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Shooting From the Hip: Texas 38, North Texas 7

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Who'd have guessed the Strong era would start with a defensive showcase?

Cooper Neill

Welcome, Longhorn fans, to the first post-game writeup of the Charlie Strong era!  Tonight's recap is brought to you by a bottle of Nickel and Nickel cabernet and a frankly inappropriate number of beers as a follow-up, so we're going to aim for brevity and clarity and hope to at least bat .500.

OFFENSE

There were any number of possible ledes for the Texas offense coming into this one, but the performance and unit cohesion of the OL was as good a place to start as any.  The reviews were...mixed early on.  The OL blew a couple of pass protections in the first half (Sed Flowers had a particularly egregious foul-up in the first quarter) and while they didn't have any major gaffes in the run game they weren't opening 2005-caliber holes in the defense, either.  A good chunk of the first-half running plays involved a version of Power that featured a very mincing pull from Flowers and didn't seem to succeed in opening much horizontal or vertical space for the backs to operate.

While 2014 Malcolm Brown's capacity to kill it in space looks to have been over-sold by offseason reports, he showed a nice ability to create some space of his own with hard running and the toughness to bounce off of tacklers.  He's unlikely to bust enough big runs this year to challenge for a top spot in the Texas record books, but if he stays dedicated to getting what's blocked he'll keep the Longhorn offense in good shape with respect to the chains.

Another factor keeping Brown out of the record books this year will be Jonathan Gray, whose recovery from last year's Achilles injury looks to be on the far right of the bell curve with respect to all available history for his position.  Gray didn't have quite the gliding grace that he showed during the last few games of his 2013 campaign, but he demonstrated lateral bounce in the backfield and straight-line speed that are well above what we had any right to expect in Game One.  In an offense that figures to be hungry for home-run hitters, an explosive Gray could prove to be a major boon.

Speaking of explosions, John Harris' initial bid for the Gaskamp Award carried quite a bit of TNT.  Harris shook off some early dropsies to post an impressive 7/110/1 line, and he looked to be reasonably smooth and quick out of his breaks.  We know that Shipley will Shipley when healthy, and even though Marcus Johnson was on a milk carton for most of the night we can be pretty confident in his field-stretching skills.  If Harris can emerge as an X receiver/slot receiver option who will block his ass off and serve as a reliable option in the middle of the field and up the seam, that's another question answered for the Texas O.

Unfortunately, a new and very uncomfortable question got posed as soon as Dom Espinosa's ankle got rolled in the third quarter.  The answer right now is redshirt freshman Jake Raulerson, and the early returns were sketchy at best.  The Longhorn OL had opened the third quarter featuring their impressive lateral mobility on a series of stretch runs, but once Espy went down it became a battle to simply execute the snap.  That element will probably get cleaned up over a week of practice, but the "block a 320-lb Tongan or former 5-star UCLA nose tackle lined up as a zero-tech" part is going to be a hell of a lot more dicey.  Raulerson's got a bright future after about 5,000 more deadlifts and power cleans, but the present probably means betting the under for the next several games.

Last but far from least was the performance of David Ash.  Offseason reports had him taking to the Watson offense like a duck to water, and his short/intermediate accuracy in this one did nothing to dispel those notions.  Ash made some Colt-caliber throws into tight windows and showed plenty of poise in a good-not-great pocket.  It was gratifying to see Ash make some solid business decisions on throwaways, and his ability to deliver accurate balls on the move bodes well for an offensive scheme that should feature plenty of boots and waggles.  Center concerns aside, Ash looks ready to lead an offense that can hold up its end of the bargain if the defense can deliver.

Can the defense deliver?

DEFENSE

Short answer:  Yeop.

Texas wasn't exactly facing 2005 USC out there tonight, but it's hard to imagine a much stronger opening stanza from the Strong defense.  (Note to self:  Acquire thesaurus, write down synonyms for "strong."  They are likely to come in handy.)  From the first possession, the Longhorn defense served notice that the comical antics of the Manny Diaz Error Era were a thing of the past.  What's more, they showed that the meat-and-potatoes desperation fundamentals of the Emergency Greg Robinson Era have given way to a high-functioning and schematically diverse unit that is ready to kick names and take ass.  Or the reverse of that.  Or possibly both.

The Mean Green brought in a sizeable and veteran OL, but the Texas defensive front looked soundly unimpressed.  The Longhorn DL paired tremendous lateral movement with impressive penetration ability, and they were also able to drop anchor and hold gaps when warranted.  Malcom Brown and Ced Reed did nothing to knock themselves from the preseason Big XII First Team Defense list, and Dez Jackson was able to shoot gaps and disrupt a number of plays in the backfield.

The most eye-opening performance on the front line, though, might have belonged to Shiro Davis.  As the handsome and erudite purchasers of Thinking Texas Football 2014 are already aware, the Strong defense loves to employ a weakside rusher who can drop into coverage and handle a man assignment or a curl/flat zone to allow the D to bring pressure from elsewhere while keeping a ton of coverage options on the table.  Simply dropping into a short zone and recognizing a threat would have been a nice showing, but Shiro looked like a linebacker while blanketing a UNT player up the seam to help create the Longhorns' first turnover of the evening.

Fortunately, the actual linebackers also looked the part.  Steve Edmonds showed that a couple years' worth of schematic fuckery can be Brillo'd off with an offseason's worth of elbow grease - he came downhill with a bad attitude on a number of early runs, and showed how fun it can be to back the line when your DL do their jobs, soak up blockers and give you clean reads and free runs to the ball.  Peter Jinkens looked good holding down the edge, and Jordan Hicks was his normal savvy self in coverage while working off a couple of seasons' worth of pent-up frustration by fighting through blockers and laying the wood to ball carriers.  Despite John Harris' impressive night, Demarco Cobbs kept his name on the Gaskamp ballot with a display of actual instincts and playmaking ability - he got involved in numerous plays tonight, and put a cherry on top with a pick six.

The unit cohesion didn't stop there - the Longhorn secondary showed plenty of sticky man coverage skills, but they blended it with an active awareness of zone concepts that hasn't been seen in these parts in quite some time.  Watching guys in the secondary effortlessly pass off receivers and stick to assignments was a thing of beauty, and the benefits of an "All Eyez On Me" approach to coaching the secondary (another TTF insight!) were immediately apparent.  Mykkele Thompson showed a welcome willingness in the physical aspect of secondary play, and his versatility in dropping into short zones and corner-type coverages should come in handy as Strong seeks to confound pre-snap Spread reads with a variety of back-seven looks.  The majority of Texas' picks came from pressure and poor throws rather than Deion Sanders-style route jumps, but those kinds of turnovers will always be on the menu when the secondary is able to stay eyes-front and the DL is bringing the heat.

You hire a head coach for a lot of different reasons, but one of the foremost expectations is that his squad will execute on "his" side of the ball.  And the early returns there look pretty damn sweet.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The returns in the secondary were rather pedestrian, but at least on the kick return front we did a lot more kicking than returning.  Nick Rose was launching missiles from the tee, but Nick Cage and Sean Connery apparently nabbed the guidance chip prior to his first field goal attempt.  At least he managed to convert the second, but one-hand-holding-Horns-Up-and-the-other-hand-crossing-fingers looks to be the order of the day on field goals for the near future.  Whither Dusty Mangum?

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Espinosa injury doesn't bode well for a rough September/October slate, but the team's overall execution, passion, demeanor and badassitude bodes really well for the future.

It was fun to give a shit again, and even more fun that the team rewarded emotional investment with a passionate performance.

On to BYU.