July 9, 2009

The Ticket City Locker Room

Q: (mikhailtū) - In your opinion, do you see the same amount of momentum/drive/hunger going into this season as you did after the 2005 Rose Bowl win over Michigan? If you rated this intangible on a scale from 1-10, with the scale ranging like this:

1 is leaving the RRS in 2000, 5 is punching out Colorado at Boulder in 2008 and 10 is a 2005 bus trip on the way up to Dallas

Where is the team after the Fiesta nipping? Where did you see them going into Dallas last year? Where do you see them going into the RRS next year? Please feel free to use your own rating scale.

A: Great questions. On some level this is a tough question to answer because there's not a team in the country that doesn't think that they are working hard and maxing out their efforts. Still, I remember back in 2006 and 2007 when a lot of the discussions about off-season workouts centered on the players that weren't showing up. After the national championship season, there were key veteran players on the defense that weren't showing up consistently and the vibe they gave off said they didn't have to show because they had their starting positions locked up and they had just won a national championship.

Of course, we can look back at that 2006 team and say that the lack of 100% off-season dedication doomed them in the long run, but that team was slated for a BCS game and Big 12 title before Colt McCoy's injury at Kansas State. So, how do you ever really know?

Last season I heard great things about the off-season and I can tell you that the confidence level and collective chip on the shoulder of almost every player on the team was at peak levels, but I took a little bit of wait-and-see approach to the returns on the workouts because that rhetoric and false confidence can be fool's gold, but that wasn't the case last season and it's important to note that outside of one player, the attendance/attitude reports from the sessions were very good.

In talking with sources this year, there have been a lot of comparisons to the 2005 team because the leaders on this team are the hardest workers on the team. The 7-on-7 sessions have been highly competitive, there haven't been any injuries and the team seems ready to explode into the 2009 season.

I think the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for this team keeping its edge as a group. Will Muschamp is hungry to win. Major Applewhite is hungry to win. Mack Brown might be the hungriest of all and I'm not sure he had that edge in 2006. It's back now.

That single-minded focus that this staff brings to the table is the reason why I picked the Longhorns to beat Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl last year despite originally picking the Sooners to win the game in the pre-season. Here's a look at what I wrote:

"If I were a betting man, I'd probably make the Sooners a 2:1 favorite, but I'm not even sure what that means. The one thing that I think plays into Texas' favor is that I truly believe they'll enter this game with a mental edge that they haven't had in most years against the Sooners. It's the Will Muschamp factor and we haven't yet seen what that means in this particular match-up. So, what's my prediction? Oh hell, let's just go with the heart - Colt McCoy plays turnover-free football, Sergio Kindle channels his inner Brian Robison and destroys Sam Bradford in a play that leads to seven points and Aaron Williams blocks a punt. Texas 24 Oklahoma 20"

Obviously, I didn't nail the details of the game, but the "Lunch-pail Longhorns" were starting to show the mark of a special group. I think this team feels like a special season is staring them in the face and they are committed to maximizing their potential. Overall, this group is on the absolute high end of the intangibles scale on both sides of the ball. They'll enter the game in October against Oklahoma with the confidence that they are the better team and that they can physically and mentally break their will. I'm not even sure the 2005 team had that.

Q: (Channy) - You've discussed the OL needing to take it to the next level regarding run blocking thus giving our backs better opportunities. Is this a matter of increasing strength and maintaining mobility to manhandle and knock the opponent backward, and do you see our projected starters improving much in this regard?

A: I think with so much talk of this year's offensive line possessing a ton of starting experience, many have forgotten that this group featured a lot of fairly young players last season. Players like Michael Huey and Kyle Hix were entering their sophomore seasons in 2008 and they were not only expected to be outstanding players (I thought Hix was going to be the best lineman in the program heading into the season) from the jump, but they were being asked to reach that level without the benefit of a redshirt season. That's one full off-season in the program for both players heading into last season.

In addition to those two players, Adam Ulatoski might have been a two-year starter heading into the season, but he's another guy that didn't have a chance to red-shirt and was not only forced to play early in his career, but he was asked to do so after fighting through some physical issues that had kept him from lifting weights and developing the strength he needed to add coming in. How different would he look on paper right now if he were a redshirt junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining and two more-off-seasons to work with?

Let's stop for a second and take a look at these three. Even if you believe that Charlie Tanner and Chris Hall have maxed out their upside as players, this group has a chance to be much better if these three players begin to max out their own upsides. This is either the third or fourth year in the system for each player and in my mind the improvement from these three will determine whether this line really takes off.

You can throw sophomore center David Snow into that mix as well because the coaches believe he has a chance to be the best of the bunch. Yes, I'll be the first to tell you that the line's problems aren't anything that a little more no-fear attitude can't fix, but I think that comes with players once they find their comfort zones on the field and all of these young players should be entering their comfort zones as players this year. Plus, they've all had a chance to get two or three full off-seasons under their belt, which is hugely important. Always remember this about that 2005 offensive line - Justin Blalock, Kasey Studdard, Lyle Sendlein and Will Allen all had the benefit of red-shirt seasons and were entering their fourth or fifth seasons in the program that year.

Q: (Eric_mattson2000) - I know you have been asked already but I'm going to ask again! Who do we finish with? Out of the rest of the Staff's 2010 targets, who do YOU think we get when it's all said and done? Thanks!

A: Oh man, I have never seen a group of players that I was afraid to make a prediction on, but I kind of feel that way with Plano West defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and Fort Worth Dunbar wide receiver Darius White. I just do not have a feeling on what's going to happen with those two, but if you put a gun to my head - I'll go with Texas for both because I think the Longhorns might have the moms in their corner. We'll see.

Overall, I've got Texas finishing with four more commitments - Jeffcoat, White, Marshall linebacker Aaron Franklin and… the fourth… will be a total wild card off the current radar.

Q: (babyshoe) - Do you ever expect Sherrod Harris to see any significant playing time in Burnt Orange?

A: I'm not ever going to say never, but the deck seems stacked against Harris because the staff appears committed to Garrett Gilbert taking some snaps this season as the back-up quarterback, especially when you consider that Harris has been banged up in the off-season and has missed the summer seven-on-seven sessions.

With that being said, he's an injury away from the two-deep and there was a time in 1998 when I thought Major Applewhite would never was going to have a future at quarterback in Austin and it's amazing how an injury or two can change things in a hurry.

Never say never, especially at the quarterback position.

Q: (memhorn) - The returning top four wide receivers seems clear: Shipley, Collins, Kirkendoll, and Williams. Which other receivers do you expect to get a lot of playing time in 2009?

A: John Chiles is in the mix. Period. Don't ever forget that the staff views him as a must-have on the field and when they do their staff drafts in the off-season, he's one of the first guys on the offensive side off the board.

That's five and if we're talking about a lot of playing time in 2009, that could be it. If you're looking for a sixth receiver - let's keep an eye on redshirt freshman DeSean Hales or sophomore Dan Buckner.

Q: (rubber guard) - What is the staff doing at tight end? I saw on the updated roster on MB-TF that the staff is officially cross-training Dravannti Johnson and Dominique Jones at TE/DE. Did the staff forget that they signed two actual tight ends in Jones class? Are they trying to turn Johnson into the next Ahmard Howard? That will put us at 8 tight ends, not counting Blaine Irby. That's nearly 10% of the scholarship roster devoted to a position that contributed nothing to the offense in 2008, a position that puts one, maybe two, and most of the time zero players on the field at a time, a position that the offense functioned just fine without after Irby went down. At what point will the staff see that throwing athletes in at tight end, and putting player's careers in no man's land in the process, will not solve the problem?

I could go on and on about this. Did the staff forget they just moved D.J. Grant to tight end? What does Dominique Jones bring to tight end that Barrett Matthews and Trey Graham don't? Why did the staff sign two tight ends if they were just going to move another guy there after he got to campus? How long until Kyle Kriegel gets moved to tight end? If the staff is this committed to getting a tight end involved in the offense, at what point will heat fall on Bruce Chambers for not getting one of his eight guys ready to contribute?

A: Ok, let's take a deep brief. Inhale. Exhale.

I'll be the first to admit that the tight end position is a bit of a mess right now, but I wouldn't be concerned about the number of guys they have working out at tight end for a couple of reasons.

First, these are drastic times at the position, so all hands are on deck. If Irby isn't injured, this position isn't in dire need, but this is a spot that currently doesn't feature a single sure thing. Here's the group we're talking about:

Greg Smith - He's a tight end. He's a tackle. He's a tight end. He's a tackle. He's back again to tight end and this time he's staying (in part because it just wasn't totally happening inside). There's no question that he gives the team a solid blocking option, but he's less of a receiving option than Peter Ullman.

Ahmard Howard - The former Brenham star had been buried on the depth at defensive end because he doesn't have the burst off the edge as a pass rusher, but he's another guy that gives the team a blocking option in two tight end sets, but has a long way to go as a receiver. Keep in mind that this kid was originally recruited as a tight end and just finished his second full off-season, I think there's reason for optimism that he can become a good player at the position, even if it doesn't happen overnight.

D.J. Grant - This kid was a wide receiver eight months ago and now he represents the best hope for an impact type player because of his athleticism and ball skills. But, he's really just a large receiver and he is going to have to prove that he can block down the line and handle himself in the running game at least a little or it kind of defeats the purpose of moving him to tight end. I'm a firm believer that this kid has star potential, but there's no telling if he's ready to take on a major role for a national championship caliber team.

Ian Harris - His skill set as a receiver stands out because when Grant went down in the spring with an injury, Harris was the only guy at the position that didn't appear to have an allergic reaction to catching the football. Still, he's a solid, but unspectacular receiver option that is limited as a blocker.

Josh Marshall - Another receiver-type player that is unproven at the position and hasn't been able to stay healthy enough to letter during a season as he heads into his junior year.

Barrett Matthews - True freshman that is very raw and isn't comfortable enough with the offense to take major reps in seven-on-seven workouts. He's still adjusting to the speed of the game and there's no way to know when he'll find his comfort level.

Trey Graham - True freshman that struggled as a receiver during his senior season at Waco Midway and seemed more comfortable at fullback or blocking down the line. If the team had any proven players at all, he'd be a certain red-shirt.

This is what the Longhorns are working with without Irby in the mix - two blockers, a one-dimensional (and oft-injured) receiver type, a potential solid possession receiver, a young kid with a ton of upside (but zero background at the position) and two true freshmen that are in over their skies at the moment.

Yes, it's a mess. Therefore, I don't see any problem with giving players like Johnson and Jones a look at the position. It's not like Johnson was going to crack the field this year on defense and Jones is slotted for a redshirt, so he can see a little action on both sides of the ball and not really have to worry about falling behind at the defensive end if it's decided that he's better on defense. From a long-term perspective, Jones is the only player that I think has star qualities at the position that they've been moved from. However, as a senior at Kilgore he was outstanding at the tight end position and he even flashed as a receiver. It's worth looking at when he first arrives.

Overall, this staff needs to make a commitment to improving the talent being recruited at the position because they've only had one definite hit in recruiting at the tight end position from 2003-08.

Here's a look at the tight end recruiting since 2003:

2003 - Tony Hills and Steve Hogan
2004 - Peter Ullman
2005 - Jermichael Finley
2006 - Greg Smith, Britt Mitchell and Josh Marshall
2007 - Ian Harris, Ahmard Howard and Blaine Irby
2008 - None (although Grant and Johnson were in this class)

There's certainly been some bad luck involved with injuries when you look back at the names during this time-frame, but there have also been some very questionable recruiting decisions and the bottom line is simple - this position is light years behind the others in the program and needs to catch up. I'm sure Mack Brown knows better than anyone just how unsatisfactory the position is currently is and I'm sure he feels a sense of urgency, which explains the moves of a few additional players heading into camp.

Q: (Lngnstrt) - Have you heard of any possible issues with Derek Johnson?

A: Rumors have been circulating around for a few weeks that he might have been homesick, but we checked around with a few people back in Hoxie, Arkansas that are close to Johnson and they've reported that he's fine and there's nothing to be concerned about.

Q: (UTMonkeyMan) -I never saw your choice for the player that will finish second on the team this year in sacks. Did you pick Alex Okafor?

A: I'm going with Sam Acho. I've been the president of his fan club since his freshman season and I think this is the year he breaks out. I'll pencil him in for 7.5 sacks this year.

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