August 31, 2008

The grades are in - FAU report card

As far as season-openers go, this one couldn't have gone much better. The Longhorns completely dismantled and outmanned Florida Atlantic on Saturday night in rolling to a 52-10 win, but there's still plenty of improvement across the board that can be made in the coming weeks. Still, you want to know who looked great and who needs to step it up a little. That's what we're breaking down in our position-by-position report card.

Grading scale

A - All-American level
B - All-Conference level
C - Average
D - Below average
F - Complete failure

Quarterback - Coming into this season junior quarterback Colt McCoy is looking to streamline his game, which means fewer turnovers and better efficiency. With more than two dozen starts under his belt, McCoy looked as comfortable on the field against the Owls as I have ever seen him look, and there never seemed to be a moment in the game when he didn't seem to be in total peace with everything going on around him. In completing 24 of 29 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns, McCoy put together as efficient of a performance as anyone could ever hope to see. Outside of one forced pass to John Chiles when the team was in the "Q-package", he was pretty much flawless.

When you add in the facts that he led the Longhorns in rushing with a seemingly easily obtained 103 yards on 12 carries and didn't commit a turnover, he provided evidence that he can challenge for All-Big 12 honors this season. If he can build on this performance and it stays at a consistent level throughout the year, the Longhorns are going to be very tough to beat. You never want to make too much out of one game, especially the first one, but McCoy looked like a potential X-factor that everyone had wanted Chiles to become.

Speaking of Chiles, I think we saw a few sides of his development tonight. It's clear that he has a lot of room for improvement, but that fourth quarter touchdown pass could be a big confidence booster and if you watch the play closely you'll see that he made not one, but two reads on the throw. He's making definite progress, even if it's coming at a slower pace than everyone probably would prefer. The important thing is that he has something concrete that he can build on heading into game two.

Overall, it's hard to argue with nearly 400 yards of total offense, five touchdowns and zero turnovers in the production department.

Grade: A+

Running backs - It wasn't the breakout performance that I had been calling for earlier in the week, but sophomore Vondrell McGee had a very solid 63 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. The most impressive aspect of McGee's performance to me is that he always seems to get downhill and he minimizes the negative yardage with his ability to hit the hole quickly. In fact, there was only one run all night by a Texas back that went for negative yardage. Like McGee, senior Chris Ogbonnaya turned in a workmanlike effort with 51 total yards and a touchdown. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is going to provide McCoy another outlet that few have talked about coming into the season.

The guy that really opened some eyes at this position on Saturday night is redshirt freshman Cody Johnson. Let me tell you right now, that rumbling, stiff-arming performance (38 yards on ten carries), which included a punishing long touchdown run that was called back because of a penalty, is going to give Mack Brown a huge smile. In his heart of hearts, Brown loves that Natrone Means-style of punishing tailbacks and you better believe he'll want to see more of him down the road. The thing that jumps out about Johnson is that he runs on every play like its fourth and two. Finally, the redshirt is off of Jeremy Hills. It'll be curious to see his snap count from here on out.

Overall, the final numbers at the position included 29 carries for 122 yards and two touchdowns, along with seven receptions for 45 yards and a touchdown. If all of that was attached to one player's name instead of a committee, you'd have someone that we'd be talking about as an all-conference level performer. Obviously, that's a rather simple way of looking at the picture, but it does put the level of overall production into perspective. It was a rock solid first night for these guys.

Grades: B

Wide receivers - This group might not have posted huge numbers, but they took advantage of most of their opportunities in the passing game and they did a suburb job of blocking. Jordan Shipley had the best night, catching four passes for 53 yards and a touchdown. Senior Quan Cosby had a modest three receptions for 34 yards, although he missed an opportunity to make the biggest play of the night on offense when he failed to hold onto a deep pass from McCoy inside the five-yard line. If you're looking for some positives to take from the game, it certainly will not hurt that redshirt freshman Malcolm Williams (three receptions for 35 yards) and sophomore James Kirkendoll (two receptions for 39 yards and a touchdown) both had a little bit of success on Saturday night that should help their confidence and provide a stepping stone for the future. This group's overall production of 13 receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns was solid, if not spectacular.

Grade: B-

Tight ends - Perhaps the best surprise of the night was the sudden emergence of sophomore tight end Blaine Irby, who didn't create much off-season buzz this year, but certainly seemed to have a coming out party with a team-best seven receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown. To give you some perspective on Irby's performance, consider that Jermichael Finley only had one game in his career with that many catches in game and only twice last season did he post that many yards receiving in a game. With Josh Marshall on the sideline, Irby handled a lot of the tight end responsibilities and he held up well in every phase. If he can give performances like that each week, this position's productivity might actually improve from last season.

Grade: A

Offensive line - Absolutely dominant. It's going to be hard to single anyone out from this group because the combination of Adam Ulatoski, Charlie Tanner, Chris Hall, Cedric Dockery, Michael Huey and Kyle Hix were in total command on the field and looked like a well-oiled machine. Ulatoski's level of play was especially impressive because he was playing his first game at left tackle and I'm not sure that it wasn't the most impressive he's ever looked in a Longhorn uniform. He'll face tougher competition for sure, but he was excellent in pass protection and he was improved in the running game. That was the guy everyone has been waiting to see for the last two seasons. Tanner was also putting together one of the best performances of his career before he went out with an injury, but when Huey came into the game, the dominance continued. His ability to get on people and punish them in the running game is impressive when you consider that he's a young sophomore.

Those three weren't the only notables. Hall, Dockery and Hix were all outstanding in their own right. Also, true freshman ]David Snow did a nice job in his first taste of game action. If there was a negative, it had to be the ineffectiveness of a few of the other young back-ups. Sophomore Trey Allen had a very rough time when he came into the game in the first quarter with Chiles at quarterback, so much so that the drive pretty much stalled out in three plays.

Grade: A

Offensive game plan - There was a lot of good to take away from what the Longhorns tried to accomplish on offense. First, it was a great sign that the Longhorns didn't get away from their bread-and-butter (the spread) and go into more power sets. Even when the Longhorns were in the shotgun with their three-wide sets, they were still able run the ball with ease and being able to spread the field out allowed for some of the underneath passing lanes to open up for McCoy. The Longhorns didn't show much from their Q-package, but they really did need a lot of exotics in this game, although the Longhorns did attempt a few gadgets. This was a vanilla gameplan, but it was exactly what was called for with the uncertainty at a couple of positions. This was a warm-up act for the next few weeks and Greg Davis put his guys in a position to have success and build some confidence, while managing to put together that type of efficiency that could have made for a 70-point night if he wanted to push the envelope.

Grade: B

Defensive line - This group gave a solid, workmanlike effort that eventually wore down the Owls in the third quarter. Although the Longhorns suffocated the FAU running game (1.6 yards per rush on 23 carries) and made a great fourth down stand that essentially ended the game, they did struggle some with FAU's cut blocks, which isn't a huge surprise when you consider that it was the first game and that's not something that these guys have seen much of in practice because you don't work on cut blocking against your own players in practice. They'll get better at defending those blocks next week. Even though they never recorded a sack against Rusty Smith, they were starting to get to him on a regular basis when the Owls decided to wave the white flag in the third quarter. Senior Brian Orakpo played like an All-America candidate, as he defended the run well and provided constant harassment on Smith. The guy that might have played the best of the ends was senior Henry Melton, who forced an interception with his deflected pass and seemed to provide a consistent disruptive presence. Fellow senior defensive tackle Roy Miller and junior Lamarr Houston plugged the middle of the line and created a push in the pocket all night. This might not have been a big stat game for the defensive line, but they had a good opening night.

Grade: B+

Linebackers - This might have been the first Longhorn game that I've ever covered where I didn't think about any physical liabilities at this position at any point during the contest. Junior Roddrick Muckelroy was active all night and led the team with six tackles and a tackle for loss. Fellow junior Sergio Kindle showed his explosiveness when he was able to beat Smith to a loose ball in the FAU backfield that ended a potential scoring threat. Throw in a good-looking performance from Jared Norton (he needs to play more) and rock solid performances from Rashad Bobino, Keenan Robinson and Dustin Earnest, and you've got a group that swarmed to the ball, eliminated the boundary from the opposing offense and didn't miss tackles. They'll have games where they make bigger impacts, but it sure was nice not having to worry about this group having problems with a lesser opponent.

Grade: B

Secondary - Admit it; you thought Smith was going to throw for 500 yards after the first quarter. Well, after getting gutted early in the game, the Texas pass defense really settled down in the second half and finished with a respectable night. To limit the Owls to 255 passing yards after giving up more than 150 in the first quarter, says a good deal about the adjustments that the Longhorns made on that side of the ball. Frankly, everyone looked a step slow in the first quarter, but once they got their feet wet, they started to settle in. The missed tackles by Earl Thomas and Curtis Brown that led to two huge pass plays can be corrected. That's really true of all of the issues this team had on the night. These young kids are going to be a work in progress, but I thought Thomas and fellow freshman Blake Gideon did some nice things, especially the always-active Thomas. Over at cornerback, Deon Beasley seemed to settle in nicely once he got on the field and sophomore Chykie Brown had a fairly uneventful evening. Senior cornerback Ryan Palmer started slow, but played with more confidence as the game went on and it was good to see him get that interception. Overall, these guys were solid over the final three quarters.

Grade: C

Defensive game plan - New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp didn't go nuts in his first game, as he rushed four all night and really limited the amount of pressure that came from outside of the front four. For all of the blitzing that they've worked on since camp started, there was very little on Saturday night. By keeping things simple, Muschamp allowed a lot of his young guys to build a comfort level that was desperately needed. The biggest thing to come out of this game from the sidelines were the adjustments that Muschamp and the staff made during the game and at halftime. If they had some squeaky wheels early in the game, he made sure to get the WD-40 out immediately. A game that started off looking a whole lot like 2007 turned into a complete shutdown in the second half.

Grade: B

Special teams - He's baaaaack. It was hardly a shock that the Longhorns blocked a punt on Saturday night because defensive backs coach Duane Akina is back in charge of the punt block unit and that usually leads to big things. Other good things to come from the third phase of football included John Gold's punting (42.7 yards on three kicks), Justin Tucker's kickoffs (outside of the shank on the opening kickoff) and Hunter Lawrence's 40-yard field goal. All three of those guys are newcomers, but they stepped in and did their jobs well. There were too many missed tackles by the coverage units, but that's to be expected in the first game because you can't simulate the game speed of these parts of the kicking game. Look for that area to be improved next week. If there was any real concern it was probably in the return game because there weren't any big plays.

Grade: B-

Overall - I'm not sure that Brown and his staff could have asked for a better opener. There were so many good things to repot on, but there were just enough mistakes and mishaps that the coaches will be able to coach the kids extremely hard this week. The best news of all is that the team dominated the game up-front on both sides of the ball and you can see where this team still has a lot of room for improvement. The team played with moxie and determination, which wasn't always on the case last year. Overall, the Longhorns were supposed to overwhelm the Owls and they did - mission accomplished. In the process, they looked every bit like a team that can achieve some big things if the development across the board continues.

Grade: A-

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