HEADING INTO SATURDAY'S SPRING GAME …
Earlier this week I almost felt weird writing about the confidence I have in the G-Force offense being installed by Sterlin Gilbert and how I think it will improve – at a minimum – from 26.4 ppg in 2015 to 33.4 ppg in 2016 (and possibly more) as long as the principals stay healthy.
I’ve covered Texas since 1992, and I’ve learned the last six years that if you dare say something positive about some aspect of the Longhorns that doesn’t prove to come true – it can and will be held against you.
That’s why I didn’t say much of anything positive about the team going into last season. I said 2015 would need to be about developing an identity on offense and finding a QB and it would be a “bridge year” to better days in 2016.
After Shawn Watson was demoted and WR coach Jay Norvell was promoted - one game into the 2015 season - it quickly turned into a “blow-up-the-bridge year.”
A year later, the identity of the offense is unmistakable and the confidence within it is growing – just as Charlie Strong had hoped in hiring Gilbert.
It’s gone from the Witness Protection Offense to an identity anyone could pick out of a lineup:
The rapid-fire tempo.
Outside receivers (John Burt and Collin Johnson with Armanti Foreman rotating in) lined up at the numbers who can stress cornerbacks down the field and force the defense to spread out.
Quick, easy play calls and simplified reads in run-pass option plays (RPOs).
High-efficiency throws (60 percent of the passes in this offense are 8 yards or less) that have helped build the confidence of Tyrone Swoopes and play to the strengths/accuracy of early enrollee freshman Shane Buechele.
I was asked this week if there was any chance the G-Force Offense could end up being an even-more-suped-up-tempo version of the Watson/Norvell “Three-And-Out Offense?”
I said, “Not a chance.”
Those I’ve talked to connected to the program say the offense has gotten better and better and better with each of the 13 spring practices so far. Two remain: Thursday and Saturday’s spring game.
No one, and I mean no one, is taking a breath to declare any bold proclamations for what this offense will do in 2016. But the key ingredients in the starting unit are there:
You have to have two outside receivers who make defensive backs so concerned about giving up the deep ball that they start giving up the underneath stuff as well as running lanes.
You have to have a QB (or two) who can make deep throws to the outside WRs, thus rattling the panic meter of DBs who fear giving up the big play more than anything.
You have to have a power spread running game that can throw relentless body blows at a defense racing to get lined up while trying to figure out what’s coming next.
Check. Check. Check.
The lack of depth everywhere except running back is a huge concern. Huge. But the ingredients are there among the 11 who figure to start.
Right now, some say Tyrone Swoopes has a slight edge at QB, because he is making the right reads and is throwing a better deep ball than Buechele.
They say Swoopes’ deep ball stretches the field and allows the receivers to run full speed under them to reel them in, while Buechele’s deep ball sometimes comes up short and requires the receiver to slow down and out-jump/high-point the ball against a DB.
That stuff can get worked out and polished in time. But the point is, Swoopes and Buechele are engaged in a battle that is pushing both of them – just what coaches needed and wanted this spring.
The sense right now is that both QBs have made enough plays this spring to earn the respect of their teammates and to infuse teammates with a sense of confidence that this offense just might have a little something to it.
Let’s hope the weather cooperates on Saturday at 1 pm CT inside DKR, so the progress on offense continues right through the last of this spring’s 15 practices.
THE OFFENSE'S PERSONALITY
In D’Onta Foreman’s mind, he’s done nothing at Texas worth even talking about.
Chris Warren III feels the same way.
No one outworks Kirk Johnson, who is desperate to get past his rehab for a torn ACL and show all the schools who offered his younger brother (WR Collin Johnson) and passed on him, what they missed out on.
Roderick Bernard knows how Kirk Johnson feels, having returned from an ACL tear that sidelined him last year. Bernard, too, is on a mission to show he can be the lightning to a RB room full of thunder.
Several people I talked to said the offense has what one person called a “downhill toughness” that comes from “a great synergy going on between the guys on the line and the running back room.”
“The running back room is probably the best on the team in terms of depth, work ethic and production,” a source said.
“Foreman and Warren are going to wear on people. And then you sprinkle in guys like (Roderick) Bernard, whose got good speed and some wiggle. Kirk Johnson is really versatile. And then you bring in another determined runner like Kyle Porter and that room just oozes confidence and edge. The rest of the team feels it and has to raise their level to match it.”
ARMANTI FOREMAN ‘STILL A LONG WAY TO GO – BUT BETTER’
If twins really can feel what the other is feeling without even communicating, all Armanti Foreman has to do to have a chance to make an impact at inside or outside receiver is channel the determination, fire and work ethic of twin brother RB D’Onta.
“Going into my junior year, I know I have to lead,” D’Onta said. “And I always tell Armanti, ‘You have to lead, too. You’re an older guy in your (position group) room. And it’s every day. Every day.’”
Sources say Armanti, who never had to compete for a job at Texas City (where D’Onta had to constantly compete with others for playing time at RB), now knows John Burt and Collin Johnson are the real deal.
Moody and unpredictable under two different WR coaches (Les Koenning and Jay Norvell) his first two years, Armanti is finally showing some urgency and focus, sources said.
“You put D’Onta’s fight and focus into Armanti and the kid would be unstoppable at receiver,” said a source close to the Foremans. “And while everyone has tried to get through to him, when he’d drift to the back of the line in drills, no one has to say anything anymore.
“He can see the competition for himself now. Over the second half of spring, you’re seeing Armanti starting to string good days together. It’s nowhere near where it should be at this point – three years in. Still a long, long way to go – but better.”
MALIK JEFFERSON ‘TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT’
I had an interesting conversation with someone connected to the program about Malik Jefferson and how the spring has gone for him.
I was told, “I think Malik is trying to figure it out.”
I said, “Figure what out?”
“His role,” I was told.
The conversation then delved into how Jefferson earned freshman All-American honors at a position he’s still learning (middle linebacker), even though he may have more of a fascination with rushing the passer in the mold of Von Miller.
“Jefferson reminds me of Derrick Johnson when Derrick got to Texas, in a way, because both were so freakishly talented and quick for their size that they could run around blocks or cut under them and still make plays.
“But, in time, if you’re going to play middle linebacker, you have to take on and shed blocks. There are plays you have to control your gap – no matter what - and understand how a breakdown on the line is going to force the ball to a certain place that you can anticipate.
“And it has to become second nature. I remember Greg Robinson really hammering that stuff home with Derrick Johnson in 2004, and it made Johnson a better player.”
The conversation then moved to how, fairly or unfairly, Jefferson was thrust into “face of the franchise” status from the time he set foot on campus.
Heck, it happened even before Jefferson set foot on campus – considering Charlie Strong, at the Advocare Texas Bowl, compared Jefferson signing with Texas to the tipping point signing at Florida of QB Tim Tebow.
“Then the kid (Jefferson), who’s learning how to be a middle linebacker, makes some jaw-dropping plays against Notre Dame on instinct alone, scores a touchdown against Rice and earns national freshman of the week against Oklahoma and freshman All-American at the end of the season.
“But it all came on a defense that gave up more than 200 yards per game on the ground and more than 30 points per game. There needs to be a lot of improvement – not just from Jefferson – from the entire defense, of course.
“But there needs to be a lot of improvement by Jefferson from a fundamentals and technique standpoint. I don’t have any doubt he can get there, if he wants to get there.”
The conversation ended with a return to the idea that Jefferson is “trying to figure it out.”
“If Jefferson really embraces the middle linebacker role, there’s no telling how good he could be. But he’s already a rock star. Freshman All-American. He’s the guy every recruit wants to meet - the guy every recruit wants to text.
“Hell, he’s one of the best recruiters Charlie has. So there’s a lot going on. I think he’s still trying to figure it all out. And it may be holding him back on the field just a bit.
“It’s kind of the whole, ‘What do I do for an encore thing?’ If he’s not totally happy or bought in at middle, that stuff can lead to sophomore slumps.
“The best thing for him to do is just throw himself into the coaching. Strong and this staff are one of the best at developing linebackers. He (Jefferson) just needs to buy in, work harder than he ever has and be a great teammate.
“The hard part about knowing you’re already having a special impact on the rebuild of the program is that you can subconsciously start looking to trade on that – either with the coaches or teammates. And that can lead to a negative situation, even if that’s the furthest intention he could have.
“Malik’s a great kid. I mean great kid - so intelligent, so aware. I’d tell him to just get lost in doing everything possible to improve yourself – no matter what position you’re playing. The more positions you can play, the more valuable you are anyway.
“And for this defense to truly take a step forward, it’s going to need the best possible version of Malik Jefferson – as a player and teammate. I know that’s what Malik wants, too.”
I asked if all this was a major concern, and I was told, “No. But you just want to make sure there’s a lot of communication – both ways – about how a super-talent like Malik, who has already received a lot of accolades and adulation, can get down and dirty and take his game to the next level.”
A LITTLE MORE ON THE OFFENSE
The Texas offense has been through a lot of ups and downs over the last year. The team went through two play callers and are currently working with almost an entirely new offensive staff.
With so much change, it's human nature to think there are going to be some hiccups along the way.
However, that does not appear to be the case for the Longhorns' offense, according to sources close to the situation.
One source indicated the players have become closer to Sterlin Gilbert and Matt Mattox in only a few months than they ever were with Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline.
That is not per se a negative on the former OC and QB coach, but the relationships the team has built with the new coaches is different than the relationships they had with the Watson and Wickline.
"These guys really liked Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline," a source told Horns Digest. "But they love Gilbert and Mattox."
It sounds like the team has really welcomed Gilbert and Mattox with open arms, and the coaches have done the same with all of the guys on the roster.
HEARD, MERRICK OVERCOMING INJURIES
A lot has been said about Jerrod Heard's shoulder injury, which he sustained during spring practice.
But a back injury suffered by Matthew Merrick has stayed below the radar.
In talking with people close to the program, I received a little more detail as to where Merrick stands with his injury status.
Merrick suffered a stress fracture sometime before spring practice began, and the side effects of it did not really show up until after the first week of spring football.
He has been working in "the pit" and is currently rehabbing his injury, but the medical staff believes he will be back to 100 percent by the time summer workouts begin, according to sources.
I was also told Heard is expected to be cleared well before summer workouts begin, so the quarterback depth the Longhorns had before spring practice will return to the team in time for fall camp.
TEXAS HOOPS RECRUITING ENTERS OVERTIME, JAI LUCAS IN DEMAND
The good news is the spring signing period - April 13 through May 18 - started Wednesday, and 5-star PG Andrew Jones promptly sent in his national letter of intent and talked about how excited he was to be headed to Texas (joining 4-star big man James Banks and 4-star SG Jacob Young, who signed their LOIs in November).
The bad news: No word from 5-star big man Jarrett Allen of Austin St. Stephen's, whose recruitment seemed to be leaning Texas after the latest of several meetings on the UT campus between Allen and Horns head coach Shaka Smart a little more than two weeks ago.
It's now clear, however, that Allen's recruitment has officially entered overtime in what appears to be a Texas v Houston battle.
As I've reported previously, there have been rumblings that Houston coach Kelvin Sampson was considering hiring Allen's AAU coach Marland Rowe onto his staff at UH. Could that be holding things up? Who knows? It's college basketball recruiting, which has its own special zip code in Crazytown.
I heard there might have been some conversations late Wednesday involving Texas and Allen. We'll follow up on Thursday.
There's no doubt the 6-foot-10 Allen, who has been a huge recruiting priority for Smart and Texas, is the Horns' biggest priority left in the 2016 class - literally.
Last week in HD ONLY, we talked about Tulane PF Dylan Osetkowski (6-8, 245) as a potential transfer candidate. On Tuesday night, Osetkowski, who made an overnight visit to Texas last weekend, pulled the trigger and announced he'll be a Longhorn.
After sitting out a year, Osetkowski, who averaged 11.4 ppg and 8.4 rpg, will have two years of eligibility in Austin.
I heard 2016 4-star PF Clevon Brown of San Antonio Churchill, a Vanderbilt signee who is eligible to transfer and play immediately because coach Kevin Stallings left for Pitt, might be reconsidering things with a possible eye on Texas.
But nothing to report yet. Brown was expected to meet with new Vandy coach Bryce Drew this week.
I've mentioned a Power 5 small forward in the mold of PJ Tucker as a possible Texas transfer candidate. Over the weekend, I heard the possibility of transferring was dropping. Wednesday, I heard the possibility of transferring to Texas was still alive.
As I said, basketball recruiting has its own zip code in Crazytown.
And as if that isn't enough for Shaka Smart to manage, Jai Lucas, UT's hoops director of operations is suddenly a red-hot assistant coaching candidate.
I'm told Lucas turned down Steve Henson at UTSA but may now be holding an offer from another prominent Big 12 school to become a full-time assistant coach on staff. Smart doesn't want to lose Lucas, but he already has three full-time assistants in Darrin Horn, David Cason and Mike Morrell.