Alamo Bowl Review: Major Applewhite's vision for Longhorns offense

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Texas fans got their first taste of Applewhite's offense on Saturday night at the Alamodome and got a flashback to many of the pros and cons of the Greg Davis era. What exactly will the Major do with the Texas offense in 2013?

In reality, Major Applewhite is the only true member of the Mack Brown coaching tree. Normally, a coaching tree is defined as a legacy and trail of coaches that were inspired and influenced by a predecessor. Saban employs many of the defensive tactics and organizational structure of Bill Belichek, Muschamp does as well. It's hard to point to overarching tactics or strategies employed by Gene Chizik, Will Muschamp, Greg Robinson, or Greg Davis that they learned from Mack Brown.

Most of the staff that's been employed by Mack have been up and comers that he brought in to stock the program with bright minds to delegate responsibility to, while those coaches got exposure and opportunities for jobs somewhere else. They haven't had much loyalty to Texas beyond doing a good job that would ensure opportunities for themselves.

Major Applewhite is the exception. He played for Mack, he's coached under Mack, and his dream of becoming the next Head Coach at Texas is tied directly to the success or failure of Mack Brown-Texas Football.

Furthermore, his overall strategy is the same as Mack's: Marshall the greatest talents available in Texas and deploy them to maximize the advantages of that talent.

"It's not about the X's and O's," he insisted after the game when I asked about the increased usage of the no-huddle shotgun spread in the Alamo Bowl. "It's really about just the culture of our program and demanding more of our guys, demanding more of our coaches, strength coaches, trainers, just getting guys tougher, and that's where we're going to improve as a ball club."

For all of the tremendous faults of the Greg Davis offense, many of the concepts and overall strategy inherent was exceptionally sound. Recruit the best athletes in the state, determine what their greatest strengths are and build from there. While many of the more frustrating elements of Davis' offense seemed consistent from year to year Texas changed considerably throughout his tenure.

1998: "The Ricky Williams era" Texas continued to use the I-Formation and complemented it with Applewhite and the play-action game.

1999-2002: Texas maintained much of the structure of the Ricky Williams offense but began to incorporate more of Davis' passing game with Trips formations and read'and'react West Coast route combinations and ultimately relied upon them. They tried to find and employ the Counter and Zone heavy run game they had with Ricky but were unable to build a "jack'n'jill" offense of their own.

2003-2005: Vince Young. It was slowly discovered that by introducing the QB as a running threat game the zone running game was transformed from a stalling Yaris trying to climb uphill without being swooped away by Oklahoma eagle fronts, into a ferocious wildcat.

As Young progressed, Davis was able to install much of his passing game as well, which benefited from the spread formations which placed multiple receiving threats on the field as well as the shotgun alignments.

2006-2009: Colt McCoy. Greg Davis seemed to learn all the wrong lessons from the Colt McCoy era. The run game was left dependent upon McCoy's involvement, even when Jamaal Charles was part of the equation (Charles' 2007 end of year explosion was keyed by the usage of the zone-read). When Charles left, Texas failed to find another feature back and recruited offensive lineman with no cohesive traits save for the ability to pass protect.

Instead, Davis became infatuated with the possibilities of the spread passing game and doubled down on Colt's ability to shred teams with spread and west coast passing concepts without the benefit of a run game.

2010: Regress. Frustrated by 2009's anemic offense and destruction at the hands of Alabama, Mack told Davis to bring back the Ricky Williams offense which they had little responsibility for building in the first place. When this inevitably failed, Mack determined that someone else was needed and brought in Harsin.

In reality, the 2010 offense was the 1998-2002 system minus Simms, Applewhite, Williams, an OL, McGarity, Cavil, or a tight end.

2011-12: Harsin. We're all pretty familiar with this phase. Harsin brought the Boise system with it's promise for multiplicity, a 2-back run game and play-action orientation, and the chance to finally involve all the track stars that had been accumulated.

Whether it was due to Mack's directions or not, Harsin never escaped the limitations of basing the offense around I-Formation football, was unable to build the Power run game in two years time, and didn't make much more usage of Texas' trackstars than Greg Davis had. Daje Johnson, DJ Monroe and Marquise Goodwin accounted for 19.4% of the team's offense in 2012 while in 2010 Goodwin and Monroe accounted for 12.8% without Monroe catching a pass.

In the Alamo Bowl, we watched Goodwin and Monroe account for 41.9% of the team's offense. After the game, the Major commented on the importance of those players for the offense.

"When you get those guys that have exceptional speed, they can do things outside of the design of the play so you don't have to be perfect. There's a little bit more margin for error in what you do when you give the ball to a great athlete."

If there was one thing that Davis grasped as an offensive coordinator it was that employing athletes in simple schemes that allowed them to improvise or react after the snap was a winning strategy. When he was able to employ that strategy both in the run game and pass game, magic happened.

Technically, Applewhite has been schooled in the arts of the West Coast passing game, the Boise run game, the Boise play-action system, Boise pre-snap motion, other vagaries of the spread offense, and many different football cultures. There's reason to believe he and the rest of the staff can effectively coach any number of different offensive concepts and techniques.

Ultimately, the far greater questions for Texas football are these:

1). Can Applewhite and the offensive coaching staff employ evolving schemes that are cohesive, take advantage of the team's athleticism, and enable balance?

"You know, Darrell and I want to be able to move the tempo. We want to be able to move it up and back. We want to still be able to get in two backs and go downhill if we need to. Our term, our definition of balance is being able to win the game both ways, whether it's running the ball or throwing the ball. And tonight the way we needed to win the game was to spread them out, throw it, clear some loose lanes for the quarterback to run the ball and be effective."

-Major Applewhite in response to Nickel Rover asking about re-emphasizing the no-huddle spread

I anticipate that Applewhite will emphasize the spread more since he knows how to use it and because while another year and the addition of Geoff Swaim should help, Texas will still not have a roster tailor-made for 21 personnel formations in 2013. The fact that every QB recruit since Brewer has been a dual-threat player points to what Mack and Major seem to consider the solution to the lack of a dominant run game.

What's more, Texas is producing a considerable number of athletic quarterbacks who can handle both the passing game and run game responsibilities of the spread offense. Technically the Mack Brown school of "how to build a dominant Texas program" would involve taking advantage of the Robert Griffins the state's been producing.

Regardless of systemic failures within Texas, it's hard to stop a Texas offense fielding the state's best athletes and improvising after the snap, this is established.

2). If Applewhite understands the need for culture change within Mack Brown-Texas Football, does he have the influence to enact the necessary changes? Does he know what the changes should be?

I think we'll need the spring, summer, fall, and another date with the Stoops brothers to know for sure.

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