September 24, 2008

Ketch's Locker Room Report

Q: (ccb1) - Mack was down at the press conference. He gave us a glimpse into what he really thought dealing with certain aspects of this team, particularly the running backs low productivity. I for one do not find our offensive scheme to blame for the low production with our "running backs by committee". Against such lesser talent Vondrell McGee, Chris Johnson and Cody Johnson should all have busted the running game wide open, whether they were in the I-formation or not. What gives? Where should the blame fall? Is it talent or offensive formations? And when should some of the blame start to fall on Major Applewhite? I am very concerned that when we face our Big XII schedule Colt McCoy won't be able to account for the majority of the yards anymore and are running backs simply won't produce, thus we will quickly be turned into a one-dimension team. What are your thoughts?

A: Well, you've summed up what a lot of people are thinking about the running game, but I'm going to be honest when I tell you that I don't have all of the answers for this set of questions. Let's start off by agreeing with you that the running backs should be playing at a higher level than they are and if we're trying to find the genesis of the problem, that's where it is. The group of guys you mentioned can't be JAG's every time they touch the ball as runners. The Longhorns have yet to get anything longer than a 16-yard run with any of their running backs to date and that should scare the heck out of everyone with much better defenses coming on the schedule.

The hardest aspect of this current problem to tackle is that there isn't just one answer, but rather a slew of factors that have contributed to the situation that we're currently watching. If you look at Mack Brown's tenure at Texas, the five most productive running backs have been Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson, Jamaal Charles, Hodges Mitchell and Selvin Young. In the case of the first four, you're talking about all of them being national top 50-type prospects and depending on the recruiting service, Young was in that ballpark as well. When you look at the current crop of running backs at Texas, the talent level just isn't where it has always been.

Outside of McGee, who was a national top 50-type prospect and has had a hard time living up to expectations, there's not anyone else that fits that kind of high profile. Yes, there are a couple of other four-star prospects on the roster in Johnson, Foswhitt Whittaker and Jeremy Hills, but none of those guys were projected to be the kind of difference makers in college that the five guys I listed were. You can argue whether the lack of talent is really an issue or not, but I've been warning about the lack of dynamic talents at this position for years and it's coming back to haunt the Longhorns a little with Charles' early departure. History has proven that Mack Brown's best teams at Texas have featured difference makers at that position. Right now the Longhorns have a bunch of good players, but nobody that will be confused with being a great player.

There's also some question about how some of these guys fit into the scheme. While this would seem to be a perfect scheme for Whittaker, it's obviously not a perfect match for guys like McGee and Johnson, with both being a little better suited for an I-formation set nor an another more traditional two-back system.

Overall, I don't think you can put much blame on Applewhite, although I'm sure he has no problem taking some. He wasn't responsible for recruiting any of the players on campus and he really wasn't given much freedom in going after prospects, especially when you consider that the decision to go after only Chris Whaley in 2009 was pretty much made before he ever arrived. He's coaching the guys that he's been given to coach and he definitely needs to get more out of them, but I'd wait longer than three games to point the finger at the new guy. None of these players were setting the world on fire before he arrived.

These next two games are going to be very important for the running game because Texas cannot enter the game with Oklahoma not knowing if they can count on this group of backs. If they think that McCoy can run, pass and will his way to victory without much help from this group, I think they'll sadly be mistaken. Good teams that can match or beat your talent will take away what you do best and that means that at some point these backs are going to have to start making plays. That's the absolute bottom line.

Q: (Topgrpguy) - Much has been said (and I think done) about the better player playing instead of leaning toward seniority. If that is so, who is most in danger of losing their starting spot? Is this equally true on both sides of the ball or is this more of a Muschamp issue?

A: I don't think anyone can point to the defensive side of the ball any longer and suggest that this exists. Outside of Sam Acho, who they officially have behind Brian Orakpo at defensive end instead of Henry Melton, I think Muschamp has gotten his best players on the field. Over on the offensive side of the ball, I think you'll find the same thing, although there was some thought that Michael Huey was better than Cedric Dockery and Charlie Tanner, but wasn't starting because he was younger… oops… less experienced. However, that really hasn't been an issue because Tanner has been out of the line-up since the first half of the first game.

Q: (bgreen4) - What is the situation with Earl Thomas, based on practice reports he was supposed to be a physical/smart football player? After watching the first few games he is neither so why haven't we seen Christian Scott or Ben Wells? And speaking of Wells is he in Duane Akina's doghouse or something?

A: Good questions. I think it's obvious that the speed of the live college game is still too much for Thomas at times. While he has a comfort zone that allows his to make plays in practice, more than anyone on the roster at safety I might add, he doesn't have that yet in the games and it makes his moments of indecision pretty glaring. I think the staff is remaining patient there because they believe the switch will flip on soon and he'll stop thinking and start reacting a lot more. I think the reason we haven't seen Scott or Wells is that the staff feels like those guys are still overwhelmed by the speed of the game and the tasks that would come with being a starter in the Big 12 at safety, even more than Thomas. It's a bad deal when you are forced to start two kids that have never played before and you don't have any other options. You've just got to live with the growing pains and hope they don't get you beat. Also, I don't know if Wells is in the dog house, but I can tell you that everyone is surprised that he hasn't shown more athleticism on the field since he's been on Austin.

Q: (jiaenterū) - First of all I want to congratulate you on having one of the best college football forums in the country. You have created a great experience for fans of Texas Longhorn Football. I have some questions relating to how we will do this year.

Reading the coaches, it would appear that they want us to view ground game production from the collective rather than position specific. i.e. It doesn't matter who is gaining the yards as long as we are gaining it. Doesn't that then mean that we will be counting on Colt (who has had injury issues in the past) to carry the load on the ground? Is that wise or even realistic? So the question is, can we do well without production from the running back position?

Our ability to maintain sustained pressure on the pass happy QBs on our schedule depends on us being able to keep our front four fresh throughout the game. In that vein, how is the development of our second tier DTs coming along and are they ready for prime time?

Finally, going into the season, we all knew our DBs were going to be green. However, I am not sure everyone anticipated a fire drill back there. If we have been recruiting "great" athletes at the position, why are we struggling so much with making tackles--which appears to be one of the major reasons we are giving up too much "YAK".

A: Good set of questions and we'll start at the top. No, I don't think Texas can get by all season without more production and explosive plays from the backs in the ground game. Frankly, I think that's a recipe for disaster. When Vince Young was going nuts on the ground in 2004-05, he also had Benson, Charles, Young and Charles all playing next to him to give him very capable sidekicks, which is what kept teams from just focusing on the quarterback.

Second, I think the staff is happy with the play of the defensive tackles and the reemergence of Aaron Lewis this fall is a big reason why. With him coming on, the Longhorns feel like they've got three top-tier talents in their rotation. I think the staff would like Kheeston Randall to work his way into that No.4 spot before the end of the season because he has some playmaking abilities and NFL size, which are two things some of the other defensive tackles candidates lack.

Finally, the tackling is getting better in my mind. While it was awful at times in the season-opener against Florida Atlantic, the entire secondary has made big improvements there in the following two games. Yes, it needs to get better and it will with each game. I'd be much more worried about the breakdowns in the coverage than the yards after the catch because of missed tackles.

Q: (Hornrush) - It seems to some of us that Cedric Dockery is still struggling at times against mid-level competition. Any chance (based on "best players play") that Michael Huey supplants him and becomes the starter before OU?

A: Probably not. Although Dockery is not playing at an elite-level, the staff seems content with his play and he's emerged as a team leader, which the staff obviously values. Whenever Tanner returns from injury, I'd guess that he's going to have his work cut out in taking that position away from Huey, who is stating to find a comfort zone. He's going to have to not only prove that he can outplay Huey, but also true freshman David Snow, who has gotten better each week and starting to get a lot more playing time with the first group as well. That being said, don't look for Tanner to be back any time soon. Although nothing specific has been said about his ankle injury, Mack mentioned this week that they need to continue to get Snow more reps because they expect they are going to need him for a while in that No.3 role.

Q: (FW Horn) - In light of this insight from utx's friend "Fozzy will be out longer than people think, latest knee injury is more serious than the first." And since we are in desperate need of a home run threat at the tailback position, is there any chance Mack Brown will do the right thing and move Chiles there? IMO anyone who argues that "but then what happens if Colt goes down?" because I'll tell you, our season is over. There is no one on the roster that can do a tenth of the job that Colt is doing right now and that won't change this season, so where is the downside? Chiles could be a HUGE difference maker to our entire team and needs to get more touches where he will be more productive to our chances of winning each week and to me, that means he moves to tailback, at least for this season or until Fozzy can come back fully healthy.

A: No, I don't think there's much a chance at this point that he starts taking reps at running back. On the other hand, he has been taking more snaps at receiver.

Q: (DimiHorn) - 1. What is up with Eddie Jones? Lots of different stories swirling about. Some have said the coaches are upset with him because he talks too much and produces too little. He barely played vs. Rice so I have to believe something is up as I have not heard of injury problems. What do you know?

2. In your opinion was the hit on Irby clean? Lots of debate on this topic Saturday and Sunday. It is terrible for Blain Irby and I'm praying for a full recovery. The DB came in low and caused a brutal injury......possibly a career ender. As unfortunate as it is, it is football and it is a violent game. In my opinion the play was clean but I'd like your thoughts on it.

3. How can a school with such a rich history or great running backs like Texas have such slim pickens at the position? What mistakes/misses have landed us here? Yes I know we have talent but we are used to Ricky, Priest, Cedric, Earl, Jammal, Shon and we don't have anything close to that right now. Who is the next can't miss recruit we have to go out and get? I really believe we are a top 5 team this year if Jammal had stayed.

4. What is your favorite type of cookie? I like white chocolate chip with macadamia nuts......and a glass of milk. Doesn't get better than that.

A: The only thing wrong with Jones is that he's the No.4 defensive end behind Brian Orakpo, Henry Melton and Sam Acho, and now that the Longhorns are playing so much nickel with Sergio Kindle at defensive end, there are even fewer reps to go around. Jones is a team leader and a very popular player, but it's tough sledding over at defensive end as it relates to getting on the field.

I really didn't think that the hit on Irby was dirty, but any time you're tackling that low, bad things can happen. I've seen David Thomas take that hit a million times and he's always gotten up, but every time I saw it, I always cringed. Same with Bo Scaife. Football is a tough sport.

The biggest thing Texas has lacked in recruiting at the running back position is a sense of urgency to get some more dynamic players on the roster. Outside of recruiting Darrell Scott for five months last year, there's been very little thought given to doing whatever is necessary to make the position elite. If you look at the recruiting from last year, the Longhorns took a pair of running backs early on and never even toyed with the idea of looking nationally for better prospects, despite the fact that neither player was considered an elite-level game-breaker in the mode of some of the players you mentioned. In my opinion, the staff doesn't think that there is a problem and that is the biggest problem of all.

Lastly, that's a tough question. Nothing beats a really good chocolate chip cookie in my mind.

Q: (Hbacker) - Greg Davis has shown an ability to radically change and coordinate the offense over the years here, from Major to Chris to Vince to Colt. We now seem to be recruiting with a view toward playing a "spread" type of offense, the type of offense we're running now. In particular, I'm thinking of Gilbert, who seems to be the quintessential spread type QB, used to and comfortable with 3- or 4-WR sets and a single back.

1. Why recruit Chris Whaley at all if this is the case? If Whaley's being recruited as a RB, as everybody in charge seems to insist, isn't he a downhill runner best suited to a pro set, complete with a fullback and big, blocking TE? In a spread attack, he'd be taking handoffs too shallow, and without much of a running start, if any. Don't we need to be recruiting Fozzy or Slaton types?

2. Our receivers: is it a matter of bad evaluation in recruiting (e.g. Payne, Webber) or a coaching failure that has resulted in our not having experienced depth at that position? I'm a bit perplexed how we have such a huge hole between our 2 starting seniors and the young guys now getting their feet wet. We haven't had a real star WR under Mack other than Roy Williams (Sweed was close, but not elite). Why? How is that possible at a place like Texas? Should I be wondering about Kennedy's coaching prowess? Which youngsters on the current roster have that true playmaker quality about them? Williams? Monroe? Buckner? Grant? Hales?

3. Please tell me there are some 4- or 5-star tight ends out there in '09 or '10 that we're in on. Lie to me if you have to. What the hell is it with our TE recruiting? With the exception of Irby and Pinialto, who decommitted, it seems we either reach for a player who probably isn't "Texas good" or turn 'em into backup offensive linemen. Now we're in a real bind with Irby gone for the year.

A: Great first question and I'm with you. I do believe you recruit Whaley because he has NFL talent, even if you don't quite know where yet. If it doesn't work out at running back, it won't be the worst thing in the world in all likelihood. Ask Arizona State hen they got Terrell Suggs as a big back and then toyed with moving him to tight end before eventually trying him at defensive end. How'd that work out? You're greater point of where the offense seems to be going and why the staff doesn't seem to be recruiting with that scheme in mind is a great one and In can't argue it. Yes, I think the Longhorns need to start recruiting the position with greater attention to detail with regard to each recruit's skill set and how that fits into the projected scheme that will be predominantly used.

Your second round of questions have been discussed quite a bit lately and I think it's a combination of a lot of things. Yes, the team needs to start evaluating, if they have not already, what they have been doing at the wide receiver position in recruiting because it hasn't been good. Period. This school shouldn't been in a position where there's been no true development of any receiver that's been recruited after the 2005 recruiting class. The good news is that that the young talent on campus is really, really good. I think D.J. Grant, Malcolm Williams, Dan Buckner, Desean Hales, James Kirkendoll, Brandon Collins and D.J. Monroe all have some game-breaking ability. When we'll see it developed and producing on the field is tough to project based on recent history.

As for your final set of questions, scroll up and see the running back recruiting breakdown.

Q: (Texas Diesel) - Last year, the fans and the coaching staff seemed to feel that John Chiles was a special enough talent that he needed to see some meaningful snaps in games and would give him a few series in the game, other than mop-up duty. The "Q Package" was formed to increase his touches but he was still given a series in the FAU game early in the game and the results were less than stellar. He received no meaningful snaps at QB against UTEP and the Q package didn't result in much of anything productive. Are we done seeing him getting a series early in the game? If we are, is it because of his ineffectiveness with his chance in the FAU game, due to the creation of the "Q package" that has the coaches thinking that is the way to get him more touches, or both? I hope Colt never goes down because nothing inspires confidence that Chiles can get the job done without him seeing some more snaps behind center when he's doing more than handing off to Cody Johnson, but I also recognize the offense completely stopped down when Colt wasn't in the game with his one chance. Thoughts in general?

A: I think it's important to establish that this has a lot to do with McCoy, first and foremost. He's the team's best player and I don't care how good Chiles it, you don't take your MVP off the field in an effort to develop someone that may or may not be good enough to warrant the attention. Seriously, do you see Chase Daniel or Todd Reesing coming off the field because of some young study behind them needing reps? I think McCoy's emergence and Chiles slow development has made the decision for the staff. The Q-package sounds nice in theory, but look at what it asks you to do in the process. I keep hearing from sources close to the team that the Q-package is truly deadly and I'll eventually see it. Personally, I don't buy it, at least not to the degree that it will dominate more than one entire series in most games this season. I'm sure that we'll see something we haven't seen yet when it's all said and done, but there's a greater chance that Chiles simply starts taking more reps at receiver while McCoy is taking snaps than anything else. Also, with McCoy scheduled to be in Austin through next season, I don't think they are nearly as worried about Chiles' development as they maximizing McCoy's development. The team feels like they've got themselves a great quarterback and he has more than 20 career starts in front of him.

Q: (Mighty Texas) - Seems like Mack has been annoyed by the recent NFL defections of Jamaal Charles and Jermichael Finley. Did he not know they would go ? Compared to other programs ,is he behind the curve in stocking recruits/players to account for the early departures?

A: I think Mack probably does feel deep in his heart that they are all staying for their senior seasons. To this day he still says he was surprised by Vince Young's departure and I'm not sure how that could be possible. Same with Charles and Finley. There were whispers about both players and I definitely felt like Finley would probably leave if he thought he was going to be drafted. Charles surprised me a little, but I probably shouldn't have been. Sources in the Golden Triangle had been reporting for months that he would leave and although I was skeptical for a while, there was too much smoke for there not to be a little fire at the very least. I think because Mack still gets surprised by the departures, he probably is a little behind the curve. I think his decision to play as many true freshman as he thinks are ready is his way of dealing with the problem of getting as much out of all his recruits as he can, but we haven't yet seen how it might impact the selection process in recruiting.

Q: (mcalk2) - Geoff, what do you see as the reason that our DB's give up so many yards?

A: Inexperience.

Q: (Craben) - Why are we still rebuilding 3 years after a national championship? Is it a perception or reality, that USC, LSU, OU, and Florida all seem to have developing talent waiting in the wings to compete at a high level, yet a number of our players are "waiting for the light to come on"?

A: I think the 2006 recruiting class not living up to its expectations has set this program back a full year in development and it's the single biggest reason why Texas isn't a stronger national championship contender this year. Look at each position:

a) Sherrod Harris hasn't emerged as a threat at quarterback.

b) Vondrell McGee was supposed to be a difference maker at receiver and he hasn't been.

c) None of the three receivers from this class have so much as caught a cold through this stage of their careers.

d) Both tight ends moved to the line, but haven't been able to get on the field and one of them is now back at tight end.

e) There's not a single offensive lineman from a four-man class that's even in the rotation at this point. J'Marcus Webb was supposed to be a future star and Roy Watts is a player, but they flunked out.

Just to make that clear, there's not a single player from this class that's made an impact on the offensive side of the ball. Think about that for a moment.

f) The only defensive tackle in the class is a true role player.

g) Of the two defensive ends in the class, one emerged as a starter at defensive tackle and the other flunked out of school.

h) Linebackers Sergio Kindle and Jared Norton have come on.

i) The same is true with Deon Beasley and Chykie Brown at cornerback, but there are no safeties from this class making an impact and that's because Robert Joseph couldn't keep himself out of jail.

Overall, the Longhorns have a few defensive standouts and that's about it out of a 25-man class that was ranked fifth in the country.

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