September 23, 2010

The Ticket City Locker Room

Q: (SmokeyDaHorn) - Is Mac McWhorter the Jason Garrett of Austin? It seems like everyone is talking about the offensive line coach this week and that can never be a good thing. Where do you stand on this issue?

A: If you'll indulge me, I'm going to spin a yarn on this discussion because I think there are a lot of layers to it. Before we get into the meat of your question and why there has been some consternation this week, let's make several important points to the discussion.

No.1 - I can completely understand if Mack Brown wants to slap some people around these days. The Longhorns are in the kind of historic run of success that people will write books about 25 years from now and the fact that Mack is in a position currently where he's having to defend a coach on his staff - in the middle of a 30-2 stretch of games - well… it would make a lesser man resent the hell out of a lot of people. In fact, I'm not sure how it couldn't. You can look at this situation and say, "Well, the line has been an issue for a couple of years now", but the coaches in that Texas locker room are going to say, "Are you kidding me? We've lost two games - one with one second on the clock and the other because of a freak injury to our quarterback. Where's the loyalty?" It's not like this team is 2-1, let alone 1-2 or 0-3. It's undefeated and ranked in the top five. Just saying…

No.2 - There have been constant "rabble, rabble" about the running game since the day Ricky Williams and the group of offensive linemen that John Mackovic left for Mack to inherit departed the program. So, we're talking a decade-plus. The original scapegoat in the running game was Tim Nunez and his karate trained linemen. With a resume that in no way suggested he was ready to be the offensive line coach at Texas, Nunez was an easy guy to pick on, partly because he didn't have any skins on the wall. He was just some guy that coached at Marshall before coming to Texas and everyone in Austin can confirm that they surely know more about offensive line play than someone coaching at Marshall.

Well, now that we look back at the last decade and recognize that there has been a consistent campaign of unhappiness about the running game (with the exception of the Vince Young era), I just can't buy the fact that it's simply a McWhorter issue. The offense is Greg Davis' and at the root of Mack Brown's soul as a football coach is a razor-edged former offensive coordinator that Troy Aikman remembers as a rough cuss. At the foundation of whatever real problems that exist in this area, it's simply na´ve to think that the third guy in command is the architect of the problem because he coaches the way he's told to coach. He no more coaches the offensive linemen on his own than Oscar Giles coaches the defensive ends without Will Muschamp's oversight.

Please. Read. That. Last. Sentence. Over. Again.

No.3 - McWhorter is a made guy in this business. Say what you want, but he's coached at places like Alabama and Georgia in the SEC, and had enough success at Georgia Tech that he was at least a consideration for head coach after serving as the interim guy in a bowl win for the Jackets before coming to Texas. The guy has rings. The guy has players in the NFL. The guy can recruit and has the nation's No.1 offensive line class notched on his belt right now. He'd be on the market for about 15 minutes before his first job offer would arrive as a free agent.

OK, now that we've established those three very important points, let's also discuss the current state of the offensive line and some legitimate concerns.

Contrary to Mack's comments on Monday, the offensive line is not as good as good as they want to play, at least I would hope they aren't happy (although Michael Huey did give the group an A+ after the Rice performance). Perhaps I don't know squat. It's possible.

However, I think it's safe to say that the Texas offensive linemen don't want to be a sloppy unit that commits penalties in key situations. I think it's safe to say they don't want to be a line that can't ever be on the same page at the same time in the running game. I would imagine that they don't want to have a reputation for not being able to finish plays or getting the basics down or making critical mistakes.

Yet, they are sloppy and have committed a ton of penalties, especially the older players. They aren't on the same page in the running game. They have made critical mistakes and sometimes fail at the basics.

Consider this quote from Mack Brown: "Sometimes in practice when you don't cut, they have to learn from that. We should be much better cutting off this week than we were last week."

That comment didn't come this week after the interception in the red-zone that led to the infamous Mack/Mac exchange along the sideline on Saturday in Lubbock. This comment came in the Monday press conference following the Rice game. So, an issue that Mack was harping on after week one bit the team in the hind-parts in week three in an important situation.

Also, I totally understand what Mack is talking about when he says that the Longhorns are seemingly one block away in the running game on almost a play-by-play basis. I re-watch the games frame by frame and I can see exactly what he's talking about.

However, Mack has been beating the "we're one block away all the time" drum for a while now, at least two seasons. It was at about this time last year that Mack was talking about the linemen being embarrassed after the Colorado game and he was throwing himself on the sword.

"We didn't do well," Mack said on the Monday following the game. "It was not good. The kids are embarrassed over it, and I promise you, they are going back to work. The coaches are embarrassed over it, and they're going back to work. Everyone wants to put blame. You can put the blame anywhere you want it. It is like we have always said, "The blame is on me." Period. When you stop it, I look at it. I am in every offensive and defensive meeting. I hear every call, I see every kid, I recruited every kid, so don't give me credit for the good. Give the kids credit for the good and give me all the credit for the bad, and then we can move on and get that out of the way."

At some point it feels like we're driving around with the Griswolds around London. You want to know where I stand? I think the buck stops with Mack. Then Greg. Then Mac. Blaming McWhorter for all of the problems is a little like blaming Rusty for the Griswolds' 25 trips past Big Ben and Parliament. Ask yourself who is driving the car.

Q: (Bick Benedict) - I'm going to let you take over the Longhorn 2011 recruiting strategy for one day and you can offer and take only one more commitment from any player in Texas, who are you taking?

A: Assuming that Malcolm Brown is completely comfortable with the idea of adding the same type of thunder and lightning combination to the Texas offense that he seems comfortable with in regards to the continued recruitment of Aaron Green, then I find a way to get the entire staff in front of Brandon Williams and I tell him after evaluating his play as a senior, the staff would make a joint pitch to him about joining the Longhorn family. From a talent standpoint, I'm not sure there's a kid with a higher upside at any position and there's never been a kid that could use the family atmosphere that Mack offers quite like Williams. This is a kid that needs a strong support system and if he succeeds for four years at Texas after everything he's been through, then Disney can come in do the movie. It's become a slam dunk decision for me. Total no-brainer.

Q: (TNlonghorn77) - What's the deal with this Johnny Manziel kid? Is he the next Drew Brees or the next Drew Tate or the next Riley Dodge?

A: Here's the thing about Manziel - he might be the best pound for pound high school player in the state right now, but I've stood side by side the kid and there's nothing about him physically that suggests he's a big-time guy. Don't get me wrong, he might end up being the next Chase Daniel (you forgot about him!) when the dust settles because he has some of the same knocks on him (small, system player, maxed out, better suited for another position) coming out of high school and some of the same strengths (flat out player, very well coached, very successful, solid tools). But, you're gambling on him being the 1 in 1,000 that truly hits and then you have to hope that he's the 1 in 1,000 that's truly good enough to compete against the highest level of competition.

That being said, this is a kid that has some "it" factor to his game and if you were willing to make an exemption offer for Michael Brewer as a second quarterback (reserved for 2012), then perhaps you need to make the same kind of consideration for Manziel, but only if you genuinely think you'll have some regret for not offering him and you're not worried about filling the 2012 quarterback slot with a nationally elite prospect. He's a kid that I've seen at Texas home games throwing up the Hook'em and he'd probably throw himself in front of a truck for an offer.

Q: (3xHorn) - For the last 5+ years Texas has been in a position to pick some of the best recruits every year. What explains the mess UT is in on offense? Specifically,

1) Poor performers on the OL and little depth;
2) Enough RBs on scholarship to field two team but not one of championship-caliber
3) Despite great WR recruits on paper each year, not one upper classman that could even be considered even third team All-Conference.

I don't have records for the past 5 years, but what the h3!! happened? Is it the coaches fault, i.e, bad recruiting (judgment and numbers) and/or bad development; or the players? I've read what Chip and others have written about being realistic because we're starting over with a new QB, but from what I see the new QB is not the problem. And we are NOT starting over this year at OL, RB or WR, which is where the problems lie, and where the level of play is NOT at the level it should be given UT's recruiting power.

A: I think you need to step back from the ledge for just a moment and realize that the Texas offense has been one of the most explosive and productive units in the country from 2004-09. I think it's very important to the narrative that we mention that little fact before we dive too deep into all the things that are wrong for an offense that has been one of college football's power players in recent years. The constant pursuit of perfection often allows us to focus on what you don't have and not what you do.

That's certainly not to say that the offense doesn't have some structural issues in its foundation on that side of the ball, but we're three games into this season and I think it's too soon to write the obituary for this unit this year. Never forget that you probably wouldn't have fared too well if you tried to tell the stories of the 2004 and 2008 Longhorn offenses after three weeks.

That being said, let's look at those three areas that you asked about.

1. The explanation for the offensive line issues is a cluttered mess of problems that extend all the way back to the recruiting classes in the middle of the decade. First of all, the three best players on the line right now (Kyle Hix, Michael Huey and David Snow) were all players that were not able to redshirt as true freshman, in part because the offensive line recruiting failures from 2003-2006 left the team in pretty dire straits, especially as it relates to Huey and Hix back in 2007. I've always said this about the players from the 2007 class, but things would look significantly different had those players been able to redshirt and they still had 20+ games remaining in their careers. However, the Horns have been paying for recruiting sins on the offensive line for years.

From a personal standpoint, the four classes that make up the current offensive line class give pretty solid indications as to why the depth is lacking.

2006: This should be the fifth-year senior class for this team, but three of the five offensive linemen in this class washed out because of grades and a racist blast on a social networking platform. The two players that remain today are Britt Mitchell and Steven Moore. Basically, Texas hit on one guy out of five and the failure of this class were hard to overcome when you look at the tiny 2005 offensive line class and the just as disappointing 2004 unit.

2007: The Longhorns landed a top five class with this group, but only two of the four players have yet to make a dent in a class that was expected to be the long-term foundation of the class. Aundre McGaskey washed out pretty quickly and the state's No.1 prospect that year (Tray Allen) in my rankings was rushed out on the field, along with Hix and Huey (despite not being ready) because of previous depth problems.

Before we look at 2008 and 2009 recruiting, understand that the upperclassmen at the position in the program consists of three solid to very good contributors to the program to this point and not much else. Big red flag.

2008: The Longhorns took three offensive linemen and only one has been able to get on the field through the first half of their careers. David Snow is a quality starter, but Mark Buchanan hasn't been able to get on the field and neither has Luke Poehlmann, although the latter has shown improvement this season and might be on the field right now if not for injuries.

2009: Only Mason Walters has truly emerged as a contributor early on from an offensive line class that ranked second in the nation.

So, there you go. Each player has a different story, but the bottom line is that Texas hasn't had stability at this position since the players from the 2005 and 2006 teams (mostly 2002 and 2003 recruits) departed… four seasons ago.

2. I'm a guy that feels like the big problem at running back is personnel. The recruiting decisions from 2007-09 all had some serious flaws, from simply making bad evaluations to extending early offers to prospects that we're elite enough to justify early offers in my opinion. The proof is in the pudding and has been discussed at length for a couple of years now, so I'm not going to re-hash these issues this week. Just know that Major Applewhite isn't the man to blame for the current personal issues.

3. You've changed the standard in the conversation at the last position. It's not that this group isn't playing well or doesn't have potential stars inside the unit, you want to know why the upper-classmen on this team aren't in the same kind of league as a Jordan Shipley. Before we move on, we should at least acknowledge that John Chiles was looking like a go-to-guy for Garrett Gilbert in week two before his groin injury and that James Kirkendoll is coming off a career night in Lubbock that helped propel Texas to a big win. Let us also acknowledge that both players are seniors and have never shown All-Big 12 level play consistently up until this mark of this season.

The 2006 WR recruiting class was an absolute disaster, as they went 0-3 and never got a quality snap out of any of them. The 2007 class was a winner with Malcolm Williams, Brandon Collins and James Kirkendoll, but the best player from that group couldn't stay out of a police car before the biggest season of his life. Meanwhile, the 2008 class lost Dan Buckner to a girl and Antoine Hicks to qualification issues that allowed him into TCU, but not Texas. The good news is that the talent issues at this position appear solved for the foreseeable future, as the recruiting at that position has gone to a different level than the ones from the middle of this decade.

As you can see, the team has had these combination of factors impact all three positions - poor evaluations, slow developments on the field, injuries, grades and braid deadness.

Q: (memhorn) - There has been a lot of talk about chop blocks and cut blocks, and the extent to which Texas teaches its linemen to use these blocks (for example, in drills, but not in live practices). Could you define chop and cut blocks, and how Texas utilizes them? If UT doesn't allow these blocks in scrimmages, does it affect their ability to do so against players like Suh (in your opinion)? And, when exactly are these block illegal?

A: This question was actually submitted two days before the Tech game. How perspective of you. This obviously has been an issue for the Longhorns and it's something that they've got to figure out because Mack Brown was talking about the issue in week one, well before Bitt Mitchell's inability to cut Scott Smith provided Texas Tech with a game-changer against the offense in week three.

The rules on chop blocks are pretty easy. You can't chop a guy when he's engaged with another player and you can't crash down on a guy (crack-back) below the waist from the outside into the line of scrimmage (neutral zone). If a pair of linemen are trying to make a high-low combination block, the player cannot engage with the cut block until the player making contact high has disengaged, even if only briefly.

Mack Brown is terrified of leg injuries in practice and that's one of the reasons that the Longhorns don't use the technique in practice. You'd hate to lose a Sam Acho for the season because your redshirt freshman tackle cut a guy wrong. However, the price you pay in games is the linemen aren't able to execute their blocks to the full extend that they need to and as they enter week four, the problems from week one still exist.

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