January 24, 2009

Which positions overachieved and underachieved in '08?

In what was an incredible, 12-1 season, let's take a look at how each position contributed and whether each position maximized or failed to maximize its potential.

QB - How do you overcome the lack of a pass-catching tight end and inconsistency at the running back position? By having your starting quarterback complete 76.7 percent of his passes and lead the team in rushing. Colt McCoy's efforts this season were heroic. Even his worst day as a quarterback - against Texas Tech - ended up being one of his best. McCoy threw an interception returned for a touchdown that helped put Texas Tech up 29-13 with 7:33 left in the third quarter. But McCoy answered with back-to-back touchdown passes to Malcolm Williams over a two-minute span at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth quarter to cut Tech's lead to 29-26. Then, he led a drive to take the lead with 1:29 left. He completed 80 percent of his passes in UT's victory over Oklahoma, when he kept throwing the ball through keyholes to beat OU's defense. McCoy followed up an 80-percent completion rate against the Sooners by hitting 91 percent of his passes (29 of 32) against Missouri, including a string of 17 straight completions. The more you look back on McCoy's performance this season, the more you wonder if it's too much to expect him to even come close to such feat again in 2009. For now, it's time to just soak up what McCoy was able to do in 2008. It truly was a performance for the ages.

Grade: Overachieved

RB - There were times when this position produced the way the position of running back at Texas is always expected to. Such as the Oklahoma game, when Chris Ogbonnaya bolted for 127 yards rushing on just 15 carries (8.5 ypc). But those days were too few in 2008. Coaches never knew what they were going to get from the backs last season, even though they did a masterful job of holding onto the ball (one lost fumble from the position all season). Foswhitt Whittaker was injured early on. Vondrell McGee seemed to run more relaxed as the season went on, but still never rushed for 100 yards in a game this season. Cody Johnson was a pleasant surprise running between the 20s on a few, choice occasions, otherwise, he was relegated to short-yardage and the goal line. The backs accounted for only two 100-yard rushing games - Ogbonnaya vs. OU and Johnson vs. Texas A&M (102 yards on eight carries). Ogbonnaya's leadership and work catching the ball was a hugely understated part of the offense this season (46 catches for 540 yards and three touchdowns). Coaches consider a majority of Ogbonnaya's catches to be the equivalent of runs. So the coaches will say the "running game" was productive and effective in different ways in 2008 than in the past. But the bottom line is when Texas made establishing the run a huge part of the early game plan at Texas Tech, it wasn't able to do it. Texas can recruit well enough that it should be two and three deep at this position and shouldn't be left naked when a player of Jamaal Charles' caliber shocks the coaching staff by leaving early.

Grade: Underachieved

WR - Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley were two of the best stories in all of college football this season. Each went for more than 1,000 yards receiving and outfoxed some potent defenses with their route running and decision-making. (See the OU game). Some new talent also emerged that gives the Longhorns reason for hope next year - Malcolm Williams, Brandon Collins, James Kirkendoll and Dan Buckner. Would like to have seen more vertical throws to Williams and Buckner - two massive targets with great speed. But I also understand the comfort level McCoy came to enjoy with Cosby and Shipley, a.k.a., the King of the Double Move. When the team's only real pass-catching tight end Blaine Irby went down in Game 3 with a serious knee injury, Shipley in many ways took over the tight end's role in a four-wide flex offense. More than 64 percent of Cosby's catches went for first downs. And Shipley had 22 passes thrown his way on third down this season and came up with the goods 19 times. This position more than pulled its weight in a 12-1 season (even though some more deep throws would have been welcomed to players like Williams, Collins and Buckner).

Grade: Overachieved

TE - With Josh Marshall's preseason shoulder injury and Irby's season-ending injury against Rice, three games into the season, this position became little more than a way to max protect in the passing game and be a decoy in the receiving game. When the tight ends were a key part of the game plan (Texas Tech), they seemed to disappoint with missed blocks or drops more than they made plays. Fate was brutal to this position for UT in 2008 with Jermichael Finley leaving early for the NFL and the other injuries.

Grade: Underachieved

OL - This is the most Jekyll and Hyde position of the team for me. Really good at pass protection, at times, and yet utterly suspect in run blocking against quality competition at other times. In 2007, Texas started the same players on the offensive line in back-to-back weeks only once because of injuries. This season, UT had two players on the line miss games due to injury - left guard Charlie Tanner (missed UTEP, Rice and Arkansas) and center Chris Hall (missed Kansas and Texas A&M). Michael Huey filled in for Tanner, and freshman David Snow stepped in for Hall. Both Huey and Snow look like big-time prospects. But for whatever reason Texas' O-line couldn't control the line of scrimmage against a team like Texas Tech, which played its safeties and linebackers deep. (My NFL sources say one recurring problem is Texas' linemen aren't athletic enough to reach the second level and leverage or cut-block a linebacker in a zone blocking scheme). It's a good thing Colt McCoy is as tough as he is because he got creamed in the Texas Tech game. He was hit repeatedly. Not all of it was the line's fault. McCoy also got blasted against Baylor and Ohio State. There's no question the line played better this season than in 2007, but it wasn't the strength most probably thought it would be because of the lack of consistency in run blocking when Texas made that a priority and needed it most.

Grade: Underachieved


DL - Texas led the nation in sacks. Let me repeat that. Texas led the nation in sacks with 47. A pass rush had been almost non-existent at Texas for the past 15 years with the exception of seasons involving Tony Brackens, Aaron Humphrey and the tandem of Tim Crowder and Brian Robison. But even in those seasons, it was about one or two players bringing the pain with superior one-on-one skills. In 2008, Texas' Will Muschamp was able to combine the singular talents of players like Brian Orakpo (11.5 sacks) and Sergio Kindle (10 sacks) with well-timed blitzes (8.5 of the team's sacks came from linebackers and defensive backs). The pressure Texas was able to exert on the passer was the biggest reason Texas was able to go 12-1 with two freshmen safeties. Kudos to Muschamp for finding ways to maximize Kindle and for getting the best out of former running back Henry Melton, who punched out 10 tackles for loss, including four sacks, with 15 quarterback pressures. When the front four weren't stressing opposing quarterbacks, they were leading a rush defense that finished No. 3 nationally, giving up just 83.5 yards per game on the ground. The heart of that rush defense was tackle Roy Miller, who was double-teamed on nearly every play and still posted 26 quarterback hurries, 11 tackles for loss, including four sacks, and batted four passes. Lamarr Houston and Aaron Lewis, who combined for 26 quarterback hurries, 10 tackles for loss and three sacks, were the unsung heroes on the line. Glimpses of future play-making could be seen when freshman tackle Kheeston Randall got in.

Grade: Overachieved

LB - Roddrick Muckelroy led the team in tackles with 112 and was a one-man, wrecking machine in the Oklahoma game, posting 14 tackles and almost single-handedly stuffing DeMarco Murray, who had seven rushes for 6 yards (OU finished with 26 carries for 48 yards, 1.8 ypc). Muckelroy also had one of three defensive touchdowns for UT this season with a 26-yard fumble return at UTEP. And don't forget Muck knocking Beanie Wells out of the Fiesta Bowl early in the fourth quarter. Jared Norton finished with the fourth-most tackles on the team (54), behind Muckelroy, Earl Thomas (72) and Blake Gideon (64) and brought a physical presence to complement the sideline-to-sideline abilities of Muckelroy and Sergio Kindle. Alternating with Norton, Rashad Bobino accepted his role of making plays whenever called upon (39 tackles), and Keenan Robinson was a pleasant surprise this season. This position was a big part of Texas finishing No. 3 nationally in rush defense. While I don't know if this position overachieved because it didn't create many turnovers - four forced fumbles (Muckelroy, Kindle, Norton and Emmanuel Acho) and zero interceptions - it didn't underachieve, thanks largely to Kindle's 10 sacks and non-stop motor.

Grade: Overachieved

DB - I'm a broken record in saying I thought this would be a real trouble spot for Texas going into the 2008 season. Two freshmen safeties anchoring the secondary looked like a recipe for disaster against Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel, Graham Harrell, Zac Robinson and Todd Reesing. But Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon more than held up against the competition, finishing second and third on the team in tackles and only getting rocked for big plays a handful of times all season. Senior cornerback Ryan Palmer, who had a key interception returned for a touchdown to break open a 14-14 game against Baylor, provided valuable leadership for a young group that saw some stars emerge. Freshman Aaron Williams returned an interception 81 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas, and blocked four punts. The secondary was hit with a key ankle injury to Chykie Brown that kept him off the field against Texas Tech for all but one series when the Longhorns really could have used him. Curtis Brown had some solid moments against Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant and Missouri's Jeremy Maclin. The entire secondary had some plays it would love to have back against Texas Tech, but the overall body of work was solid if not spectacular. Texas only recorded six interceptions for the season (only two teams in Division I-A had less - Fresno State had five and Miami had four). Palmer had three; Thomas two; and Williams one. But considering the inexperience, Texas didn't get rocked for long TD passes. UT ranked 104th in pass defense nationally but gave up just three TD receptions of 30 yards or more (52 yards to OU's Jermaine Gresham; 55 yards to Baylor's Kendall Wright; and 33 yards to Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller). By contrast, in 2006, with Aaron Ross, Michael and Marcus Griffin and Tarell Brown in the secondary, Texas gave up huge plays for touchdowns. The last 15 TD passes surrendered by Texas that season went for an AVERAGE of 32.2 yards. Yes, the secondary could have come up with more turnovers. There were at least a dozen potential interceptions dropped and UT recovered only 10 of 25 fumbles by opponents last season. But for the predicament the Longhorns were in (Robert Joseph was supposed to be a junior starter at safety on this team with James Henry a sophomore), the secondary got great coaching from Duane Akina and Muschamp and played beyond its years.

Grade: Overachieved (for its age)

FINAL ANALYSIS: When you add up all the positions that overachieved this season, you see why the Lunchpail Longhorns had such success and endeared themselves to fans as a scrappy bunch that loved playing together. Texas was in contention for a national title with serious deficiencies that it had to overcome. In 2005, Texas was a senior-laden team that avoided injuries and had so many playmakers on both sides of the ball it was sometimes hard to get them all on the field. That was not the case with the 2008 UT team. Leadership, chemistry, grit and determination put these Longhorns in contention. That's why this team was so much fun to watch and grow.

Here's how I rank the positions in order of performance this season:

Quarterback - Colt McCoy did it all
2. Defensive line - Pressure hurts
3. Receiver - Cosby and Shipley were will killers
4. Linebacker - Kindle and Muckelroy played huge in big games
5. Defensive back - Didn't give up many big plays
6. Running back - Ogbonnaya was outstanding running and catching the ball
7. Offensive line - Pass protection was the strength
8. Tight end - Injuries all but negated the position

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