A new series in which we'll track the Horns' progress in five areas crucial to getting us back on the 10-win track.
Unless you've stopped to ponder the topic for a moment, you may not realize how big a part expectations play in your everyday life.
They inform just about every interaction that you have with other people, whether you've known them your whole life or you're simply going on reputation.
It's rare that a rational person gets upset unless his or her expectations are somehow going unmet.
They impact your performance at work, your satisfaction as you walk out of a movie theater and, yes, your enjoyment of your favorite sports team.
Outside of the one team that hoists the crystal football each January, fans of the other 123 programs could choose to
go all ransomstoddard be disappointed in their team's season. Those with a reasonable and rational understanding of the game will tend to realize that there is much joy and encouragement to be taken from non-championship seasons that show evidence of growth and progress. But you're never going to have much fun during a season that significantly under-performs your expectations.
My expectation for this Texas squad going into the season, based on my understanding of who they were standing in the pre-game tunnel against Wyoming and what they can become as the season goes on, is ten regular-season wins. That's a stretch goal to be sure, but one that is absolutely on the table if things fall into place. Obviously random chance can have an outsize impact on won/loss totals and things like performance against a standard of play are important, but you have to put a stake in the ground somewhere from a results standpoint and that's mine. In the interest of full disclosure, here's the breakdown of my emotional response vs. expectations spectrum for this season:
11 Wins or More: Get serious about P90X so I'll be in shape for my nude leap into Littlefield Fountain.
10 Wins: Beam like a proud papa, look forward to great things in 2013.
9 Wins: General satisfaction with a few rationalizations thrown in.
8 Wins: Growing concern about stagnation both real (which is probably still fix-able) and perceived (by recruits, which could become a major problem).
7 Wins or Less: Become so angry that I turn green and triple in mass.
Now I said that ten wins is a stretch goal, and as such it's going to involve some stretching from various parts of the team to exceed what we've seen in the last several seasons. I've identified the five key areas that I think will be most crucial to us hitting that stretch goal, and each week this series will take a look at how we're performing in those areas relative to a 10-win standard.
1) Ash Must Capitalize
I'm in agreement with Scipio that the term 'bus driver' is a lazy, catch-all appellation that tends to be slapped like a Post-It Note on every sub-standard QB who lucks into a strong supporting cast. David Ash has the potential to be much more than that, and we'll NEED him to be more than that. But for his sophomore year (in what figure to be career starts 7-18), he doesn't figure to be a true difference maker. Forcing defenses to adjust and really fear the passing game, hitting tiny windows and throwing guys open (which seems to have overtaken 'high-pointing the ball' as the Generic Announcer Passing Game Comment du jour) - those will come with time, and likely make their real emergence in 2013. Right now, the difference makers in our offense are A) the run game and B) HarsinWhite's ability to craft the offense as an integrated whole. What Ash must do to get us to ten wins is efficiently and effectively capitalize on the opportunities that our difference-makers present.
Sometimes those opportunities will be big, and obvious, with a receiver three yards free of coverage downfield or a tight end absolutely all alone up the seam on play action. Sometimes they will be smaller and more subtle and, to the uninitiated, indistinguishable from the 'East-West passing game' of the Davis Tortoise. But make no mistake - this offense is a totally different beast. The run and pass concepts are fully integrated, and that's due in large part to the fact that our current coordinators actually draw up running plays and devise counters rather than stealing an X-and-O grab-bag during a July visit to a pro team with wildly different personnel. Not only do we not throw our WR screens and swing passes into the teeth of press coverage, but we also utilize them intelligently to put edge defenders like OLBs and DEs in conflict when they'd like to pinch in and squeeze off running lanes.
So, did Ash play up to expectations as an efficient capitalizer against Wyoming? Yes and no.
First, the 'no' part - the two times we had receivers come screaming open downfield and missed them have already been discussed just about ad nauseum, but those are prime examples of opportunity that can't be excused away just because they were long throws. We have to hit those passes - and I think we will. There's been enough buzz about Ash's arm and ability to connect deep against an elite secondary (ours) that I'm not concerned about consistently leaving chances like that on the table. I also liked Ash's immediate post-game admission that he needs to be quicker on the trigger when those things start to develop.
As for the 'yes' part, there was a lot to like about Ash's overall execution on Saturday. In addition to strong decision-making and largely accurate throws, he did a lot of little things well enough to make you feel very good about where he sits on his own personal growth curve. One pass that stood out to me was a simple little swing/screen throw where he placed the ball perfectly into D.J. Monroe's hands as he arced upfield to let him take advantage of the blocking for a nice gain. NFL QBs botch those swing passes all the time, making the back slow down or jump up and killing his momentum. Football is always going to be a game of inches, and doing the little things well - like that pass, and his great pass fake on the Statue of Liberty play - can gain the inches that make a big difference.
On Track for Ten Wins: YES
2) Five Fingers Making a Fist
There are a lot of different approaches to evaluating an offensive line, and LonghornScott's weekly opuses (opi? opii?) will break the big boys down in fine detail. My expectations-based approach for evaluating our OL against a 10-win caliber curve is going to be focused less on individual excellence and more on harmony of execution.
Due largely to the sins of the past, we are starting five guys who are all at least somewhat behind the experience/teaching/S&C curve that you look for in OL starters at a program of our caliber. Our path to a 10-win run game isn't going to lie in exploiting individual dominators like Justin Blalock, but in five guys working in harmony to capitalize on the advantages proffered by a legitimate, integrated run scheme. This offense will rarely ask an OL to block his DL counterpart without some kind of angle/leverage advantage, combo block assistance or hesitation-inducing constraint. But all five guys still have to execute consistently. We're looking for things like consistently managing your down blocks to keep a NG from ruining a play with penetration, correctly ID'ing and hitting your target on a pull, and properly coordinating combo blocks to keep the defender controlled while still allowing the proper OL to release to the second level in time. We're also going to add penalty avoidance into our evaluation here, simply because this is not an offense that's going to consistently succeed if we put ourselves behind the chains.
So how did we look in Game One? All in all, I think we looked pretty OK. The early 3 and out set folks to grumbling, but from that point on the run game started to click. I'm going to confess to being remiss in my film breakdown duties for this first installment due to both the demands of fantasy drafts and the fact that Vasherized and I came up with the idea for this series on the fly yesterday, so I promise to have much more detailed analysis next week in its regularly schedule Wednesday rotation. But my impressions from 70 rows up at DKR as well as LHS's recently-posted breakdown included guys doing a good job of hitting targets when they pulled, almost zero penetration from Wyoming's DTs, and a blessed lack of penalties on the OL.
On Track for Ten Wins: PROBABLY - ASK ME MORE IN A COUPLE OF WEEKS
3) Surfaces Must Surface
Unfortunately, TGCGT aren't the only ingredients in a successful run game - particularly in the kind of offense that has been Bryan Harsin's hallmark. As LHS has brilliantly opined on a large number of separate occasions, the Boise/Harsin offense counts heavily on having at least a couple of mobile chess pieces (let's go ahead and just call them blocking surfaces) with which to exploit the defense. He uses motion and alignment with those pieces to make the defense declare its intentions, put defenders in conflict, gain blocking leverage and all manner of other desirables.
But as brilliantly as the X's and O's may be drawn up, if the O's can't execute their assignments then the play is XXXX'd before it starts. And the Harsin offense at its peak asks a hell of a lot of the O's that we call TE's, H-Backs and Fullbacks. They may variously be asked to gain leverage on a DE and keep him out of the hole, hit a second-level defender in space from the end of the line or the backfield, pull like a guard and kick out the first thing they see, or serve as a mobile pass protection platform on play action rollouts - and that's just the blocking half of the equation. We don't need the next Jimmy Graham in the passing game, but the ability to break 4.8 in the 40 and catch a ball that hits you in the hands will be most welcome.
Coming up with at least two players who can consistently execute the demands of this position is probably the stretchiest of my stretch goals. The deficiencies in our Island of Misfit TE's have been discussed at length, and the sorriness of our current situation has a number of root causes (with some being more critical than others). But we are where we are, and if we don't see the emergence of something remotely resembling a two-way player it will significantly harm the offense. Declaring run or pass intent via specialty personnel is death on an offense that relies so heavily on gaining advantage through defenders' conflict and hesitation - we don't yet have the realized talent to consistently defeat good defenses that can jump right down the throat of what we're trying to do on a given play.
So, did we show any progress towards this goal? Ish. I think Greg Daniels has the physicality to win a lot of the one-on-one battles with the DE that our scheme demands, and Barrett Matthews may be our best all-around blocker when you factor in both engaging the DE and hitting LBs in space. Unfortunately, Daniels hasn't proven he can catch while Matthews has damn near conclusively proven that he can't. If these guys can just consistently win as blockers it will be a big boost to our offense, but dual-threatdom is a ways away. Luke Poehlmann can collapse the hell out of a DE when he's got an angle advantage, but his presence is a massive declaration of intent. Ryan Roberson showed next to nothing at FB, D.J. Grant has a lot of Wheaties to eat before becoming a serviceable blocker and M.J. McFarland is still basically on the side of a milk carton. Alex De La Torre gets to audition for the FB job against New Mexico.
On Track for Ten Wins: NOT YET
While the offense got three of these, the defense just gets one. That's because in terms of expectations, I think a lot of elements of our defense are ready to roll at 10-win caliber. Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat are going to play merry hell with tackles in the pass game, Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs can erase good receivers, and we should be able to select the proper DT from our toolbox to handle most interior tasks. That's why my big 10-win key for the defense is:
Diaz' hallmark as a DC is his ability to bring an aggressive approach to getting an offense behind the chains while still maintaining sound coverage at the back end of the defense. The Fire Zone is the signature play here, and in simplest terms it involves sending five defenders firing aggressively into the backfield while still maintaining a 'conservative' three-underneath, three-deep coverage alignment behind the blitz action. But for the Fire Zone to be most effective, it needs to be able to bring the pressure from anywhere, and that means that nearly every defender on the field needs to be able to multitask to some degree. We can line up and play 'straight' defense very well with our talent, but the kind of multiplicity that will make this defense great demands:
- A DT that can occasionally drop back into a short middle zone without getting lost
- DEs that can drop into the flats and short zones to corral RBs and clog throwing lanes on hot reads
- LBs that are equally adept as blitzers and as players that can carry a WR or TE 15 or more yards up the field
- CBs that can blitz aggressively or bail back into a deep third
- Safeties that can do a little bit of everything
Again, I promise to have a legit film review in my pocket on next week's installment, but I don't recall anything from this game that would concern me as to our guys' ability to play multiple roles with aplomb. Machete's sick makeup speed on his INT and the authority with which he struck down a Wyoming ball carrier on a run fill confirmed that he's the best safety in all the land. Hicks did a tremendous job patrolling the flats, and while there appeared to be some assignment busts I didn't see anything to make me worry about any player's capability.
On Track for Ten Wins: YEOP
5) Legs and Hearts
This final key goes out to special teams. If we're going to get 10 wins this season, it's likely that special teams is going to have to steal one for us. After our mid-2000's ass-kickery in this arena, it was really disappointing to see the falloff in these units to our early-2000's 'interesting teams' level or worse. We struggled to find good kickoff and punting legs, but much more importantly we couldn't seem to find but one or two guys with any kind of special teams attitude. While we were more talent-deficient in '09-'11 than many realized or wanted to admit, we still had the bigger faster dudes on ST's over most of our opponents. But damned if we could find guys that wanted to fly down the field and put a hat on a hat to open or close a return lane.
MAN, was Saturday night refreshing in that regard. Not only were our kickoffs a thing of beauty, but we had a damn Braveheart charge of guys flying down with purpose and aggression to wipe out the returner. With the new touchback rules in effect, the ability to hang one high and pin an opponent inside the 20 will contribute to a major 'hidden yards' advantage as the season goes on. The punting and punt coverage were similarly stout, and I also liked what I saw on our kick return blocking. We didn't break a highlight return in Game One, but if we keep getting our superior athletes to block with a purpose we'll see some in short order.
I'm not sweating our field goal foibles so long as Fera is back in the fold by Oklahoma State.
On Track for Ten Wins: INDEED
So all in all, I feel pretty good about where we stand one week in. I'll definitely be focused intently on our Blocking Surfaces this Saturday against New Mexico while also focusing on our D's ability to play assignment ball against the option.
It's game day, bitches. Talk to me.