Sometimes, stories on Texas statistics merit more of an explanation.
If you took a look at the list of explosive passing plays in 2011, you might have come to several conclusions. First, Jaxon Shipley is an animal who accounted for more than one-third (12, 10 receiving, two passing) of the total explosive passing plays put up by the Longhorns. Or you might look at the fact that David Ash had more explosive passing plays than Case McCoy (14-13), but McCoy had more explosive touchdowns (4-3). You might notice that Texas was 2-3 in games when it had fewer than three explosive passing plays, and was 6-2 when it had three or more. Or you might even just wonder what the point of the article was.
On the final part, there's somewhat of a surprising explanation: I was looking for how important tight ends were to the explosive Texas passing game. And here's the answer: tight ends Blaine Irby and D.J. Grant accounted for four explosive passing plays in the final 11 games. That's right around 15 percent of the Longhorns' long passing plays over that stretch.
But here's the thing: Irby and Grant combined for three explosive touchdowns, nearly half of the explosive passing touchdowns put up by the Longhorns in those nine games (eight). Cutting it down further, the Longhorns had nine explosive passing plays over their final four games, and Irby caught three of those passes, tied with Shipley and Marquise Goodwin. And the Longhorns had four explosive touchdowns over those four games, two to Irby and two to Goodwin.
All of that is a really prolonged way to say that the Longhorns utilized the tight end in the deep passing game. And while Irby has graduated and moved on, it isn't folly to think that the Longhorns would love something like the production of Irby and Grant (still on the team) in the season's final game, the bowl game against Cal: four catches, 67 yards and one explosive play.
If this spring was any indication, the Longhorns should be able to replicate that. Grant returns, and has received positive reviews for his improved blocking, leading many to think he could become more of an every-down tight end. But the real news was the emergence of M.J. McFarland (more on this in a minute).
Both of them produced explosive plays in the Orange-White game. Grant caught his on a trick play, a 54-yard touchdown pass from Shipley, who threw a touchdown to Irby last season. But the play that had everybody talking was a 49-yard catch-and-run down the seam by McFarland, who hauled in a throw from Case McCoy and outran the defense until he was finally caught at the 10. It didn't go for a touchdown, but the way that McFarland moved and ran for a 260-pounder was shocking.
The more shocking part might be that McFarland made it up to 260. Coming out of high school, McFarland was an excellent wide receiver, and somebody who, at 6-foot-6, had an ideal frame for the tight end position. And his work ethic was immediately apparent. He arrived at 245, way up from his high school playing weight. And as recently as National Signing Day of this year, Texas coach Mack Brown expressed excitement over McFarland as an every-down tight end because of his weight gain to 260. And so a redshirt freshman became the ideal man to win the starting job. Because not only did McFarland have the receiving pedigree, he now had the size to excel as a blocker as well. And while he had a penalty or two in the spring game, the encouraging takeaway is that he seems to have the aggressive mindset to do just that.
The position was also buoyed by the semi-addition of Miles Onyegbule, a player who, like McFarland, has outstanding size potential. Onyegbule weighed in at around 230 pounds in the spring, and with the coaches essentially lifting restrictions on his diet, he could keep growing. The Longhorns received bad news when Onyegbule suffered an injury after the spring, but that's a short-term problem to a player who could be a longer-term solution at the position.
The main problem, for this year, is that Onyegbule's injury came on the heels of Greg Daniels's injury, which kept him out of the spring and from gaining valuable repetitions at a new position. And when Darius Terrell announced his transfer, it further hit a position racked by attrition. Senior Trey Graham could be called on to provide depth, but also don't be surprised if the Longhorns move a player or two over to try and combat those concerns. With offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin loving two-tight end sets, having more than two tight ends will be key.