A combination of Scipio's What Could Go Right post and listening to Madonna's Ray of Light album on a loop have imbued me with a sense of unbridled optimism. Can I shake it off to deliver an unbiased assessment of the Longhorns' likely offensive starters for 2012?
Part of my response in Scip's thread got me thinking about our 2012 personnel on a position-by-position basis. Now scheme matters, five fingers make a fist, something Sun Tzu said, yadda yadda, but I wanted to do a post-Spring Game rundown of our starting 22 position by position to see how the pieces and parts our coaches can employ this year compare to what they had to work with last season. Where have we gotten better/gotten worse/gotten busy treading water?
Left Tackle (Josh Cochran to Donald
Harris Hawkins) - SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT: I'm not calling for Harris to be a world-beater in his first season in Austin, and by all reports he was handed something of a rough welcome to big-time D1 ball from Okafor during spring ball. However, he's a pretty highly regarded guy and the staff showed no hesitation whatsoever in plugging him in on the blind side. He's likely to offer at least some improvement over precocious freshman Josh Cochran and Tray Allen, whose primary value was as a living embodiment of just about every sin of the previous offensive staff.
Left Guard (David Snow to Trey Hopkins) - SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT: Snow was a solid player for Texas, and did his best to overcome the deficiencies in functional strength and technique that were the tragic hallmarks of his era of Texas OL. Hopkins brings a much higher ceiling in terms of athleticism and lower-body pop when playing his natural position at guard. He's still a younger guy undergoing a position switch so there may be some growing pains, but by the time cold weather rolls around I think we see a significant improvement in road-grading ability here.
Center (Dom Espinosa to Larger Dom Espinosa) - MODERATE IMPROVEMENT: Espinosa probably caught more flak than he deserved last year, but he did put together some ugly stretches of tape - particularly when asked to take on a DT/NG type playing a zero or one technique right over his head. Of course, with Dom having spent his redshirt year under an incompetent regime and suffering from an offseason shoulder injury that compromised his lifting, it was pretty much as though we'd thrown a high school senior to the wolves. I would imagine Espinosa has received an inordinate amount of attention from Messrs. Searels and Wylie during the offseason, and he stands in a good spot to challenge Ash as the offense's most improved player. There's almost no way that he's not going to bring it stronger than he did last year, and should things not work out we appear to have a competent backup option in Garrett Porter.
Right Guard (Mason Walters to Elder Mason Walters) - SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT: Walters has been envisioned as everything from an All-Conference left tackle to an All-America center since arriving on the 40, so his current status as 'Pretty Good Guard' can be viewed as a bit of a disappointment relative to those expectations. The progression from 'Pretty Good Guard' to 'Damn Good Guard' would make him a tremendous asset in this offense, however, particularly given our offense's premium on athleticism in that spot to help follow through on positional down-blocking advantages and hit/destroy targets when pulling. Walters has flashed saltiness when executing both those tasks, but he has tended to get beaten and miss his blocks when he plays high. Hopefully another season of legitimate coaching and strength/conditioning/flexibility training will give him the skill and the will to play low for four quarters and really unleash the potential that his athleticism brings to the table.
Right Tackle (Trey Hopkins to Josh Cochran) - SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENT: I think the OL can make its biggest two-way improvement in this spot. Cochran exceeded all expectations of a freshman thrown into the fire at left tackle, and all the functional strength/technique improvements expected for the guys above should apply as strongly to Cochran as anyone. While Hopkins just wasn't a natural tackle, Cochran appears to be. He's not the classic Erik Williams-style mauler that many think of when envisoning the 'classic' RT, but his great feet will be at a premium in an offense that asks its tackles to be mobile but rarely asks them to go head-up on an opposing DL without at least some advantage in the form of alignment, constraint motion or combo help from a TE. Cochran should also be a substantial upgrade as an edge pass protector and should let us be very selective about where we provide help in our passing sets rather than needing a consistent assist with his man.
Tight End (Darius Irby to M.J. McGrant) - SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT: Ah, the TE/H-Back position - Texas' own Island of Misfit Toys. We were able to coax moments of competence from last year's mismatched parts, but while a PlayStation 4 is unlikely to end up under the tree this year I think we can at least expect something a little more substantial from Santa Harsin's workshop in 2012. Whether it ends up being functional and cool like an AT-AT with racing stripes or offbeat and unsettling like a Tim Burton Shrunken Head Jack-in-the-Box remains to be seen. The best of all possible worlds would involve M.J. McFarland getting his run-blocking in order to provide us with a legitimate two-way threat in a single player. The Four Horsemen of the Run-Blocking Apocalypse, in decreasing order of fixability, are Poor Assignment Awareness, Deficient Functional Strength, Bad Technique and Lack of Want-To. Hopefully those who have gotten to see more of Spring Ball and the like can opine on the mix that's currently bedeviling young M.J. and how much improvement we could expect to see this year. It still seems like a mish-mash mix of specialists behind McFarland - D.J. Grant can probably stretch a seam, Barrett Matthews can be an athletic blocker while giving Roberto Duran's hands a run for their stoniness, and Greg Daniels and Luke Poehlmann can provide some short-area blocking push. We can cobble something together that's likely to marginally improve on 2011, but major strides at this spot probably lie with McFarland.
Wide Receiver (Bad Mike Davis to Good Mike Davis???) - MODERATE IMPROVEMENT: Davis played a frustrating brand of ball for much of last season - quitting on routes, getting tossed around at the line of scrimmage, dropping a few balls and generally giving off the air that even were he able to locate a fuck he certainly wouldn't give one. Fortunately, this off-season brought about a badly needed Darius White-ectomy, and by all reports Mike is responding well to the follow-on chemo and radiation treatments. It may be wishful thinking to ascribe all of his struggles to a malcontent roommate, but the spring reports indicated that Davis was playing with renewed verve and flashing the kind of playmaking we thought we'd see after some highlight moments in his freshman season. He'll need to keep working on his upper body strength in the offseason, learn to keep his head in the game if he's getting infrequent looks, block somebody and - for God's sake - stop putting up a DeSean Jackson level of non-effort on underthrown balls, but a solid 60-catch, 800 yard season is well within his grasp and would represent a bigtime bump over what he gave us last year.
Wide Receiver (Dinged Jaxon Shipley to Healthy Jaxon Shipley???): SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENT: When the Football Gods decided to run through our offensive meeting room swinging a ball-peen hammer last season, there was little chance a player with the last name Shipley would escape unscathed. Dinged Jaxon was the cherry atop our shit-covered injury sundae, but Healthy Jaxon was a slick route-runner with strong hands in traffic and a penchant for tossing TD's as well as hauling them in. The protective shell of the male Shipley doesn't tend to fully harden until the junior season, but if Jaxon can buck the trend he'll be a threat at all levels and a reliable target for a developing QB.
Running Back (Joe Brownaker to Malcom Bergeron): MODERATE IMPROVEMENT: Both Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron flashed some big-time skills as true freshmen before having their capabilities curtailed by (amazingly avoidable) injuries. A balanced workload should help keep both backs healthy this season and allow them to play to their strengths - feet, vision and balance for Brown and a frightening size/speed combo for Bergeron. If we work in some two-back sets with both guys a la Shon Mitchell and Ricky back in '95 I'll be extra excited.
Flex Player (Fozzy Whitaker/Marquise Goodwin/Darius White/Darius Terrell/Cody Johnson to Jonathan Gray/Marquise Goodwin/Cayleb Jones/D.J. Grant/Ryan Roberson) - SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT: This goes to a significant improvement or better if you consider the 2011 team post-Missouri. It's hard to overstate the value that Fozzy brought to the team with his leadership and incredibly deft operation of the FozzCat. For all his heraldry, it may be a tall order for Jonathan Gray to come in and surpass what Fozzy brought to the table. Fortunately, Gray's unique skillset and blazing speed may let him meet or exceed Fozzy's overall offensive output even if he doesn't execute a particular role as brilliantly as Fozzy handled his. We'll hope for some incremental improvement from Goodwin in his role as a field-stretching 3rd WR and jet sweep impresario, though he may be curtailed a bit by his Olympic responsibilities. If Cayleb Jones comes in with the ability to walk, chew gum and not skullfuck the team's chemistry then he'll be an improvement over Darius White in the role of Big Guy Outside the Hashmarks. We'll miss Cody Johnson's short-yardage chops and the blocking he showed late in the season, but Brown and Bergeron can carry the mail at the goal line and Roberson should be able to turn in a capable showing in a traditional fullback role.
Quarterback (A Plurality of David Ash to All David Ash) - SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENT: Saving the best - or at least the most important - for last, we come to the question of David Ash's 2012 prospects. A consideration of Ash's 2011 season defies simple sound-bite analysis, though a frustrated fan base supplied sound bites aplenty during his roller coaster ride. Accurate consideration requires context, though, and the first and most critical piece of context is that Ash had less than 10% of the experience that you'd want ANY QB to have before taking meaningful snaps under center in a major D1 program. Prior to the 2011 season, Ash was slotted into a change-of-pace role while the staff tried to juggle practice snaps and designations to avoid transfers by our various QBs. That meant Ash had barely received a quarter of the snaps during his first summer, and those snaps limited to a very specific play package. When the wheels fell off of Garrett Gilbert during the first half against BYU, Ash was as raw as anyone who has ever stepped in as a D1 QB in a major program. While splitting snaps with Case McCoy for the first few games, Ash gradually took over the role of starting QB. I think it's useful to look at his season in three distinct segments:
Part One - Thrust Into the Limelight
From the start of the season through the Tech game, Ash went from sub-package specialist to starting QB while surrounded by a solid but unspectacular supporting cast. His aggregate stats for those first eight games:
64-104, 729 yards, 61.5% completion percentage, 7.0 YPA, 3 TD/5 INTs (he also chipped in 73 yards rushing, but without the ability to strip out sack yardage it's tough to make much meaningful out of his rushing totals).
Now, that's nobody's dream stat line. But when you factor in an incredible dearth of experience, facing a couple of stout secondaries in OU and OSU, and a freshman-led WR corps it's pretty damn far from a nightmare. Hard to be too upset with this production from a true freshman during his first several starts (while still splitting time) in a run-first offense.
Part Two - Knife to a Gunfight
Remember the moment during the start of Saving Private Ryan when the landing craft drops its front door and every rifleman inside is instantly butchered by machine gun fire? Well, that's what was in the process of happening to the Longhorn skill position players. First, Jaxon and Malcolm went down against Kansas (Malcolm on a particularly galling tweak on his 28th carry of a blowout win). Bergeron and Fozzy were able to provide plenty of firepower to rout Tech, but of course Bergeron injures his hammy on his 29th carry of a second blowout win. So we're getting down to bubble gum and baling wire as we travel to Columbia, where Fozzy promptly tears his knee on a shameful surface that made old Veteran's Stadium in Philly look like the green fields of Elysium. Now Ash - about to throw career pass number 110 or so - is working behind a laboring OL with a last-string tailback and a plate of hot doo-doo at WR. The numbers against Missouri and KSU:
20-45, 197 yards, 44.4% completion percentage, 4.4 YPA, 0 TD/3 INTs
were uglier than looking up at a nude Khloe Kardashian sitting on a glass coffee table. But - contrary to the memory of some Texas fans - this was not Ash's entire season. To hear some tell it, he never completed a pass over ten yards during the entire season. In reality, he performed terribly in a two-game stretch with a pretty dire set of mitigating circumstances.
Part Three - Some Days You Get the Bear
Ash rode the bench for the entire A&M game, while Case McCoy made an indelible mark on Longhorn history. As soon as bowl preparations began, however, the coaching staff wasted no time in naming Ash the starter. With a month of coaching, conseling and the return of some semblance of offensive weaponry, Ash stepped in against a game California defense and put up a stat line of:
14-23, 142 yards, 60.9% completion percentage, 6.2 YPA, 1 TD/O INTs
To be sure, that's more bus driving than high flying. But it showed that Ash - benefitting from a starter's snaps and a reasonable cast of weapons around him - could overcome both a stretch of rough play the pressure of the moment to turn in a solid, mistake-free performance. With a full offseason as The Man to grow and an offense that should - to a man - be improved, I'm betting that Ash takes a significant step forward in 2012.
So What Does It All Mean?
There's a great deal more to be explored and discussed about the Longhorns' prospects heading into 2012 - scheme, schedule and S&C are but three of the S's that will determine next season's fortunes. But from the standpoint of pure personnel, it's hard not to envision much better days ahead for the Longhorn offense.
Tune in tomorrow for the really fun part, where we examine how Manny Diaz will turn the 2012 Longhorn Defense into a performance art rendition of R. Lee Ermey's dialogue from Full Metal Jacket.