Let's start with some sugar before we down the bitter medicine of the defensive postmortem.
Texas has a QB again. Hence, we have an offense again. Or is it that we decided to go a different direction offensively and that enabled us to have this particular QB? There's no position - particularly in the college game - that can more effectively revive and potentiate a sluggish offense than a mobile, dynamic QB with gamer qualities and an offensive system geared to his strengths. Cal fielding a miserable pass defense was also helpful. Their run defense was actually respectable, but it collapsed once Heard was able to make his running game grow out of the passing game.
It's clear now that Watson was too emotionally and schematically invested in Swoopes, he rigged the QB competition accordingly (subconsciously, not as part of a nefarious plot to take down Texas football) and he completely lost sight of the forest for the trees. Strong realized that, made the correct change and there's little use in dwelling on it anymore.
The Texas Offense
Norvell brought the aggressive attitude, digestible play-calling and Sergio Leone villain mustache and Traylor brought the refinements, LB and S paralyzing motion and disguise by formation. Our playbook now fits on an index card and that's a good thing. The Texas running game is: zone read, inside zone, outside zone, speed option, QB lead draw, dive. The Texas passing game is now pretty much play action go routes, motion man wheel routes, a few three step quick hitches and the screen game. We'll add a wrinkle or two each week based on the opponent. Ta da! An offense.
All of these plays existed in the Longhorn playbook under Watson, but now they play off of each other, are suited to the personnel and we've cut out 80% of the fat and the West Coast reads and long drop backs that paralyze playmakers and require pedigree and long hours of tutelage to execute. They key now is to rep it until it becomes second nature.
The pressure is no longer on our guys to think. It's now on the defense. That's how you want it. Our simplicity is a strength, but good defenses will make it a detriment later down the road. So the race is to add layers to our O while not watering down what makes it so effective for a bunch of 18 and 19 years olds to run.
The Marvel movie The Avengers features a scene where Tony Stark negotiates with Loki in his mansion and informs him this won't end well for him. Loki asserts,"But I have a an army!" Iron Man retorts,"We have a Hulk."
We have a Heard.
Not much review is needed. You saw it. Heard set a single game record for total offense with 527 yards of offense. He has obvious athletic gifts, but I was most impressed with his toughness, patience in the pocket when we ran slow developing wheel routes and his accuracy on the sideline. Heard throws the ball with conviction off of play action and there's no freshmen overthinking or self-doubt on display. When he made mistakes, Heard shook it off like Taylor Swift. And the kid has some wheels.
Texas has its QB. The task now is to explore both Heard's ceiling and floor, which, if any of you will recall the growing pains of VY, Colt and....every young QB ever....will be a process. Clearly, Heard has talent, poise and a ton of competitive spirit. I hope we can allow a freshman to develop (flanked by other freshmen) with a minimum of the context-free, call the TD play, always-after-the-fact commentary that make Longhorn fans such a pleasure to read.
Obviously, 24 carries isn't sustainable and the offense has to round out with a running game to take the burden off of Jerrod going forward. Unfortunately, as you'll see in the OL and RB write ups, we have some key infrastructure that's sorely lacking and it's a thorn in our side.
A lot of the Longhorn passing game was created upfront with better pass blocking, but also DEs who were more frozen into playing honestly by our motion and backfield action.
The contrast between the level of play of our freshmen and our seniors is starkly apparent. Williams is indisputably the best player on the OL and Vahe is probably tied for #2 with Perkins. The two seniors bring up the rear. There's no other FBS program in America where that's the case.
Connor Williams graded out well. Good pass blocking sets, live feet, excellent aggression. His agility gives him the ability to finish blocks on smaller defenders in space instead of just getting some initial push and then getting matadored.
Patrick Vahe was a notch below, demonstrating good initial punch and the ability to get on linebackers quickly. He handled twists better inside as well. Vahe was a pleasure to watch in the red zone and he really gets after it.
Perkins also turned in a good game as Cal's pass rushers couldn't exploit his slow feet outside and he had some very effective down blocks. These three are the core of the OL and once Wickline can move Perkins inside (c'mon Buck Major, develop baby) this OL should improve dramatically in 2016.
The OL seniors - Doyle and Flowers - each contributed third quarter drive killing penalties that kept Texas stuck on 24 while Cal ticked up to 45.
Taylor Doyle struggled. Two holding penalties, no ability to get movement in the inside running game, repeatedly gave up penetration in the second half (see Heard fumble). He just lacks punch and strength at the point of attack and there's not much to be done about it. He'll play solidly against teams that don't cover him up, he'll struggle against strong DTs who shade him.
Sedrick Flowers had an idiotic personal foul that killed a Longhorn drive and he didn't finish or fully engage on several blocks that would have added punch to our option dive. He's always been content to passively stalemate a defender, in contrast to the freshmen who will bend a defender over the pile and drive him into the ground whenever they get a chance. He does just enough to keep his job and no more. I didn't realize OL jobs were unionized.
Big picture attitude: After Heard was violently face-masked, not one of the OL did anything about it. The passive Texas OL personality is getting old and that mentality has to change. I think Williams and Vahe will bring that change as they mature, but man...
Caleb Bluiett showed me enough to make him the starter going forward. He can set the edge, his hands are adequate and he's a physical presence. Beck has some value as a motion guy, but he's not as physical as Caleb. Mike DLT had some very nice aggression plays and caught a pass.
This might be the group currently holding us down the most. If Donald Catalon hadn't transferred in a fit of pique while the team was still in shorts and shoulder pads, he'd be starting right now. Bank on that.
Johnathan Gray has all of the secondary qualities that savvy fans value in a RB: willing blocker, catches very well out of the backfield, good teammate. Unfortunately, he lacks a key primary quality: the ability to run the football. He goes down too easily, he tries to extend zone runs instead of cutting upfield and he runs for the exact amount the play is blocked for. It's a killer for our offense and it puts an inordinate load on Heard in our running game. We want the RB option on the zone read to threaten a fifteen yard gain if the D doesn't play it honestly. Not three.
D'onta Foreman is a strong runner, but his lack of refinement limits his role. I expect him to get more snaps since at least he injects some physicality - as evidenced on his well-blocked TD run. Chris Warren ran better than his tentative efforts to date and is at least now falling forward and fighting through contact.
How any school with first pick access to Texas HS RB talent can't field a NFL caliber runner is remarkable.
Amazing how play-calling and OL and QB play suddenly conjure WR play. The unit combined for 280 yards on 15 catches and they left plenty of meat on the bone.
Incorporating Daje Johnson into the game plan, even given his limited skill set, was key. This is an athletic group, but they're not particularly refined, so simplifying their route tree (and the QB's reads) was key in letting them play faster and more effectively.
Frankly, had Daje caught his two drops, he'd have finished with 200+ yards receiving running only three routes. FOOTBALL IS SO HARD. UNLESS YOU ARE JERRY RICE OR STEVE LARGENT YOU CANNOT PLAY. Daje has always been his own worst enemy, but clearly Strong broke through in time for his senior year.
Armanti Foreman chipped in 4 catches for 70 yards and he's starting to understand his role better.
John Burt continues to flash major ability and while we know that he's a deep threat, I was impressed by some of his complementary work in the short game. His gift is that he can run full speed without being knocked off of his stride by incidental contact and that threat means he'll be available for 8 yard gains on simple throws whenever we face poor to average defenses.
Developmentally, these guys still have a ton to learn. One example: a Cal CB pressing Burt blitzed Heard. The Cal safety tasked with rolling over to John was too deep and late. Burt was left standing on a bunch of green grass. Rather than embrace space and wave his arms for the ball, Burt chose to run his drag route over the middle towards Cal defenders. Burt removed himself from the play blindly following the call instead of understanding broader principles. Heard ended up avoiding the blitzer and scrambled, but had he noticed Burt there alone, Texas has an easy 20 yard gain and Cal stops bringing that pressure. This is the kind of stuff better teams will see on film and kill us with.
So if you need a concrete example of how a physically gifted freshman can improve with experience, there's one. The game had about fifty others.
Here's a useful exercise: force rank the best players on our offense. 1-11.
Four of the top six are freshmen. Three of the top six are true freshmen. If you disagree, feel free to share your list. It will be wrong, but I'll humor you. That's an unbelievable realization and it should give you some insight as to what the future holds, but also the enormous developmental curve we have to surmount as film compiles on our tendencies and these guys learn to play college football.
But we have a Heard.