1) Two-back sets
A few years ago, Auburn had a problem. The Tigers were so loaded at running back that Brandon Jacobs, who has spent several years in the NFL since, transferred out of the program. That still left Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown, two other NFL-caliber talents who both needed to see their share of the field. And so the Tigers did something that was simple, but effective: they put both players on the field at the same time.
If this past week's practices were any indication, Texas plans on following a similar model, running a variety of two-back sets from the shotgun to the pistol, and utilizing either Joe Bergeron or Malcolm Brown as the fullback standing next to quarterback David Ash, while either Johnathan Gray or Brown play the tailback role. People often want to know how the Longhorns are going to spread the touches around to their bevy of talented backs, but the real issue is how those backs will be deployed on the field.
The buzz word in coaching circles over the past several years has gone from "carries" to "touches." Maybe you aren't able to get Gray 15-20 carries a game, but you CAN get him 15-20 touches spread across the running and the passing game. And a lot of those catches are often low-mileage plays that allow a runner to make a play in space, rather than fighting through the heart of the defense. Of course, in order to get touches, players have to be on the field, and those two-back sets, without a "true fullback" allow the Longhorns to run a number of looks to increase their backfield trio's touches.
2) Experimenting along the offensive line
A common cliché to offensive line coaches, and Texas offensive line coach Stacy Searels is certainly no exception, is to spout the "get our best five on the field," with regard to picking offensive linemen. And it's true — to a point. Obviously, if one of your best five is your second-team center, who is 6-2, and your No. 6 is your starting left tackle, you're probably not going to put the 6-2 guy at left tackle. Generally speaking though, it's a good idea.
And that's why I've enjoyed watching Searels tinker over the course of the week. Trey Hopkins played guard, center and even right tackle to help cope with injuries. When Desmond Harrison worked with the first team last Monday, Hopkins bumped inside to center and current starting left tackle Donald Hawkins moved in to guard. Sedrick Flowers also saw some time with the first team at offensive guard, while Darius James played both guard and tackle over the course of the week.
None of that is to say that those guys aren't better off at their current positions. But it would have been really easy to look at the Longhorns' offensive line, the more than 120 starts they have between them and all five returning starters, and to say you're sticking with the status quo. But Searels continues to look for the best five, and appears to be willing to do so even at the expense of a bit of experience. As great as experience is for offensive linemen, talent is always the great equalizer. And I've been impressed with the way Searels works to get his best talent on the field.
3) Linebacker is much better
Two numbers describe the rapid improvement of this group over last year's crop: 7 and 20. The first is the number of linebackers that the Longhorns returned who started at least a game a year ago: Steve Edmond (12), Kendall Thompson (7), Demarco Cobbs (6), Jordan Hicks (3), Peter Jinkens (3), Tevin Jackson (2) and Dalton Santos (1). That's a big number of players who were forced to play major roles a year ago, especially after Hicks went out with an injury in the Ole Miss game. Now, Hicks is back, and six of the seven — all of the above players except for the injured Cobbs — have been working this fall in practice.
As for the other number, 20? Both middle linebackers, Steve Edmond and Dalton Santos, lost around 20 pounds for this season after playing heavy a year ago. Edmond probably played last year between 265 and 270 pounds, and based on an Instagram photo he posted of himself right before camp, he now weighs between 245 and 250 (he was 247 in the photo, which was of him standing on a scale). Santos also dropped a bunch of weight, going from 255 as a true freshman to 235.
The weight loss hasn't negatively affected what both players do best: knock heads between the tackles. They're still doing that. But both players are significantly quicker and more explosive. Edmond made multiple plays along the sidelines, showing off his increased range, and, just based off the eye test, Santos looked more athletic as well. With Texas facing infinitely more spread-you-out type teams as opposed to teams trying to pound the ball with two-tight end sets, those movement skills will come in handy.
With an increase in experience and athleticism over last year's group, Texas has a chance to get much better at linebacker, and thus much more effective defensively in general.