DAN NEIL: ARE YOU SITTING DOWN TEXAS FANS?

HornsDigest contributor DAN NEIL, an All-American offensive lineman at Texas and two-time Super Bowl winner with the Denver Broncos (1997 & 1998), broke down film of Saturday's spring game and says there was a lot to be learned. So are you sitting down?

Post your questions for Dan Neil here, and he will answer them

During the football season, catch Dan on “Upon Further Review” on the Longhorn Network on Mondays at 6 pm CT.

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WHAT WE LEARNED IN THE TEXAS SPRING GAME: ... SURPRISINGLY ... A LOT ... LIKE TEXAS WILL CONTEND FOR THE 2016 BIG 12 TITLE

 

Before we dive into Saturday’s spring game and my assertion Texas will contend for the 2016 Big 12 title - let me go back to last season to start things off.

If you were an HD member here in the fall, you’ll remember I talked all last season about how Texas was going to beat Baylor in Waco in the final regular-season game. 

All year, I felt that needed to be the goal of this team.

Texas was not going to compete for the Big 12 Championship and the team needed something to play for. 

UT needed a big, championship type game to focus on - and that game was the season-finale at two-time, defending Big 12 champion Baylor.

(And it still pains me to ever introduce that team in Waco that way.) 

Finishing the year with that win set the tone for this off-season. 

What I saw Saturday at the spring game is a team that CAN and WILL compete for the Big 12 championship in 2016.

Believe it or not, against all odds, this team was surprisingly close to competing for the Big 12 last year.

There are a few things that must happen to win a championship. 

First, you MUST win your home games. 

Second, you must win the conference games on the road against inferior teams. 

Third, you need to steal one or two games on the road against a good teams. 

Apply this to last season and you can see how close this team was to winning the Big 12.

 

Home Games:

 

They lose to Cal, OSU and Tech at home by a combined total of 7 points.

 

Road games they should win:

 

Must win the Iowa State and West Virginia games

 

Steal one on the road:

 

They beat Baylor and OU on the road. 

 

Accomplish the above and this is a 10-2 and 9-1 in the Big 12 with the tie breaker over OU.

Take it a step further. Last season, they had no offensive coordinator or offensive identity, no QB.

And the best players on the field were true freshman. 

Frankly, when you break it down like that, I’m amazed they won five games considering how bad/dysfunctional things were at times last year!

I honestly think if this team believed in itself last year they had the talent to do the above. 

What they did not have was leadership and confidence.  That team that showed up in Morgantown and Ames did not want to be there, and it was obvious. 

This is why the Baylor game was critical.  They need to find a way to believe in what they can accomplish. 

You look at what they did against Oklahoma and against Baylor in that 23-17 win at the end of the season (even against BU's fourth- and fifth-string QBs), and I think this team, these players, now believe in themselves.

 

What happened in Saturday’s spring game that convinced me they can win the Big 12 in 2016? 

THIS TEAM HAS A REASON TO BELIEVE

There is a ton of talent on this team, and this offense has the potential to light up the Big 12!

 

LET'S TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT THE OFFENSE:

 

Love the plays I saw this team run.

 

It was power running combined with high percentage throws/routes that use the entire field - sideline to sideline. 

This team can flat-out run the football and may have two of the best running backs in the country with D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III.

Zach Shackelford is the answer at center. He has good footwork and gets his head where it should be on blocks. The defensive tackles he was facing appeared to be walk-ons, so he had no trouble holding the point of attack.

But his snaps were consistent. His technique was solid, and he is already showing some nastiness and a desire to finish his guy through the whistle.

This is the first time in years – I repeat, years - I saw an offensive line that looked like a University of Texas offensive line.

LT Connor Williams is a future NFL player. Without a doubt. Mark my words.

The jury is still out on Brandon Hodges at left guard. He needs to work on his technique. He can play too high at times and lose his leverage, but there’s some athleticism there. You can tell Hodges and Williams have worked together this spring by how they attacked certain situations, and that’s good, because the communication between tackle and guard is key.

I really like RG Patrick Vahe as a run blocker. Vahe still needs work on his pass protection (his feet tend to widen and stop moving, and that can’t happen). But Vahe is a road grader when run blocking.

Kent Perkins at right tackle is solid. He holds the edge in pass protection, and I saw him try to finish guys when run blocking.

It was the first time I saw five guys up front playing together and playing physical.

Depth on the O-line is a big concern. But Chip tells me there are some freshmen offensive linemen arriving in June that will probably push their way into the two-deep, so that’s good.

At receiver, John Burt and Collin Johnson could turn into a great tandem outside. Armanti Foreman is talented and looked reliable Saturday.

And last - but certainly not least – quarterback.

Shane Buechele is the guy to lead this offense in 2016 - and it’s not even close.

What we saw was an ability to make sideline-to-sideline throws. He also had some great touch passes over the top. He can put it all over the field, and do so accurately. That’s critical in this offense.

Buechele showed good poise.

There was a time he got pressure and should have stepped up into the pocket and didn’t. And then later, he got pressure and did step up into the pocket. He simply does not look in over his head.

Let me jump in here with a thought about Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly:

After watching the Texas spring game Coach Kelly is telling his players they better be ready to play all 60 minutes when the Fighting Irish walk onto the field at DKR Sunday night, Sept. 4. 

That inept Texas team in South Bend last year – the one that had eight three-and-outs in 10 offensive possessions - is no longer taking up residence in the Texas locker room.

On Saturday, we saw there’s a new offense, a new quarterback, other new players (like Zach Shackelford and Collin Johnson), improved players – and what was most clear – an offense on the same page in terms of coaches and players.

It’s a new day in Austin from that standpoint.

For those paying attention, the Longhorns’ offense sent a message to the entire country Saturday. 

The spring game revealed nothing in terms of plays, play design and drive construction on offense or in terms of blitz schemes or late shifting/disguise on defense.

But there was a lot to be gained from watching HOW this team was going about its business and the talent that it will execute the full arsenal of plays with in the fall.

 

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE DEFENSE:

 

The defensive front seven is a mixed bag and still appears to be under construction. 

The secondary is great! 

I don’t know how defensive coordinator Vance Bedford is going to get all of those guys on the field.  This is DBU, and there are a few Thorpe Award contenders out there.

Seriously.

Davante Davis and Holton Hill look like future NFL players, and DeShon Elliott made plays all over the field. Even second-team guys like Antwuan Davis, who made a nice INT, and Kris Boyd made plays.

Texas has the ability to roll out different combinations of cover guys who  can run with any offenses at any pace next season. 

Depth at defensive back in the Big 12 is key to contend for a title against the spread-the-field offenses in this league.

The linebackers need a few tweaks. 

First, Anthony Wheeler is your middle linebacker. 

Malik Jefferson is not a middle linebacker.

And by playing Wheeler in the middle, you free up Malik to play outside and pressure the QB. 

Remember, they weren’t going to blitz in the spring game, and that is why Malik was quiet.  He is the guy you want coming at the QB from all over the field.

Make the opposing offense account for him and find him on every play. 

This will allow Charles Omenihu to get some one-on-one matchups, and he could be a big surprise this season. 

Omenihu played well Saturday, and I think he might be the breakout player for this team. 

The other guy who showed me he is in the right position is Breckyn Hager at Fox end.  He can rush the passer and plays hard. 

Hager still has a few things to learn about holding up at the point of attack, shedding blocks and stopping the run. But that comes with reps and getting stronger – two things he’ll get the opportunity to improve between now and Sept. 4.

I think Omenihu is your strongside DE and Hager your Fox end in the fall. 

Hager, Omenihu and Jefferson getting after QBs next season could be the pass rush we’ve been waiting for and a group that is truly exciting to watch.

The concern on defense is the fat guys inside.  Paul Boyette and Poona Ford are the only two guys right now with any real experience, and they need some friends. 

This is the one position where we won’t know the two-deep until the five freshmen DTs in the 2016 recruiting class get here in June.  

You never want to have to rely on freshmen to fill a need up front. The offensive line had to do it last year.

This team may have to do it on the defensive line this year. And the closer you play to the ball, the harder it is, usually, to play as a freshman, because there’s a lot of big bodies flying around inside.

Impact defensive tackles may be the hardest players to find in recruiting. And Texas needs to hope at least two or three of the freshmen DTs coming in can be impact guys right away.

It will be a challenge to get some, but this is Charlie Strong’s side of the ball. And I bet he not only has some studs coming in – he’ll also help make sure his staff coaches ‘em up fast!

THE BOTTOM LINE

The bottom line is, if you can get the linebackers in the right spot and find a solid defensive tackle rotation - this side of the ball will be a championship-caliber unit.

I’m not overstating it. You can already see enough play-making talent developing at the end positions and in the secondary to slow down opposing offenses.

I am excited and encouraged by what I saw. 

If Texas continues to recruit the way it has the last two years and coaches up these players, this could be a team that goes from competing for the Big 12 in 2016 to a team that competes for everything in 2017.

This has got to be one of the more talented teams in the Big 12 – right now. 

The ONLY thing that will have people sleeping on Texas is the best playmakers – including the quarterback (Buechele) – are young.

In 2017, this roster will not only be talented, but it will have experience at all the key positions.

The seeds of talent are being planted.

A championship team starts with a championship mindset, which means putting in the work all summer long, when the coaches aren’t around to push them.

I can already tell some of these young pups – like Buechele, Shackelford and Collin Johnson – have a great work ethic, because their play reflects that they’ve come a long way already. You can tell that just in what they showed Saturday.

Let’s see how quickly this group of players can grow into a championship team if they approach this summer and fall with a championship mindset.

You – and the rest of the country – might be surprised when Texas ends up competing for the Big 12 title in 2016.

 

Post your questions for Dan Neil here, and he will answer them

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