For UT, Zone Read Is The Wishbone Of 21st Century

The brief Texas-Arkansas renewal tips its hat to an old rivalry Saturday and recalls UT's devastating wishbone offense that began re-writing offensive record books starting with the 1968 season. The once unstoppable option attack has now resurfaced in Austin in the form of the zone read which, following the first full week of the 2004 college football season, has vaulted Texas to the top of the Division-I rushing chart.

The 513 yards Texas piled up on the ground against North Texas Saturday were the most since Earl Campbell's senior season in 1977 and the seventh highest rushing total in program history. Individually, five different Horns had runs of 30-or-more yards in the home opener. And although his job is to help Texas shut down opposing offensives, Co-Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson knows the nature of this beast.

"It takes 11 people to stop that play," Robinson said. "That's the design. It's the wishbone. That's what it is. It's the same thing. It takes you to the last step. You have to defend 11 players. And that's basically the wishbone."

The zone read is typically predicated upon the quarterback making ball-handling decisions upon the play of the unblocked defensive end. In Texas' case, QB Vince Young decides to hand the ball to a running back or keep it himself after the snap.

"He did a great job of not trying to force his runs," Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis said Tuesday of Young's performance in the 65-0 massacre. "In fact, Coach (Mack Brown) asked me on the phone if he was ever going to get to keep it. I said, 'Coach, he's sizing 'em up right now.'"

Young has gotten to the point where he can generally read the intent of the DE (or, in some cases, a linebacker) by his stance. Once the play is snapped, Young uses his arms as a "gunsight" or, the area of the field visibly within the parameters of his extended arms.

"He's making decisions based on where that guy is within his gunsight," Davis said. "If the defensive end stays outside of his sight, hand off the ball. If the defensive end gets inside of his gunsight, pull the ball."

There are also secondary reads, such as looking for an extra DB or detecting a blitz. Young did not have a single bad read Saturday night, Davis said.

"He had a couple where he didn't make a bunch of yards but I thought his decisions were good."

Young finished with 49 yards on eight carries (can you live with 6.1 ypc?) while RB Cedric Benson ran for 181 yards on just 15 totes. Benson's 38-yard TD scamper on the first play from scrimmage came on the play, as did backup RB Ramonce Taylor's 74-yard gallop in the fourth quarter. RB Selvin Young's 38-yard TD sprint came off of a counter read in which there is "a lot of similarities to the zone read but the line is pulling both guards and the tackle. The blocking schemes are entirely different but the read is very similar."

Texas only ran four or five plays Saturday night, Davis admits, albeit from different sets. Texas operated out of the shotgun in a one-back set nearly 75 percent of the time during the first three quarters, and then basically ran out the clock during the final frame.

"It's been my experience that when you have a good rushing day, you don't run a bunch of different plays because it's working," Davis said.

Much like Texas' 1968 offensive makeover that launched a 30-game win streak and landed two national championships, the Horns' not only switched quarterbacks in mid-stream last season but also changed their basic offensive philosophy. In fact, legendary coach Darrell Royal told All-SWC linebacker Pat Culpepper late last season that he "had never seen an offense re-invent itself" as did the 2003 Longhorns.

Other than its ground gobbling potential, the zone read is comparable to the wishbone in that both require defenses to play assignment football (hence, Robinson's comments on needing "11 people" to stop it).

"If one guy, who is called to do something, if he does his job wrong you have a chance to have a big play," Davis said, "so there's always going to be a guy assigned."

Texas ran just three zone read plays in the 38-28 loss to Arkansas last year, a game in Young never set foot on the field.

There is only one SEC team that has adopted the zone read as its favorite play. Yep, it's Arkansas. The difference is that the Hogs incorporate more of the option into their inside zone plays, but it bodes well for the Texas defense that it will face the kind of offense Saturday that it practices against all year.

"Believe me, it helps that we have seen it, you're darn right," Robinson said.

And as far as Texas' NCAA-leading ground game?

"Let's talk in January," Davis said.

(Hopefully, we'll be talking in Miami.)

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