There’s an art to figuring out how to learn details about different teams at Big 12 Media Days. Coaches are generally fairly cagey, primarily looking to avoid taking damage rather than accomplishing anything particularly positive or God forbid saying something illuminating about the team.
Players vary with some obviously overly cautious to avoid saying anything revealing about the team and others less guarded and thus much more interesting. From talking to different players around the league and to the Longhorn representatives, I was able to feel out a sense of where the league and the team feels they fit in the 2016 Big 12 pecking order.
The rest of the league isn’t really expecting anything big just yet
Kliff Kingsbury was impressed by the young Texas cornerbacks but was cautious in proclaiming that Gilbert’s arrival was going to bring any immediate breakthroughs on offense. Most players seemed more struck by the Oklahoma Sooners and what they were capable of than what they’ve seen from Texas over the last two years.
Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that much of the league hasn’t dealt with Chris Warren yet and some of the league hasn’t even had to tackle D’Onta Foreman very often.
The most enjoyable part of 2016 will likely be watching the horrifying reality of the Texas power running game dawn on opposing teams as they realize how difficult it will be to defend Warren in the veer and shoot concept with Buechele at the helm. Everyone is used to facing Baylor and having to deal with the problems presented by Shock Linwood working against a reduced front, which is no small problem, but big Chris Warren takes that issue to an entirely new level.
The Texas offense is excited to run the dang ball
I asked big Kent Perkins if they were excited to push people around this coming year in the run game and he lit up.
“I’m very excited and I know my boys are excited to. We’ve got this different vibe like we head-hunters, we ready to take some heads off.”
Perkins’ eyes widened and he came alive to have a chance to talk about this as opposed to questions about “has Charlie changed” or “can I confuse you into accidentally telling me who the QB will be?” There’s clearly genuine excitement on the team about loosing the dogs of war and seeing the years of hard work and low reward pay off for the line.
I asked Perk if this was a “Texas pay back tour” kind of season and he said, “we want teams afraid to play us.” He came as close as he could in his own humble way to saying, “you just wait, we’re putting it together now and we’re going to hurt some people…” It’s clear that another year in a power run game system with the same group of linemen has the confidence level up.
Honorary “6th OL” Caleb Bluiett also expressed a genuine excitement to initiate violence against the rest of the league, “the Big 12 has been more of a pass, spread league and not a power, run downhill type conference. That’s one play I love, is power. I get to maul the guy in front of me, I get to grab him and try to put him in the dirt. That’s it.”
This is exactly the kind of tight end Sterlin Gilbert is looking for in this system and the pieces look to be in place for the Longhorn run game to do real damage next season.The players can feel it.
Charlie got this team more fired up to play Oklahoma than any other team on the schedule and it came from insisting that they were going to run the ball down their throats. Indeed, that was just about the only thing that Texas was good at last year. Passing defense? Undisciplined and occasionally overmatched. Run defense? Same story. Passing game? Non-existent. Special teams? Prone to disaster.
But Texas could run the football and that approach jives really well with Charlie’s overall emphasis on physicality. In 2016, that strength should only increase while the rest of the team starts to shore up the weaker spots.
I think the Texas defense is still a year away
Dylan Haines was asked several questions about who the leaders were on this team and what leadership looks like. He tended to name himself as more of a “lead by example” type that wasn’t particularly vocal and Malik in a similar fashion.
To me this begged the question of who the emotional leaders of this team are that can keep guys riled up, passionate, and afraid to let down their teammates. Haines answered that Paul Boyette was the guy that tends to fit into this role, and this is why I think the 2016 Longhorns are still a year or so away.
For instance, Boyette dropped the phrase “unfortunately I’ve been stuck at nose” when discussing playing in the 4-2 front vs the 3-3-5. Boyette is probably an underrated player but he’s often miscast in this team trying to eat blocks or play a major role when he’s really more of a rotational guy inside. He doesn’t excel at fighting double teams and simply isn’t a major impact player in his role within this system.
Will he command enough respect on this team to be able to keep the troops rallied all year?
To that point, later on Tim Cole was also by Haines as a team leader. The fact of the matter is that ideally your team leaders are upperclassmen and star players, otherwise they can struggle to truly command the respect of the team. Paul Boyette, Dylan Haines, and Tim Cole are all major assets to the program that are bought in and excellent examples to the younger players, but can any of them command the full respect of the team?
A theme to watch for in 2016 will be if one of these upperclassmen plays well enough to really galvanize the unit or if one of the younger guys like Malik, Davante Davis (doubtful, the silencer is apparently pretty silent himself), Holton Hill, Kris Boyd (maybe), or Anthony Wheeler starts to grow into a leader over the course of the year.
Haines in his own words
I asked Haines about his remarks last year regarding the lack of preparation by some of the DBs on the roster and he began to outline the importance of the mental side in football.
“That’s something that I take a lot of pride in with my game, just knowing what to do. People like to say, ‘the ball always comes to you,’ well there’s a reason for that. Defense is about putting yourself in the right position to make a play. If you can do that it doesn’t matter how talented you are, you can make plays. Eighty percent of the game is mental, people may not agree about that but eighty percent of the game is just knowing what to do.”
Knowing what you’re doing is easier at some positions than others and it’s both very complicated and very important at safety. Haines knows what he’s doing and has just enough athleticism that good things tend to happen as a result.
Boyette, Haines, and Cole are all guys that can be valuable role players on a great or even elite unit. They each have some valuable skills combined with a willingness to work hard and do what it takes to fit into a team concept, every team needs guys like that. There’s little doubt that playing with these upperclassmen will be valuable to the younger guys as they look to learn what it takes to be successful college football players at the highest level.
The problem is that Texas still doesn’t have guys with the talent to define the team’s identity and the leadership skills to take advantage of that position to lead the rest of the squad on defense.
In 2016, Texas has a physical run game with upperclassmen prominently involved, a passing game with unbelievable potential but also an unbelievable lack of experience, and a defense led by upperclassmen role players and dependent on up and coming talents in the underclassmen ranks.
It’s probably fair to expect that this team will show flashes of total dominance interspersed with head-scratching moments where they give away games thanks to inexperience and lack of cohesion.
The bright side is that the rest of the league is ill equipped to handle a team with Texas’ talent levels properly executing a power run game. Charlie will be able to hang his hat on the run game but the establishment of a defensive identity and the shoring up of the passing game and special teams will be critical to making the most of this team’s potential.
That’s progress, for sure, whether it will be enough to keep Charlie around for his chance at a major breakthrough in 2017 will be fun to observe.