September 5, 2010

The grades are in - Rice report card

Grading scale

A - All-American level
B - All-Conference level
C - Average
D - Below average
F - Complete failure

Quarterback - Garrett Gilbert didn't hit the ground running in his first start as much as he hit it with a slight jog. With an offensive game-plan that focused on forcing the issue with the running game and running every play out of essentially the same formation, Gilbert did a nice job with what he had to work with, although he left some plays on the field in the second half. Overall, he was 14 of 23 for a turnover-free 172 yards, and while he didn't finish with any touchdown passes, he could have just as easily have had three or four if John Chiles isn't tackled at the one-yard line or Marquise Goodwin doesn't step out at the two-yard line or Malcolm Williams doesn't lose his feet on a 47-yard play that could have been 80 or if Goodwin doesn't slow up on a go-route. A couple of other things to note - his play-action fakes were tremendous at times and almost impossible to detect to the naked eye at times, and he made a number of strong, quick decisions to make plays and avoid negative plays. All things considered, he was probably the best part of the offense.

Grade: B-

Running backs -Starting running back Cody Johnson was going to be given every chance to run away with the job today and he possibly tippy-toed his way out if it with a 15-carry, 59-yard performance that reminded everyone watching of the same player we watched in 2009. Johnson was simply too indecisive after a strong start and you have to wonder where his role goes from here. There's no question that he lost ground to both Tre' Newton and Fozzy Whittaker, who played like bottle rockets by comparison. Newton's overall numbers (18 carries for 61 yards) weren't much more impressive that Johnson's but he played with a burst and decisiveness that the coaches will have to consider this week. Whittaker posted the best per-carry average with 5.7 on nine carries, but a lot of his work was done late in the game. It'll be interesting to see where this position goes from here on out. Overall, the backs combined for 171 yards on 42 carries (4.1 YPC) for three touchdowns, while also adding three catches for six yards. Again Rice, that's not good enough.

Grade: C-

Wide receivers - Again, this group wasn't exactly showcased, but it was good to see Malcolm Williams, Marquise Goodwin and John Chiles take advantage of their often-rare opportunities with big plays. Williams led the team with four receptions for 77 yards, but those numbers could have been a lot bigger if he had stayed on his feet, rather than falling to the ground on a few catches. Likewise, Goodwin finished with four receptions for 50 yards, but those numbers were close to looking a lot better. As the weeks go on, the Horns simply have to get their best playmakers the ball a little more and those playmakers are at receiver. Consider me a little surprised that they mostly left the wrapping paper on new toy Mike Davis, who had one fewer catch than Chiles and James Kirkendoll - both had one. Overall, the position accounted for 10 receptions for 163 yards. You'll take 16.3 YPC from your collective receiving unit all day long, but this group left some plays on the field in their own right.

Grade: B-

Tight ends

There were times last year when the tight end position probably didn't warrant a spot in the report card because of the use of the position, but that's not the case any longer because the tight ends were on the field for almost every play for the Longhorns on offense. Barrett Matthews, Greg Smith and Ahmard Howard were asked to contribute as blockers more than anything else and they were solid in that role, but they have got to do a better job of finishing blocks in the running game. In the passing game, the group wasn't given much of a role and finished with only one catch for three yards. In week four, this kind of production in both phases will receive a harsher grade, but there's a game one/offensive game-plan curve in action.

Grade: C-

Offensive line - There's some good news and bad news along the offensive line. Let's start with the good. I was prepared to grade this group pretty hard when I went into the review of the game, but the truth of the matter is that this group graded out pretty well on a play-by-play basis. More times than not this group was hindered by a single block or a running back not hitting the hole quick enough, and not by mass failure up-front. Individually, I thought Kyle Hix played the best game of the group, but his two false starts were criminal, given the circumstances of each. Take those plays away and he's your Boss Hogg winner in my mind. Michael Huey also had a good game on the left side, although he's a much better player in space on screens than he is on the counter. Meanwhile, the opposite looks true of Mason Walters, who was great at times and not so great at others. Still, when the Horns get him pulling in their counter-game to the left side, they can get some stuff cooking. Britt Mitchell had a pretty uneventful day at right tackle, which is exactly what you want from him, as he had a couple of bad plays, but overall he was solid. Finally, David Snow simply needs to hold his blocks a little longer, as that was the only thing keeping his game from being better than pretty good.

I consider all of that good news, so let's look at the bad news. It's been the story of this group the last few years to be one block away. We heard that last year and we heard it in 2008. That the line was pretty good against Rice and always one block away is an issue when it happens on almost every play. Getting all five guys to win and finish their blocks together as a group is the goal and while this group graded out fairly well individually, the group did not, at least not in the running game against an undersized Owl squad.

That being said, the pass protection was outstanding for the most part and that is a big part of this group's task, even if it wasn't priority No.1 or No.2 on Saturday.

Grade: C

Offensive game plan -I hope everyone knows that I'm probably the biggest advocate of Greg Davis that exists in the media today, but when I disagree with a game-plan, I'm calling to call it like I see it. The bottom line is that we see the current Longhorn offense through different filters and we disagree on the needs of the unit.

I get what he was trying to do. He was being overly vanilla for the sake of not showing too much to future opponents and he wanted to force the issue in the running game to see what kind of men he's working with after a month of training camp. I get it, but it was the wrong approach for a number of reasons. The biggest is that he can't take for granted that this group can flip the switch in two weeks… just because. Davis had a new quarterback with little experience and I'm not sure Saturday did much for the development of Gilbert. If he weren't the best player on that side of the ball, I might understand, but if Texas wins a Big 12 title, it'll be because of Gilbert's arm and ability to be a star.

Mack Brown always talks about not understanding how a team can come out flat when there are only 12 games in a season, but his offensive game-plan was flat all day. They essentially ran three formations all day - strong-side to the right or left with a tight end, twins to either side and a single back in the backfield. The offense treated this game like a scrimmage and with only 11 games remaining, I just don't think it was the right approach.

Of course, the offense has more at its disposal than it showed on Saturday, but that's kind of the point, too. In a lot of ways , Davis and Co. accomplished their mission - they sure didn't show much under the engine when they lifted the hood. I just disagree with the nature of the chosen mission.

Grade: D

Defensive line -More good news and bad news. The good news is that the defensive ends on this team are ridiculously good and Kheeston Randall might have been one of the five best players on the field. Same with Sam Acho. Same with Eddie Jones. Those three players were beats and combined for 11 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. That's not even factoring in the play of Jackson Jeffcoat and Reggie Wilson, who both stood out in their first games of action. The bad news is that the second defensive tackle spot doesn't have a true leader. B]Tyrell Higgins[/db] spent too much time not getting off of blocks, but the same was also true of Alex Okafor and Calvin Howell when they had chances. This group played a lot of three-man fronts, but when they went to four with two defensive tackles, the production of the second tackle was non-existent. Still, the defensive line finished with 17.5 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and a forced fumble that resulted in a touchdown.

Grade: A-

Linebackers -I've been calling for Keenan Robinson to emerge as a star this season and he made me look like a smart guy on Saturday with a sensational interception, a fumble recovery for a touchdown, five tackles and a tackle for loss. He's a star. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Acho was good in his own right, recording 2.5 tackles and half of a sack. When those two players are on the field together, the Longhorns are a great team at linebacker. SAM linebacker Dravannti Johnson was ok at times, but he wasn't prepared for the zone-read and wasn't as active as you'd expect when you consider his snap-count. Senior Dustin Earnest had a rough day, both against the zone-read and with inside runs. Still, this group has to mainly be judged by the performance of their top guys and their tops guys were very good on this day.

Grade: B-

Secondary -The Longhorns found a potential star with the play of Kenny Vaccaro, who led the team with 7.5 tackles and a number of crushing hits after coming into the nickel package in the second quarter. On a day when Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown were excellent, Vaccaro was the best defensive back on the team. Blake Gideon was solid throughout, but he needs to finish when he's coming up to tackle. Christian Scott didn't perform poorly, but he wasn't nearly as active as Vaccaro. Of course, the guy who had the toughest day of a was senior starter Chykie Brown, who dropped a pick-six, gave up a big pass play, was called for a pass interference and played a reverse terribly - all in the first half. Overall, this group was very good and featured three elite players, which led to them limiting the Rice passing attack with the wide receivers to minimal success, with the exception of the play Chykie gave up. The two drop pick-sixes drop their overall grade.

Grade: B

Defensive game plan - It's funny, but Will Muschamp's defense took exactly the same approach to this game as the Texas offense and I have a completely different take on their approach. For those most part, Muschamp kept his team in nickel throughout and they don't show a lot of whistles and bells. They ran a lot of their base defense without the zone-blitzes or line stunts that you know they have in the bag of tricks. The difference between the defense and the offense is that the defense isn't going through quite the same facelift, which allowed for a vanilla attack. Plus, his players executed better.

Grade: B

Special teams -A team couldn't have been any more terrified of the Texas kickoff return team than Rice, which settled for giving up the ball at midfield at the expense of kicking to D.J. Monroe or Goodwin even once. The punt return game was shaky because Curtis Brown and Aaron Williams were a little too indecisive about what they wanted to do, with the turnover by Williams registering as a football sin. John Gold was solid. Meanwhile, Justin Tucker had a rough day, missing two field goals and never once reaching the end zone on his kickoffs after kicking them "five yards deep" daily in workouts. The coverage was solid, but the overall performance of this group was a disappointment.

Grade: C

Overall -The problem with first games is that they're first games. The Longhorns mostly dominated the game, but they gave away 14 points on defense and special teams, and left a ton of plays on the field on offense. Still, this was a minimum 31-point type of win that they look get away from them with inconsistent and non-focused play in all three phases. That gives the coaches a ton to work with, which is great, especially when there's so much more good than bad to work with, which was the case on Saturday. This team, like every other in the nation, is a work in progress and perhaps the only thing we really learned on Saturday is that Big 12 champions aren't built in a day.

Grade: C+

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