Hey guys, football on the horizon and I’m here to write a post. By write a post, I mean copy and paste questions (and answers!) from our fine feathered friends over at Burnt Orange Nation and Barking Carnival. These two sites great work talking about Texas and all Texas-affiliated things.
Today, we’re talking with Wescott Eberts, who is one of the super cool guys over at BON and also Jason Chilton, who is the HMFIC at Barking C. Enjoy!
1. What's been the biggest difference from last year to this year under Charlie Strong?
Eberts: To truly understand why the 'Horns were able to beat the Fighting Irish to start the season and then convincingly beat the Miners last weekend, understanding one single change isn't really enough -- there are probably three major factors this season.
The most important factor is the new offense. Strong made some major mistakes and miscalculations with his first two offensive staffs, resulting in the turnover of his entire first group. His decision to keep Shawn Watson as the play caller last season as Watson attempted to install an up-tempo, spread attack was, as Texas beat writer Mike Finger likes to call it, a half-measure, a Breaking Bad reference.
With no more room for half measures, Strong went to Tulsa to bring back co-offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and his co-coordinator, offensive line coach Matt Mattox. Gilbert runs a version of the Art Briles veer-and-shoot offense and the returns have been extremely impressive. The offense is operating at a high tempo, the running game is clicking, and the vertical passing routes are producing big plays offensively.
The key to the offense so far has been true freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, who is already in elite company as he heads towards the most impressive season by a true freshman quarterback in Texas history. Not only is he calm, cool, and collected on the field, he's extremely accurate (71.7-percent completion percentage), he's producing big plays (9.89 yards per attempt), and he's limited mistakes (one interception in two games against six touchdown passes).
The third factor is the improved team chemistry. The seniors have emerged to take ownership, the team as a whole has put more effort into preparation, especially in the area of film study, and the addition of more games to the players' lounge has drawn the team together and brought down some barriers that used to exist.
Chilton: The most obvious answer is the new offensive system, but since I’ll get to wax verbose on
that topic in Q2 I’ll instead go with "top-to-bottom buy-in and contribution." When he arrived in 2014, Strong inherited a set of quality veterans on defense and a smoking crater on offense after he lost his starting QB and center to injury and tossed many of the most talented remaining OL for, well, smoking. In 2015 it was freshman errwhere and plenty of simmering tension between a bunch of wildly athletic youngsters who wanted to take the reins but didn’t know how to walk and chew gum at the same time and limited upperclassmen who felt like they were getting phased out but weren’t capable of making a strong case for holding their starting jobs with their level of play. Just a mess all around.
Flip the calendar forward a year and it’s an entirely new ball game. Last year’s athletic freshmen are now sophomores who are translating that athleticism into actual, applicable on-field talent and this year’s freshmen (with Shane Buechele taking the obvious lead) are contributing. But a lot of this year’s freshmen are waiting their turn because a bunch of previously written-off juniors are stepping up in a major way. Guys like Jacorey Warrick and Jake Oliver (WR), Alex Anderson (OL), Kevin Vaccaro (FS) and Sheroid Evans (CB) are playing significant snaps and wildly exceeding expectations after seemingly being relegated to the scrap heap. Other upperclassmen who were expected to have significant roles but who have significantly raised their games from 2015 include Tyrone Swoopes (QB/18 Wheeler Specialist), Armanti Foreman (WR) and Poona Ford and Paul Boyette (DT). Overall, we’re seeing a stem-to-stern contribution from all areas of the roster that was largely lacking last season.
2. Offensively, how different is this Texas team vs the team led by Jerrod Heard last year?
Eberts: The passing game is light years better and the pass protection is also much improved. Heard was a good runner and good throwing the deep ball, but his accuracy on shorter throws was questionable and he struggled with his processing ability. In addition, the pass protection often let him down, leading to a sack rate on passing downs that ranked dead last in the country.
Unlike the last two seasons, this is a simple, cohesive offense that attacks defenses in systematic ways with an array of talent across positions due to much-improved depth. Nowhere has that depth been more important than along the offensive line, as Texas has dealt with injuries to every starter already.
Chilton: It’s impossible to overstate the importance of moving from the wheels-off West Coast offense of Shawn Watson and the make-it-up-as-you-go hybrid that assistant coaches Jay Norvell and Jeff Traylor had to throw together after Watson’s demotion to the smart, integrated and high-octane operation that new OC Sterlin Gilbert has installed.
Well, OK, it’s actually pretty easy to overstate its importance. If I said "Sterlin Gilbert’s new offense is the only thing preventing the Earth from careening into the Sun and eliminating the human race," then that would be overstating its importance. But from a football standpoint…it was really important.
The scheme and its execution is almost 180 degrees from what Texas was trying (and frequently failing) to do. You saw Jerrod Heard at his absolute best (aided by the fact that the Cal D was apparently incapable of covering a wheel route up the sideline in that game) but things got tough in a hurry once defenses started presenting him with complicated looks and coverages while rushing to keep him pinned in the pocket. The run game managed to stay functional (in fairness to Heard, he was a big part of that) but the air attack swiftly collapsed like a flan in a cupboard.
This year the Longhorn air attack has gone from moribund to murderous. The Art Briles/Sterlin Gilbert offensive scheme is all about using extreme splits and spacing to create one on one matchups for fast dudes while curtailing a defense’s ability to disguise coverages and blitzes, and then ruthlessly punishing any overmatched pass defender that it finds. True freshman Shane Buechele isn’t really the second-best quarterback in college football (as Pro Football Focus recently dubbed him) but he’s an accurate and efficient operator who is playing in a dream system for diagnosing and attacking a defense with accurate throws.
To this point the run game has been a work in progress but…
3. Donnel Pumphrey just ran for approximately 104930 yards (by my count). How excited are the Texas RB's and OL to face the Cal defense?
Eberts: Have to imagine that the Texas running backs, senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, who runs the 18-Wheeler package, the offensive linemen, the tight ends, and the offensive coaching staff are all salivating after watching that film. Strong loves having a physical running game and that's also a big part of Gilbert's offense, so expect a heavy dose of it -- the 'Horns ran the ball on 25 first downs against the Irish to start the season.
Chilton: Hey! That was your next question! While I haven’t been inside the locker room this week, I’d guess that the excitement level for running against the Cal defense is strong to quite strong. Texas’ starting OL gutted out a great effort against a Notre Dame front featuring some future pros, and future pro D’Onta Foreman turned in a terrific 116-yard effort. An absolute M*A*S*H unit of an OL featuring precisely ONE preseason starter clawed their way to an ugly-but-acceptable effort against UTEP, with 265-pound Chris Warren frequently struggling to find the clear path and head of steam that he needs to start terrifying defenders.
This week it looks like most of the starting OL will be back, and Foreman should be good to go after sitting out the UTEP game with a mild groin strain. Texas hasn’t managed a run longer than 20 yards in this young season, but they’ll be looking to break off some big gainers early and often. Aided and abetted by a scheme that spreads the field so far and wide that it’s usually up to five or six box defenders to prevent an explosive play, I think they’ve got good odds of doing just that.
4. Notre Dame put up 37 in regulation vs Texas - is that a sign the defense can be had, or more of an exception?
Eberts: There are still some issues with the defense -- less-than-ideal depth at defensive tackle, and some continued problems with leverage and tackling, but overall, this unit looks improved over last season and should ultimately give up fewer points than the 2015 defense.
Chilton: While the Texas D is still fairly young and feeling its way, there has been some unfair criticism leveled based on the topline counting stats against Notre Dame. Seven of those 7 points came when they had to defend a six-yard field following an interception, another two came courtesy of a blocked extra point runback, and another seven were set up by a 50+ yard run that would have gone for three had a normally reliable defender executed a simple tackle. Outside of that gallop they held the Irish (and an OL littered with future Sunday players) to less than four yards a carry, and much of the hay they gave up in the passing game was due to an uncharacteristic nightmare outing from corner Davante Davis (plus the fact that Deshone Kizer may become a first round pick when it’s all said and done).
Texas has some athletic limitations at safety, no true pass rushing terrors and can still be up and down with their run fits. As against that they’ve got some superfreak athletes running around who are finally getting on the same page. I expect them to give up plenty of yardage between the 20’s, but if they’re able to tighten things up in the red zone and hold Cal to some early field goals then I like their chances to make life much tougher on Davis Webb going into the third and fourth quarters.
5. Who are 1-2 younger players that you expect to make a significant impact on this game and this season?
Eberts: Buechele and freshman center Zach Shackelford deserve top billing here. The staff hopes to have Shackelford back from ankle injuries that have plagued him since the start of fall camp, but there are also a ton of sophomores who receive playing time and occupy large roles for the team.
Chilton: There are a lot to choose from, considering the fact that Charlie Strong signed to back-to-back badass classes and the fact that 60 of Texas’ 85 scholarship athletes are either freshmen or sophomores. Setting aside the super-obvious choices of Shane Buechele (FR-QB) and Malik Jefferson (SO-LB) I’m going to go with Kyle Porter on offense and Malcolm Roach on D.
Porter is a very shifty, fairly speedy and deceptively powerful freshman running back who has seen spot duty thusfar. D’Onta Foreman will be the lead dog amongst the running back corps, but Texas goes into this game planning to run the ball 50+ times and with Chris Warren’s early-season struggles I think we may see a good bit of Porter trying to slash his way through the Bear D.
Roach is a rare, freaky athlete who Strong pulled out of Louisana with few of the recruiting services realizing that a 250-pound dude who can play everything from DT to middle linebacker might be a pretty enticing athlete. The staff is already scheming ways to get Roach in the mix, and the now 260-pound true freshman responded with stout play against the run, a sack and a near-decapitation of a UTEP receiver when dropping into zone coverage last week. Texas needs a plus pass rusher to take its defense to the next level, and Roach may fill the bill on pure athleticism alone.
6. To beat Cal, Texas must ______________ and avoid __________.
Eberts: To beat Cal, Texas must limit penalties and avoid costly, game-changing turnovers. On the penalty side, the 'Horns have been flagged 21 times for 219 yards already, which is unacceptable. With the Buechele interception looming as the only turnover so far this season, Texas has been much more effective protecting the football.
Chilton: Punish the Bear defenders on the ground; giving up one- or two-play scores to Webb and his receivers and make Cal sustain 8-10 play drives.
7. Speaking from personal experience, Texas fans were nothing but gracious and hospitable for last year's game. What are fans looking forward to most about the return trip to Cal?
Eberts: I imagine that Texas fans are ready to get out of the heat in the Lone Star State and enjoy the beautiful scenery in the Bay Area.
Chilton: Well, they’re certainly not looking forward to bringing bags (or our mascot) into the stadium! The folks I know who are traveling to Cali are looking forward to some terrific weather, and outside of the cadre of Aaron Rodgers adherents who are still mad about Texas pipping Cal for the BCS bowl berth in 204 I know they’re anticipating hospitable fans in blue and gold. The more football-aware of our fans will also be looking forward to seeing if a young Texas team can put forth a consistent four-quarter effort after some well-publicized road woes last season. And a spot of revenge never hurts!
8. Where do you expect Texas to finish in the Big 12 and nationally?
Eberts: I'm not sure that I'm ready to predict an exact finish for the Longhorns at this time, but with the conference as a whole struggling through the first two weeks and Texas playing better than expected, I think this could be a top-15 team with continued improvement and greater consistency than last season.
Chilton: I had Texas ticketed for an 8-4 record and a ranking in the low 20’s coming into this season, and they’re doing their best to turn those expectations on their head. It’s hard for me to imagine that they’ll actually win the Big XII this season, but it’s getting hard to imagine any of the other flawed squads we’ve seen so far actually winning it, either. Texas has played the best ball of any Big XII team over the first few weeks, and even though there will be bumps in the road I’m going to drink the Burnt Orange Kool-Aid and say 10-2 with at least a share of the Big XII title and a final national ranking around 10 or so.
9. In addition to using Buechele and Swoopes at QB, how likely is it that you'll use Heard at QB for a series or two just to give our defense the cold sweats?
Eberts: Given Heard's success running the football last season, I think there's a solid chance that he'll get a snap or two behind center, but on the list of priorities for the offense, I think that probably ranks behind Buechele running the offense and Swoopes getting some snaps in the 18 Wheeler.
Chilton: Ha! Heard has taken to his slot receiver role so well (he’s arguably been Texas’ best-looking wideout through two games while flashing advanced route running skills and sticky hands) that the coaching staff probably won’t be looking for excuses to line him up under center. With that said, he did take a snap at QB against UTEP last week so it’s possible we may run a play or two with him to catch the defense napping…and to see if those cold sweats break out.
LAST Who do you most want to punch in the face and why?
Eberts: Art Briles. Justice hasn't yet been fully served to that asshole.
Chilton: Short-sighted and ignorant Longhorn fans who bayed for Charlie’s blood for two seasons unburdened by an understanding of context or actual football knowledge, and who now won’t pop their heads up and take their medicine as we see a future dominator of a football team beginning to take shape.