Howdy, Longhorn fans! With camp in the books, it's a good time (or actually long past time, sorry about that) to take a look back at some of the key storylines from Thinking Texas Football and see how they're tracking against what we've learned about the team this August.
What We Said:
David Ash is fully capable of putting up a 3,000+ yard, 25+ TD passing season, but expect his Yards Per Completion and Yards Per Attempt to decrease with a more systematic ball control offense. Texas should struggle to get the ball down the field against quality defenses...The depth chart situation is potentially frightening, and speaks to poor roster management at the position over the last five years...The season rests on the right arm, agile feet, and good health of David Ash.
What's Been Happening:
David Ash is becoming the David Ash that most of us are hoping to see this season. The quality of his reads and the speed of his decision-making improved over the course of camp, and despite a couple of so-so days he was generally accurate and on-target despite dealing with a M*A*S*H unit at WR for a good portion of the proceedings. Aforementioned M*A*S*H unit curtailed his ability to hit a ton of deep shots, but he still made some noise downfield to Duane Akina's chagrin. Texas smartly didn't have him running around a ton, but a good smattering of read option looks with a couple of QB draws mixed in are still the expectation for the Fall.
Let's all accept that if multiple parts of the offense founder, he's not going to drag the team kicking and screaming to a conference title a la Colt McCoy in '09. But decision-making and intermediate accuracy are the biggest pieces of the offense on his shoulders, and it looks like David is ready to hold up his end of the bargain.
Unfortunately, the 'frightening depth chart' part now looks a bit more like 'white-knuckled terror'. Case is Case - while his mission trip was likely laudable from a personal standpoint, he didn't run into any Peruvian medicine men with arm strength potions down there. He's still capable of running off eight straight completions in the middle of the field, still incapable of challenging decent defenses down the sidelines, and still a self-sack waiting to happen.
Some of the worst news out of camp was Tyrone Swoopes' hamstring injury. Apparently it's not bad enough to keep him off the field, but he didn't look remotely effective over the last part of camp. How much of that is the hammy bothering him and how much is simple, true-frosh struggles with processing speed is hard to say. But the bottom line is that right now Swoopes probably isn't a credible injury fill-in until midseason - if at all during 2013. We may not even see much of a 'Swoopes Package' early on.
The silver lining here is that Jalen Overstreet has stepped into the breach admirably. He wisely eschewed the John Chiles diet and has retained his top-end athleticism, which apparently has him crisply operating read option and WildHorn looks. A pass offense would have to be dramatically scaled back with Overstreet at the helm, but he may be able to provide a nifty change of pace early and give Applewhite another option if Ash gets dinged up.
Based on how you felt after reading TTF (you HAVE read it, haven't you?), I'd feel about the same as camp concludes. We're Ash-dependent, and Ash looks good. And while none of us may have as tight a relationship with The Man Upstairs as Ash himself does, sending a few prayers for his good health won't go amiss.
What We Said:
Johnathan Gray is a classic one-cut-and-go slasher with good vision, improving strength and is an asset out of the backfield...Malcolm Brown is a patient runner with great feet, average speed, and questionable durability...Joe Bergeron is a powerful athelte with surprising burst but below-average feet and vision who could write his own ticket as a blocker...Daje Johnson is an elite home run threat with surprising lower-body strength and balance whose best deployment will be catching the ball as often as carrying it....the Longhorn runners are good enough in talent and depth, but each must embrace their individual roles in order to maximize the offense.
What's Been Happening:
Gray and Brown have been the headliners from a traditional tailback standpoint, and by all reports they're playing to their strengths well. Gray is stronger than he was, but he's still not going to get confused with Ricky Williams once he's in contact with a linebacker. He still offers the highest upside if the blocking is reasonable, as his ability to threaten every gap from the Pistol and hit home runs should keep defenses from getting too cute with box numbers while adding much-needed big-play potential.
It's easy to forget that a healthy and dialed-in Malcolm Brown is really good, but...a healthy and dialed-in Malcolm Brown is really good. He's continued to show the best all-around combo of vision, shiftiness, burst and power out of the backfield options. That particular combination of skills could be key to keeping Texas ahead of the chains (or at least not too far behind them) if the interior blocking stays messy.
We speculated that Bergeron's highest and best use in this offense could be as a 240-lb Trey Millard-style blocking back and short-yardage hammer. It seems that Major and Joe emphatically disagreed. Bergeron got after it in offseason conditioning, slimming down to the 220's while basically Tweeting that he's a TAILBACK 4 LIFE. He's looked better than ever as a runner, and apparently is also tearing things up in the screen game. As a global note, it's possible that the RB screen game takes up a lot of the slack if the Longhorns can't get the WR blocking to make the wider quick game click.
Daje Johnson is reportedly turning in jaw-dropping moments on the regular, and all signes point to him as the special sauce on whatever Applewhite will be serving up this season. Everyone knows what he brings to the table in terms of speed, balance and shake-n-bake, but there have been very intriguing tales of his explosion in the 'downfield passing game'. I still don't have the best sense as to whether he's simply cooking linebackers on wheel routes or whether he's developing the savvy to run a couple of legitimate branches of the route tree past five yards. But if he can just run you a good in route, a good out route and adjust to get under a ball that's thrown 30 yards in the air, it will be suicide to walk a linebacker out on him in the slot.
An intriguing part of the 'hinge players' concept may have revealed itself in camp, as Shuttlesworth and Nahlin at Inside Texas have brought word of a diamond formation with Bergeron, Brown and Gray all in the same backfield with Ash. We'll hopefully have a post up during the week speculating on some of the deliciousness that this formation could bring, but it's an encouraging sign that Major is getting creative with ways to deploy our guys' unique skill sets while asking the defense some very tough questions in an up-tempo setting.
I'd say I feel a little better about the running back situation coming out of camp. We're healthy, which is big, and the potential of Bergeron to exceed expectations as a runner and receiver along with Daje's continued growth bring even more dynamic potential to the party. I'd envisioned a different role for Bergeron, but if he's able to keep us ahead of the chains as a runner and receiver while still laying some licks out of the Diamond, it's all to the good.
What We Said:
Texas has two reliable commodities in Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis, but on the whole the receiver position lacks diversity and will struggle to provide balanced production...Kendall Sanders is a dangerous playmaker with the ball whose other skills are largely untested...Marcus Johnson has the long strides to stress the defense deep but will struggle to create separation with route breaks...Bryant Jackson is a reliable threat on quick-breaking routes who lacks the physical tools to impose his will..John Harris and Jake Oliver could provide a needed physical presence outside as questions abound in the blocking department.
What's Been Happening:
Texas' run of good health at running back didn't extend to their brethren out wide, as the receiver position spent most of camp roughly one crutch from a Telethon. Mike D and Shipley were out for the early part of camp, but made it back over the last couple of weeks and look in fine fettle. There's no question that they're your headliners among the wideouts.
Likely #3 wide receiver Kendall Sanders is battling the dreaded high ankle sprain, which is particularly disappointing after he showed a real ability to get open deep early in camp. It's component the Longhorns really need, so hopefully he'll be off the shelf and ready to roll by BYU (he's suspended for the opener due to offseason DUI shenanigans).
Apparently Sanders tripped a Claymore mine while walking point on Young Wide Receiver Patrol, as a couple of his mates also caught shrapnel. Bryant Jackson - who had been developing into a nice short/intermediate threat - fractured his foot in one of the scrimmages (no word if thud tempo was involved). Marcus Johnson was showing a really improved ability to burst out of his cuts and win in the intermediate game...and then hurt his MCL. Late word from JShutty is that Johnson won't miss as much time as initially feared, but it's possible that Texas is Dick Gregory-thin at wideout when we head to Provo.
This looming depth chart crisis has provided an opportunity for other wideouts to step up. Jake Oliver may not be ready for prime time in terms of getting off the line of scrimmage and other technical aspects of the craft, but John Harris is showing signs that he could be the blocking WR that this offense could really use. Even more intriguing is the play of true frosh Jacorey Warrick, who is exceeding all expectations and who's becoming a strong bet for major playing time if other guys' injuries linger.
Personally, I'm a tad more nervous at wide receiver than I was when Thinking Texas Football dropped. Davis and Shipley are known commodities, but other guys needed to step forward and injuries have put a major crimp in that development. Blocking is still a massive question mark, and if injuries linger we'll not only increase the risk factor against BYU and Ole Miss but also have too many guys too light on reps when we take the field in Dallas.
What We Said:
M.J. McFarland has the speed and frame to be Texas' best chance at a dual-threat, impact TE but he lacks blocking technique against defensive ends...Geoff Swaim was recruited based on his prowess as a blocker and has shown adequate straight line speed and feet...the move to spread sets will shift the onus away from the tight end and lead to better utilization, but a Texas tight end should only be on the field when he's the superior end of a mismatch.
What's Been Happening:
It's largely been the two-man show at TE that we predicted with Geoff Swaim and M.J. McFarland, but it appears that Swaim is the one in the drivers' seat for playing time coming out of camp. He's looked solid as a receiver with a smidge of seam-stretching ability, and his blocking has been miles ahead of McFarland's. M.J. had been lighting up summer 7-on-7 work before tweaking his knee, and it may still be bothering him in routes and on his blocks. Apparently his hands haven't come all the way around, either, so for now we're likely to see a good deal of Swaim early in the season.
Like wideout, I'm tad more nervous about the tight end corps than I was three weeks ago. The good news is that Swaim - whose blocking wasn't even turning heads in the early Spring - looks to be a strong all-around contributor of the kind Texas hasn't fielded in some time. But the lack of consistency from McFarland is disappointing. Hopefully he'll round into form as his knee continues to heal up, but until he does a potential difference-maker is absent from the attack.
What We Said:
The system requirements are clear - interior OL cannot allow penetration or quick pressure inside...Tackles must be adept cut blockers and able to handle edge rushers alone on deep drop vertical passing plays...Expect a high level of executional play, limited by a ceiling of medium talent...This will be a reliable, possibly even very good OL that won't be confused with 2012 Alabama on the field or on draft day.
What's Been Happening:
The biggest story of camp was l'affaire Harrison. After suffering BYU's online course accreditiation shenanigans, Harrison was ruled fully eligible by the NCAA and has returned to practice where his size and athleticism have drawn tremendous raves. It's still wise to take a wait-and-see attitude on how quickly Harrison's technique and knowledge of our scheme will allow him to contribute at a high level, especially when his missed time is factored in. But there's little doubt that he's got the tools to be special, and could potentially add the kind of domination that's been lacking on the OL for far too long.
Outside of the good news on Harrison, reports have been up and down on the OL. Fortunately the trend has been upward, as a brutal start to camp has given way to more of an even split in terms of battles won with the DL. The Harrison Domino Effect is still a possibility - if he takes the LT job by storm, it's likely Texas will slide Donald Hawkins to LG and Trey Hopkins to C to beef up Texas' point-of-attack blocking on the interior. The pass blocking has looked good, the run blocking has been a work in progress, and the fact is that we're just not going to know what this unit is really made of until Provo at the earliest.
I'm feeling about the same on our OL as I was when we wrote Thinking Texas Football. You'd like to be hearing things like "Our interior OL has finally figured it out and is just kicking ass up and down the field" but that's not to be our fate. On the plus side, though, the raves about Harrison have been SO rave-y that you feel good about his ability to step in at some point reasonably soon to give the exterior blocking a new dimension while giving Stacey Searels more options inside.
All in all, I've gotten out of camp on a fairly even keel relative to my expectations going in. QB depth and our triage unit at WR are concerning, and an injury to Ash would be outright dire. But that was more or less the case already if you're holding this season to a Big XII Title standard - which everyone should be. If some combination of righteous wrath and defensive prowess can get us past the Mormon Tabernacle of Transcript Treachery unscathed, Texas should be firing on all cylinders heading into conference play.
What's that about the defensive prowess, you ask? Tune in Sunday.