November 12, 2012

Five things about the Longhorns on a Monday

1. On today's Big 12 coaches call I asked Mack Brown when he thought his team finally came together and about his demeanor during the wicked stretch from West Virginia through the first half of the Kansas game.

And it became clear to me that when everyone probably wanted Mack to go fire and brimstone, and slap the headset off of Manny Diaz as Texas was giving up 48 at home to West Virginia; 63 to Oklahoma; and 50 to Baylor, Mack had take a different approach.

It may have been what Mack Brown didn't do during that stretch that appears to paying off for the coach.

There's no doubt Texas left the Cotton Bowl as a punch line with everyone questioning the direction of the program.

But Mack told his players they were going to have to make a commitment to each other from that point on to get better because the outside world was going to write them off after back-to-back losses in which the defense gave up 115 points in two games.

"Older teams handle it better than younger teams," Mack said when asked about outside distractions that can prey on a team's mindset.

"Parents hear it and they talk. The media talks. Students talk. It's all out there. We're the ones saying Kansas is improving and Kansas took TCU and Oklahoma State to the wire at home, so you need to understand it.

"Sometimes, it takes a close miss like we had at Kansas this year for them to understand it. And they better listen to their coaches and watch film and watch the best film of that team. Don't pull off just any film, watch the other team's best film, because that's what we're going to get when they play Texas."

MY TAKE: It's well documented that Mack went off on his players and assistant coaches publicly after a loss to Iowa State in 2010. But players I talked to after the 33-7 victory over Iowa State on Saturday said Mack has been nothing but positive with the players. Forceful, but positive.

When he began sitting in on more of the defensive meetings coming off a 56-50 victory over Baylor, players said Mack wasn't chewing butts as much as he stressing the need to study film and realize guys were talented enough to make plays.

"Coach Brown let us know on defense that he had our backs all the way," said junior cornerback Carrington Byndom.

So I asked Mack on Monday if there was anything he learned in 2010 that he applied to this year's team or himself in the way he approached some young assistant coaches and his players during a period where a lot of things were going wrong?

"Every team is different," he said. "Every player is different. Every coach is different. There's a key to each kid. There's a key to each coach. My job is to make sure I turn the right key. That's just something you learn through experience is how to handle each situation."

Mack turned the right key to hold this team together. Now, he's got to keep turning the keys to get big improvement through the rest of the season and set an edge that will carry through the off-season.

This team, especially on defense, is still performing well below where it should. So big progress is attainable, even with guys like Jackson Jeffcoat and Jordan Hicks out.

2. If this team can continue to improve through the rest of the season, including the bowl game, it could mean a 9- or 10- win season and maybe even, what seemed unthinkable a month ago, an 11-win season with an upset at Kansas State.

If that happens, the approach Mack Brown took with this team through the turbulence of 2012 could pay huge dividends for him with a team that will be stacked with juniors and seniors in 2013.

If Mack had given his locker room any reason to check out in that stretch from West Virginia through the Kansas game, it very well might have.

And when you saw him being effusively positive in the Baylor post-game locker room on LHN, at the time, it didn't sound right.

It seemed like there should have been more tough love. But Mack knew his young linebackers and inexperienced safeties weren't ready for that yet.

So he kept trying to pump them up while telling his coaches to do everything they could to get the players' recognition to go up.

Manny Diaz sounded like a self-help guru through that stretch as well, talking about the positives he was seeing as his defense was being torn apart.

But with a guy like Steve Edmond, a guy who looks like a wrecking ball, but clearly had eggshell confidence to start the year, this may have been the only approach to reach him.

Edmond admitted after the Texas Tech game he was having huge confidence issues at the beginning of the season internally.

He was trying to look and sound tough on the outside without Jordan Hicks by his side, but inside he said:

"Early in the season, I was just nervous because I came from a small town. I played 2A football, so I had the mindset that everyone was just better than me. Then, I got over that fear and just started playing."

This coaching staff had to stay positive with a guy like Edmond, or they would have lost him. It probably took longer than they'd hoped, especially with the plays Edmond was making in two-a-days.

"Coach Brown wanted us to go back to the way we were playing in two a days," Edmond told me. "In two-a-days, we were stopping everything. Now, we're trying to get back to that."

MY TAKE: The coaches probably didn't think Edmond's confidence could fall off that much in live action. But without Jordan Hicks, it did. And it didn't help that he was having to make the calls instead of Hicks. It added another layer to his plate at a time when he was feeling unsure.

And then the coaches had to bring him back. For all the criticism I've given Manny Diaz for not doing a better job of having his position - the linebackers - better prepared to handle adversity, I'll give credit to Diaz for finally getting Edmond's confidence back.

We've seen guys struggle with confidence as young players. Remember CB Cedric Griffin in the OU game of 2003? Fans were ready to run him out. He ended up a huge part of a national title team and an NFL player.

Remember a guy named Eric Foreman? He had incredible athletic ability as a young linebacker at Texas in 2003, but he got sucked in on a third-and-1 against Arkansas in the fourth quarter, and QB Matt Jones went for 60 yards on a play that helped the Razorbacks put the game out of reach.

Foreman was never the same after that play. He ended up moving from a position where he was playing (linebacker) to a position (quarterback) he would never play.

Confidence is everything, and sometimes it can be drained quickly.

These coaches brought Edmond back, and he should only get better and better, because he's got the physical tools.

Bottom line is this defense started off at sea level, quickly plunged below sea level and is now back to sea level. This defense has to keep getting better and better to gain momentum going into the off-season, because it's still way behind where this defense should be this season.

3. The progress of David Ash from here on out is huge.

Here's what Mack Brown had to say Monday about Ash's bounce-back from poor performances against Oklahoma and Kansas, including his being benched in the fourth quarter against the Jayhawks:

"David had such a great run going into the Oklahoma game, and then obviously, we didn't play well that day," Mack said.

"Then he played really, really well against Baylor. And to his credit, he said he felt like he respected Kansas and was ready to play, but not to a point that when things went wrong he couldn't pick himself up and right the ship.

"And that's a great learning experience for a young quarterback. What he said after that is, 'I know now that I have to be ready for whatever happens in a ballgame, and if I'm making some poor plays or our team is not playing well that I make sure I can right that and get it headed in the right direction.'

"He said that day, 'I wasn't able to do it, and thank goodness we had Case (McCoy) to come in and do it.'"

So what has Ash shown you since the Kansas game?

"David is big, he's strong," Mack said. "He can beat you with his arm. He can beat you with his feet. I think he's in the top nine or 10 in the nation in pass efficiency, so he's taking care of the football.

"He has a strong arm, which is important in this league, because you're going to play in some wind.

"Wind was gusting at 20 miles per hour half the game on Saturday (against Iowa State). He's a guy who is doing really, really well for us, and he's played as well as most quarterbacks in the country, and I'm really, really proud of him, and I look forward to him leading us forward."

MY TAKE: A year ago, many wondered if the answer at quarterback moving forward was on campus. There were some who wanted to rush Connor Brewer or Jalen Overstreet into action or thought UT was in a holding pattern until Tryone Swoopes showed up.

Look at Ash now.

He's No. 9 nationally in pass efficiency with 17 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions and has thrown for 2,354 yards through 10 games.

That's about where I thought Ash would finish the season, because I thought the running game would be able to carry a bunch of the load and that the defense would be much better than it's been.

Ash will clearly finish with more than 20 TD passes and closer to 3,000 yards.
More importantly, Ash has shown the maturity it takes to handle the QB position at Texas, where the glare can be white hot.

In fact, the only question about Ash is if he can stop being too hard on himself. Against Oklahoma and Kansas, he struggled and got frustrated and couldn't pull himself out of it.

If Ash can channel that competitiveness and not be too hard on himself, he has a chance to win big. His leadership style is more one-on-one than standing in front of the locker room. But his leadership ability is also growing with every winning performance.

4. With Alabama losing, and now Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame trying to preserve undefeated seasons, Mack was asked Monday about how difficult it was to maintain focus in 2005 when it seemed everyone, from mid-season on, was pointing to Texas in the national title game.

"In 2005, when we were getting ready to go play Texas A&M, and we had just beaten Kansas 66-14, at home, and Bill Parcells - I played for Bill Parcells at Florida State, and he's a very good friend of mine - he was the head coach of the Cowboys and sent me a note that said, 'You have to be really, really careful not to eat the poison cheese.'

"So we took a little piece of cheese and hung it on every locker with his quote," Mack said. "We didn't play very well against Texas A&M, but we won and came back and played great against Colorado in the Big 12 title game and then won the national championship against USC.

"But it is a very difficult thing not to look ahead. After we beat Oklahoma in 2005, there were people talking Rose Bowl and making reservations and making T-shirts at mid-season.

"So it's a very difficult thing to win all the games and keep people on track, especially wives and assistant coaches and yourself, not to look ahead.

"After we beat Oklahoma and after USC beat Notre Dame in the last seconds, we started comparing our team each week to USC, because we thought that was the best in the country.

"We weren't just playing the team we were playing, we were playing to a standard that was USC. And that was an older team, and it worked. But you have to be careful. With a younger team you talk about inch by inch and a game at a time, and some of those kids look at you and snicker and laugh.

"So you have to make sure they get it. And even our team over the last four weeks knows we're not good enough to win unless we play good and with energy."

MY TAKE: Little known fact, Bill Parcells was the linebackers coach at Florida State when Mack was a running back there. And Parcells recruited Mack to be his scout-team running back in practices after Mack transferred from Vanderbilt.

Mack once told me he thought Parcells didn't blow the whistle until every one of Parcells' linebackers had hit him in drills.

5. All the players said the practices have taken on a much more physical tone since the loss to Oklahoma. With the exception of injured players, Mack Brown said Monday the physical practices will continue heading into next week's Thanksgiving night game against TCU.

"We've got a lot of people who are hurt, so we'll rest them," Mack said. "They'll do some things, but we'll hold them out of some contact if they would have been questionable going into this weekend.

"And then we'll work hard with the rest of the guys on TCU, because it's such a key and important game for us.

"TCU is a very physical team, and Gary (Patterson's) teams don't quit. They keep coming back like they did against Texas Tech and West Virginia. They took both of those teams into overtime when they were down in the fourth quarter.

"Then, you try to work on things that need fixing. We won 33-7 (against Iowa State). But there's still a lot of things that need work. This team knows that we've got a lot of things to work on. It will be a good week of practice.

"Sunday becomes Tuesday's practice because of the Thursday game and Monday becomes Wednesday's practice, and so on."

MY TAKE: TCU held Kansas State to 260 total yards and has the nation's No. 8 rushing defense (98.4 yards per game).

This is a TCU defense under Gary Patterson that has overcome the loss of leading tackler and middle linebacker Tanner Brock, starting defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey as well as cornerbacks Devin Johnson and Ty Horn - all suspended in February after a police drug sting.

For TCU to be fighting and scrapping on defense the way it has this season is a testament to Patterson. The guy is relentless. He's from the Bill Snyder coaching tree and finds a bunch of overlooked recruits he turns into blue-collar, construction workers.

Ketch mentioned in his 10 Thoughts that he can't believe Texas didn't go hard after TCU freshman DE Devonte Fields (6-4, 240), who has 8 sacks this season and had a diving interception against Collin Klein on Saturday. Fields is second in the Big 12 in sacks to Alex Okafor and K-State's Meshak Williams, who both have 8.5.

This is a TCU team that has also overcome the suspension of QB Casey Pachall thanks to freshman QB Trevone Boykin, who has 14 TD passes and 8 INTs while throwing for 1,540 yards. He's got talented wideouts in Josh Boyce (7 TDs), Brandon Carter (5 TDs), Skye Dawson (1 TD) and LaDarius Brown (5 TDs).

Running back has been its own odyssey for TCU. Ed Wesley led the team in rushing in 2010 but left the program last spring. Then, leading rusher Waymon James suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season against Kansas. James was averaging 9.9 yards per carry (17 carries for 168 yards, 1 TD) at the time.

At that point, there was some thought to moving Boykin to RB. But the Horned Frogs have survived with senior Matthew Tucker (91 carries, 410 yards, 4.5 ypc, 3 TDs) and freshman B.J. Catalon (94 carries, 445 yards, 4.7 ypc, 0 TDs).

Bottom line, is TCU has played its tail off in a triple-overtime loss to Texas Tech and in a double overtime victory at West Virginia in which Patterson went for a 2-point conversion instead of the extra point for a 39-38 victory.

Considering that win got TCU bowl-eligible at 6-3 with games still to play against K-State, at Texas and Oklahoma, that was a monstrous decision by Patterson.

Kansas State handled TCU in Fort Worth, jumping out to a 23-0 lead and then giving up 10 points to TCU in the fourth quarter.

But Collin Klein had to work for everything he got: 12 of 21 passing for 145 yards with 1 interception and 0 TDs; 15 carries for 50 yards and 2 TDs (3.3 ypc).

The Horned Frogs have the ability to make teams look bad, and, that's a credit to Patterson who never made an excuse for this team. It will be another good test of Texas' progress.

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