September 4, 2011

Baby steps: The Rice report card

Grading scale

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

Quarterback - I'll pay homage to a long-time Orangebloods poster by breaking Garrett Gilbert down into the Good, Bad and the Ugly.

Let's start with the bad. If you were hoping that Gilbert would emerge on night one as a completely different player from last season (fairly unreasonable expectation I should add), you left the stadium last night grumbling quite a bit. Actually, you likely walked out at halftime and had four beers, alternating between curse words and swigs. In the first half, Gilbert just didn't settle into a groove, stared down a few receivers and missed a few throws. It didn't help that the running game was mucking it up right there with him, but Gilbert only left everyone with questions and not answers with a lot of his first-half play. More than anything, he has to find a way to be more efficient in the passing game with the receivers moving forward or he's not going to keep the job. It's not that he was awful, it's just that he wasn't better than slightly ok early on.

The ugly? That third quarter attempted lateral was the kind of sin that can never happen again.

Let's move to the good. For a guy that we spent all off-season talking about as a turnover machine, we can't discuss the performance without acknowledging that he attempted 23 passes on Saturday night and played a clean game with the ball in the air. That's not lowering the expectations or the grading… this is a very key element in his development. His ability to push the ball down the field is a big plus. Connecting on two out of four vertical balls is actually a solid hit rate and he just missed the other two, one with an overthrow and the other featuring some bad geometry in the route running of Mike Davis. I thought he did a nice job of moving around in the pocket at times and he made some tough throws in the second half once he got a little positive momentum going. Maybe the best thing I took out of the game was that Gilbert got better as the game went along. I can't tell you today who starts the Oklahoma game, but there was a lot to work with from last night.

As for David Ash, the horses are out of the barn. We didn't see enough last night to draw any smart conclusions other than the coaches like him and want to see more of him.

Overall, the grade is an obvious one based on the scoring criteria.

Grade: Solid C

Running backs - Hell of an interesting night with this group. Starting running back Fozzy Whittaker got most of the work in the first half when the running game was stuck in neutral. His first half carries resulted in gains of 0, 2, 4, 3, 4, 6 and 6 yards. That's 25 yards on seven carries. Yes, he was running hard, yes he looked quicker, but the offense needs more from its front-line guy. That being said, his overall night screams of the kind of guy that can be one hell of a supplemental piece this season, finishing with 88 yards of offense (55 receiving) and a pair of touchdowns (one out of the wildcat). I thought Whittaker was everything that this team will eventually need him to be.

The real story of this game was the quick development of Malcolm Brown. As soon as they turned him loose in the second half, the Texas running game took off and by the end of the night he nearly had a 100-yard game. Mixed with a few explosive runs, he ran like the North/South finisher that he is between the tackles. Moving forward, it seems clear his workload will increase. For those keeping score at home, those 86 yards on 16 carries were exactly 20 yards better than Cedric Benson (66 yards on 15 carries) gained in his career-opener in 2001. On top of everything, he fumbled late to remind us that he can get better.

Not to be completely outdone, D.J. Monroe averaged better than eight yards per carry, Cody Johnson was effective in short-yardage and Joe Bergeron was at a solid 4.3 yards per carry in limited work. Overall, this position finished with a strong night - rushing for 198 yards on 40 carries, while adding six receptions for 61 yards. So that's 259 yards of all-purpose offense and three touchdowns on the night. You'll take that every week.

Grade: B+

Wide receivers -I thought this group had a pretty solid first night. With the offense stuck in neutral in the first half while the running game and Gilbert attempted to find their way, this group did a nice job of creating the big-play punch that was needed when given the opportunities. Davis got nine targets last night in the passing game and caught three passes, but two of them were of the 50+ yards variety and sparked the offense. The Jaxon Shipley/Darius White combined for only eight targets (Shipley had five), but were still able to contribute four receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown. Outside of a couple of early drops and a confusing route by Davis on one missed deep ball, I thought the group did good things when they got their chances in the passing game.

When you add in the creative use of Shipley in the wildcat and on reverses, along with the touchdown pass by John Harris on one of Bryan Harsin's infamous trick plays, you've got a group that was responsible for a lot of positives. Plus, they did a solid job in the run game for week one. Darrell Wyatt has these cats playing hard.

Grade: B

Tight ends- I'm going to go with the glass being half-full approach to this position. A lot of guys played and they played all over the field. I thought Blaine Irby, Dominique Jones and D.J. Grant all did some nice things away from the ball in the running game. Given that they only received two targets in the passing game (a drop by Irby on a key third down), it's hard to gauge if this group can and will do more in the passing game. I want another week before deciding what kind of grading system to use for this group.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive line -A tale of two halves for the big boys up-front and it seems clear that this group is going to be a major work in progress this season. You don't start a redshirt freshman, a redshirt sophomore, a true sophomore and a fifth-year senior that has never played much into a group and not expect some growing pains. Early in the game, the interior of the line seemed confused by what Rice was doing up front and they didn't handle some of the twists and stunts as cleanly as you'd like to see, but they found some steam as the game went along and they eventually wore Rice out up-front. That's what you want, so that was a win for this group because they did not wear this same outfit out a year ago, no matter what Michael Huey might have thought. Kudos to Tray Allen and Trey Hopkins for pretty much turning Rice's best defensive player (Scott Solomon) into a complete non-factor for four quarters. Also, I thought young Dominic Espinosa had a strong first night, which included zero snap issues. The biggest area of concern seemed to be at right guard as David Snow went out and forced the line to shuffle some pieces around. A lot of guys played and a lot of guys will be better after tonight.

Grade: B-

Offensive game plan -Wow. There was so much going on with the offense Saturday night that it's difficult to pick a starting point. End arounds, reverse passes for touchdowns, D.J. Monroe, a little downhill football, constant motion… and oh… a specialty package that took the redshirt off of true freshman David Ash before our very eyes in the first half. Seriously, that game-plan was like an 11-course meal for those of us that have watched Greg Davis since we were one year removed from the legal drinking age. The best news is that his players looked completely prepared, except for a few illegal shifts, and found a way to generate nearly 500 yards worth of offense and zero turnovers on the night. The Longhorns were balanced and occasionally explosive. It was a hell of a first impression for Harsin.

Grade: B+

Defensive line - This group has to be better moving forward, much better. The interior of the Texas line did not handle the Rice blocking schemes well in stretches and could not control the line of scrimmage against a team that gashed it up the middle repeatedly. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Owls found a soft spot on Jackson Jeffcoat's side of the field with the option. Containment was a big issue with the ends tonight that will need to be cleaned up in the next few weeks. The best tackle in the Big 12 Kheeston Randall had one more tackle that Ashton Dorsey, who was suspended prior to the game and didn't suit up. It was also one more than fellow starter Calvin Howell accumulated, who didn't have the excuse of not suiting up.

Meanwhile, arguably the two best players on the defense in the pre-season - Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor - combined for four tackles and half a tackle for loss. Let's not give too much credit to Rice's quick-passing attack… these guys have to play better. Every single one of them.

On the bright side, Reggie Wilson and Cedric Reed flashed in limited duty. It's clear those two can flat out move around the field.

Grade: D

Linebackers - I was expecting a lot more if I'm being honest. Yes, Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho were active with a combined 18 tackles, but the game-changing plays from two seniors who project as NFL players were missing. Jordan Hicks was solid in his first game as a starter in 2011, but overall this group had some real struggles at the point of attack and the middle linebacker question seemed to arrive front and center last night. While the defense against the run needs work, this group performed well against the pass and help limit the possibility of a big-play from the Owls, so it wasn't a total misstep by any means.

Also, true freshman Steve Edmond made exactly one tackle, but oh what a tackle it was. The answer at middle linebacker might be on the roster yet.

Grade: C

Secondary - The corners were not tested much in this game, but to the victors go the spoils. The trio of Carrington Byndom, Quandre Diggs and Adrian Phillips was outstanding and completely negated any kind of passing attack with the Owls receivers. Not allowing a single explosive play in the first four quarters of this group's tenure together is a major accomplishment. The kids get an A+ from me, especially Byndom, who earned my defensive MVP with five tackles, two tackles for loss and a pass break-up. Also, I thought Kenny Vaccaro had a solid game at safety. You absolutely know he's on the field at all times because he finds the ball. That was good as I've seen him play thus far. The only disappointment for me was the lack of impact from Blake Gideon, especially in the running game. Overall, this group had a strong week one and if they start looking for those balls in the air a little more, the big plays are going to be there.

Grade: B

Defensive game plan -The whistles and bells were somewhat missing from a purposeful vanilla game-plan, but let's not suggest it was as bland as some of the blandest game-plans we've seen in early games of the Gene Chizik and Will Muschamp eras. No, Manny Diaz tried to create some pressure at times with an extra man and they ran a number of stunts up-front, but Rice's quick-strike attack… or at least their attempted quick-strike attack, ended up slowing the speed and athlete advantage down for the defense. Defending the run is this unit's question mark and it might be all season. There's more from this unit that we'll see in the coming weeks, but the end result was a touchdown-less performance and that happened exactly zero times last season. Uh huh, I bet you hadn't thought of that. I give Diaz a ton of credit for having a defense that was able to limit the number of brain malfunctions in the opener.

Grade: B

Special teams - Actually, if I think about it, this was might have been the most disappointing aspect of last night. Where I was convinced that the Longhorns would get a couple of game-changing plays out of this phase against the Owls, it never materialized. Outside of the fumble recovery by Phillips in the first quarter (nice job by Vaccaro to distract the return man), the Longhorns field position off of special teams looked like this last night - own 20, own 20, own 31, own 20, own 20, own 16, own 28, own 1, own 6, own 35 and own 25. That's way too many 80- and 90+ yard drives.

Yikes.

Also, the kickoff coverage group needs a lot of work, although it got better as the game went along, I'll never understand why Justin Tucker doesn't get more touchbacks. He ended up with two touchbacks, but others end up 10 yards short of the goal line.

Of course, he was automatic on field goals and point-after attempts. That's money in the bank. The punting was pretty "meh", as none were down inside the 20 and the average of 34.8 is well below average given the entire field he had to work with.

Grade: C

Overall - Baby steps. This team is a work in progress and there's a long way to go, but they did some really nice things in winning by four scores. The energy level was great and they were completely dialed in for four quarters. Either the glass is half-empty of half-full last night, it depends on your vantage point, I suppose. I see a glass leaning more towards more than half full, but that's me.

Question marks remain, but you can build a hell of a lot off last night.

Grade: B


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