April 19, 2010

Good times Zone Read, but here comes power football

There's something different this time. There's a commitment. There's a chapter ending and a new one beginning.
In an age where everyone wants to go new school, Mack Brown is ready to go old school.

The offense that helped win his first conference title and ultimately a national title is being pushed aside. Not forgotten. But moved over here for a moment.
It's not that the zone read isn't effective anymore, although, Vince Young was the ultimate - maybe never-to-be-topped - zone read quarterback.

So let's get sidetracked on VY for a second as we stop to remember what the zone read has given Texas. Any time you can have a quarterback who runs like Barry Sanders and completes 30 of 40 passes in the biggest game of his life it's unfair. Seriously. Unfair.

Young made defenders miss from point-blank range. He set up runs like a tailback, and finished his final regular season at Texas as the pass efficiency leader in college football. Unfair.

ZONE READ GOLD RUSH

Mack Brown and Greg Davis were like any prospectors who had found gold on their first try. They thought the gold would keep coming. Ryan Perrilloux would embarrass defenders and reduce the will of opponents to oatmeal just as Young did.

OK, maybe it would be John Chiles.

We know the rest of the story: Colt McCoy, the undersized, underappreciated, surgically precise kid from West Texas came in and penned a tale as compelling as Lonesome Dove.

The one consistent thread in the wake of Young's departure, Perrilloux's defection and Chiles' position change is that the Texas running game has not cut it. In three of the past four years, Texas has struggled to achieve the benchmark of decent running teams - averaging 4 yards per carry.

The only decent year in that time frame was 2007, when Texas discovered its running game with Jamaal Charles in Week 9 against Nebraska with 13 minutes left in the game on, of all plays, the zone read.

(Remember, Colt McCoy went out for one play in the fourth quarter? John Chiles came in. They ran zone read. Charles ran it for 25 yards, and Texas never stopped. Charles ended up with 290 yards rushing with 216 of those coming in the fourth quarter.

Charles finished with 1,619 yards rushing that season and a 6.3 yards per rush average, and 897 yards of that came in the final five games of the season. He had only 722 yard rushing through the first eight games. Then, Charles bolted for the NFL. It was the craziest turn of events since it was learned a 30-year-old was playing DB at Texas, ah the Roster Impostor.)

RUNNING GAME STRUGGLES

In 2009, the Longhorns hit 4.0 yards per carry on the dot. At some schools, that might be acceptable. But not at Texas. Not where you get your pick of the best talent in the state every year.

"We did not run the ball well at all last season," Mack Brown said.

So we embark on a trip down Memory Lane in 2010 on the Forty Acres. Gone is the new, sleeker version of college offense with the turbo, the engine in the back and all the fuel injectors. Pulling out of the garage now is an 8-cylinder Impala with a 400 engine.

And that's OK. Why? Because in college football, where you get to hand-pick your talent and fit scheme to talent, you don't find a Garrett Gilbert every day. Just like you don't find a Vince Young every day.

Ask Mack Brown if he thought he'd be coaching a zone-read offense for the rest of his career after that 2005 season, and he'd blurt out yes before you could finish the sentence.

It's like cashing in big on Dell stock. You just wanted to keep buying it and buying it and dreaming about the new house, the new car, the vacations. Until you realize, the stock's not paying anymore. You THINK it will because it made you or some people you know rich. But then it doesn't. Other factors come into play. The competition changes. The market changes. The times change.

There was a time when Mack Brown and Greg Davis probably thought if any school could find the next Vince Young every three or four years, Texas could. But to Brown and Davis' undying credit, they adapt. They move on.

And that's what they are doing in 2010.

A NEW OFFENSE

Gone is the run-blocking out of a two-point stance. Gone are the hulking linemen usually rated among the best coming out of high school trying to move laterally to open a hole. It's been the equivalent, at times, over the past four years, of firing a rocket into space at a 45-degree angle.

And make no mistake. Greg Davis is right. He was asked if he regrets not abandoning the zone blocking or "reach blocking" earlier to see if the green light would go on for the running game. And Davis said, "We're 25-2 the last two years. It's not like we've been bad."

But now Texas moves to a pro-style offense with a tight end, an H-back and a quarterback under center. The linemen get to put their hand in the dirt again, so that defenses aren't anticipating pass on every play.

"We're finally getting to fire off at the defense instead of having them fire off at us on every play," said left tackle Kyle Hix.

Now, it's up to an offensive line that will start four seniors this season, a group of running backs and Garrett Gilbert to help make Mack Brown and Greg Davis look like geniuses.

Something tells me this call to arms about the running game is different. I'm not sure it will look smooth or operate with the precision of 1990s Cowboys. But I think the commitment from the coaches to change things is real this time. Even if there are hiccups and sputters to start.

IT'S DIFFERENT THIS TIME

In the last few years, Mack Brown would go into or out of the spring saying how the running game was a priority and how he wasn't pleased with the results on the ground from the year before. It rang hollow because the 300-pound men up front with knee braces were still running sideways to try and open a hole.

And, yes, everyone uses some form of zone blocking. And Texas will continue to use it. But it will be PART of what Texas does. Not the overwhelming majority. In the new power running game, there will be more double teams and drive blocking. Heck, the isolation play that made Ricky Williams the all-time leading rusher in college football might even return.

It had to be tempting for Mack Brown and Greg Davis to stick with the zone read. It has been so good to them. The crystal football in the lobby outside their offices and Colt McCoy's 45 victories as a starting QB are a constant reminder. But at Texas, when you recruit like Mack and Co., you can change your offense - even to an older vintage - and still be dominant.

The last time Texas ran the offense Mack and Greg are planning to unleash in 2010, Major Applewhite and Chris Simms were under center. Those days ended up being remembered more for the failures against Oklahoma than for the 10-win seasons.

But the makeup of Texas football is totally different these days. The selfishness that plagued those teams gets eradicated like pest control these days. In its place is a blue collar mentality that dictates, "Either you're in or you're out."

Everyone remembers how disarming it was to see all that talent Mack Brown was stockpiling at the turn of the century get its head kicked in by OU. Those days began to define Mack Brown and the Horns as the entitled five-stars who couldn't get out of their own way.

Does anyone remember that?

Does it seem like a lifetime ago?

How does a coach change perception?

He keeps going. He keeps growing. He keeps changing. Keeps tinkering. Keeps striving. And that's exactly what Mack Brown has done. His program has continued to evolve. His hires have gotten better and better.

And let's be honest. When you have a kid like Garrett Gilbert (and I need to create a word that celebrates the kid and taps the brakes at the same time, so he gets his fair share of time to make mistakes) you adjust the offense.

And Mack Brown is right when he says Greg Davis will always mold the offense to fit the talent. Not every coordinator is capable of that. And that's what Davis and Co. have done again heading into 2010.

Welcome back power football. It was great knowing you zone read. You provided some never-to-be-forgotten-memories. I'm sure we'll see you from time to time.

And, yes, there will be a healthy dose of fans out there who say, "I'll believe a change in the offense when I see it." Well, the rise of Barrett Matthews as an H-Back-slash-tight end will end up being as big for this offense as Garrett Gilbert's ability to get under center and sell ball fakes.

Matthews and Greg Smith have to be able to interchange between the tight end and H-Back positions to help disguise the offense when it wants to spread out and pass. And to help serve as the second back in this new, power running game.

Again, the thing you appreciate about Mack Brown and Greg Davis is their ability to change, adjust, add, evolve.

I'm genuinely as intrigued as I've ever been heading into a season to see how the personality and execution of this offense translates to the field.


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