Part of the Doc's Big 12 Week.
The last two years notwithstanding, I've always viewed Mack Brown as a fundamentally old-school hardass who built his offense on burly I-formation workhorses and clouds of dust/vulcanized rubber: Between Ricky Williams, Hodges Mitchell and Cedric Benson, Texas produced a 1,000-yard running back in each of Brown's first seven seasons, and quarterback Vince Young took up the torch with back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns for the nation's No. 2-ranked ground game in both 2004 and 2005.
Even after four years of running back by committee, diminishing returns and finally the wholesale embrace of the spread passing game with Colt McCoy pulling the trigger out of the shotgun, Brown seems tuned to a run-first identity:
IRVING, Texas (AP)—Mack Brown thinks defenses are starting to catch up to the spread offense.
He's noticed how much his defense has struggled against powerful, traditional running teams in bowl games. And with a young quarterback replacing Colt McCoy, the Longhorns probably shouldn’t throw as much as they have been anyway. Brown stacked it all up and came to a simple conclusion: Texas needs to spruce up its running game.
So the Longhorns spent the spring changing their blocking schemes and dusting off some old formations. They are determined to have new quarterback Garrett Gilbert line up under center more often than McCoy did and to have him hand off more than McCoy did.
"When you've got a kid who is completing seven out of 10 passes, you lose your patience," Brown said. "You sit there and say, 'Well, shoot, we're not moving it—throw it! Let's just get this fixed.' And all of a sudden you look up at halftime and you've run it four times and made two yards. You’re saying, 'We need to pick up the running game,' but you’re ahead 24-0 so it’s OK."
Obviously, that wasn't the case in January's BCS Championship Game, where the knife cut both ways: Not only was Texas' top-ranked run defense ripped for 231 yards by Alabama thumpers Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, but the Longhorns' own running game was woefully ill-equipped to pick up the slack after McCoy was knocked out of the game on the first series. Gilbert was forced to throw 40 times in the first significant action of his career, completing just 15 with four interceptions and a game-clinching fumble on the Tide's only sack of the game.
Texas running backs contributed 87 yards on 23 carries to that effort, weeks after combining for all of 38 yards on 21 carries in the Big 12 Championship squeaker over Nebraska. The week before that, with the defense under serious assault for the first time all season, McCoy had taken it upon himself to rack up 175 yards (in addition to his usual heroics as a passer), the 'Horns' best single-game total on the ground since 2007. All part for the course: McCoy was the team's leading rusher with 561 yards in 2008 and remained in front for most of last year, before being overtaken late in the season by redshirt freshman Tre' Newton.
In fact, the offense has revolved so tightly around McCoy over the last two seasons that his graduation, along with the exit of attached-at-the-hip receiving mate Jordan Shipley, leaves as great a void (maybe greater) in terms of the immediate direction of the attack than the one Young left four years ago. Like McCoy then, the new heir apparent (Gilbert), will inherit a solid bunch of experienced backs – aside from McCoy and Shipley, every player who touched the ball on offense last year returns – who seem poised on paper to either a) Produce a single, breakout star, or b) Combine to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of their predecessors' share of the load over the first half of the decade. Gilbert doesn't have McCoy's wheels, and their mostly conservative handling of young quarterbacks in the past suggests Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis will be willing to take as much as possible off the noob's shoulders.
In practice, though, who's going to assume a greater share of the burden? Among the holdovers, Newton came on late and was clearly the favored option by the end of the season, but that was partly due to injuries, and he was nothing special against the outstanding fronts from Nebraska (19 carries for 36 yards) and Alabama (14 for 39) in the last two games. Even when healthy, neither Vondrell McGee nor Fozzy Whittaker has done much to command more touches; Cody Johnson has been largely limited to the role of short-yardage battering ram. Blazing kick returner D.J. Monroe may be the most explosive, but will only be a limited rotation guy at best at 171 pounds. Either of a pair of freshmen, redshirt Chris Whaley or incoming Traylon Shead, seems as likely to make a splash as any of the returnees except Newton.
The elephant in the room is whether Texas has any need to adjust the more pass-happy philosophy to get the backs more involved – obviously, the full-on spread that averaged more than 35 points all four years with McCoy in the saddle seems to be humming along pretty nicely despite facing the exact same questions in the backfield on an annual basis. If Gilbert, a much-hyped recruit who delivered a few big throws after he finally settled down in the BCS title game, can sustain that kind of continuity, it won't matter much who's lining up behind or beside him. One of the reasons McCoy was so absurdly accurate in the first place was the system's reliance on short, safe throws that effectively take the place of handing off when Davis wants to keep it simple.
Expecting Garrett to step into the same with anything like the same acumen is ... optimistic. One puts one's faith in a first-year starter to uphold the bar set by a two-time Heisman finalist with essentially no grace period at his own peril.
More likely, Gilbert will need to be protected in big games the same way McCoy was as a first-year starter in 2006, when Davis kept the reins on his young quarterback in early games against Ohio State (a 24-7 loss) and Oklahoma (a defensively driven, 28-7 win in which UT gained just 232 yards of total offense), waiting for some semblance of a consistent running game emerged. It never did, and McCoy took on an expanded share of the attack until he was banged up in late losses to underdogs Kansas State and Texas A&M, knocking the Longhorns into the Alamo Bowl. Gilbert showed flashes of poise, resiliency and big-play knack on the biggest possible stage, but if the Longhorns are aiming for the BCS or another Big 12 championship, he's going to need more help from the running game than McCoy got at the same stage And he's certainly going to need more than he got from them back in Pasadena.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.