January 10, 2009

Inside the Locker Room (Part II)

Q: (Darinstollings)- I'll keep this short and sweet- Given our personnel, what changes/tweaks do you expect to see in the passing game for next year's offense?

A: Someone is going to have to step up at the flanker position that Quan Cosby held down this year and in a perfect world you'd like to have some size and speed on the perimeter. If Malcolm Williams can grow into that role, it would certainly give the Longhorns more of a vertical threat. Other than that, I think you'll see a lot of the same things that we saw this season and if some of the young tight ends can set themselves up to join the line-up, then they'll probably have them working in the same four- and five receiver sets that Blaine Irby was in this year before he was injured, which had him positioned as an inside receiver.

Q: (MDHornfan) - I was just thinking about available scholarships, and it occurred to me we seem to have a lot of scholarships tied up on special teams. We have 4 Kicker / Punters on scholarship, not counting John Gold

K: Ryan Bailey, Justin Tucker and Hunter Lawrence

P: John Gold (non scholly) and Trevor Gerland (not even on Fiesta Bowl depth chart)

How do you see the kicking game shaking out, and what happened to Gerland? I thought he was uber punter coming in?

A: There's no question that the Longhorns not only don't lack for numbers, but they probably have too many scholarship kickers on campus. At most, you'd probably like to have three and Texas had four that were on scholarship this past season.

The good news is that the Longhorns will enter next season with national championship hopes and the kicking game should be in great shape. Lawrence will likely be an All-Big 12 first-team candidate at place-kicker and if anything happens to him, there's a reliable reserve available in Bailey that has big game experience. Look for Tucker to handle kickoffs again and that should be an area that we'll see some improvement in after he gets another full season in the off-season program.

When you look at the punting position, the Longhorns return the top players in the Big 12 with Gold and Tucker, as nobody that returns from within the conference can top either's punting average from 2008. It'll be interesting to see how much the Longhorns continue to use Tucker's rugby style kicks on punts moving forward because both players averaged better than 45.0 yards per kick, but Tucker had a better rate of punts downed inside the 20.

Gerland is likely not going to be a factor, with a lot of that has to do with the guys in front of him and a lot having to do with the fact that he has not panned out as a player/prospect. That being said, let's not make him out to be a five-star prospect that went bust. He was a player that the Longhorns gambled on three months after signing day back in 2005 and he was a virtual unknown as a football prospect before Mack Brown offered him. Had it not been for his track credentials, he probably would not have been someone that attracted a lot of fanfare upon his commitment.

Overall, don't look for the Longhorns to offer any kickers in 2010 and they might pass on taking one in 2011 as well if Tucker continues to evolve into a two-way threat.

Q: (iluvdahorns) - Our offense looks stacked going into 2009, we return: Colt McCoy, arguably the best QB in the nation, a stable of very capable RB's, 5 WR's with solid game experience, and 4 of 5 starters across the OL, but I have a big question mark on my projected depth chart for 2009 at TE... that being said I have some questions about the position heading into the off season:

- Will D.J. Grant remain at TE for the spring? Was moving him to TE for bowl workouts just an experiment to see if we could get another playmaker on the field for the Fiesta Bowl, or is it the staff's intention to keep him there full time?

- Will Greg Smith and Britt Mitchell move back to OL? I have to admit, I was very excited to see the TE's get little to no PT in the Ohio State game. Neither of these guys "wowed" me with their blocking ability (which is scary considering they are converted offensive lineman), and its obvious neither can be a threat in the passing game.

- Will Ahmard Howard stay at TE or does he move back to DE? Ahmard seems to be buried on the depth chart at TE, and the fact he spent his redshirt year training at DE only set his development at TE back.

- I know you've been very high on Barrett Matthews, but he had several drops from the limited footage ESPN aired during the UA televised practices... in fact every pass thrown his direction was dropped, and Jordan Najvar earned the starting TE spot for the UA game Sunday night. In your estimation, where would you rate his hands, and his ability to go up and get the football? I know Barrett has been praised for his tenacious blocking skills and excellent athleticism, but does he have the hands to be a pass catching TE or is he more of an H-back type guy (because he lacks prototypical size) that simply needs to be on the field?

- Will Trey Graham redshirt? He seems to be more of a pass catching threat at TE given his size and ball skills from what I've seen in the limited footage available on Rivals and other recruiting sites. Also, reports on him last summer said he was working with the OL at Midway to improve his blocking skills in order to become a well rounded TE. Do you think he has a chance to play next year or is a redshirt in his best interest to "un-clog" the depth chart at TE a little bit?

- What is the status of Josh Marshall and Ian Harris health wise? I know both were injured during two-a-days... will they be ready to go for spring ball or are they both already back to %100 and their injuries simply set them back too far to make an impact late this season and in the bowl game?

- Some of the OB members who were in Glendale for the Fiesta Bowl said they saw Blaine Irby walking around on the sidelines without crutches and apparently no limp... is that enough to raise your confidence that he may be ready to go in 2009? Obviously I would expect him to continue rehab through the spring and summer so it could be a while before it can be determined how much of a contributor he can really be in 2009. When are they projecting him to be able to get back to running and cutting to see where his status is? Fall camp?

- Do you think our lack of production at the TE position in 2008 had any affect on our anemic running game in 2008? When linebackers and safeties know you don't have a TE who can be a threat in the passing game it allows them to key on the RB's and look to stop the run. Do you think increased productivity from this position in 2009 will help our RB production?

- What TE's do you expect the staff to invite to the February JR days? Do you expect the staff to look OOS in 2010 at TE? Last week somebody posted film of Jordan Hicks teammate Alex Smith (6'-5", 230 lbs) and he looked pretty good, any chance he lands on the Longhorn radar given that he plays with Hicks?

- Finally, who would you rate as the #1 TE going into 2009 in the following categories: speed, route running, hands, blocking, strength, jumping ability, change of direction, playmaking ability after the catch.

A: Wow, that's more questions about the tight end position than I've received in the last eight years. Let's address these one at a time.

• The move of Grant to tight end appears to be a full-time move and it's one that he appears to have embraced because he seems to know that it might be the fastest avenue into the line-up.

• You can look for Smith and Mitchell to stay in the mix with the offensive line. Those guys were only playing tight end because they were in a pinch this season due to injuries. Those guys are offensive linemen now, but they could contribute as extra blockers in short-yardage situations next year.

• I don't think Howard's final home has been settled on yet, but I would bet that he's going to stick it out at defensive end when it's all said and done.

• The Longhorns are very excited about Matthews, but it might take some time for him to settle into to the pass-catching aspect of the position. He's a terrific athlete and looks the part, but he's never played in an offense where his receiving skill has really been utilized. It's not a shock that he struggled some in the week of all-star practices as a receiver because he's never had balls thrown to him like the ones that he saw in Florida. Give him some time to develop and he'll likely be fine, but it's a process and he's going to be ticking to his own clock. There's no question that he can help this team with his blocking, potentially right away.

• As far as Graham is concerned, it's hard to project anyone for certain as a redshirt this year because of depth issues and the fact that the position is so unsettled. I will say that I think Graham has to make the same adjustments as a receiver that Matthews and I think the best part of Graham's game is his blocking. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he emerged as a blocking back candidate out of the backfield in short-yardage situations because he really thrived in those situations this season.

• It remains to be seen whether Marshall and Harris will make a meaningful impact next season. A couple of people that I spoke with this week think that Marshall might have a hard time making an impact next season unless he makes a total commitment to the craft. He showed some promise in the spring and summer, but he might not be someone that factors into next season a great deal. I think the jury is still out there for Harris as well.

• Walking around without a cane or limp is not the same as being ready to play at the highest level of college football. I've heard nothing in regards to Irby that has me thinking that he'll be ready to go before mid-season. I would quit holding out hope for anything sooner.

• Yes, I don't think there's any question that the complete destruction of the tight end position had an impact on the running game. How could it not? The Longhorns were completely unable to substitute at the position without giving up their plan of attack 90% of the time. If the Longhorns can upgrade at tight end in 2009, it should obviously help the running game, but it's impossible to know how much improvement we'll see and just how impacting it might be. This is where the arrival of Matthews and Graham could help out, if even just a little.

• Unless I see something that makes me think otherwise, I would count on the Longhorns looking in-state at the tight end position in recruiting for 2010. Naquan Lee of Crockett is the best prospect in the state at the position in terms of physical ability, but he might have some academic hurdles. Dibol's Antonio Johnson is another prospect to watch, but this might be a position that takes some time to unfold. The Longhorns could just as easily go with a bigger receiver, with the idea that they can turn him into an H-back/tight end. I've wondered if Austin Bowie's DeAndre Perry isn't someone to watch.

• Finally, if I had to bet money on someone emerging as a playmaker at the position in 2009, I've got my money on Grant. If it's not him, the position might have some real problems entering the season.

Q: (MCB0703) - 1. During this season, I've resisted the temptation to follow others on the board with concerns and comments about the running game. But after the running game performance in the Fiesta Bowl, I have to agree that these concerns are legitimate...& quite frankly, should be at the top of the list for off-season improvement for this team. With that said, do you see any OL player changes (outside of Dockery) that could help improve the running game? Would moving Tray Allen, Kyle Hix, David Snow, or anybody else to a new position help? Also, I am one that believes in Mac McWhorter & his performances over the years...but this season it just seemed as if the OL was just blocking to gain the necessary yards for a first down...what I mean is, if it's 3rd & 2, a run play is called, the OL would seem to do what it took to gain 3 yards...I just didn't see the attitude & performance level needed for big-run plays...does that seem accurate? Quite frankly, I want to see Allen, Aundre McGaskey, Mason Walters, or anybody else line up & just destroy the DL in front of them...& I really didn't see that this season.

2. Have you heard much about Eddie Jones during the bowl practices or heading into the spring? His natural talent just seems to be through the roof, but his play has been somewhat quiet since he arrived. Is this a guy that Muschamp can develop or are other players passing him by in terms of developing their talent?

3. A few weeks ago, I asked you & Jason Suchomel to rank (in the LSR) VY, GG, & Adrian Peterson if all 3 were apart of the same recruiting class. Now, I'd like to try the other side...if you could look back @ the best defensive players from the state of TX & previous LSR's, who would you have in your top 5, just based on high school talent evaluation? My first thoughts would include Tommy Harris, Aaron Williams, Sergio Kindle, and Jarvis Moss, but that's just of the top of my head. How would you rank your all-time LSR defensive players?

A: I think the biggest thing with the offensive line is that all of the players that return seem to be in a holding pattern in their development. Every single one of those guys has the potential to be great, but none have reached that level. As this team heads into 2009, it's going to be time for guys like Adam Ulatoski, Kyle Hix, Michael Huey, Charlie Tanner and Chris Hall to take it up a notch. Simply being pretty good means that these guys are not maximizing their potential. Forget about scheme because more than anything else, this group needs to start playing like men, and angry ones at that. We didn't see any attitude with this group at all this season and if the running game is going to take off next year, these guys have to make it happen. Emerging sophomore David Snow could also be a major factor if he continues to come on.

As far as Jones is concerned, he's a strong candidate to start at defensive end next season, along with Sam Acho. His problem is that he just cannot stay healthy and that was reinforced this week with the confirmation that he's scheduled for off-season ankle and shoulder surgery. If he can't stay healthy, look for sophomore Russell Carter and possibly true freshman Alex Okafor to battle for playing time in his place. Obviously, Sergio Kindle will have an impact on the position as well, but he'll be listed officially as a linebacker.

Finally, I would rank the all-time top five defensive prospects list from the LSR (1997-2009) like this:

1. Sergio Kindle - LB - Class of 2006 (Signed with Texas)
2. Derrick Johnson - LB - Class of 2001 (Signed with Texas)
3. Tommie Harris - DT - Class of 2001 (Signed with Oklahoma)
4. Aaron Williams - CB - Class of 2008 (Signed with Texas)
5. Cory Redding - DE - Class of 1999 (Signed with Texas)

Q: (HuffTex) - Got a couple for you. With the loss of such a tremendous senior class of leaders like Chris Ogbonnaya, Roy Miller, Quan Cosby, Brian Orakpo, etc., who besides Colt McCoy steps up as the vocal leader on each side of the ball next year? I think Shipley leads with his effort, etc., but he doesn't seem that vocal to me. Is Chris Hall, or Adam Ulatoski, guy's whom I know the team has a lot of fondness for, the kind of guy's that will keep things loose, but also know when to jump on someone's ass who is not towing the line? Is Sergio Kindle, presuming he returns, the kind of leader he seems to be, ie; GREAT FREAKY athlete, who also knows when to turn up the heat on some poor effort?

A: That's a great question and the 2009 team has a lot of work to do in terms of replacing some great upper-class leadership. It helps that the team's biggest and most important leader (Colt McCoy) returns to lead the way. Outside of McCoy, I would look to Hall, Ulatoski, Jordan Shipley for the veteran leadership on offense. Those guys are all very respected, have a lot of skins on the wall and they understand the commitment needed to get to the top.

Over on the defense, there's really not any shortage of leadership candidates. I would expect that Sergio Kindle, Lamarr Houston, Eddie Jones, Roddrick Muckelroy, Jared Norton, Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon are all guys that are A-type personalities that will have no problem taking control of the locker room and demanding excellence.

Really and truly, this shouldn't be an area of huge concern for the program. I think the reigns are in good hands.

Q: (Wneder) - Ketch, right or wrong, those who do not pull for Texas have put their final arguments in the case against the Horns being a Top 1 or 2 team. It seems the world has settled on the following points against UT:

1. Soft offensive line play.
2. Lack of a viable deep passing game.
3. A noticeable lack of a dangerous running game.
4. A complete dependence on Colt McCoy. If he's gone, the team would fall apart.

How do you think the coaching staff will/should address these concerns before the start of next season? What players do you see rising to the occasion in the off-season so that none of these criticisms are relevant next year?

A: Well, let's take a look at each of the four issues and see what we can come up with.

1. As I started a little earlier in the report, the biggest thing this group of offensive linemen needs is just a little maturity - from boys to men.

From left to right along the starting line-up- Adam Ulatoski (fourth year), Charlie Tanner (fifth year), Chris Hall (fifth year), Michael Huey (third year) and Kyle Hix (third year) all will be multi-year starters that need to take their play up a notch. It's debatable how much better Ulatoski, Tanner and Hall can be, but Huey and Hix have ceilings that haven't been reached and if they mature into the NFL prospects that they are projected to become, this line is going to be better than it was in 2008. Ulatoski, Hix and Huey are all players that missed the chance to redshirt, so they have seen their expected growth accelerated, but the truth is that this is the time when all three should really start to take off, as they enter their third and fourth years.

2. Sophomore Malcolm Williams will not be able to replace everything that Quan Cosby brought to the offense this season, but he will give this team more of a true vertical threat on the perimeter than Cosby was able to provide. The continued development of Brandon Collins will also help, as will the potential emergence of D.J. Grant at tight end. All of those players should compliment mid-range dynamo Jordan Shipley.

3. The offensive line's continued development is one area that will help. I think it's also important that the staff spend a lot of time to studying teams like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, to see how those teams are able to spread the field out and still run the football with a power game. This area just isn't good enough for the staff to think that minor tweaks will be enough. In my mind there needs to be some serious soul-searching from everyone on the offensive staff and after they determine exactly how they want to move forward with the running game in 2009, they need to make a real commitment towards making it a reality. That means more practice reps in the running game and probably a little less in the passing game. You cannot expect to have a great running game in my opinion unless it's a stressed priority every single day of practice, especially in the spring.

4. It's going to be hard to get away from that. Oklahoma would have gone into the sewer without Sam Bradford and the same is true of Florida this year with Tim Tebow. In the meantime, cross your fingers and hope that John Chiles sticks around and makes a real commitment to making himself the best player that he can become.

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