Texas narratives for 2014

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By Ian Boyd, Inside Texas Special Contributor
Posted Aug 28, 2014
Copyright © 2019 InsideTexas.com

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David Ash (Photo: Will Gallagher/Inside Texas)

We could spend this week, our first game week in what feels like six years, discussing how Texas matches up with the UNT Mean Green, but we’ve already done that some and frankly, this game isn’t really about UNT.

It’s about Texas playing football again under a new coach in a new season with a dozen competing narratives and themes. There are a few storylines that we are all pretty keyed in on and there are others that have been debated and settled before Texas steps on the field.


For this week, let’s dive into just a few assumptions and questions about this Texas team that will finally be confronted with reality once Texas steps on the field.


Let’s start with the assumptions that everyone takes for granted.


“The Ash proviso”


This concept will be available for your usage this year and can be invoked by inscribing the following notation Ash*at the end of any long-winded prognostication on the Longhorns that assumes the health of David Ash.


Obviously all college football teams set their expectations for the season under the assumption that their starting QB remains healthy all year, but not all college teams have starting QBs who missed most of 2013 with a traumatic brain injury.


Nor do many other college teams feature such young and unpolished back-ups at the position, as do the Longhorns.


There’s not much fun in talking about how this Texas season will go if Ash goes down to injury. Such an event would send Texas hurtling into an alternate universe with its own physical laws, planetary trajectories, and religious systems.


David Ash was a truly effective quarterback in 2012, particularly before he was injured, and is likely to be a very effective signal-caller in 2014. This Texas offense could be very strong with him and absolutely atrocious without him.


Texas will have the skill players to execute ball-control tactics


Marcus Johnson was fantastic in 2013 and seems ready to become the featured outside receiver for Texas in 2014, we hope. Jaxon Shipley is a known commodity as a possession receiver that’s nearly impossible to cover.


Malcolm Brown is said to be moving quicker and running through tackles in camp. At the very least, Gray will be a strong back-up to Brown. Texas has several strong blockers in Geoff Swaim and Alex de la Torre to help out a physical running game.


It’s a pretty safe bet that Texas will have the receivers and running backs to pound the ball on the ground, convert the quick game, and try to stay ahead of the chains on offense. 


It may take a few weeks for the passing game or run blocking to really get in sync, especially with all the injuries, but the pieces are all there for Texas to get into a rhythm at some point.


The defense will be capable of stopping the run


Texas ranked 3rd against the run in the S&P rankings in 2011. Then Manny Acho, Keenan Robinson, Kheeston Randall, and Blake Gideon all left and Texas plummeted to 65th in run defense for 2012. After an offseason in which this was clearly a primary issue for the team to address they only improved to 48th in 2013.


Diaz and Mack were kicked out and defensive stalwarts Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford were brought in, fresh off a year in which their Louisville D ranked 7th overall.


The common assumption amongst fans is that this loaded defensive line, talented but previously lost linebacker corps, and defensive-minded coaching staff will result in a strong defense against the run.


However, it’s worth noting that Louisville ranked only 51st against the run in 2011, 90th in 2012, and then 22nd last year. The Strong/Bedford defenses have been known more for their work on passing downs then being an impregnable wall against the run.


It’s possible that the Texas will not actually be a run-stopping force of nature. You would assume drastic improvement, but old habits do die hard, and it may not be a particular focus for this staff to ensure that Texas has the best run stopping front possible.


The defense will be option sound


Texas was especially shredded in 2012 and 2013 by teams that utilized spread-option tactics. Greg Robinson simplified the defense from what Diaz had been doing and emphasized an 8-man front but simply didn’t have good responses to account either for a secondary that couldn’t force the run or a new breed of option that wreaked havoc on defenses playing by old rules.


On this point, Strong and Bedford are thoroughly up to date on the modern option and faced it in a few different forms playing against Houston, Memphis, and UCF in 2013. Texas now has a defensive playbook that is sound against the spread-option and will put defenders in position to make plays when the Longhorns face teams like BYU and West Virginia.


But will the players execute those sound schemes? We all assume so


Defensive coverage execution will remain at a high level


Texas has quietly enjoyed good coverage from its cornerbacks over the last few years. Carrington Byndom was an underrated rock who played on an island for almost the entirety of 2013 and went up against some future NFL pros over the course of his career.


Duke Thomas and Quandre Diggs have both been picked on over the last several years but they were also better than league average in 2013. Mykkele Thompson’s struggles haven’t been with coverage and he may be a future NFL corner in his own right.


We’re all assuming that the Texas D will be strong on the outside because this has been the case for several years at DBU.


It’s a good bet to remain true, particularly if Thomas makes a leap, Diggs comes alive at the nickel, and Thompson finds his home playing man coverage more and supporting safety less.


However, it’s not like Texas is returning the league’s best cover corner from 2013. We’re making a guess based on likely growth and what we’ve already seen from these players.


It’s a good bet that Quandre Diggs will have a huge season utilizing his quickness in the middle of the field at nickelback but we don’t know yet for sure…


Now let’s get into some of the questions for which we don’t feel as safe making assumptions and are eagerly awaiting to see if Texas can ease our minds a little against North Texas.


Can Texas control the middle of the field on defense?


Texas has done something remarkable over the last two years. Despite having a great DL, fantastic pass-rush, and corners that can lock down the sidelines, they’ve fielded bad defenses.


This is truly an astounding achievement that deserves some time and attention. If, as a defense, you can put pressure on the offense with only four pass-rushers and you can allow your safeties and linebackers to focus on the middle of the field while the corners man the sidelines alone, then you are almost made in the shade.


All that’s required of the safeties and linebackers at that point is that they execute their assignments and play at an average level and you will have a phenomenal defense.They can have the simplest of assignments and needn’t demonstrate tremendous range to make plays. Texas’ defensive backfield couldn’t even clear this remarkably low bar.


At linebacker, you assume that they’ll figure it out with Edmond, Hicks, and Jinkens all back. At safety, things are murkier. Are the Longhorns starting a walk-on at safety? Or a true freshman? Both are descriptions that would typically be used to explain why players are performing at a below average level.


Texas can make things easier for their safeties and linebackers than most teams in the league, but they still have give Strong something. Can they finally meet that bar in 2014?


Will explosive weapons emerge for the Texas offense?


Ball control tactics require a high level of execution from the OL, QB, WRs, RBs, everyone. Everyone has to understand the system and know what the smart play is to stay ahead of the chains.


Quarterback misses reads? You can get behind the chains. Running back misses the hole? Behind the chains. Receiver runs the wrong route at the wrong time? Possible interception. Offensive line misses blocks? You get the picture.


The easiest way for a team to overcome the inevitable mistakes and the need for perfect execution is to have explosive playmakers that can turn a play that’s blocked for 3-6 yards to instead gain 10 or more by virtue of their own skill.


Who’s going to do that for Texas? Can Marcus Johnson make something out of a hitch route? Will Daje Johnson finally see the field and earn a role? Is Gray back to normal? How much quicker is Malcolm Brown, really?


The answers to these questions will tell us if Texas has enough explosive athleticism on the field to keep the offense humming while mastering a new system.


Can Texas find a base identity on offense that offersrun/pass balance?


Geoff Swaim is a fantastic blocker that will help tremendously early in the year before Wickline has the OL settled in and at work using their incredible overall athleticism.


He can kick out a defensive end, lead around the edge, double-team a DE, potentially wham a DT, lead through the hole and take out a linebacker, etc.


He’s not going to catch a ton of balls though. That puts a lot of pressure on the No.3 receiver on the field for Texas. Will that be a slot receiver? Or another TE like MJ McFarland?


At different times, it’ll probably be both, but Texas’ greatest upside comes if that player is McFarland. If the immensely talented, 6-foot-4 athlete can consistently add a solid, “extra blocking surface” on the edge and master Watson’s pass game routes, Texas could have something special.


By motioning McFarland from one side of the formation to the other, Texas drastically changes what the defense has to be concerned with in regards to possible running plays, possible passing plays, and overall leverage. Motioning a TE, who can catch a ball up the seam or allow your OL to outflank the defensive front, is an easy way to manufacture easy yardage and execute a ball-control strategy.


What’s more, the Big 12 has a dearth of defenders who can either cover big tight ends or stand up to them on running plays.


There are three players that can give Texas the best chance at having a really effective ball-control offense that can pound the ball on the ground and in the air and be too multi-faceted for opposing defenses.


Those players are Daje Johnson as a RB/WR hybrid, Johnathan Gray as a game breaking runner, and MJ McFarland as a mobile TE/H-back. Texas needs one of these players to finally make good on their athletic potential and then they could have a really effective offense, Ash*.


Otherwise, even if everything else goes according to plan, the non-conference opponents and brutal overall schedule will prevent the kind of breakthrough, 9-10 win inaugural Strong season we’re all hoping to see.


Week 1 can teach us a lot. Let’s hope we see a healthy David Ash, a more precise than expected offense, strong run defense, good assignment football vs the option, great coverage, good awareness from the safeties, big plays from Daje Johnson and/or Johnathan Gray, and a breakout game for MJ McFarland. If so, it’ll be safe to feel really good about Texas football for the first time in a long time.

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