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Texas-Rice Football Postmortem: Offense/Special Teams

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Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

New OC.  New QB.  New AD.  Not much going on at Texas right now...

The Longhorn offense only ran 38 snaps (the starters ran 30?) due to dominant special teams, a bend and break defense and one play scoring drives so our ability to gauge Heard, the influence of a new play caller, the overall positional play and much else is limited by the data set, but it's clear this offense has the potential for more juice than the Watson-Swoopes combo.  7.3 yards per play and scoring strikes over the top were like rain in the Sahara. We are, however, more or less starting over at the most important position on the field.

However, I'm starting with special teams - the only Longhorn unit that dominated on Saturday.  Against Rice.

Special Teams

Daje Johnson & Duke Thomas wowed in the punt return game, setting a school record for total yardage (175).  They amassed a 43.8 per return average, which will steal you some games as David Allen and Kansas State have taught us over the years. Daje's elusiveness, speed and balance were on display and given that he should also soon take over kickoff return duties as well, the Horns should have a puncher's chance at an opportunistic score in every game they play.  Duke Thomas' upback punt return for a near score was of the "Damn you Thomas, what the hell are you - hey nice play I believed in you the whole time" variety and I'm glad Traylor is allowing these guys to be aggressive when they see a chance to make a play.  Daje really needs to be integrated into the broader offense.

Michael Dickson's punting provides more genuine Australian adventure than the Outback, but he seems to redeem early gaffes with at least one boomer (a 59 yarder this time) and he put three punts down inside the Rice 20.  He's not yet an Ayer's Rock o' reliability, but a year ago the guy was playing Aussie Rules Football, eating meat pies and trying to pick up girls named Jacinda.  Give him a chance.

Rice's only play on special teams was their opening kickoff return, where a nicely schemed and timed lateral pass in the end zone brought the ball out to midfield.  That got Nick Rose's Goth up and he boomed the ball out of the end zone on our remaining kickoffs.

The early returns on Texas special teams is that they're vastly improved.  Is that Traylor?  An influx of young willing talent?  More attention being paid overall?  Yes.  Let's see if it holds.

Offense

Some top line observations before unit discussion.

1.  It's not clear to me whether our zone read is predetermined or being read.  If being read, Jerrod Heard made the wrong read on more than half of those snaps.  Or Norvell is a bad guesser.  Similarly, he checked into rather than away from the Rice extra man blitz at least twice.  That should improve.  However, this offense has to be in 2nd and 6 to work.  Not 2nd and 12.  The lack of an edge setting TE or wham blocking H-back who can leak out into the secondary for an easy 12 yard gain is a pain in the ass.

2.  It's clear we're going to emphasize a spread option run, play action deep, short screen/swing game offense.  The days of 7 step drops and 15 yard outs are over.  Since Carson Palmer isn't our QB, that works for me.  The challenge now is executing slickly and that starts with getting us into the right play at the LOS, playing fast and getting better decision-making. We're in larval stage.  Don't compare us to Urban Meyer's spread option butterflies.

3.  This is a process.  It will take time.  There's upside, but it will be unevenly realized.  When I pointed out in early 2013 that defenses were compiling film on Case McCoy and that once they adjusted properly, his performance would sink like a stone because he had physical inadequacies that can't be schemed around, I weathered a week or two of "BUT HE BEAT OU HATER MCCOY FAMILY IS WINNERZ" until reality set in, pick 6s mounted, teams like Kansas shut down our passing game and the hoopleheads disappeared back to their crawlspaces.  Football is a dynamic game.  That's what makes it interesting. Heard gets better as gains confidence or learns a new competency but at the same time the defense realizes they can put us into a bad audible by simply showing a 8 man front briefly before dropping into Cover 3 and rushing four.  Our offense is simplistic (because it has to be) and Jerrod Heard is untested. We also have zero supporting apparatus like an experienced OL/elite RB/veteran WR/TE combo to take the heat off. So consider that when you start to read the specious "this team with a RS freshman QB did X, why can't we?" arguments.

4.  Junk defenses played by bad teams and/or basic sound defense played by good teams will give us some fits. Beginning with the Cal game.  The key part of it is how quickly does Heard and our offensive staff adapt.  Does it take a series....or the month of October?  Heard's physical inadequacies aren't many (arm strength, size considerations for power option game) and they can be schemed around.  However, his mental and psychological game is a complete unknown.

5.  QB, OL and overall offensive progress is not a straight line.  Save the panic posts when someone stuffs our running game with extra men, contains Heard in the pocket on predictable passing downs and turns us over.  That's how football works.  We're trying to build to a longer term goal.

QB

Heard showed great wheels (10 carries, 96 yards) and improvisational ability and the willingness to throw a catchable deep ball to an open wide receiver (4 of 7 for 120 yards, 2 TDs).  The throw to Armanti Foreman wasn't perfect, but it was the right idea - when a defender is that out of position in single coverage, just throw something catchable and see what happens.  The opening third quarter throw to John Burt was a great call (caught Rice in a blitz and single coverage with zero safety help) and it's useful cautionary tape for future opponents.  That throw was not a demonstration of arm strength, but it was a demonstration of touch, competence, poise and the ability to convert an easy opportunity.  The the kind of throw that Swoopes has consistently overthought and blown and one of the 2-3 opportunities a game that are the difference between 7-5 and 4-8 for middling football teams.

Heard's developmental homework is...everything.  Narrowing that down slightly, he has to evidence some ability to make a read or two from the pocket, find an open receiver against zone coverage when a team rushes four and assigns a containment spy, and learn to operate a read option with some efficiency by getting us into the right play at the line against shifting defenses.  Keeping it simple makes us easy to decode, adding complexity helps to give Heard options, but those options can overwhelm him.

There was a play where we went four wide and Rice brought an extra man on the backside of the protection.  That extra man is on the QB.  Heard was totally unaware of him, got rocked and threw an incompletion.  Understanding simple things like that are important for his growth.  We have an exciting young QB and he's going to go through the developmental growing pains that they all experience.  17 plays with his hands on the football against Rice isn't enough to evaluate much deeply.

RB

I'm obligated to write about this position, I guess.  If we block well and Heard gets us into the right call, they'll run through the holes!  That's what running backs do.  Then the fans and media will write about Gray being back! or how Foreman is the black Larry Csonka!  Unless Ricky or Jamaal is in our backfield, this position is reliant on others.

And Chris Warren needs to stop going down on first contact.

OL

Played fine.  Rice outnumbered us quite a bit on our negative runs but that's not on the OL.  The Owls didn't have much ability to win one on one match-ups in the trenches.  I thought they showed better cohesiveness in pass protection, but our snaps were so limited it's difficult to make much of an assessment.  I expect them to progress and our weak links are as much seniors and juniors as freshmen.

WR

John Burt continues to impress as our only legitimate big threat outside and Armanti Foreman and Daje Johnson still have untapped YAC in the screen and short game that we need to tap.

Where is Marcus Johnson?

TE

Bluiett played both ways.  Pretty cool.  Why no Charles Woodson style hype?

Conclusion

As much as we give John Mackovic a hard time, his management of a freshman James Brown in 1994 was masterful. He put him on the move with short rolling pockets to simplify protections, encouraged quick throws, treated six yard completions as 1st down victories, simplified decisions, told him to run when in doubt, lulled the defense into overplay and then chunked it downfield on simple one man read routes every time the defense tried to bring extra men.  We'd benefit from running a spread version of that offense.  And then ignoring how Mackovic tried to play Brown for the next three years.