Much thanks to Peter Bean from Burnt Orange Nation, the SB Nation site that covers the Texas Longhorns. BON and DTN traded questions in anticipation of Saturday night's game. And to those BON'ers that were hoping that I'd post Peter's answers yesterday, I'm sorry, but life got in the way of blogging. Much thanks to Peter for taking the time to talk about the game. You can check out Peter's questions and my answers here.
1. By most accounts the Texas offense has been okay thus far and the meme for the offseason was that the Longhorns wanted to emphasize the run more. Two games into the season, what's your assessment of the running backs and more importantly, how's the offensive line shaping up?
PB: I’ll get to the backs and linemen in a moment, but there’s a third element to the equation: the scheme and approach. I mean, if "emphasizing the run more" turned out to mean running the same offense as last year, only with more runs, it wouldn’t much matter whether the backs and linemen were all great.
Texas is indeed interested in running the ball more this season, but it’s encouragingly clear that the interest is, above all else, in getting something meaningful out of it. As most of us expected, it hasn’t been a totally smooth transition, but the approach is improved, and that’s a good, much welcomed, start.
As for the personnel, Texas is still rotating carries among a trio of tailbacks, which some are pointing to as evidence that this is the same song as last year, different verse. As I just finished explaining, that’s not right. The approach is different, and that Texas is still splitting carries says more about the tailbacks themselves. Cody Johnson was the star of fall camp after improving his weight and weight distribution, but after he struggled in the opener against Rice, Tre’ Newton and Fozzy Whittaker started to get more reps. Newton is a solid, versatile back, but his speed and acceleration are merely average. Whittaker is much more explosive, and by far the best pure runner of the bunch, but up until last week he’d struggled to finish runs and stay healthy. That didn’t stop me from continuing to believe in his breakout potential , but last week against Wyoming was the first time he really started to show it. Which means he’ll open things against Tech with a two-yard loss and a fumble.
As for the offensive line, we’re still raw, and we’re terrifyingly thin, but the results provide reason for cautious optimism about the group’s potential. Britt Mitchell is a liability at right tackle, and Michael Huey confounds in open space, but overall this unit is giving Texas blocking it can do something with. I’m eager to see what they do as the competition ramps up.
More good-strong-good after the jump.
2. I wrote earlier this summer that it would seem near impossible to replace all of the talent that either graduated or left for the NFL and still duplicate the defensive effort last year. Your thoughts on how the defense is doing thus far and what could use some improvement?
PB: Don’t be surprised if this defense winds up as good as last year’s… by November. You’re right—you don’t just replace Lamarr Houston, Sergio Kindle, and Earl Thomas and expect nothing to change. That said, Tech fans expecting much of a drop off may be in for a surprise. The starting linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho are brilliant, the defensive end depth and quality is simply unfair, Kheeston Randall is an all-conference DT, and the top three corners are arguably the best in the country. This defense is really, really fast.
But yes, they do have a good bit of room to improve. As expected, the loss of Earl Thomas is source for the biggest drop off, as you just don’t find many safeties who were excellent in run support but also had his kind of lateral range. Christian Scott is trying to keep everything in front of him right now, and that’s fine against teams Texas is going to overwhelm, but there’s room for teams like Texas Tech to pick on him, and he’s going to have to give Texas more in coverage to get opposing offenses off the field. If he doesn’t have that kind of range or ability, Kenny Vaccaro looks like he does, and Texas is going to continue bringing the sophomore along quickly. He’s a gamer, and he’s pushing Scott to start already. I expect we’ll learn a good bit more this week.
3. QB Garrett Gilbert hasn't been asked to do too much thus far, how would you assess Gilbert's progress and are you concerned about Gilbert trying to do too much in Lubbock?
PB: Quite the opposite: I’ve been concerned that he hasn’t tried to do enough. We’ve been bringing him along slowly, which is fine insofar as it goes, but he’s looked so much better when he’s out there trying to make plays, as opposed to avoid mistakes. Being a good game manager is fine, but he’s better than that, of course, and we’ll need him to be as the competition increases.
Finally, after Texas briefly fell behind against Wyoming, we saw the training wheels come off, and the results were most impressive. He’s a special talent, and he’s just barely scratching the surface.
4. I think the most interesting matchup between Texas and Texas Tech will be how the Texas Tech receivers are able to matchup with an all-star cast in the Texas secondary. What's the matchup that intrigues you heading into Saturday?
PB: I agree with you completely, and as mentioned already, I’m particularly intrigued by how well Texas’ safeties play in this one. But I’m also keyed in on the Texas offensive line versus Tech up front. Managing Colby Whitlock is a priority, but I’ll be disappointed if Texas gets stoned at the point of attack. This isn’t the group that we saw last time we came to Lubbock, and I like the potential of the pass game to open up so long as we’re doing meaningful work on the ground.
5. Freshman WR Mike Davis seems to be adjusting well to the college game and may be the deep threat that the Longhorns need. Talk a bit about Davis and what other receiving threats should Texas Tech fans play close attention?
PB: Davis is fantastic, although he’s not so much a pure deep threat as an exceptional all-around receiver. He’s just got that gamesmanship you can’t teach, and doesn’t just want to be great, but knows how to attack the field to be great. You take a wrong step with Davis and there’s a price to pay, whether it’s what allows him to get open for a catch, or tear by you after he’s already made it. His emergence is important, not just for his own contributions, but hopefully to push his elders, all of whom have struggled to establish themselves thus far. He’s exciting to watch, and our offensive ceiling is higher than I would have imagined it being before I got a chance to see him this fall.