February 25, 2010

The Ticket City Locker Room

Q: (Golfpr3145) - Ketch, with our problems in the running game last year, do you think that will cause a problem with landing the top running backs in the upcoming class? According to Greg Davis, the emphasis beginning this spring will be to gear our offense to strengthen the run offense. Would this commitment be enough to satisfy the recruits interest in coming to Texas?

A: It's a good and fair question, but I'll be honest when I tell you that it hasn't been a real issue from what I can tell. If you look at the top three uncommitted backs in the state - Malcolm Brown, Aaron Green and Herschel Sims - the Longhorns are either favorites or co-favorites with all three. In fact, there are some that believe the Longhorns are a front-runner with Brown and would be with Sims if they were to offer, and many believe that they'd be big leaders for Green if not for the family connections to Nebraska. None of the three appear to be focused on the running game struggles and I think that probably has something to do with three factors that favor the Longhorns.

1. Immediate playing time - The only thing that most of these big-time prospects see is a big-time program that doesn't have a No.1 guy at the position they play. That's a plus because none of these three believe they wouldn't play in the first game.

2. Scheme changes - Colt McCoy's injury and Garrett Gilbert's insertion into the line-up against Alabama might have hurt Texas' national championship hopes, but it probably did help them in recruiting this off-season because the plan to go more under center and showcase more of a pro-style offense was on display for the naked eye to see. Furthermore, I had one Longhorns source tell me this week that the staff wants the top backs in to visit their practices in the coming weeks because they believe an attractive offense for incoming running backs will be on display.

3. History - This isn't the first rodeo for Mack Brown or Greg Davis. Before this recent two-year stretch of running game struggles, the Longhorns had a 1,000-yard streak of runners that went a decade-deep. From Ricky Williams to Cedric Benson to Jamaal Charles… Davis has proven that he knows how to showcase NFL runners. Every time a college coach recruiting against Texas mentions the running game issues, Davis can simply tell the recruit to open up a pack of football cards at Wal-Mart and one of his former pupils will likely be found as a starting running back in the League that matters to recruits.

(Note: I answered this question before the events from Thursday night concerning Sims, but decided to leave the answer mostly unchanged because it doesn't change the basic premise of the point).

Q: (sirpat84) - Let's play the "what if" game. If all of the out of state prospects on our radar lived in Texas, where would they fit into your LSR rankings?

The ones I can think of are Aztec (NM) High offensive lineman Matthew Hegarty, Chandler (AZ) Hamilton offensive lineman Christian Westerman, Tucker (GA) High linebacker James Vaughters and I remember there being a few DB type guys from out of state, as well as anyone I haven't heard about yet that you think we have a shot at.

A: Ok, let's look at the main out of state prospects that the Longhorns are looking at right now and you mentioned three of them. The others that you didn't list that need to be included are Oklahoma City Millwood cornerback/athlete Josh Turner, McDonough (Ga.) Union Grove defensive back Avery Walls and Shreveport (La.) Evangel defensive end Jermauria Rasco.

We'll separate the players by the rankings slots that I would likely put them in. The five-star (6.1) prospect in the group that would rank somewhere in the top five is Westerman. He might be the best overall prospect in the nation, which means he'd be a strong candidate for the title of state's top prospect. Vaughters and Hegarty both look like national top 50-100 type prospects and I'd slot them in the 6.0 category, while Turner, Walls and Rasco look like solid 5.9's, which would rank them somewhere between 15-30 on the LSR list.

Q: (UTexUHouFan) - I'd like your opinions on Major Applewhite. It seems some people are always quick to throw him under a bus. Others would obviously defend him no matter what. So what's your view? And perhaps more importantly, what do RB recruits think of him? Beyond being a great guy, how good is he as actual RB position coach? Keep in mind, all I know about him is that he was a terrific QB, had success at Rice and Bama and appears to have a bright future. But in the meantime, are we using him in the right capacity at Texas? Is he a good fit as RB coach or is that just the spot we had available? And If (I know I know), but IF we miss out on the top backs in 2011, then what? Thanks, I'll hang up and listen.

A: I think you ask some fair questions and I'm not sure that answers truly exist at this point for all of them, but let's try to work our way through a complicated conversation. First, let me say that I think the Longhorns are lucky to have Applewhite because you want to have as many A-level people in your coaching staff/program/business and I believe that he's that kind of guy. He'll be going places because he's motivated, has fresh ideas and wants to be great. We're not talking about a guy that will be happy as a coordinator or position coach, while living in Austin for the rest of his life.

The two biggest knocks on Applewhite heading into his third year on the job deal with the fact that he hasn't closed the deal with an elite-level back in recruiting and the running game production has struggled since the departure of Jamaal Charles in 2007. Let's examine both issues, starting with recruiting.

The first memory for many of Applewhite as a recruiter came in 2008 when Colorado successfully used his lack of running backs coaching experience, along with several other negative recruiting tactics, against him in the recruitment of Darrell Scott. While that looks like a blessing now, it certainly left a mark in the first month on the job. Of the two full-cycle recruiting classes that he's participated in since arriving as the running backs coach, Applewhite has had his hands tied a little bit. The decision to take Chris Whaley as the only back in the 2009 class was made before he arrived, which meant that he could travel the state and nation all that he wanted from a scouting standpoint, but it wasn't going to change the dynamics of the numbers taken in that 2009 class, barring some supernova talent that could have changed their thinking, and not even a five-star prospect like [DB]Christine Michael[/DB] could tempt them. The 2009 class didn't offer the same restrictions, but the in-state talent at the position was down and the most talented prospect was riding the ferris wheel at Pee Wee's Big Top. Of course, the staff could have made the decision to go on a national recruiting search, but they were content with Traylon Shead, knowing that they got a guy with a lot of physical ability, but a guy that comes with questions about the competition he played against and whether he has the ability to truly be a game-breaker at this level..

That means that as Applewhite enters his third year on the job, he's yet to truly get in the mud in a bare-knuckle recruiting battle for a player at his position. Yes, he's been a key player in the recruitment of prospects like Connor Wood, but everyone in the Longhorn Nation wants to see him bag a star running back, in part because Texas fans adore legendary running backs and the school hasn't landed one in recruiting in half a decade. Enter the 2011 running back class with four high-level prospects from three different corners in the state and you've got a crop of backs in this class might be the deepest I've seen in 17 years of covering recruiting in Texas, and most feel like it's imperative that the Longhorns strike while the iron is hot. The bar in recruiting is extremely high across the board at every position on the roster and everyone's waiting for the running back position to catch up. That makes this recruiting class a reputation-maker for Applewhite. If he can land Malcolm Brown and/or Aaron Green, he'll become a made man in recruiting because nothing boosts a recruiting profile quite like landing a War Daddy of their abilities. Of course, if he misses out on both of the school's clear top two targets, the conversation probably becomes a different one.

On the football side of things, it's hard to pin a ton of blame on him. None of the players that he's been forced to work with are his recruits and I don't think you can place the blame of the running game concepts on his shoulders. Is it Major's fault that the zone-read foundation was flawed because Colt McCoy could never be the same threat as Vince Young as a runner? Is it his fault that the tight end position has been a mess the last two seasons? Is it his fault that the offensive line has been somewhat soft at the point of attack? Is it his fault that the running backs aren't better players?

The answer to the first three questions is clearly no. The answer to the last question is probably unclear to some, which is why you're asking this question in this forum in the first place. Let me put my thoughts into the form of a question. At any point in the last two seasons, have you watched a Texas football game and thought to yourself that the backs on the roster would be better if Applewhite simply coached them better?

I haven't. I can honestly say that when I watch Tre' Newton or Vondrell McGee or Foswhitt Whittaker or any of the backs on the team, I don't often remark to myself, "Man, those guys might be NFL players if Major would just coach them up." Frankly, I think the opposite has been true. For all of the ability that this group of players that he's working with might or might not have, they've not been liabilities from a technical aspect. Applewhite's players don't fumble or commit a ton of penalties or bust assignments… they just haven't been above-average players. Again, this is another thing that has to eventually change and there's definitely some ownership of this problem that belongs to Applewhite, but I wouldn't even know where to begin assessing the percentage.

The bottom line is that 2010 is a really big year for Applewhite, who enters his third full season on the job. It reminds me a little bit of the challenge the president is facing with the economy. It's not his fault that we're in the situation, but he's going to be judged by his ability to help change the direction of an ongoing problem and if the situation doesn't get better, he'll own a lot of the problem as his own.

Q: (Randoke) - I'd like to understand how the staff develops relationships with recruits. We talk/think about how the coaching staff does this, but I'm interested in how you guys do it. I know this has to be a big thing because it gives you better access to recruits and potentially the ability to break commitments first. How does the process begin with building a relationship with a specific recruit? Are recruits/geographic areas assigned to certain OB staff?

And a late thank you for the 2010 recruiting class coverage, it was fantastic.

A: I think one of the first things I try to do when I establish a relationship with a kid, whether it's in person or over the phone, is to make sure they know that we don't want to be a pain in their backside and that we want to work with them at all times in a fashion that they and their families are completely comfortable with. I think not only setting that bar from the get-go, but proving to those throughout the process that we can be trusted and that we'll always put their interests ahead of our own certainly helps. Every recruit is different (like a snowflake) and there's not any set assigned regions or anything like that. All of us are involved and as the year goes on, each of us will develop different relationships with each prospect and they'll just kind of naturally evolve from there. I think trust is the backbone behind our success.

Q: (Slothrop) - This has likely been asked and answered, but in case it hasn't, I was wondering about the ratio of Junior Day visits to offers. Clearly a junior day visit is not the sine qua non of receiving an offer, but it would appear to be a pretty important component. Would you have any idea how many in the `10 class received an offer without a junior day visit. I can think of a couple, the OOS kids. But were there others? And what about the 2011 group? Any thoughts on what we might expect this time around. Thanks.

A: I think the purpose and role of each of the two Junior days has evolved over the last few years into what we've seen this year, with the first junior day featuring the very top guys on their board (with a few exceptions) and the second event focused on whatever blind spots the first one might not have covered. The amount of early time that this staff is able to dedicate towards evaluating the next year's class is so much more substantial than the competition that it allows them to narrow their focus earlier than anyone else. For instance, when other schools are trying to turn their spring game into a big event for 2011 recruiting, the Longhorns will already have turned their attention to 2012 and that focus will remain during the spring evaluation and summer camp. By the time February arrives, they've got a pretty good idea of who they want and where they stand with each prospect.

There was a time when the numbers at the junior days were hard to keep up with because of the high visit numbers, but the staff has realized that hunting with a rifle works much better for them than hunting with grenades. There are too many hurt feelings that arrive with kids that visit and aren't offered right away, so the staff seems to be doing a better job of limiting their offers and if a kid isn't going to be offered (re: Herschel Sims), the staff has tried to go out of their way to explain the numbers and the current situation in a way that is up-front, but doesn't burn any bridges.

Q: (regger13) - Do you think Texas' lack of OL recruits last year made them a little hasty in offering Josh Cochran, Taylor Doyle, and Marcus Hutchins when you have Garrett Greenlea, Matthew Hegarty, Sedrick Flowers, and Christian Westerman still on the board? If you were in charge of the OL and had these 7 guys standing in front of you, who would you offer? My concern is that we have 3 guys committed, room for 5, and 4 top tier linemen still available.

A: I think you're worrying yourself for the sake of worrying. Here's how I see things - the Longhorns knew that they wanted to take five offensive linemen in 2011 and during the first Junior Day, they brought in the top four in-state prospects on their board and the top out-of-state prospect and they offered all five, knowing that if they walked away with that group of five prospects, they'd be turning cartwheels on the 50-yard line at DKR.

Most of the concern from Longhorn faithful has centered on the fact that the Longhorns first picked up commitments from the guys presumably rated No.3-5 on the recruiting board (if you assume that Flowers and Westerman are the top two prospects available), while only leaving two spots remaining for a group of names that have higher Q-ratings than those committed. Frankly, I think too many of this have looked at the situation from a short-sighted, outside-in perspective and now that the Flowers commitment has gone down (it occurred after your question was sent in), the staff's recruiting plan looks pretty flawless if you ask me.

No matter how you look at things, the staff brought in the four in-state prospects that they felt were the four best available and they've landed all of them in a span of less than two weeks. We can debate whether they made the right decision on a guy like Greenlea (who they rated behind the others and haven't offered), but they've scouted him in person, had him at their camp and probably have a better idea of his upside/downside as a prospect than any other school or recruiting guy. Agree or not on their verdicts, but they made informed decisions. Now they have one spot left in this offensive line class and they will have a couple of elite out of state prospects penciled in for that final slot.

This whole thing has gone down exactly like they had hoped and planned from where I stand.

Q: (brianut) - In your opinion, what position group on each side of the ball is most important to be dominant? In other words, if you had to rank from most important to least important between a dominating defensive line, linebacking corps, or secondary, which would it be? Same for the offense, rank order the following: QB, RB corps, WR/TE corps, or offensive line?

A: On the offensive side of the ball, it begins and ends with the quarterback position and I think the offensive line (a strong No.2), wide receivers and running backs follow in that order. Over on the defensive side of the ball, I think the defensive line is the most important position, followed by cornerbacks, linebackers and safeties.

Q: (JimsTexas) - What is the difference between Mack Brown's recruiting approach to that of Darrell Royal. I have followed Texas football since the 1950's, so I remember the lean years Texas football went through. Don't get me wrong I remember the very good years with Texas legend Darrell Royal. But there got to be a time when the great Texas athletes were going to USC, ND, Michigan, Ohio State, LSU and Oklahoma to play football. I use to watch those Texas kids go and win championships at other colleges. It really takes your breath away when you stop and look at what Mack Brown is doing for Texas football. Darrell Royal was a great recruiter but even he didn't completely shut down the Texas border to those other big colleges.

A: I think rather than asking what the biggest difference is, the better question would probably deal with trying to find any similarities. It's just a different time and a completely different environment right now, especially with the emergence of the Internet and its role in the process. When Royal was the coach, alums of the school were actually very involved in recruiting and it was legal. There were also a time when scholarship limits weren't what they currently are and the 85/25 limits didn't exist. If we're being honest, Royal couldn't hold a candle to what Brown does in the area of recruiting because Brown has been able to do the one thing that Royal really struggled with in the backstretch of his career - kicking OU's ass in recruiting and keeping other schools from emerging as a true factors. From what I can tell, Mack's ability to leverage the trust of the high school coaches in this state is the biggest difference between the way it used to be in this state when Royal was here. Plus, the cheating isn't as big of a factor as it was when Royal was in Austin. Like I said, it's really apples and oranges.

Q: (texaztom) - In a recent article, an ESPN blogger put forth the theory that some top rated HS prospects don't progress in college as much as some lower rated prospects, due to a more advanced stage of physical maturity/development. He stated that the (literal) "men among boys" in high school don't dominate when they reach college and face stronger, more mature players. Finally, since they have approached maximum physical development in HS, those players can only marginally improve strength and size at the college level, while their lesser-developed peers make great gains as they move into their 20's.

My question is this: When preparing your rankings, do you simply evaluate the performance you see in front of you, or do you also try to project the players' prospects for continued development?

A: I think you have to be careful with painting too broad of strokes in recruiting because it would be unfair to think that all five- or four-stars are closer to being tapped out, while all two-stars have an endless ceiling because nobody knows their talents well or they haven't been developed. The majority of two-star prospects end up being exactly what they are projected to become - non-stars. The truth is that there are thousands of lower-rated prospects and a much smaller number of elite prospects, which means that the pool of players that we have to draw success stories from is deeper in the two-star pool.

I think the one concern that many have had about prospects from the state of Texas is that the coaching and training that is received by a majority of prospects is so much better than any other state. That does impact the ceilings for a number of prospects because they are simply more developed, more tapped out and certainly further along on the learning curve than their peers in other states. A guy like former Kilgore defensive end Eddie Jones has received such good coaching at the high school level that he's not starting from scratch like some prospects from states like Florida or Mississippi, which often produces players that don't know the difference between cover two and cover three, let alone possessing good technical pre-college training. That doesn't mean that a guy like Jones might not get better as a prospect, but it does mean that if there's a 1-10 scale that can reach as a player (with 10 being the highest level of performance possible), he might begin his career at a seven instead at two or three.

When I'm evaluating kids for the rankings, it's important to note that each kid is different and has to be evaluated based on his specific circumstances. That means trying to determine how much of a ceiling a prospect has left from his current development, while also determining the basements for each player. For instance, there's no doubt that Garrett Gilbert and Tyrik Rollison both have five-star abilities as quarterback prospects, but they couldn't have been any more different in my mind because of their situations. All of that plays a role in the rankings.

Q: (hookem75) - 1.Where do you see the greatest need in the 2011 class? List by most important to least important, and why you feel that way.

2. Do you feel that the coaches need to look at the type of scheme they are using up front in the running game. It has just been a major flop, is this blocking schemes or is it lack of talent?

A: First, I don't think there's any question that the biggest need in the 2011 class is along the offensive line. With four seniors scheduled depart following this season, the immediate and long-term future of the position for the Longhorns is at stake.

If we're going to rank the positions according to need (from most important to least important), I'd rank the top three like this: offensive line, cornerback, running back. Once you get beyond those three, I don't think the Longhorns have serious needs, as much as they just need to add more bad mamma jammas to stock each position on the depth chart.

As for the last question, I think the coaches have examined the scheme and what they've been doing/asking of their players in that phase of the game. Look for some major identity changes there out of necessity. The coaches know that they can't ask Garrett Gilbert to be Vince Young or even Colt McCoy as a runner. That basic premise will change everything about what they do with the running game offense.

Q: (fear_the_cow) - 1) Who do you see assuming the role of lead blocker in the short yardage/goal line set? In recent years we have used DTs but I don't see a candidate there this year. Can Cody Johnson fill this role, or is Jamison Berryhill a possibility? Ryan Roberson, even?

2) What current player is most likely to return to the horns, at some further date, as an assistant coach? IE who is the best "coach on the field" and has the best passion for coaching in the future?

3) Who nails down the spot at DT opposite Kheestan Randall....Calvin Howell, Derek Johnson, or other?

A: If Mack Brown's words from Thursday's pre-Spring State of the Longhorn Union Address means anything, it sounds like the coaches are doing everything they can to upgrade the quality of the fullback position and not just in short-yardage situations. With the transition of a two-back offense, the Longhorns will be testing Barrett Matthews, Chris Whaley, Johnson and a number of other players (not just the oldest defensive lineman) in that role. My money would be on Matthews to emerge as the guy.

As for your second question - man, that's a good one that I hadn't really thought of. I think Colt McCoy is a guy that will likely get into coaching one day because it's in his blood, but since he's not a current player, I'll do with Blake Gideon. You can never go wrong with picking the son of a coach.

Finally, I've got my money on Howell to emerge as the starter at defensive tackle next to Kheeston Randall.

Q: (aakeys) - 1. I really like Avery Walls and am disappointed in the lack of excitement /urgency on this board about getting him. To me, he is a must have that we should save a spot for until the end of the process, regardless of our positional numbers, ala Hicks and Jeffcoat last year. Also, he is versatile and could probably play either safety or linebacker in college, as he has in high school. Do you agree? Do you think the coaches agree?

2. To me, J.W. Walsh and Johnny Manziel are very similar in their combination of throwing, running, leadership and winning ability (Manziel had 9 touchdowns in one game and 8 in another, and led his team to the 4A semi-finals pretty much all by himself, and Walsh was terrific at Guyer in a pretty deep playoff run). Still, we seem(ed) to not have much interest in either player, nor did we offer a scholarship to the very smart, capable winner at Lake Travis, Michael Brewer, who put up better stats this year as a state champion junior than Gilbert did in either his junior or senior season (yards per attempt were incredible). I am not knocking David Ash, but I think all of these guys would have been a better selection. What gives, other than an inch or two in height?

3. Is James Castleman out of Amarillo a possibility at defensive tackle? He seems to have a lot of buzz around him in that area of the state, and I believe he was first team all state last year as a junior. I know he wants to go somewhere where he can play early, so does that rule him out?

A: I completely disagree about Walls. The staff is in the market for cornerbacks, first and foremost, and Walls is viewed as a safety prospect. When you consider that the Longhorn staff appears to have two slots saved for defensive backs and they want guys that can play cornerback, it makes Walls a guy that probably won't get an offer. Also, while I think Walls is a legit four-star prospect, I don't know that he's a guy that you have to have at the expense of a kid from Texas with at least similar talent. When you look at the in-state talent that's still available this year, I'd be leaning to the players in Texas. Frankly, I'd offer Ladarius Brown, Quandre Diggs, Quincy Aldridge, Lyndell Johnson or Marquis Jackson over Walls.

As for your quarterback question, keep in mind that the Longhorns have seen each of the quarterbacks that you mentioned on numerous occasions and they made what they felt like was an easy decision in selecting Ash. Keep in mind that they made the decision with the understanding that all four kids would commit to them at the drop of a dime. If I'm being honest, the only other player that needed to be in the discussion was Walsh, who I think is neck and neck with Ash for the title of best in-state quarterback. I think it would be wise for you to not look at stats when trying to make credible recruiting opinions about this position because there have been a ton of small, undersized system quarterbacks who never made a dent at the D1 level, let alone at a school like Texas. The bottom line is that I don't think Manziel or Brewer are true major-college prospects.

Finally, I'm not going to go so far as to say that he won't get an offer, but they already have two offers out to Marquise Anderson and Quincy Russell, and I'm not sure that they'll be ready to offer a fourth defensive tackle, especially with numbers so tight.

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