September 6, 2009

The grades are in... La-Monroe report card

A masterpiece it wasn't, but there was still quite a bit of good and even some great to take out of No.2 Texas' 59-20 win over La-Monroe. From offense to defense to special teams, a number of new names arrived as possible impact players, while a couple of potential problem areas popped up as well. Here's a look at a position-by-position review of Saturday's season opener.

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - It says quite a bit about Colt McCoy that he could complete 21 of 29 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns in the season's first game and there was a feeling that he wasn't quite as sharp as you'd expect. Indeed, there was his only interception of the game, which he'll probably beat himself up over all week because it was a pass he never should have thrown. He also made a huge mistake in the red-zone at the end of the second quarter when he allowed himself to be tackled in play, rather than throwing the ball away, which cost the team a timeout. When he was sacked on the next play, the team was out of timeouts and they were forced to spike the ball quickly to salvage three points out of the drive.

Still, let's not forget about this simple point this season - there's only one quarterback in the school's history that could pull of a 21 of 29 performance for 300+ and still generate a round of yawns from the peanut gallery (which included McCoy, who was pretty tough on himself afterwards). Here's a clue: the answer is not Vince Young, Major Applewhite or Chris Simms. Yes, McCoy has been better and he will be better this season, but his down days are 95% better than the rest of the nation's best days. Let's not take him for granted because he's making all of this look easy.

Speaking of making it look easy, the Longhorns are going to score a lot of points with their second team offense this season if they let true freshman Garrett Gilbert work with the likes of D.J. Monroe, Malcolm Williams, Marquise Goodwin and DeSean Hales. After not working with a receiver that could probably break 4.8 in high school, it must feel like he's gone from driving an SUV to a Ferrari. Gilbert handled the adrenaline rush of playing in his first game extremely well and he seemed to be in complete command in his one series of action. That was an excellent first performance.

Grade: B+

Running backs - There's good news and there's bad news. Let's get the bad out of the way. Junior starter Vondrell McGee had a day to forget with two fumbles (the Texas backs didn't lose a single fumble all season) and a very pedestrian start to the game. If McGee is ever going to emerge as an impact player, this was the kind of game that he needs to excel in because if you can't break 100+ against the likes of a La-Monroe, when is it ever going to happen? The good news with McGee is that he ran pretty hard in the second half and had a couple of really nice, tough runs. He's going to get another crack at things next week at Wyoming, but his leash is a little shorter after a mixed bag on Saturday. Simply put, he has to be better.

Similarly, Cody Johnson looked very strong in the team's jumbo-set, short-yardage situations, but he didn't show a lot of spark in the regular offense.

The real revelation from the game at this position came from redshirt freshman D.J. Monroe. A combination of McGee's fumbling and an impressive debut on kickoffs led to an early look at the running back spot for Monroe and the youngster delivered big. For the first time since in a while, it really looked like the Longhorns had a running back that truly fit their scheme, as Monroe was able to get to the corner in the blink of an eye and his 7.1 yards per carry was easily the best among the top backs. His best play might have occurred on one of his smallest net gains of the night. After bouncing out of a hole that had closed, Monroe put his shoulder down and finished off a short run for positive yardage when he could have run out of bounds and gained nothing. It might seem like a little thing, but being able to finish a run like that is going to convince the coaches that he's ready for more playing time. The kid is just a football player.

Also, let's not forget to leave our Tre Newton, who looked good (28 yards on four carries) in the final minutes. He's another guy that might force the coaches into playing him a little more each week.

Overall, the running backs combined to rush for 186 yards, four touchdowns and five explosive runs (plays of 12 or more yards) on 40 carries. From a production standpoint, that's a B+/B effort, but the two turnovers are going to cost the group a full letter grade because you cannot put the ball on the ground against good teams, unless you're BYU and you happen to be playing Oklahoma.

Grades: C+

Wide receivers - Senior Jordan Shipley has a chance to post the single greatest season of any receiver in the history of the school. The guy barely broke a sweat in catching eight passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. Seriously, the guy could have caught 20 passes for 300 yards and there's not much that La-Monroe could have done about it. The Warhawks secondary will not miss him moving forward.

Sophomore Dan Buckner had a bit of a coming out party in his new role of flex/inside receiver. More impressive than the five receptions for 62 yards was the fact that McCoy seemed to have a real comfortable partnership with him. Buckner really deserves a lot of credit for the commitment he's made to improving as a player.

John Chiles also had a nice debut with his 35 yards and a touchdown on three reception, with his 14-yard effort on third and nine from the Texas eight-yard line registering as his most impressive play. Its one thing to catch a hitch and run for open yardage on first down and it's another to knife through the teeth of the defense on a key third down and long deep in your own territory. With Brandon Collins out of the line-up, and possibly for the entire 2009 season, the Longhorns desperately needed Chiles to fill this position with quality play and he more than met that challenge in the first game.

If there were any players that weren't as involved as I would have guessed, it's probably James Kirkendoll and Malcolm Williams. Although he was targeted four times, Kirkendoll only came away with two receptions for 19 yards, although both catches moved the chains on third down. As for Williams, he didn't get a lot of playing time and he was only targeted twice all afternoon (one third quarter receptions for 16 yards).

Of course, the guy that opened some eyes late was true freshman Marquise Goodwin, who seemed to emerge very quickly as Gilbert's favorite target with the second-team offense, as he finished with three receptions for 39 yards. Overall, this group produced 24 receptions for 358 yards and two touchdowns. That's getting it done.

Grade: A

Tight ends - This is really a tough group to grade because Buckner can't truly be judged as a tight end. Greg Smith and Ahmard Howard did some nice things in short-yardage situations, while true freshman Barrett Matthews made his debut. This position will remain a work in progress.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive line - There's some good news and bad news with this group as well. In addition to the injury to Michael Huey, the overall line play didn't look a lot different than it did it 2008, which means that the pass protection was really good and the run blocking needs to be better. Not much seems to have changed.

When you look at the offensive line, I'd probably rate the performances of the starters/co-starters like this: 1) Kyle Hix 2) Huey (before he was injured) 3T) David Snow/Adam Ulatoski 5T) Charlie Tanner/Chris Hall. I thought Hix played a very strong game and if you're looking for a true positive from this group, this is where it starts. In addition to near flawless play in pass protection, Hix really got after it in the running game. He struggles when asked to move in space, which can make the counters to the left a little difficult, but he finished blocks better than anyone else on the team and he did a good job of getting a strong push.

That right side combo of Hix and Huey was really cooking for a while and it seems pretty obvious that the Longhorns are at their best when they run the ball to that side of the field. Even the counter action to the right is stronger because Tanner and Ulatoski do move well in space and thrive with those assignments. The loss of Huey really is a major blow, but that side did not lose a lot with Snow filling in as an injury replacement. I didn't think Snow played as well as Huey, but he did have a very good opening night performance.

Overall, Ulatoski had a strong first game. It's easy to take him for granted out there at left tackle because he really does such a good job in pass protection. Outside of a few plays, he was very strong in that area.

Surprisingly, Hall had a tough night when you consider that he's a fifth-year senior and was mentioned by Mack Brown as the best lineman in camp. In addition to giving up a late-second quarter sack, Hall was pretty inconsistent throughout and seemed to be a little confused by some of the line stunts from La-Monroe. That inconsistency was shared by Tanner. Both players have to do a better job in the run game of sustaining their blocks. That was actually a theme for all of the linemen. When McGee and Johnson were in the game at running back, the lineman initially were able to create holes for the backs, but they didn't stay on the blocks long enough for the back to make it through the crease. They didn't really have those issues when Monroe was on the field, but they simply have to do a better job of finishing their blocks.

One last note: true freshman Mason Walters was very solid in the last few series at right guard. Expect his snap count to increase in the next couple of weeks due to the injury to Huey. Yes, he ended up on the ground a few too many players, but he played hard and graded out well. His emergence was quietly a very nice development for the coaches.

Grade: B-

Offensive game plan - It was an interesting first game for the Longhorns because it was clear that Greg Davis pretty much played this game with a bowl of vanilla ice cream in front of him and that's fine. This game was about the basics and learning where this team truly is in terms of personnel. If the Longhorns wanted to score 100 points, Davis could have really turned McCoy and Co. loose. The Longhorns had 562 yards of offense and could have piled up more points with the snap of the fingers, so let's peel the onion back a little and just acknowledge that Davis' offense had a very nice evening - it should go without saying.

From a passing game perspective, you had to love them forcing the issue with Buckner a little with plays that were clearly designed to test his progress. Mission accomplished. If one of the goals was to give Chiles a dose of action to see that he's right where you want him - mission accomplished. I could harp over the lack of passes to Malcolm Williams, especially vertical routes, but there are only so many balls to go around on this team. You're robbing Peter to pay Paul on every series.

When you look at the ground game, it seems obvious that this is a perimeter-based attack, which makes the ongoing development of Monroe a key issue. For the first time since Jamaal Charles left for the NFL, the Longhorns had a running back that seemed to fit their scheme. It's not rocket science - as soon as Davis and Mack Brown watched Monroe pick up nine yards with almost zero effort on his first carry, it didn't take a doctorate in coaching to know that he was going to touch the ball again and again before that game ended. There's no question that the Longhorns have some more work to do with the running game, but there's a spark in that area that didn't exist at any point last season. All eyes will be glued to the Wyoming game, as the Longhorn Nation waits to see what Davis'/Monroe's encore looks like.

Grade: A

Defensive line - You can't tell by the stat sheet because there weren't any sacks and the big plays were limited, but this group played very well. Take Sergio Kindle for example. The stat sheet says he only made two tackles, one pressure, one pass break-up and a fumble recovery that wasn't really his. Overall, that would seem to indicate that he wasn't an impact player in this game, but the truth is that he played very well and was active throughout the first three quarters - he just didn't finish any of his big-play opportunities.

The was true of guys like Lamarr Houston and Kheeston Randall as well. The stat sheet doesn't really indicate how well they controlled the line of scrimmage between the hash marks.

True freshman Alex Okafor might have had the best game of anyone on the defensive line, as he finished with four tackles and two tackles for loss. In addition to showing up as a pass rusher, Okafor defender the run very well - both at the point of attack and when forced to deal with the zone-read/option responsibilities. There couldn't have been a more impressive true freshman defensive end playing anywhere in the nation when you consider how well he played in all aspects.

In fact, Okafor played the run and defended the zone-read/option better than junior starter Sam Acho, who really struggled with containment at times. That being said, Acho made up for it with two fumble recoveries and two pass break-ups. More than anything, Acho just seemed to be very active throughout the game. The same was also true of Eddie Jones when he was on the field.

This group will have better days, but they dominated La-Monroe's front and that shouldn't be forgotten.

Grade: B

Linebackers - There's been some disagreement on just how good of a player senior Roddrick Muckelroy is coming into the season. Some people think he's been a good player, but not great, while others believe he's the quiet star in Will Muschamp's defense.

Well, let me tell you something right now - there was nothing quiet about Muckelroy's star performance on Saturday. Seriously, Muckelroy might have recorded a million tackles against Oklahoma last season, but he's never played as fearless and as active as he did in the season-opener. Officially, he was credited with six tackles, one tackle for loss and a pass break-up, but those numbers don't even come close to telling the story because I saw him make or get involved in four plays inside the five-yard line in one six-play sequence. This was a true breakout game for the senior.

If the Longhorns had any problems on Saturday it came with covering the flat against both backs and tight ends. Emmanuel Acho, Dustin Earnest and Jared Norton were all beaten for receptions, and it looked like La-Monroe was trying to pick on a few guys before the Longhorns twice turned to Keenan Robinson (replacing Acho and Earnest on separate occasions) to squash that line of attack. Overall, Robinson had the strongest day at SAM, but Emmanuel Acho was really active and should have been credited with a forced fumble and wasn't.

Also, Earnest did some nice things while he was on the field, but he doesn't quite have the range that a few of the other linebackers have. Still, he's a rock solid player. The same is true of Norton, who was also solid before re-injuring his shoulder.

Grade: B

Secondary - Let's have a big boy discussion about the secondary:

1. They essentially gave up one big play and very little outside of that.
2. They let a few potential turnovers slip through their fingers and that happened so much last season that it certainly was cause for a slight bit of alarm.

Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown were sensational all afternoon from their cornerback positions. Williams was only thrown at twice all day (he gave up one reception for seven yards), while Brown pitched a shutout and recorded five tackles.

Chykie Brown was thrown at twice and he gave up one reception… for 75 yards and a touchdown. The look on Will Muschamp's face after the play told the entire story and it should be noted that Brown did not return to field in the secondary for the rest of the first half. As bad as the play was, let's not forget that it's the only one he allowed all day and it was a flat out busted coverage. He'll have better days moving forward.

Earl Thomas, Blake Gideon and Nolan Brewster were all very strong at safety and they didn't allow much in terms of coverage. The good news is that Brewster turned in the group's first interception of the season, but they probably could have had one or two more if Thomas had closed the deal when the opportunity bell rang.

True freshman Kenny Vaccaro played an aggressive brand of football and impressed with a number of physical plays in run support, while Ben Wells also showed up late in the game with a big hit in coverage.

Like the rest of the position groups on defense, they played solid for most of four quarters, but the big plays were mostly lacking.

Grade: B

Defensive game plan - The Longhorns showed a lot of different personnel groupings on Saturday night, but they didn't blitz much. Overall, it wasn't unlike what Davis did with the offensive side of the ball. The Longhorns played a lot of base defense throughout the night and kept things pretty simple. When the time called for an occasional blitz or stunt, Will Muschamp went with one, but he kept it very simple for the opener. If you really want to hang your hate on something, it should be noted that the unit was fantastic in sudden change situations. Three separate times they were forced to come in to clean up a mess created by the offense and three times they succeeded, including twice stoning the La-Monroe offense when faced with defending a short field.

Grade: B

Special teams - Let's see - the place-kicking was perfect, there was a touchdown in the return game, the coverage units were strong and all of the units combined didn't allow for any big plays, with the exception of a few good punts by La-Monroe that were downed inside the 10-yard line.

Monroe showed exactly why the Longhorns need to increase his workload on kickoffs in the future, as his 89-yard touchdown helped the unit as a whole average nearly 40 yards per return.

You'd like to see Justin Tucker let it rip a little more off the tee on kickoffs because he has the ability to create touchbacks, but the coaches often prefer the line drive directional kicks, which limited his touchback number to one, although he averaged 65.6 yards on his kicks and the average starting field position for each of his kicks was 24-yard line.

On top of all that, John Gold averaged 43.5 yards per punt and had one out of two downed inside the 20.

Grade: A

Overall - If you were looking for a national championship-ready performance in the season opener, you didn't get it. However, there was a lot of good that came out of a 39-point win and there was just enough wrong that the coaches will be able to coach the hell out of the team this week. The bottom line is that they dominated this game from start-to-almost finish and won by nearly 40. Yes, it should have probably been at least 50, but that seems to be nitpicking. All three phases of the team played extremely well throughout and most of the signs from this game, with the exception of the injuries and suspensions, were good ones.

Grade: B

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