When Texas prepared for the Alamo Bowl without season-long offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, the plan was to go up-tempo after successful running plays.
The Longhorn staff knew that they had an advantage in depth of talent over the Beavers and wanted to tire them out. But there was just one problem — Texas didn't have successful running plays in the first half (the lone truly successful carry went for a long Marquise Goodwin touchdown). The Longhorns didn't get a chance to speed the game up and went into the halftime locker room with a 20-10 deficit.
At halftime, the Texas coaches decided to go up-tempo regardless. And with a few other shifts in emphasis, there were the Longhorns, charging forward, in the fourth quarter while the Beaver defenders had their hands on their hips, panting for air. The result was a 21-7 drilling in the second half, with Texas coming from behind to post a 31-27 victory over a solid nine-win Oregon State squad.
Shortly afterward, Texas coach Mack Brown said the offense's goal moving forward was to ramp up the tempo full-time to that of the Beavers' rivals, the Ducks, but without Oregon's reliance on the option game. So far this spring, it's been a hit, per Texas quarterback David Ash.
"It's been a whole lot of fun," Ash said, "spreading it out and just doing all sorts of different things — there's a lot of good players on this team, and getting them in the open field and letting them run with the football. We've all been playing this game since we were little and it's fun to just go play. "Everybody's coming together and enjoying it, and I think it's helping the defense get in shape and get used to playing fast-tempo teams," Ash said. "So I think it's a win-win, and I'm just really enjoying it."
Ash also said it's an offensive system that he's familiar with, with the junior captaining a similar offense at Belton High School. Remember, when Ash was recruited to Texas, it was actually by spread-em-out coordinator Greg Davis, not Harsin. And with both co-coordinators Major Applewhite and Darrell Wyatt largely boasting up-tempo spread backgrounds, Ash figured to get a chance to return to his roots after Harsin left for the Arkansas State head coaching job.
"It's kind of what I did in high school for three years. Getting to do that again … I'm just enjoying the heck out of it."
So how has the offense challenged Ash's ability to be a verbal leader?
"It makes it easier," Ash said before quipping: "I'm yelling at everybody all the time, so I love it."
Ash has taken the occasional media hit for not being as vocal as some would like, and that's a trait that has to come out in an up-tempo attack, with the quarterback essentially serving as the airport runway guy, pointing players to where they need to go and organizing the group to 1) get the correct play to everybody and 2) get that play off quickly.
But Longhorn senior offensive guard Mason Walters said that Ash had done an outstanding job of communicating with the group.
"I think he's done a great job so far this spring, really just stepping up in that management position in a fast-paced offense," Walters said. "It's important.
"You have to have guys in the right spots," Walters said. "Because you're going fast, but as Coach Applewhite so eloquently put it: a bad play is still a bad play no matter how fast you do it."
With Ash getting more comfortable directing traffic, what's the hardest part of the new tempo for the linemen?
"You probably know without me having to say it: conditioning," Walters said. "We're all big people.
"You've got to get into great shape to be able to do this offense," Walters said. "Coaches are pushing us every day. I can promise you that."
As Brown has pointed out on multiple occasions, the move to the no-huddle also affects the conditioning on the other side of the Longhorn team.
"It's getting us ready, definitely," said defensive tackle Chris Whaley. "It's getting us in better shape, having us more urgent … we have to get down in our stance and ready to go every time. Because once they finish a play, they line right back up and get ready for another one."
That's precisely the mentality that teams like Oklahoma, West Virginia and Oklahoma State have had in recent years, with all three teams jumping over the Longhorns early, before the defense could adjust to their up-tempo schemes. And, as Texas safety Adrian Phillips points out, facing that tempo in practice every day can only better prepare the Longhorn defense to face it on Saturdays this fall.
"It makes the job tougher," Phillips said. "And since we're getting that feeling right now, we'll be better able to handle it when the season comes around. Because in the Big 12, everybody runs the up-tempo offense. Our defense is in better shape than it has been, and it's working out for us."