Archive for August, 2014

Dominic Espinosa Lost for the Season

Posted by    |    August 31st, 2014 at 5:50 pm

A broken ankle shelves the Longhorns’ pivot man and makes OL depth a pivotal concern.

Per multiple reports, senior center Dominic Espinosa broke his ankle in last night’s game against North Texas when he got rolled up on in the third quarter.

That ain’t good news.

Redshirt freshman Jake Raulerson replaced Espinosa after he went down, and appeared to be anything but ready for prime time with a few snap miscues and various blocking gaffes against an undersized UNT front.  The road gets no easier from here.  BYU and UCLA both play odd fronts with man size/man strenf nose tackles who were going to offer stern tests for even a seasoned senior.  Raulerson has the smarts, makeup and overall athleticism to be an oustanding OL one day, but that day is still a few thousand squats, deadlifts and cleans away.

It will be interesting to see how Coach Wickline approaches this one.  Raulerson was reportedly showing well in practice and standing up to guys like Dez Jackson, but it’s possible that the entire offense could be held hostage if he’s simply unable to bring the requisite physicality against a rough upcoming slate.  Darius James is the next likely option, as he played center in high school and brings a lot more in the way of mass and power to the equation.  He spent a good part of the Spring and Summer shuffling though various positions on the OL, and the optimistic take on that would be that Wickline was searching for the best spot to deploy his unique talents.

That, or the light just hasn’t come on for him yet.

We’ll have more this week on the likely game plan impact for BYU and beyond, but wanted to get this up quickly and give us a place to vent our howls of anguish.

Hook ’em, Dom – get well soon, and we’ll see you in 2015.

Shooting From the Hip: Texas 38, North Texas 7

Posted by    |    August 30th, 2014 at 10:44 pm

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

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 %#$@ery 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.

Week One CFB Open Thread

Posted by    |    August 30th, 2014 at 10:46 am

College football is back, baby

A glorious full day of college football action is about to kick off.

Are you all a-tingle?

I’m all a-tingle.

I’m going to have eyes on UCLA-Virginia early and will be playing the rest of the day by ear.

Post your thoughts, observations, musings and deeply held grievances here.

Pre Game Video: Texas

Posted by    |    August 30th, 2014 at 10:00 am

The SEC Is Still in Schematic Denial, Praying That The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle Spread Will Go Away

Posted by    |    August 29th, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Why did A&M rout South Carolina last night? Why did Auburn win the SEC last year? When talent playing fast opposes talent paralyzed by the SEC’s stubborn defensive assumptions, it’s open season for the innovators.

Three years into joining college football’s premier league, Texas A&M – a former .500ish Big 12 team, now revived under new management – is still skewering SEC assumptions and its implicit agreements about space and pace. Auburn has also gotten in on the act with their version of the run-based HUNH when Gus Malzahn elevated a laughingstock Tiger program from 3-9 to the national title game exploiting similar SEC coaching stubbornness.

When will SEC coaches learn that denial isn’t a defense?

Otherwise, Alabama’s bowl game against Oklahoma will keep happening.  While the Big 12 limps along at a comparative (and inarguable) talent deficit vis a vis the the loaded SEC, astute Big 12 fans can only shrug and laugh when they watch A&M and Auburn light up “a defensive league where that stuff won’t fly.”  Of course it works.  Big 12 defensive coordinators have been forced to teach their defenses to actually think since 2008.  With varying degrees of success, I might add.  But the days of 11 defensive marionettes looking to the sideline for a brain transplant every thirty seconds are over.  The HUNH won’t allow it.

Yet fans and media are still struggling to try to piece together what happened last night after Texas A&M rampaged through South Carolina like Nat Turner at a Lawrence Welk concert.  You can see the struggle for narrative to explain this mystery.  The 52-28 score doesn’t capture the full range of A&M’s offensive dominance. They racked up 680 yards of total offense – the most allowed in Gamecock history – and smart, poised Aggie QB Kenny Hill (a product of a sophisticated HUNH spread system since he was a tween – now seemingly the default offense of Texas high school football) amassed 511 yards throwing to mostly wide open receivers in the middle of the field.  Frankly, it looked like a skeleton drill.

What the hell happened?  Wasn’t South Carolina supposed to be good?

That remains to be seen.  Even if we pretend that the SEC East has significant responsibility for the larger SEC brand (it hasn’t meaningfully since 2008) it’s quite possible that South Carolina might not be very good.  They lost their three best DL and the best parts of their secondary.  Their replacements did not shine.  The offense was built largely around hoping A&M’s defensive backs would lose their minds in coverage.  But the bigger realization could be that maybe they are pretty good – so long as their opponent will agree to play the game “properly.”

The old SEC way.

For years, the SEC has had a roughly agreed upon style of play that allowed coaches to focus on amassing excellent talent and then provide 30 second brain transplants from the sideline between each play so that this talent could line up correctly.  While the league is inarguably college football’s most talented and passionate, it is not its best coached or most innovative.  And they’re getting a wake-up call.

Watching many SEC defenses incapable of lining up properly against an unbalanced line in every Auburn game last year was curious – in fact, how is that even possible?  It’s JV level stuff.  Why did South Carolina’s safeties keep looking to the sideline, imploring their coaches for guidance like a flopping Italian striker seeking a penalty kick?

The answer is simple: Auburn and A&M’s pace denies their opponents the opportunity for brain transplants and their formations create uncertainty and hesitancy.  The players don’t have a clue what to do because they’re not taught to cope, think or adapt on their own.  They should be running their own HUNH defense.  But they’re stuck in 1997.

A conventional SEC suits Nick Saban well.  He’s a master of program-building and optimization and his New England Patriot style jumbo 3-4 is a fantastic starting template for destroying relatively crude traditional college level NFL-style offenses.  Destroy the run early. Handle the same 3-4 passing formations you see in practice daily with fairly complex disguised coverages relayed and coached up between each snap.  Get input from the coaches if anything deviates while the opposition huddles or stands at the LOS as they get their own instructions because who could possibly trust their QB to run the game?  And do it fast, to boot.

Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin – like Auburn’s Gus Malzahan – isn’t very interested in honoring that implicit SEC agreement.  Nick Saban doesn’t want to recruit pass rushers and simplify his defense to cope – he wants to change the rules to punish their insolence.  That’s not the right instinct.  Not very Process, Nick.

A&M’s offensive success wasn’t just about Johnny Manziel.  While his talents were undeniable, Kenny Hill is going to put up similar system passing (not rushing) numbers because that’s what good systems managed by good quarterbacks standing behind good OLs do when they face defenses that can’t line up properly.

If the HUNH spread is the perfect enabler of basketball on grass, imagine a basketball defense that stares at the sideline mouthing,”It’s not fair!” every time the opponent decides to fast break.  Identifying the stupidity of this and the coach’s inability to impart defensive principles rather than heavy-handed play-by-play instruction should be glaringly obvious.

Yet most of the SEC continues on, pretending it’s not happening.

While the conference has certainly flirted with the spread or the no-huddle for some time, most of its forms were crude or those teams have not possessed the offensive talent or the schematic efficiency of the Texas high school bred, Sumlin-run version or Gus Malzahn’s masterful ability to pick apart schematic tendencies with simple alignment shifts.  It’s about reps, decision-making and proficiency.  There’s no doubt Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss wants to operate similarly, but the quality of the Rebel talent and the decision-making at QB is a natural governor on that engine.  For now.

A fawning hometown SEC press is probably the greatest enabler as it can’t see past conference national title dominance (fostered largely by talent disparities and favorable match-ups) and still imagines that Steve Spurrier is schematically relevant for his run of dominance in the 1990s.  Never mind that he hasn’t been X&O relevant for a decade and a half after the NFL tousled his hair and dismissed him back to college – trips left and timed fade routes – oh my God, how will we ever adjust to this incredible innovator?

Spurrier broke out of the doldrums of perennial 7-5 Gamecock seasons by – wait for it – recruiting really, really well. The SEC media confused that breakthrough with coaching proficiency.  Last night, Gamecock coaching was laid bare.  And it got him a 52-28 caning at home.  Don’t worry, Steve.  Some future SEC opponent will agree to play you “correctly” and then you can get a rousing upset win later in the season.

This post isn’t about the HUNH’s utter supremacy.  It has its pluses and minuses like any offense, but no offense flourishes more against a clueless opposition.  The examples of its failure are many and obvious.  In fact, some of the game plans executed against its best practitioners were done adeptly by SEC teams (Florida vs. OU, 2008).  But by and large, the current SEC coaches still don’t have a clue.  And those that do – like Nick Saban – want to change the rules instead of adapt their precious model.

So here’s a bone, SEC coaches: start with some LSU film.  The Tiger roster isn’t exactly overrun with Rhodes Scholars, but John Chavis understands that complexity and pace is best dealt with stressing simplicity and assignment clarity.  Tackling improves, aggression is unleashed, turnovers get forced, long plays over the top don’t happen.  Stressing broad applicable principles over specific play calls with good athletes is vastly preferable to a confused secondary staring to the sideline begging for their accustomed 30 second brain transplant and the perfect play call…that they won’t be able to execute in time.

Denial isn’t a defense. How long does it continue?