It is October 2, 2010 and the Texas Longhorns are in deep trouble. Coming off a disappointing loss to UCLA the week before, Texas finds themselves in a quick 14-0 hole to Oklahoma. The Longhorns need a momentum shift, and fast.
Enter D.J. Monroe. The speedy sophomore lines up slot right and comes in motion left. Garret Gilbert receives the snap from the shotgun and hands to Monroe coming across his face. Monroe turns the corner near the UT sidelines, lights the fuses on his rocket powered cleats and explodes past a stunned OU defense. 60 yards later, Texas Fight is playing and the game has changed.
Monroe trots to the sidelines, gets a drink and finds a spot on the bench to rest. And stays there. Monroe gets exactly three more touches the rest of the way in a game that Texas loses 28-20. A game in which the offense struggled all day long to move the ball with any consistency.
Welcome to part three of Mack Brown’s tarnished legacy. In Part Two, I wrote about the serious decline in recruiting during Mack’s final years. However, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t talent on the Texas roster. The problem was, Mack and his staff had no clue what to do with it.
Mack’s theory regarding players like Monroe seemed to be that special players with game breaking ability only had so many big plays in them, so best not to waste those plays by putting the ball in their hands with any sort of regularity. Pick your spots and hope for the best.
One of the many criticisms of Mack and his longtime offensive coordinator Greg Davis was that their basic plan seemed to be: recruit the best talent that you have and turn them loose. It’s not a bad plan when you guys like Vince Young and Colt McCoy getting the ball to guys like Roy Williams, Cedric Benson or Jordan Shipley.
But why then, in the latter years when the talent didn’t run so deep, were they so inadequate at using the talent that they did have?Monroe was a home run threat each time he touched the ball, but he never touched the ball often enough.
You can blame lack of imagination for a lot of that. However, there were teams all over the country finding ways to feature special athletes, so there were ideas out there. Florida’s use of Percy Harvin springs immediately to mind.
One excuse that was frequently offered up was that Monroe didn’t really have a position. Isn’t it the role of the coaching staff to find a role their players? Maybe he didn’t have great hands, but it doesn’t take Jerry Rice to catch a shuffle pass or a quick swing. Not only did they misuse Monroe, they also failed to develop him in any discernible way.
Davis took a lot of that heat, and he deserved some of it, but the truth was exposed when Davis was relieved of his duties after the 2010 debacle. (Just don’t ask Iowa fans about him). This same waste of ability was evidenced during the Bryan Harsin and Major Applewhite era as well.
Case in point: Daje Johnson. Remember Daje’s first play TD against Baylor in 2012? Johnson is probably more talented and more of a gamebreaker than Monroe ever was, yet again, Texas has struggled to find ways to get him the ball.
After a promising start against New Mexico State last year, Applewhite decided to use Johnson and his game-breaking speed as a between the tackles back against BYU. Not Malcolm Brown or Joe Bergeron, two backs with the size and strength to handle such a role. The result: an injured ankle and two missed games. Not the brightest idea.
When Daje came back, he immediately provided one of the signature plays of 2013 with his punt return touchdown against Oklahoma. What happened with him after that? At the end of the regular season, with a shot at the Big XII title and an offense struggling to do much of anything, where was Daje? He had two carries and one pass reception against Oklahoma State and two and two against Baylor. That’s a grand total of 7 touches in two games where the Longhorns averaged 3.8 yards per play.
The truth is that teams with good offensive coordinators make it a priority to get their game-breakers a set number of touches a game and they spend each week game planning different ways to do that. They are committed to getting those players touches because they know that the defense will only be able to stop them so many times before something breaks. Under Mack Brown, Texas was not committed to get the ball in their playmakers hands.
The saddest thing is, they had a model. I give you Ramonce Taylor. Go back and watch the 2005 highlight video (which I do regularly). Ramonce is all over it. He ran for touchdowns, caught touchdowns, ran back kicks. He was a supreme talent with the ability to change the game with one touch. Despite the fact that he was not a true running back or receiver, he got snaps at both and they got the ball in his hands.
In 2005, Ramonce Taylor had 103 combined carries and catches alone and he gained nearly 800 yards and fifteen touchdowns. By comparison, D.J. Monroe had 115 touches from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) in his entire career. Johnson has had 94 in two seasons. Considering how much better the 2005 team was than the teams Johnson and Monroe played for, why weren’t there more touches for players of such talent?
Mack had the built-in excuse that both players got themselves in trouble. They both spent significant time in the doghouse and each served suspensions, which didn’t help their case. While that could also be used as another example of the culture rot under Mack, it also gave him a loophole. He doesn’t have that luxury with a player like Jaxon Shipley.
Talent comes in many forms, and Mack could waste it all. The way in which Jaxon Shipley has been underutilized in his first three years is almost criminal. Shipley The Younger may have been even better than Jordan was, but he’s never had the opportunity to show it. In 2013, Shipley’s talents were wasted running short crossing routes or digs and he averaged a paltry 10.5 yards per catch.
The excuse for that was Case McCoy and his Nerf gun arm. Of course, why a program of Texas’ caliber was reduced to a Division II talent and a true freshman as QB options was the subject of part 1 of this series.
The inability to use talent spread throughout the program. Kenny Vaccaro was an outstanding talent that could have been used as a devastating weapon by a capable defensive coordinator. Instead, after a breakout junior season, Vaccaro’s talents were largely wasted in 2012. Vaccaro was a victim of both a defensive coordinator more interested in drawing up exotic blitzes in the dirt and the need to try to clean up the mistakes that were happening all around him.
Similar wastes litter the current roster. Peter Jinkens was forced into action in 2012 when the Longhorns needed somebody to play linebacker. He flashed loads of potential, resulting in high hopes for his sophomore season. Yet Jinkens looked so lost in 2013 that there were times Greg Robinson used both of his middle linebackers at the same time.
Steve Edmond is another example of the lack of player development in recent years. The new coaching staff has raved about his athleticism this spring. That from a guy who looked slow and incapable of reading plays under the prior regime. For both players it is unclear if the new staff will have time to salvage their careers.
One of the truths of college football is that not everyone makes it. Every program will bring in highly touted recruits only to see them fizzle. The problem with the players mentioned here is that they did produce, sometimes at a high level. However, misuse and lack of development limited or has limited their ability to fulfill their potential. It ultimately cost Mack his job and will make things tough on Charlie Strong and his staff as they try to rebuild the program.
Trying to identify and develop the talent they inherit will be a challenging exercise for Strong’s staff until they can remold the program with their own guys. However, the recent spring game showed some encouraging signs. Mykkele Thompson, a player that some thought would be an attrition candidate, flashed some serious skills at safety, a position of particular disrepair in recent year. There was even a DeMarco Cobbs sighting. Now let’s just hope it carries over to the fall.