September 21, 2008

The grades are in - Rice report card

In the games within the game on Saturday night, the No.7 Texas Longhorns took some definitive steps forward as a team, which was almost as important as the actual win. So, which players and positions took steps forward and were there any that didn't? In the aftermath of a 52-10 win over Rice, Orangebloods takes a position-by-position look at how things went.

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - What else is there to be said about Colt McCoy, other than he's the best player in the program right now, along with being the heart and soul of the Longhorns? If there's anything that is crystal clear in the non-conference portion of the schedule, it's that McCoy needs some tougher competition because these first three games have been like child's play for the fourth-year junior. All McCoy did last night was complete 19 of 23 passes for 329 yards and four touchdowns through the air, while leading the Longhorns with 83 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. At this point in the season there's not another player in the country playing better than McCoy, maybe as well, but nobody is playing better. Did I mention he had another turnover-free evening? Perhaps things won't look the same when the schedule gets tougher, but for the moment, the Longhorns couldn't be getting more out of this position. We didn't get a chance to see John Chiles in the first half and when he entered the game in relief of McCoy, he did some nice things on the ground, completed a nice third down throw and also committed a fumble that handed the Owls their only touchdown of the game. That's the only thing keeping the position grade from being an A+.

Grade: A

Running backs - This is such a confusing position to sort out through three games. With Foswhitt Whittaker out of the line-up, the combination of Vondrell McGee and Chris Ogbonnaya tallied 33 yards on 10 carries. Honestly, I don't even know how two of the supposed top three backs in the program cannot average better than 3.3 yards per carry against Rice. At least Ogbonnaya was able to haul in a beautiful 46-yard touchdown run to justify his spot in the line-up. On the other hand, McGee is a month into this season and he just doesn't seem to be a good fit for this offense. The brightest spot for the Longhorns at running back was the continued emergence of redshirt freshman Cody Johnson, who rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Most important is the fact that he was the only running back to provide an explosive play in the running game. On the bright side, at least none of the guys put the ball on the turf.

Grades: C-

Wide receivers - There's something funny about Jordan Shipley as a receiver. Although he's not the true deep threat that the Longhorns need to help stretch the field, all he does is make plays. In catching five passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns, Shipley gave the Longhorns a big-play weapon in the passing game that was desperately needed. Quan Cosby was very good with seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown, although his fumble in the first quarter set the team back a bit early in the game. Still, those two guys are bringing it every day. Outside of those two, we saw Brandon Collins, James Kirkendoll and Malcolm Williams all catch passes, but its petty clear the training wheels are still on all of those players. Overall, it's hard to argue with your two starters combining for 200+ yards receiving and three touchdowns. Only the turnover keeps the position from getting an A-grade.

Grade: B+

Tight ends - Should I eliminate this position from the grading scale considering that there aren't any tight ends left to grade? With the likely season-ending injury to Blaine Irby on Saturday night, the Longhorns are suddenly in a position where they either need to move some parts around or just move on without it. After catching two passes in the first half, no tight end was a factor whatsoever in the second half and that figures to be a constant theme from here on out. Bad luck, injuries and mediocre recruiting efforts in recent years have left this position in dire need heading into the rest of the season.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive line - I said going into the game that the offensive line needed to pave the way for 250+ yards rushing and limit the Owls to fewer than two sacks. Well, the Longhorns rushed for 259 yards and had Chiles not decided to use the football as a walking stick in the second half, the line might have achieved second part of the goal. Overall, this group did a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage. Both Adam Ulatoski and Kyle Hix continue to play at a high level. If there was a player who struggled at times on Saturday, it was senior guard Cedric Dockery. On more than one occasion in the first half, he allowed Rice players to completely blow up plays in the backfield. His level of consistency needs to continue to improve.

Grade: B+

Offensive game plan - There's not much negative you can talk when your offense rolls up more than 600 yards of offense and never punts. If I had to nitpick anything, I'll point to the lack of development of the young back-up receivers. The team must force the issue here on some level, especially while the schedule is weak, because if either Cosby or Shipley are knocked out of the line-up, there's nobody that inspires confidence at that position to replace them. Nobody likes to give the OC love around these parts, but doesn't Greg Davis have to get some credit for the emergence of McCoy? It sure does seem like the quarterback is the best player in this program a lot of years. That can't be by coincidence all of the time, right?

Grade: A

Defensive line - Give this group credit for really picking up the pace in the final three quarters of this game after a very slow start. The Longhorns tried to rush four for most of the first half and in the early portion of the game the pressure was minimal. That includes senior defensive end Brian Orakpo, who did not do a good job of winning one-on-one battles early on. However, a switch went off for this group in the second quarter and they played one heck of a game when the dust settled, especially Orakpo (five tackles, two sacks, tackles for loss, one forced fumble, two pass breakups and two quarterback hits). Also, while we're talking about the defensive ends, someone needs to explain to me why Sam Acho isn't the starter over Henry Melton? No offense to the senior, but the sophomore is a difference maker and having him opposite Orakpo makes the Texas defense so much better on pass rush downs. Over at defensive tackle, junior Lamarr Houston had an impact performance, as did senior Aaron Lewis. Overall, this group produced seven tackles for loss and five sacks, while limiting to a whopping 17 net yards rushing.

Grade: A

Linebackers - Very quietly, junior Sergio Kindle is starting to emerge as a force for the Longhorns in his hybrid linebacker/defensive end role. The former five-star prospect had five tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss in the game, but he was around the ball a lot on Saturday and his presence off the edge, combined with Orakpo and Acho, gives this defense the best pass rush potential in Mack Brown's tenure. Add in Roddrick Muckelroy's seven tackles and Jared Norton's four tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss, and you've got something cooking at the linebacker position. At this point in the season it seems pretty obvious that these three guys need the majority of the reps. By the way, the fourth guy in the mix might go to Keenan Robinson. Whenever he's on the field, he gets to the football and he definitely gets a shout out for throwing a receiver into the quarterback in the second half.

Grade: B

Secondary - Let's start with the good news: third-year sophomore Chykie Brown is starting to come into his own at one of two starting cornerback spots. Yeah, he had a few balls completed on him, but he also got in the mix and broke some passes up and nearly had an interception in the end zone. His five tackles, one tackle for loss and two pass break-ups are a slight indication of where his talent could be taking him. On the other hand, junior Deon Beasley and Ryan Palmer need to play better than they did on Saturday when both failed to get their hand on a pass targeted in their direction. The entire secondary will have nightmares about Jarett Dillard this week after he abused the Longhorns to the tune of nine catches for 158 yards and a touchdown. The young safeties weren't bad on Saturday, as much as they were just kind of there. Overall, this group has to keep getting better because they are not quite ready for prime time.

Grade: C

Defensive game plan - I don't know if it was the 11-play defensive stand inside the six-yard line or what, but Will Muschamp decided to turn the hounds loose a little in those final 30 minutes of action and Rice never knew what hit them. Until that point Muschamp seemed content with playing their base defense and sending a four-man rush after the quarterback, and it wasn't exactly working like he'd hope. Yet if we've learned anything about Muschamp in the first three games of the season, it's that he'll make needed adjustments sooner rather than later. The defense must tighten up, but Muschamp has the guys in a position to win.

Grade: B

Special teams - The kickers were good and the return game was just ok. That pretty much sums it up on a day when the special teams didn't play a huge factor in the game. Freshman Justin Tucker was outstanding with four of his eight kickoffs going for touchbacks. Meanwhile, Hunter Lawrence knocked down his only field goal attempt of 40 yards. Cosby had one punt return for eight yards and an average of 23.3 yards on three kickoff returns.

Grade: C

Overall - The Longhorns continue to look like a much better team this year than they were in 2007. Already in three games the Longhorns have won games by more than 29 points and that only happened twice last year. The offense is going to need to figure out what to do without a tight end, the running game still has questions, the young receivers still need to emerge and the secondary still must make gigantic improvements, but this is a 12-game process and the bottom line is that the Longhorns were out a decent Rice team. The improvements are still needed and in some areas they are needed pretty fast, but it's hard to argue with the complete dominance that they showed for most of four quarters.

Grade: B+


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