Spring Preview—Offense

Highly humorous and longtime Longhorn sports information director, Jones Ramsey, once said, "At Texas, we have two sports—football and spring football." With the former done and the latter fast approaching (Fri), it's time to rev up the additional sport of speculation. As Mack sometimes wearily attests, it's the activity with the largest number of participants among the world of burnt orange.

First, a notable tip of the hat to much maligned offensive coordinator Greg Davis that is well deserved. In 2008, he managed to design an offense that possessed, at best, an "adequate" ground game, a revamped offensive line, the in-season loss of a stellar receiving tight end, and no proven deep threat going into the year.

Despite these numerous handicaps, Texas rolled to five touchdown-plus performances in all but one regular season game. More meaningfully, the ‘Horns plastered Oklahoma's defense with 45 points, the most the Sooners allowed, even in the uber-scoring Big XII. No one can longer accuse our offense of merely bullying the puny while wilting against the hated rival.

Having praised our offensive coordinator, we should note the occasional futility of the ground game, a mode of attack that seems to stay in neutral, closely resembling its east-west schematic tendencies. But, how important is that?

Greg Davis can cite last year's success against Oklahoma as a great ground game example, but much of that came late. He'll tell you that sticking with it made the difference, wearing them out, but OU will tell you it was the loss of "all-world" middle linebacker Ryan "Butkus" Reynolds (slight sarcasm inserted). Maybe it was neither, but instead the Sooners simply being worn out by the passing game, not the running one.

While tradition tells you that an opposing stomp beats down a defense, it may get just as winded and disheartened by being absolutely unable to stop flawless surgery on it that a "Dr. McCoy" performed for sixty minutes in Dallas.

This brings us to the gist of today's college game, which is the passing attack. The running game, to Greg Davis, is generally a method of mixing it up, of killing some time, until you go back to the air. With flagrant holding being virtually legalized (some of the OU and Texas Tech linemen should be playing defense), it appears our offensive coordinator is ahead of the curve in his emphasis. The national stats bear that out, with passing figures showing much better correlation to winning than rushing ones, contrary to older days.

Texas' own figures reveal its tilt toward the pass also, with 65% of its 2008 yardage coming via the airways, compared to just 58% nationally, despite the ‘Horns not throwing the ball at any higher rate per play than teams around the country.

So while you want an effective situational rushing attack for short yardage and burning the clock, how does the loss of glue-fingered Quan Cosby affect this year's more critical passing attack?

In these eyes, it means Colt must utilize a deep threat. We got glimpses of this from Malcolm Williams, who burned Texas Tech for 180 yards on just four grabs, including a 91-yarder that brought Texas to the brink of a great comeback that fell one second short.

Without a down-the-field weapon used fairly frequently, can the ‘Horns rely on Colt McCoy to be almost perfect each week, like he was in 2008? Remember that defenses started swarming the short passing game the last weeks of the season. It's hard to recall this in light of the last impression, late game heroics against Ohio State, but in the last five weeks, the Heisman candidate's completion percentage dropped to "just" 70%, compared to 80%-plus over the first eight games.

Another factor will always be Colt's health, and he took a pounding despite often getting rid of the ball quickly. That too has to be considered, since the longer passes take that extra moment to develop. On that note, the loss of Chris Ogbonnaya—whose experience greatly assisted in blitz pickup and safety valve receptions—has to be considered, despite his lack of flash. However, the return of four starters in the offensive line (only guard Cedric Dockery needs to be replaced) should help McCoy remain relatively safe.

Among receivers attempting to fill the Quan void, obviously it starts with Jordan Shipley, whose own performance in 2008 made him as valuable as anyone on the team, sans Colt. He took a pounding inside, but yet avoided any fumbles, doubling as a dangerous kick returner (touchdowns in the two biggest games—OU and Tech).

Additional help among the wideouts is expected in oft utilized Brandon Collins and James Kirkendoll. With Shipley reportedly out for the spring (fully ready for fall), the time will allow hopeful newcomers more opportunities to show their talents. One intrigue in particular will be to see if the explosive redshirt freshman DeSean Hales can add a new element of attack - that as a slot receiver capable of breaking big plays. Between Hales and Malcolm Williams, the ‘Horns could yield two touchdown threats at any position on the field.

Everyone wants promising Blaine Irby to return yesterday, whether as a David Thomas-style tight end or as more of an H-back to accompany whatever backfield presence for Texas. However, at this stage, the severity of his knee injury causes us to wonder if he'll be fully prepared to play an integral role for '09, leaving tight end potentially in the hands of totally unproven types like Josh Marshall and D.J. Grant. Grant, after much armchair speculation, has been moved from wide receiver and is expected to be a great candidate for the passing game.

Back to the old fashioned ground game; that Mack annually cites in the off-season a desire to establish a "downhill" running game, as he has just done again heading into '09, indicates it's not something Texas actually applies most years, especially in the spread-happy years since Vince Young arrived.

Will it happen this season? If nothing else, such would save Colt some punishment. Too, some kind of consistency overland will prevent, say, a Texas Tech from the luxury of placing its safeties 15 or more yards off the line of scrimmage.

Texas has some of the personnel capable of running "power," with 250-pound Cody Johnson and incoming high school standout Chris Whaley (already 6-3, 235). At the same time, we hear a lot of stirring about redshirt freshman Tre Newton for his blocking and pass catching abilities. He, not coincidentally, ran out of Todd Dodge's spread attack at Southlake Carroll. Returning backs such as "Fozzy" Whittaker and Vondrell McGee have relatively little "downhill" experience, though have shown such ability in spots.

At most, figure on Texas going to the power attack only a little more than in recent seasons. Evidenced by his Heisman-deserving just completed season and the fact he led the ‘Horns by nearly 200 yards in season rushing, Colt McCoy is the catalyst for the Texas offense—more than when you normally see that term. And if you watch any highlight film of him, you'll see him out of the shotgun. With what many believe sets up as a legitimate 2009 run at the Sears trophy, along with Colt being a senior, you won't see anything resembling an offensive overhaul.

As is his offseason custom, Mack Brown again cites the need to switch at least somewhat to a more "manly" overland attack. "I want something more downhill," Mack said. "I don't know what it is. But we're going to work on it in the spring." The previously noted tight end uncertainty—as well as the offensive coordinator's wishes—may limit such implementation.

Some observers, especially after noting its success against Ohio State, would prefer to see Mack and Greg Davis to focus more on the hurry-up attack over the ground game, particularly with the highly seasoned Colt holding the reins.

The need for some flexibility and balance is understood, even craved. But if it doesn't materialize, keep this in mind. With Colt McCoy and the offense often carrying the 2008 Longhorns to its unexpected heights—one second or a silly tie-breaking rule from a national championship bout—continuity, at least in large part, may be a good thing.


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