For the offense, excitement has edged out concern. For the defense, concern has overhwelmed excitement. The Horns sit at 3-0 after a WAC-tastic shootout with Ole Miss, but are they on track for ten?
1) Ash Must Capitalize
This section was originally just going to be * Ash drops the mic * with a HELL YEAH at the end, but I'll (big surprise) expand a little bit.
Capitalizing in this offense is as much about mentality and mindset as anything. Ash has never lacked for physical tools in terms of size, arm strength or mechanics (though I think he benefitted from some offseason work with Harsin on the third). Where he's had to fight an uphill battle is in confidence and aggression. To be sure, that hill is pretty damn steep when you're
A) Thrust into the starting role as a true freshman with a bare pittance of preparation
B) Watching everyone who lines up in front of you slog through a developmental struggle
C) Watching everyone who lines up in the backfield get systematically taken out by mortar strikes in the Tech, KU and Mizzou games, and
D) Having your place on the team questioned as the backup QB steps in and, while sporting a number of dire moments, also leads the program to one of its most memorable road wins
but that was indeed the hill Ash had to climb. While I loved his "I have the same amount of confidence all the time" quote in a postgame interview Saturday night, the fact was that when the 2011 regular season concluded our staff had to launch a reclamation project on Ash's game and psyche. We saw some positive results in the Holiday Bowl, but we all knew we needed more.
The David Ash that many of us were expecting to see this season was revealed slowly, almost coquettishly, with both gameplan and his own reticence to let it fly conspiring to keep that ability shrouded. Against Ole Miss, he went from the Dance of the Seven Veils to the Full Monty in a damned hurry (with none other than Magic Mike helping Ash let it all hang out). Now that I've aroused Vasherized and horrified the rest of you with an extended male stripper analogy, let's talk about Ash's night.
His usual short-range accuracy was in evidence, and even though he didn't manage the poinpoint leads on swings and screens that we saw in the first two games he still did the job well there. He's doing the little things well, whether it was another impeccable fake on our weekly Statue of Liberty run or his nice fake, pullback and throw on that nifty play-pass swingout to Brown (3:30 mark on AlphaHydro's YouTube highlight post - I'm still lodged in the Stone Age next to Longhorn Scott's video mastery, so I'm stuck with references like this). The intermediate touch and zip is coming along, as he showed on a nice in throw to Jaxon (1:40). He continues to excel in keeping his eyes downfield when he's forced to scramble, and that resulted in a downfield strike to Mike D on the sideline (1:48).
And then...the deep balls.
Throughout Longhorn netdom this week, you've had Ash's deep throws receive just about every treatment imaginable. They've been castigated as weak-armed ducks and crippled quails that will be picked off and returned for six when we face those looming Real Opponents. They've also been whitewashed as precise, Aaron-Rodgers-to-Jordy-Nelson-style back-shoulder throws. Neither view comes close to approximating the full story, but here's my take.
It was a great night if for no other reason than the fact that calculated aggression was out in full force. On each of the critiqued 'underthrows', the receiver was in one on one coverage with no safety in sight (more on those dudes' absence below). It's been easy to forget over the last couple of seasons that high-functioning offenses have receivers that fight for balls, win battles and help out their QB, but that's what they're supposed to do. Davis and Goodwin did their jobs against corners who were in scramble mode, and the aggression to go after corners in that position is exactly what we need. On the one deep ball where a safety was in position to make a play (1:30), Ash dropped a note-perfect strike into Mike D's basket.
Yes, it's ideal to throw a perfectly placed, perfectly led strike every time your receiver has a step on the corner. But folks, Ash doesn't have a problem with arm strength. Underthrows aren't going to be a chronic issue going forward, and if he errs on the side of aggression (underthrowing into single coverage rather than overthrowing and eliminating any chance of success) we're going to come out far to the good, even if a few balls get batted or picked - which is the tradeoff for every aggressive downfield passing attack, everywhere.
On Track for Ten Wins: * Ash drops the mic * HELL YEAH.
2) Five Fingers Make a Fist
I talked about how great this run game looked - just the aesthetic appeal of the coordination and power on display - during my drunken post-game piece, and a re-watch did little to sober my views.
Donald Hawkins may have Mack trolling the JUCO ranks like an avuncular version of Bill Snyder when it's all said and done. His downfield athleticism was on display during the Statue of Liberty run (0:01) and on Ash's zone read keeper (3:09), and he also brings solid physicality at the point of attack and wasn't threatened in pass protection.
Hopkins had a strong night, with a couple of signature plays for me. The first was his outright collapse of the DT on the Inside Zone call (0:15) at the start of the fourth quarter. After years of watching attempted zone runs where our guys patty-caked the opposing DL as our backs tried to outrun the whole defense - IN THE DIRECTION THAT THEY WERE ALREADY FLOWING - watching Hopkins just crush his man with Malcolm cutting back like a boss behind it for a TD was a beautiful thing. He also had a beautiful down block morph into an outright destruction of the DT (1:00) on another Brown run.
Espinosa continues to grow. His strength is still hitting things in space when he pulls, which he evidenced on our destructive Pin n Pull play (0:29, 4:52), but he also mixed in some classic point-of-attack wins in the red zone (4:58). Maybe his worst effort of the night in letting Ole Miss' undersized DT escape him to the playside (0:46) on a mishandled combo block was memorably redeemed when Malcolm Brown stapled a B&B Trucking Company business card to the dude's forehead.
Mason Walters continues to be our most physical in-line guy at the point of attack, and he's mixing in crunching down blocks (1:10) with a good sense of when to get off and get to the second level on combos (1:15).
Josh Cochran is still missing a few blocks despite his agility and improved strength, but I really liked the athleticism he showed on some control and kickouts like the one at (1:23). He's also a rock in pass pro, which will be vital as we move into the meat of our schedule.
Of course, beating up an undersized Ole Miss front doesn't mean we're the Tommie Frazier Huskers (or Vince Young Longhorns) just yet. But the consistency with which we're executing assignments, winning physical battles and denying penetration means that we're not going to run into consistent logjams and stack-ups, which means that the linebackers and safeties will be attacking our backs in pursuit mode rather than squaring up on a stacked-up target. And guess what - Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman aren't lining up for any team in this conference. With B&B Trucking Company's ability to break tackles, fall forward and gain ground, even if we're not consistently shredding defenses for 30-yard gains we'll stay consistently ahead of the chains. Right where we need to be.
On Track for Ten Wins: YES
3) Surfaces Must Surface
I'm starting to modify my thinking a bit here - I'm a little less concerned about getting seam-stretching capability from one of our 'blocking' guys (Matthews and Daniels - Poehlmann was never realistic for double duty), and I'll tell you why. As my thoughts in 1) and 2) should indicate, I think the advancement in our passing game and lethality of our running game are both ahead of where I thought they'd be. With the nature of our offensive attack, having two guys who can wrangle the DE and wipe out targets at the second level takes us from a functional run game to an all-out assault on every part of the defense.
Consistently kick that DE out when you want to and the Power O hums - both the pulling guard (usually Hopkins) and the F-back (Roberson) are able to fire into the hole, lock on to targets and blast them without the dithering that's hurt this play when the block on the DE is less certain. Now your defense has a problem on the inside.
Consistently turn that DE in or collapse him when you want to (4:18, 4:52) and the Outside Zone/Pin n' Pull can wreck you, with the pulling C and T getting free runs on your defenders in space if that end can't mess up their pull with penetration. Now your defense has a problem on the outside.
Possess the feet to hit and stay with your block on a LB at the second level and the athleticism to nail a corner or safety in space (3:40), and not only do a ton of nice combo block opportunities open up but you can hit really big on things like the jet sweep.
Make all that happen, and not only is your DE completely bamboozled, but your safeties are scrambling like mad to help fill alleys both inside and out. All of a sudden, they are late to the party on things like WR screens (now featuring competent blocking!) and mysteriously absent on deep throws (2:02, 2:34) because they're busy keeping an eye on the LOS. Our play action game was thriving, with receivers benefitting downfield while our surfaces got some nice candy on two TDs in the short flats.
On Track for Ten Wins: YES
Multiplicity, you old double-edged sword, you. When I envisioned this Key I was focused near-totally on the physical:
- Do our ends have the athleticism to drop into short zones and the power to knife through the interior OL on stunts?
- Are our LBs fast enough to carry receivers up the field and smother the flats while maintaining the physicality to bring their hats and fill gaps inside?
- Can our corners serve as effective force run players in nickel/dime looks and also carry receivers all the way downfield in Cover Three looks, and can our safeties do a little bit of everything?
My assumed answer to all these questions from a physical standpoint was a hearty YES, and I haven't seen anything that makes me think we're lacking on the afolete side of the equation.
And now we appear totally bedeviled by the mental side.
Scipio and Nickel's great pieces on the defense really helped crystallize something I'd been having trouble putting my finger on. We've got a ton of confused dudes out there, and we're likely doing as much to confuse ourselves as opposing offenses are. Guys are having trouble getting in position pre-snap as calls are coming in late, and we've seen a ton of dithering (mostly at two LB spots) that is absolutely robbing our guys of the benefits that athleticism brings. While we had a few straight tackling busts that just aren't explicable in any sense - the most egregious of which was Cobbs' awful attempt on the Rebels' long third-quarter TD run - many seemed to come when guys were a half-step slow in pursuit due to hesitation.
I'm encouraged by the fact that at this time last year, the defense was having trouble processing simple run fits the way Diaz wanted them run - with even vets like Robinson and Acho struggling - and we ended the season vastly improved as players figured out where they were supposed to be.
I'm discouraged by the fact that around this time last year, we played OSU and got annihilated by their run game on a few key plays because those keys were still a mystery to our guys, and the hour is growing late to clean things up - especially if Hicks isn't available to us.
There's a balance to be struck between creative scheming and clean, attacking defense; between out-thinking the offense and out-smarting yourself. Manny has nine more days to find it.
On Track for Ten Wins: NOT RIGHT NOW
5) Hearts and Legs
Not even our vaunted kick cover team proved totally immune on the Night of the Whiffs. Aside from a lone disastrous kick return and another encounter with the Jordan Rules (Rule #1 - FGs are a coin flip; Rule #2 - sacrifice any non-essential house pets for Fera's swift return) these units were slick, smoking sex once again. Nick Rose's leg may net us 400 yards of 'hidden' field position over an average kicker over the course of this season - a lot of guys will be able to achieve touchbacks out to the 25 with some consistency, but his ability to hang 'em high and drop 'em on the goal line will mean a ton of ill-fated returns out to the 16 yard line. We're also going to see more than one ball go on the ground when 180-pound returners get their tits lit by Santos, Turner and company.
I kind of forgot we have a punting unit, but it's averaging over 51 yards per NET punt. I think that's good.
Yup. That's good.
On Track for Ten Wins: WE'RE SERIOUSLY GOING TO KILL SOME DUDE
So here we sit. The offense and defense have unexpectedly switched spots on the Concern-O-Meter, and we're now looking at some contests that could be all-out shootouts if the D can't get things squared away in a hurry. If that is how things go down, though, at least our offense will finally be bringing a gun to the gunfight.