Texas fans have normally taken to Greg Davis' West Coast offense like Spartans confronted with the choice of using the English Longbow.
"Whats with these pussy short passes? Bubble screen, are you shitting me! Line up and ram it down their throats!"
We've all heard such things from the fans (except in 2008) in the stands, usually as part of some anti-Davis tirade where screens are cursed and the forward pass is treated with the same respect as a sooner playing scrabble.
Even I wrote an article for "The Eyes of Texas" suggesting a more traditional approach to football, namely, lining up pro-style and then throwing it over their heads. The major talent in Texas right now that is being pulled in, along with much of the talent on campus, would conform nicely to that approach. Similarly, the style and quality of defense being built on campus also suggests that this is a sensible approach to take.
Nevertheless, having someone who can effectively install, tweak, and coach a passing-oriented scheme has paid big dividends for Texas in the spread era. When paired with a Quarterback who made the running ineptitude a non-issue it was unstoppable, but we're well back on Greg's path quest for zen and balance in the offense.
In the interest of resisting this post-modern age of cynicism and negativity I'm going to begin with the major reasons why this trek will fail and end with the reasons it won't. Obviously we'll probably find ourselves somewhere in between over the course of the season.
For the purposes of this article, I'll define success/failure as follows:
A successful offense is one that can be relied upon to produce an effort against any foe that could reasonably be expected to coincide with victory. To be more precise; let's assume you need 30 credits to be good enough to win the Big 12. Let's say an average Big 12 Winner gets 12.5 credits from the defense, 12.5 from the offense and 5 from special teams.
If this team is only getting there because the defense is overachieving to the tune of 15-20 credits then the offense is a failure. Is that fair? Whatever, let's begin.
Why Texas' offense fails in 2010:
1). Greg Davis can't install/coach/call a power-running offense without a transcendent running talent:
This one has always been tricky and somewhat specious as most famous coaches have relied heavily on star players to make their "brilliant" systems work. On the other hand, we have 3 years of McCoy offense, 2 years of Simms Offense and another year of Applewhite offense that suggest Davis isn't a master of this domain.
Mack's quote about the running game being behind in practice because the timing is different than in actual games where cut-blocking will be both allowed and essential was enlightening in examining why Texas has failed to cut-block and ultimately zone-block effectively for the last several years.
Is that why the timing and execution of the zone play has been so horrendous? Do normal zone teams allow the chance for their OL to practice this essential technique on lettermen or walk-ons? I don't actually know myself, but I do know the West Coast scheme makes use of heavy repetition in practice, play-scripting, and doesn't encourage the use of a running system that requires similar sacrifices to run effectively. So, that's exciting.
However there should be more variety than just the zone and it should be much more practiced. But can Davis really use it?
This is all you've heard from the major media and preseason mags. Gilbert is inexperienced, Shipley is gone, half the line is gone, a lot of guys who haven't seen the field are likely to play important roles and so on.
Sure, it matters. Earl took half a season to become all-conference level and then an off-season to reach safety nirvana and that's about as fast as you can expect. If any of these guys progress that fast towards whatever their potential ceiling is, it'll be amazing.
Mack's silence on the quality of the pass protection from Hix paired with his insistence that Texas will run the ball to protect the young quarterbacks should be all that needs to be said about the likely quality of the tackles on 3rd and long.
The offense is instituting formations that are known for offering extra help in pass-protection. The play of Britt Mitchell and Hix has inspired Davis to finally re-establish the running back draw and to build the offense with creating Play-Action opportunities in mind.
If all this circumstantial evidence doesn't worry you I encourage you to find and re-watch some of Hix's performances against the better edge rushers along with any tape you find on Mitchell.
There is hope for the long term as besides Greenlea and Westerman for the future, Texas already has Walters on the roster along with Kelly and Porter who I think are possibly starting material on the outside. But if the running game stumbles there isn't much left in the scheme or personnel to protect Gilbert enough to really maximize the numerous talent advantages.
4). No Base:
What happens on 3rd and 2? 3rd and 7? What is the base running play? The primary passing concept? Can we run them effectively against good defenses?
Really you shouldn't have 1 play that you go to for every crucial conversion because teams can always find a way to stop something they know is coming (see 4th and 2). However, you need those sure-fire concepts to hold the defense in check in big spots.
Texas couldn't have run zone-read with Vince Young and Cedric Benson on every big play in 2004 and been very successful but the play was easily dangerous enough that every crucial 3rd down or series defenders had to be thinking, "alright, if they run the zone I have to..." and that opens up the rest of your offense. You know, if you actually run a coherent offensive system.
What's that for 2010 Texas? I don't know, do the coaches? Who/what are teams going to have to account for every play? It's not so much a weakness at this point as an unknown. I'm sure the staff wouldn't hesitate to drive us crazy in keeping the base concepts and constraints quiet until the OU game but the schedule won't allow it. Just as well, I've seen schemes pulled out of a hat for OU that could have come in handy on other occasions as well.
Why Texas' offense succeeds in 2010:
1). Garrett Gilbert:
If he is, at least for the most part, the star that we all begin believing in when the score was Alabama 24 Texas 21 then he's a major strength.
His pocket presence looks more promising than any other Texas quarterback I've seen while his accuracy and arm strength match that of Simms or anyone else Mack has put on the field. He can throw on the run (very useful in this scheme traditionally) and essentially do everything that Davis could ever want from his ideal system quarterback.
If Gilbert can make things happen by putting a 4rth quarter throw in a tight window to create an opportunity few others could create then this offense should be up to par, indeed that's the most likely strength of this team.
I've repeatedly compared the squad to 2008 OU because that Sooner squad didn't really have a go-to offensive player. Bradford spread the ball around between a number of targets and two 1,000 yard backs. None of those players, except Gresham, were really anything to get excited about. That's probably what successful 2010 Texas looks like; strong enough running game with a few different horses, several very capable receivers and maybe one skill player who really stands out amongst an overall unit of quality.
I'll also point out that he hasn't been throwing many picks in scrimmages, (has he even thrown one in public since the MNC?) which has been his expected vice.
This is possibly the most talented offensive roster Texas has had depending on how many total talent points you award to the 2005 squad for Vince Young. There are multiple receivers on campus who could be close to the other great wide-outs Mack has employed. Running back isn't super-exciting but the line has some standouts with Ashcraft and Walters while Huey, Hix and Snow at the least are guys you will never mind seeing on a starting roster.
The speed of the roster is something that is particularly stark. Marquise will typically be the fastest player on the field and far beyond anything that most of the league's defensive backfields can handle in the open field. Malcolm Williams is going to run at least a 4.5 in the combine and do so at 220 pounds. Monroe, Hales, White, Davis and even Chiles are all above average in the speed category. Matthews was a sprinter in high school that will be covered by linebackers and safeties. If you can say anything positive about Fozzy Whittaker it's that he's fast.
Let's assume Gilbert approaches Bradford in his accuracy plus his great deep ball I've seen enough to proclaim as truth, now Texas is littering the field with guys that teams can't afford to allow in space with a trigger-man who can hit them on the run. It could look like the Greatest Show on Turf if they can manage to get those guys open in time. If...
3). Interior OL:
If Allen isn't healthy and we see Walters start at Right Guard I still think this interior OL is the best since 2006. Peter Bean notes, from his experience watching Alex Faneca anchor the Steelers running game (when it allowed Roethlisberger to go 15-1), that one dominant guard is essential to a strong running game.
Either in neutralizing a play-side tackle or pulling and blowing open the hole you need a guy that can be counted on for the essential duties in your plays. PB picks Allen to finally live up to the recruiting hype and be that guy for the running game. I don't care whether it's him, Walters, Snow, Huey or even Ashcraft and don't feel confident choosing from what I've seen so far but at any rate the quality here is at least deeper and better than any previous season. There are guys here who can make that leap to road graders but if no one does the unit should at least be a big upgrade from previous seasons.
4). Flexibility/Offensive coherence:
I've already written about how this offense will have a running game that works in conjunction with the passing concepts to create an overall system that can't be eliminated piecemeal by the focus of defensive resources on an individual target. Like, say smothering the short passing game with intermittent overload zone-blitzes while showing a complete disregard for the threat of a hand-off.
Load up against the run, get a diet of outside screen passes and play-action deep throws. Match the spread with nickel and dime personnel, get a dose of Matthews and the running game. Obviously if the team can never find the base, like we already worried about, then the constraint plays will lack meaning but this is still a better way to build a college offense.
Additionally, it should set up the defense to create points with field position and turnovers instead of desperately trying to cover for them over and over again. All in all the staff's Major plan for offense and defense make sense this season in way like we didn't see in 2009 when the offense was treated as though it were still the breadwinner.
So, is the top still spinning or not?