Charlie Strong made several interesting hires when filling out his offensive coaching staff. First, he pulled his Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson to Austin, but this time with the titles of assistant head coach (offense) and quarterbacks coach. As the Longhorns’ actual offensive coordinator, though, Strong tapped Joe Wickline, the former offensive line coach at Oklahoma State. It’s an interesting move in many respects, since Wickline has never been a coordinator at the college level, while Watson was the OC at Louisville for the last three years, Nebraska for the four years before that, and at Colorado from 2000 to 2005. Watson’s background is much more with pro-style schemes, while Wickline has more experience with the spread that Oklahoma State runs, so the dynamic between the two should eventually result in a varied, multiple-look offense.
But that’s for down the road. Right now, Texas is not well-equipped to do many different things offensively, whether due to depth at receiver, a lack of experience at quarterback, or suspensions along the offensive line. The focus through two games has clearly been to spread the field horizontally to open running lanes. It hasn’t worked, largely due to significant issues along the offensive line, but Strong and his offensive staff are clearly trying to build an identity around those running backs, as evidenced by Texas rushing 35 times against BYU even though the Longhorns averaged just 2.3 yards per carry.
It’s easy to see why, given the other issues on the offense, Texas is turning to its running backs to carry the load. Junior running back Johnathan Gray (5'11, 215) has returned from a devastating Achilles injury that occurred last year, and doesn’t look much the worse for wear. He has been a workhorse through his Texas career, averaging about 4.7 yards per carry on 338 carries in his career. He’s joined in the backfield by Malcolm Brown (5'11, 222), the senior, who has had an impressive career in his own right, averaging 4.35 yards per carry on 474 career carries. Between the two, Texas has the powerful backs it needs to generate a consistent running game — as long as it has an offensive line to open some holes for them.
And that’s where the issues really start. Before the season even began, Texas lost its mainstay in center Dominic Espinosa, who broke his ankle at the end of training camp and will likely miss the season. Espinosa was the most experienced player on the offensive line. Then, last week, prior to the BYU game, starting tackles Kennedy Estelle (who was the next-most experienced lineman on the team) and Desmond Harrison were suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Both players are out for this weekend. It leaves Texas scrambling for answers, and judging by just this past weekend, the Longhorns haven’t found any suitable ones. Sophomore right tackle Kent Perkins (6'5, 330) is probably the best of the bunch, and has played decently through two games. Most of the issues against BYU, actually, came on the interior, with junior offensive guards, Taylor Doyle (6'4, 298) and Sedrick Flowers (6'3, 320), having huge difficulties picking up their assignments in the run game and redshirt freshman center Jake Raulerson (6'5, 281) looking a bit lost at times. The starting left tackle, junior Marcus Hutchins (6'5, 278), has bounced between defensive line and offensive line throughout his career, and plays about as well as you’d expect for a journeyman who has bounced between positions throughout his career.
It’s been a bit of a sad story at quarterback for Texas. David Ash, who finally progressed back to nearly full health after suffering repeated concussion issues over the last year and more, again experienced concussive symptoms after the North Texas game and is out indefinitely. Luckily, Texas does have some talent in the depth chart at quarterback. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes (6'4, 243) actually looked pretty good against BYU when you take into account the significant difficulties the Longhorns were having running the ball. He’s a talented quarterback with a strong arm and very good athleticism. Swoopes likely played well enough last week to get the nod again this week, but freshman phenom Jerrod Heard (6'2, 199) is waiting in the wings, and if Swoopes falters, he’d likely be next in line.
And just in case you thought the wide receivers were free of turmoil, don’t fret — Texas is missing plenty of its stars there as well. Junior receiver Daje Johnson, who’s arguably the Longhorns’ most gifted playmaker, has been suspended for a violation of team rules and has yet to be reinstated. In addition, senior receiver Jaxon Shipley, who is the team’s second leading receiver after two games, is questionable for Saturday’s game after hitting his head during the BYU game. On top of all that, two players who were expected to contribute significantly this year, Kendall Sanders and Montreal Meander, were charged with sexual assault in the offseason and have been suspended. The combination of all of those injuries, suspensions, and dismissals has left the receiving corps without much elite talent.
With Shipley out, there’s a chance that talented true freshman Armanti Foreman (6'0, 189) could get the start at his receiver spot. Foreman has very good speed, but his ability to catch the ball in traffic and body control are exceptional for a player his age. Junior wide receiver Marcus Johnson (6'1, 193) will also start at receiver, and while he hasn’t been productive yet this year, he’s one of the experienced cogs in the group. At the other receiver spot, senior John Harris (6'2, 218) has been hit or miss, dropping a few balls in the last couple of weeks. Senior tight end Geoff Swaim (6'4, 250) rounds out the group, but he’s probably more of a blocker than a receiver.
UCLA’s defense was not without its own issues this past week. Thought to be on the upswing as a unit, particularly after an impressive opening performance against Virginia on August 30th, the defense struggled mightily against Memphis, giving up 28 points and looking nothing like the aggressive, fast defense that many UCLA fans expected going into the season.
It wasn’t a single area that broke down, either. You could point to several culprits, from over pursuit and poor tackling by the linebackers, to a lack of pass rush from the line, to below average play in the secondary. To compensate for some of those issues, if we had to guess, UCLA will likely be more aggressive against Texas, and perhaps utilize different pressure packages now that the coaches have seen the difficulty the line had in generating consistent pressure against Memphis.
Probably one of the bigger concerns for UCLA going into the game is the health of Randall Goforth. As of right now, the junior safety is very unlikely to play after suffering a shoulder injury, which leaves a few options for UCLA. Tahaan Goodman has been the primary fill-in through the first two games, but he struggled knowing his assignments and taking proper angles at ball carriers against Memphis. Jaleel Wadood, who played significantly in the opener against Virginia and not as much against Memphis, could also get the nod at safety.
Fabian Moreau, who was almost unanimously thought to be one of the better players on the team coming out of fall camp, has not played anywhere close to his billing through two games. He looks oddly tentative, typically playing way off receivers and allowing them to catch balls without much of a challenge. On the opposite side, Ishmael Adams has been better, but his size occasionally presents some difficulties, with teams that have bigger receivers targeting him. Priest Willis is the third corner in the primary rotation, and he stepped up against Memphis and was probably the best or second best defensive back on the field.
|Kendricks & Moreau.|
The defensive line is quickly turning into the Kenneth Clark show, and that’s no real knock on the other guys. Clark has been very impressive through the first two games, looking every bit the player the coaches have been raving about all offseason. His strength and ability to leverage interior offensive lineman, combined with his very good quickness, has already made him somewhat of a pass-rushing threat on the interior, as well as a complete run-stuffer. He’s got some wheels, too, and looked like he could have run down Paxton Lynch a couple of times if he’d had a bit more space.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa has also had a good start to the season, and Eddie Vanderdoes, who’s been a bit inconsistent while he rounds back into game form, has also had moments of brilliance. Those three have had to carry the load, though, as the true freshmen get acclimated and Ellis McCarthy plays himself into game shape.
One of the major reasons that UCLA had difficulty with Memphis was the scheme; the Bruins just weren’t ready for the multiple different looks, formations, and plays that Memphis had ready for the game. That really shouldn’t be the issue against Texas; the Longhorns simply don’t have the experience on the offensive line, at quarterback, or in the skill positions to be that multiple.
A big key in this game will be UCLA’s ability to take advantage of Texas’ inexperience on the interior, and, luckily for the Bruins, that’s probably the strength of UCLA’s defense, with big Kenny Clark manning the middle. It’s a fair bet that he’ll be taking up permanent residence in the nightmares of Messrs. Doyle, Flowers, and Raulerson after the game. Though we’re reluctant to say it after watching three- and four-man rushes most of the last two games, UCLA should be able to generate pressure against that offensive line with just its front four. If Clark, Vanderdoes, and McCarthy are able to win those match ups on the interior, it’ll significantly inhibit Texas’ ability to run the ball, which will force the game into the hands of Swoopes. Swoopes definitely has the ability to run, and could hurt an undisciplined team with his ability to scramble. Kendricks, Young, and Jack will have to play significantly better to keep Swoopes contained to a pocket. Our guess is that they will play better and mostly contain Swoopes, forcing him into playing mostly from the pocket. With the Longhorns’ receiving corps being as depleted as it is, they’re probably going to have some difficulty getting open, which could lead to the first multi-sack game of the year for UCLA’s defense.
In short, Texas simply doesn’t have the experienced depth at most positions to take advantage of some of UCLA’s issues defensively. The Bruins should be able to win this side of the matchup fairly easily, and if they don’t, that’ll be a real concern heading into Arizona State in two weeks.