaps, procedure penalties; dropped snaps and amazingly awful shovel passes were not the product of the Tide defense as much as massive mental lapses by LSU. How in the word does that happen? The hype machine, that’s how.
The same reason you love ESPN is the same reason your team can become overly confident and too comfortable. As they do with one team every year, the Mother Ship bombarded us with daily tales of how great this LSU team was. Talking heads like Tony Kornheiser came on the network and said LSU should and would be No.1 and at least win a piece of the National Title regardless of the BCS Championship Game outcome because they had already proven themselves. They told us that LSU was playing at home in the Sugar Bowl, where they had won their last two National Championships, and what a massive home field advantage it would be with all their fans so close. They talked about the obliterations of Oregon, West Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina in the SEC Title Game and, of course, the huge win at Alabama. They debated Alabama’s legitimacy for the rematch, talking about their strength of schedule (or lack thereof) and their completely inept offense in the loss at home to LSU in November. For five weeks we heard all of this, and if we heard all of this, you know the LSU Tigers heard all of this. It’s easy to get caught up in the paparazzi-ness of it all when you hear how good you are every day. And then it cranked up even more with Erin Andrews and ESPN on their busses for the ride to New Orleans from Baton Rouge and Sports Center reporting on the motorcade’s progress like it was a royal wedding. And while the LSU staff was trying to keep everyone dialed in and not thinking about their post-game party plans, Alabama’s staff wasn’t having that trouble. They heard the same stories. They heard about how some didn’t want them there or think they deserved to be there. They heard the Kornheisers say LSU would be the National Champions, at least in part, regardless of who won. And just like Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl and Florida the following year, they didn’t like it one bit. It put a giant chip on the shoulder of a team who has Nick Saban, the definition of a massive chip on your shoulder, as their head coach. The result was a very excited, very angry and aggressive Alabama team that punched a content, satisfied and arrogant LSU team in the mouth and that LSU team didn’t have the fire, desire or ready-to-fight attitude to respond.
Never underestimate the power of being scorned, because it can be a powerful thing when channeled effectively. Well done, Tide.
Those are two of your divisional opponents next year, Ags. Don’t you have a new quarterback starting as well? Okay, then.
Before we move forward and talk about what could, should and will happen for the Texas Longhorns in 2012, let’s take a look back at 2011 and see what went right and what did not. I’ll do my best to keep this thing under a novel, so I’ll break it down into two parts: offense and defense/special teams. Let’s start with the offense.
2011 Texas Longhorns: A Review
I could spend days breaking down everything from the last football season, so I’ll do my best to be brief. The Horns went from 5-7 to 8-5 with a bowl win and some super moments. There were also some opposite-of-super moments and plenty in between. Let’s walk back and see how it all went. Some highlights and lowlights in a very general sense from the offensive side of the ball. The titles are pretty self-explanatory:
• New staff. Brian Harsin, Stacy Searels, Darryl Wyatt and Bennie Wylie came in and began to remake and remold this offense. Things had gotten stale and the fans were in near revolt demanding a change. Mack Brown pulled the trigger, releasing his entire offensive staff save Major Applewhite and Bruce Chambers. Harsin brought his wide open Boise State attack and the fans were excited. It was a good day.
• Team chemistry. In 2010 was brutal. Guys had their own agenda, many of the coaches had lost control over their units and there was a general lack of trust among the players. You could see it at times on the sideline and even if you didn’t see it, you could feel it. The upside to a terrible season and a new staff is urgency it creates in the team. The senior class of 2011 took it upon themselves to turn things around and you heard names like Fozzy Whittaker, Cody Johnson and David Snow emerge as the “this is how things are going to be” guys. They did it with their words and actions. Cody Johnson, once the starting tailback, was moved to fullback to make room for the youngsters and fifth-year senior Fozzy Whittaker took a completely new role in the new offense. Both guys embraced their new roles enthusiastically, which is not something that previous class probably would have done. That’s how a team is formed, and that’s how seniors lead by example. It took hold: look no further than the honor to wear “2” the last quarter of the season for the injured Fozzy Whittaker.
• Blaine Irby playing football again.
• The A&M game. Scoreboard forever.
• The future. Everyone is back.
• The quarterback carousel. It wasn’t supposed to be like that.
• 55-17. The 5-0 Horns had moved to No.10 in the polls before the ou game and the offense looked not-ready-for-prime-time
• Whatever happened (or didn’t happen) on the locker room/sideline with Case McCoy.
• The Missouri loss. The Tigers and the Eastern Bloc Prison field cost Texas Fozzy Whittaker and a winnable game.
• Running back injuries. I’ve never seen anything like that.
What did I miss?
You didn’t think we’d stop there, did you? No way. Let’s get into the individual units and how they looked upon further review. I was trying to think of one word or phrase that came to mind when I thought about each unit, so here’s what I came up with:
Unexpected. Texas came into fall with four quarterbacks on the roster. Four months later they went to the Holiday Bowl with just two and according to some stories I heard were very close to having just one. Garrett Gilbert, the starter in 2010, won the job in fall camp and was named the opening day starter. The problem was Texas wasn’t very good in 2010 and GG looked about the same in the first game. He was benched in game No.2 against BYU and backup Case McCoy helped lead the team to the win. McCoy started at UCLA and won that game, too, but the staff decided to rotate McCoy and David Ash at the qb spot to get both young guys ready to play. And while this was going on, the 5-star High School All-American Gatorade Player of the Year, future star of the Texas Longhorns Garrett Gilbert transferred to SMU. This coming on the heels of redshirt freshman Connor Wood transferring to Colorado right before the season started when David Ash passed him up on the depth chart now meant Texas had only two scholarship qb’s and they were both playing. Ash and McCoy had their moments during the “CAsh” rotation and, of course, this created factions of the fan base with some rooting for one over the other (like the yahoo that used to sit behind me. He has moved on to another seat now) and a whole new generation of fans saw some of the Applewhite/Simms sort of nonsense from 10 years ago. Both players got their shot over the last few games, but Texas decided to give the nod to David Ash in the Holiday Bowl. Ash answered the call, looking much more comfortable, and the thought going into spring practice is he is now the starter and will get all the starter reps. I didn’t agree that he was the best option at the time of the bowl game, but I am on board with the staff naming a starter and letting him work through his struggles and settle in as the No.1 guy. It’s something that had to be done and I’m glad they did it. Still, it was a hard process to watch at times and frustrating to see the struggles.
The bottom line is Texas didn’t get enough out of the quarterback in 2011. Oklahoma State, K-State and Missouri were winnable games if the quarterback plays at a high level, but they didn’t. You could even make a case that Baylor was winnable if the quarterback doesn’t turn the ball over. With that being said, I’m OK with how it played out as long as something is learned. Texas mismanaged Case McCoy in 2010 and everyone knows it: he should have played when Gilbert struggled or redshirted instead of wasting a year with no experience earned. David Ash was a true freshman, so with Gilbert leaving the Horns were forced to play two completely inexperienced players at the most critical spot on the field and that inexperience showed. Even still, Texas won 8 games, including that historic win at A&M and a bowl victory.
Inexperience won’t be a problem next year, so Texas will expect and get more out of the qb spot in 2012.
Weird. No one really knew what to expect in the new Brian Harsin scheme at the tailback spot. While his offense is wide open, the foundation of it is running the ball. If his team can run the ball, it opens up all the gadgets and highlight-reel plays. So who would do that? The Horns returned big man Cody Johnson, utility man Fozzy Whittaker and underused DJ Monroe, but starter Tre Newton quit due to concussions in the off-season. Texas added superstar freshman Malcolm Brown and 4-star running back Joe Bergeron to the mix, but they were unknowns. Going into the year it was a running-back-by-committee approach and once the quarterback change took place in week two, running the ball became more of a priority. While the staff worked in Brown, the beneficiary of the new emphasis in the running the ball was Whittaker. Fozzy was often injured in his career, but he was non-stop intensity and effort and Harsin liked that. Against UCLA he found his niche, running the Wildcat for two touchdowns and showing that formation was the “go-to” for guaranteed yards with him running it. Cody Johnson made the move to fullback and opened holes for Malcolm Brown and Whittaker and Monroe had their packages and everything started to settle in. Brown was on track for All Big 12 Honors before injuring himself against Kansas and missing the Texas Tech game. No problem, because Joe Bergeron was ready to go. The other freshman ran over, around and through Tech for 191 yards and three scores on 29 carries, showing to be a little more aggressive and physical than Malcolm Brown. It seemed Texas now had a three-headed monster at tailback… except Bergeron hurt his hamstring. Of course, we didn’t know this in full until the bowl game, but both he and Brown would never be the same the rest of the year. The trip to Mizzou saw Bergeron and Brown both out, the Horns were going to rely on Whittaker to run the ball. This new scheme was working after all as Texas had the 11th best rushing attack in the nation headed to Columbia, averaging 246 yards per game on the ground. Fozzy was an All Big 12 selection and working himself into a high NFL draft pick… And then that stupid horrible field at Missouri blew out his knee as he tried to cut. Now Texas was out of horses at the tailback spot and it showed mightily as they lost that game and the next and had no running game to speak of down the stretch. It was a devastating blow for the entire team as Whittaker was one of the leaders and the rushing attack plummeted to No.21, losing over 40 yards per game, to end the season.
You can’t lose your top three tailbacks, one being your offensive MVP, and expect no consequences and that’s what happened to Texas. Maybe I should have said cataclysmic instead of weird, but the way news of the injuries leaked out and this misinformation about their collective health was one of the more bizarre things I’ve seen covering Texas football. Remember that? It was like watching a spy movie or something. First their healthy, then not, then yes, then no.
If everyone can stay healthy next year, the running game will be dynamite with the addition of Jonathan Gray, who is expected to take over that Fozzy Whittaker role in 2012. I hope an NFL team gives Fozzy a look when he’s healthy, because he’s got a lot of talent and brings a lot to the table.
Wide Outs/Tight Ends
Shipley. Texas should have been a senior-laden unit at wide out with Malcolm Williams, Dan Buckner and Brandon Collins… Remember those guys? They aren’t here anymore and the duties fell to the youngsters. Some of the stories about the terrible team chemistry revolved around the wide out unit in 2010, and new coach Darryl Wyatt needed to get everyone on the same page with each other and the rest of the offense. Guys like John Harris and Chris Jones would need to step into the void left by the departed seniors and Marquis Goodwin, who was training for the Olympics, and help Mike Davis and incoming freshman Jaxon Shipley. Oh, except Harris hurt his foot and was lost for the season and Chris Jones decided to transfer.
That left Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, a true freshman that, while super talented, was brand new. The Horns got a boost right at the beginning of the season when Marquis Goodwin returned to the team, falling literally a millimeter short of making the US Olympic team in the long jump. The bad news, for the team, was that even though he missed the spring and the summer training for track, he worked himself back into the No.2 spot on the team, behind Shipley who quickly took over as the team’s top receiver. The skinny little brother of Jordan can do and did do it all: he finished the season with 607 yards receiving and three scores and was 4-4 for 73 yards with 3 touchdown passes. Shipley was on his way to competing for the Big 12 Freshman of the Year… But then that silly Kansas game again. He went up for a pass and came down awkwardly and twisted his knee. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but it ended up costing him the next three games. Without Jaxon Shipley’s ability to stretch defenses and pressure them on reverses and passes, along with the inconsistencies at the quarterback, the passing game struggled. When he returned, things started to pop again. He and had a great catch against A&M and he and Goodwin were lights out at Baylor, but it was clear the offense really missed him.
I’ve been very critical of Mike Davis this year. He struggled at times to hold on to the ball, yet managed to lead the team with 609 yards on 45 receptions. He was the best wide out on the team in 2010, but he seemed to struggle in the new system at times. He has all the tools to be great and be the perfect complement to Shipley on the other side; he just needs to find his way. Keep grinding, Mike, you can get there.
When you consider all the attrition at the position, the injury to Harris in training camp and the top three guys were a sophomore, a true freshman and a guy that hadn’t played a down of football in 10 months, it’s a wonder how they did as well as they did.
Darryl Wyatt is remolding this unit into a great blockers as well as great receivers and that takes time. They are getting there. I can’t wait to see the freshmen coming in and a healthy Harris to compliment Shipley, Davis and Goodwin. And what about the guys coming in next year? Yikes.
It was great to see Blaine Irby back on the field and DJ Grant had his moments, but Texas needs to find a consistent pass-catching tight end. If they can’t then it’s time to move on and go back to the flex tight end from 2009 because the current model isn’t working.
Reconstruction. It’s no secret that despite the success the team had in the last six years, the offensive line just wasn’t where it needed to be. Guys just didn’t progress and develop like many expected them to and at times they seemed to be satisfied with less-than-dominant play. It was time for a change. Mack Brown brought in the firey Stacy Searels to mold him an SEC-style offensive line that mauls people in the running game.
It wasn’t always perfect and they struggled mightily at times, but remolding an offensive line isn’t something that is done over night. It takes time, a full off-season or two, for these guys to gel and get comfortable. This is the beginning of off-season No.2 and almost everyone is back.
I wanted them to be farther along, but I was probably unrealistic. Next year will be the time to see where they are.
Bennie Wylie is going to have these guys looking the part next year and Stacy Searels will have them in the right place to succeed, but it’s up to the hogs to get there mentally.
Come on, boys. I’ve given you a ton of ideas.
It’s funny when you break it all down like that. It’s a wonder Texas won any games at all, isn’t it? The starting quarterback transferred mid-season, leaving a true freshman and an inexperienced sophomore to take over. The top two tailbacks got hurt and the offensive MVP went down with a season-ending acl. The best receiver missed three games with a knee injury and the most experienced receiver missed every single pre-season practice preparing for the Olympics… And oh yeah, almost everyone had a new position coach and they were all learning a new scheme under Brian Harsin. And while this was going on, a brand new strength and conditioning coach was taking them into new levels of hell that they didn’t even know existed after the previous staff had let things slid. And yet Texas finished 8-5.
The team goal, the realistic goal, was 8 wins and the Horns got there with a dominating win over the Cal Golden Bears and set the table for great things to come next year. The defense did most of the heavy lifting, but the offense had its moments last year. Texas has a lot of offensive pieces coming back and a lot coming in, and with another year under Bennie Wylie and another year in the current systems, expect the goal to be higher in 2012 and expect the offense to be more of a difference maker.
I can’t wait.