How Texas Will Improve, Part Four

In part four of our series, we focus on improvements at tight end and fullback.

The zone read is a remarkably simple play. Based on the give-keep option that made the veer such a difficult offense to stop, it forces a defender to make a split-second decision on how to pick his poison. The play slows down backside pursuit by forcing the player to account for the quarterback as a running threat. Most of the time, teams leave the back-side defensive end unblocked and read him. Oregon, which is a little more exotic, will read the defensive tackle at times instead.

But most importantly, the play adheres to the oft-used option cliché: "If you can't block 'em, read 'em."

For years, that play was the bread-and-butter of the Longhorn offense, with Texas befuddling defenses thanks to the running ability of quarterbacks Vince Young and Colt McCoy. There was more, too. Play-action off those plays were effective, and defenses in general had to play at a slower speed to account for the read.

Fast-forward to last season, and the Longhorns, using a quarterback without the running ability of Young or McCoy, essentially scrapped the play at times. That led to several running plays that were run down from behind without a back-side blocker or a read to keep the defense honest. At least one Big 12 assistant coach said that a large part of the problem was that the Longhorns were poor at the "auxiliary positions," or more specifically, tight end and fullback.

Without multiple reliable tight ends, or an experienced fullback, the Longhorns didn't have the players to make that extra block to spring a run, or even the players to stretch the field horizontally or vertically in the passing game to occupy linebackers.

All of that could change this year. While Texas doesn't have a pure, do-it-all tight end, the Longhorns do have an overabundance of bodies who, according to co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, can either do the job in the passing game, or in the running game. And that will be more than they had a year ago. Darius Terrell showed well in the spring game, and has potential to be an extra in-line receiver. A player like Ahmard Howard has excellent potential as a blocker.

Ideally, the Longhorns would have a 250-pound player capable of mashing linebackers in the running game while beating them down the seams in the passing game. But while that specific player doesn't appear to be on the roster as of yet, Texas does have plenty of tools that it can exploit, especially if Blaine Irby is able to make it back close to where he was before the injury.

At fullback, the Longhorns should be massively improved simply by moving arguably the nation's top fullback to fullback. Cody Johnson battled injuries a year ago, and still led the Longhorns in rushing by averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He's also demonstrated a wonderful nose for the goal line, scoring 30 rushing touchdowns over the past three years. And he can be an effective receiver, as evidenced by a 33-yard reception a year ago, which was actually a longer catch-and-run than speedster Marquise Goodwin put up for the season. Oh, and did we mention he's 250 pounds?

Johnson is an ideal fullback in any system in that he can run, catch passes and has the size to be a powerful blocker. He can play single back if the Longhorns wish to motion another back out of the backfield. Texas also has depth at the position, thanks to the return of last season's starter, Ryan Roberson, a tough player who made the best of a rough situation a year ago, and the addition of Joe Bergeron. Bergeron is a smaller, but faster, version of Johnson, a jumbo athlete who can do a lot of different things. A physical specimen at 230-235 pounds, Bergeron has the frame to add even more weight, and he's excellent with the ball in his hands.

And just like that, a weakness from last year should become a strength. Tight end should get better with the addition of several bodies, both old players returning from injury and new players working into the rotation. And fullback, by adding Johnson and Bergeron, should be much deeper and more talented.

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