With Texas having repeated mental and physical breakdowns in the punt return game, including two near disastrous muffs by Curtis Brown last week (Texas was bailed out on both miscues), fans have been wondering if/when the coaches would look at some new blood at returners.
Looks like it could happen this week. Good move, but also risky, playing in a tough road contest in which swirling wins could be a factor.
The coaching staff talked on Tuesday and discussed how Texas has been fortunate over the past decade to feature terrific returners, and the guys back deep have always been natural catchers of the football. Not so much this year despite the effort that Brown and Aaron Williams, with punts dropping out of the sky like a hot potato.
"We thought it would be Earl Thomas this year but we also thought it would be an easy transition into Aaron Williams and Curtis (Brown) but it's been tough for them. It's just different for them."
"They were the two in practice yesterday that did the best," Mack Brown said. "But we'll probably have a first-time (punt) catcher out on the field at Kansas State and that's a tough scenario to put them in."
Phillips was a do-everything athlete for Garland and Vaccaro excelled as both a DB and WR at the high school level (Mack said when they recruited him they weren't sure if he'd play on offense or defense). So both guys have experience with the ball in their hands.
"We do not think they'll be nervous about the opportunity," Mack said.
For those wondering about some of the offensive players and why they're not being tried back deep … they are, they're just not "there yet."
"Anybody you ask if he's been (tried) there yet, he's been there," Mack said.
On kick returns, D.J. Monroe is still the guy, for now. The coaches have been pretty clear that they need more production out of this unit (especially this week, when field position could be a premium against a K-State squad that leads the nation in kick returns), but it's not all on Monroe. The speedster hasn't had many creases with which to work, and the coaches are driving it home to the other guys on the return team that Monroe needs help.
Marquise Goodwin has battled through minor injuries all year so he's being limited. Christian Scott is also working at returner and he's expected to get some work this week.
"If it's not working you have to look at changing it and getting more combinations, and we're looking at that," Mack said.
Will Muschamp's post-game emotion in the Baylor press conference was a hot-button topic this week. Muschamp's always fiery on the field, and some of that passion (frustration?) spilled over to the interview room on Saturday night when Muschamp snapped at a reporter following a question about how the players feel coming off consecutive home losses.
Mack was asked if he offered up any advice to Muschamp this week, but Mack said he has no problem whatsoever with the way Muschamp responded to the question. In fact, he liked it.
"I saw it. Somebody pulled it up for me and showed it to me, and I thought he did fine," Mack said. "It's funny that people want your coaches to be really emotional. They want you to be passionate. They want you to be tough and then when you answer a question about losing, that I thought he answered very well because we all do think it stinks and we don't like it."
Before arriving at Texas, Muschamp was an internet sensation for some videos that picked up some colorful language on the sidelines. Factoring that into the equation, Muschamp was actually pretty reserved.
"I don't think he did anything wrong. Two years ago he might have done something differently, but I thought he did real well," Mack said. "When I heard it and then I saw it, I said, 'Oh, that's fine. That's minor.'"
On Monday, the coaches spoke of getting freshmen Darius White and Ashton Dorsey more involved in the game plans.
The bad news … those plans may have taken a setback this week after White and Dorsey had to miss Tuesday's practice. White's mother was involved in a car accident so he was in Fort Worth, and Dorsey's been battling the flu. The good news … White's mother is doing well and White is back in Austin and rejoined the team for Wednesday's practice.
"His mother had a really bad car wreck on Monday. Thank goodness she's okay. It's interesting with the freshmen, because they haven't been in the game plan or haven't done as many things, it's harder for them to miss practice," Brown said.
Speaking of freshmen, Jackson Jeffcoat is still struggling with his ankle injury and he was "very, very limited" in Tuesday's practice.
On the injury front, former defensive lineman Kyle Kriegel, who made the move to offensive line earlier this year, has shoulder surgery this week to repair an injury he suffered earlier in the year. He'll miss the rest of the season and most likely the spring as well.
Kriegel wasn't going to be a factor on the line this year, but this is a pretty big setback for a player that was going to have to scratch and claw his way to move up the depth chart after changing positions. The spring would have been a great chance for him to pick up some valuable experience, but that chance appears to be gone.
Lots of emphasis on the performance by the offense in the red zone. The team put in some new thoughts this week, tweaking what they do inside the 20. Coaches are keeping the new wrinkles under wraps (more Gilbert running? It's been one of the few things that has worked near the goal line). But cashing in for TDs, along with forcing turnovers, are the two biggest issues the coaches feel needs to be fixed.
"We're trying really hard to correct that problem because it's been the biggest problem on offense. It's something that has to get corrected. We have five, six trips in the red zone last week and score one touchdown. That's just unacceptable," Mack said. "We also feel like that has put a tremendous amount of pressure on the defense."
Case in point … the defense has force 100 more runs this year than it had at the same time last year. In 2009, while playing with lead, the D could pin its ears back, pressure the quarterback, record sacks and force turnovers. This year, Texas hasn't been able to get nearly as aggressive because it's been playing from behind (the D was burned last week when Muschamp did blitz Baylor), and it's killing the defense's confidence and ability to knock the ball free.
"Right now, people are running it more, they're trying to keep the game closer and not having to take the chances with their offense that they did last year," Mack said. "We can do a better job with turnovers but we need to get ahead of somebody to put pressure on them and make them try to play more."
It's been a tough year for Longhorn football fans and very few players, if any, are being recognized by the fan base as putting in maximum effort and turning in good seasons. After having gone through all the film, Mack singled out a few players on each side of the ball that have put in "winning efforts."
"Sam Acho, he's played great. He has been as good a player as we've had at that position each week. He's graded a winning performance every week.
"Keenan Robinson has had a great year. Emmanuel Acho was playing great until he got his knee hurt. We need to get him back and get him well. He's still fighting and competing to do things at the highest level he can.
"Curtis Brown has had a great year at corner. He's had the year we thought he would have. He's been banged up a lot. And Christian Scott's had a great year. A lot of people questioned him with an angle he took against Iowa State and thought he played bad. He actually graded a winning performance in that game. He had a bad play. And he played well against Baylor as well."
"Garrett (Gilbert), we feel like is making a lot of improvement. "Michael Huey was playing great, the best he's played since he's been here before he got hurt. David Snow has graded a winning performance every week. So he is doing He's really, really well and we're proud of him. And you look at Tre' Newton. Tre Newton has graded a winning performance every week.
"Those guys are really playing hard and not getting any credit for it because of the fact that we haven't won as many game."
So what is it that has enabled Texas to play fairly well on the road while laying three eggs against heavy underdogs at home? Nobody really knows, but the Longhorns have always had success going on the road under Mack Brown.
This is a Texas program that's built up a lot of pride over the years. The Longhorns are usually every team's "game of the year" and they don't want to let other teams get the satisfaction of knocking them off and having their fans celebrate at UT's expense. Even this year, with Texas stumbling to a 4-4 record, the performances away from Austin have been the best that UT has turned in (Texas Tech, Nebraska, second half of the OU game).
Mack and the entire team are still trying to wrap their head around why UT has struggled at home. It's easy to point to environment, but Mack credited the Texas fans and his team's emotion in the Baylor game (not so much against Iowa State and UCLA).
"People are going to boo now. I've been here 13 years. College crowds are more like pro crowd, they're going to boo," Mack said. "That doesn't change. That's everywhere. But I do think this team has been more uptight than any that we've had in a long time.
"I think it's more about the team than the place. We won 16 straight games here, so it's not the fans. It would have to be us."
In case you haven't heard … the team's goals of the Big 12 South, the Big 12 title and a BCS bowl are off the table. It's true. So what's the motivating message at this point?
The coaches told the guys on Sunday that they have an opportunity to play four games that are left on the schedule. If they can chalk up at least two more wins, they'll have a chance to go to a bowl game. Win them all, Texas could get to nine wins. The team was also informed that there's also a chance it could lose all four of the remaining games and not go to a bowl.
With Texas possibly looking at a trip to a not-so-marquee bowl game, some fans have questioned whether or not the Longhorns should just "save face" and skip a bowl game all together this year (should they qualify). Not happening.
"Some emails have asked, 'What's left to play for? Why would we even go to a bowl? Do we have to go?,' Mack said. "You want seniors to go to a bowl, we've got a streak of bowls going and at the same time, you get 13 practice days. For such a young team, that's critical for us. So we do need to be in a bowl. I don't care where it is or what its name is."
If Texas loses this week, is it time to make changes up and down the line-up? For that matter, has that time already passed? Mack said the team has to be careful to not just make wholesale changes to get guys ready for the future as it could set a bad precedent for the program.
"If an older one's not practicing well, he's not playing well, you don't play him. But if he's doing his job, it's a bad message to your younger ones that if they become seniors and the team's not playing good and you're playing great, you bench him. So we're not going to do that," Mack said.
Accountability has been a big word this week … if guys are making repeated mistakes, at what point are they removed from the starting line-up? Mack addressed that topic, saying the coaches are still using the same accountability standards they've always employed, and they're even taking extra measures in some areas.
"Absolutely. Every day. In fact, we're even grading every scout teamer now, and if a scout teamer doesn't grade a winning performance he doesn't get to dress," Mack said. "We've taken it to every player on the team now, not just the ones that are playing.
"This week - and we've never done this before - but because our receivers are dropping too many balls and tight ends are dropping too many balls, from the minute they walk out on the field we have someone counting every pass that's thrown to them and everybody who drops one. Usually you just do that in competition - you don't do it in every drill. Every ball that's thrown to every receiver or tight end now is being marked down and calculated, and we're trying to figure out why we're having five guys drop a ball. If it was one guy dropping five balls, you can fix it easier but it's not. So we're trying to get their attention as well."
Mack said his job the last two years "has been easy," when Texas was winning just about every game on the schedule. Not so much this year, and he and the coaches are putting in extra work trying to get it fixed.
"Right now I'm needed, because I have to step up and get things thing turned back where the kids are playing hard each week, where they're playing with confidence," Mack said. "They're things that are hard to get fixed."
Mack compared his challenge to that of the President of the United States. People ask the President how he's going to fix the economy and how quickly it's going to get done. Mack's facing the same questions, but he's said several times it's not quite as easy as some would like it to be. How it got to this point is certainly a matter of lengthy debate. What's not in question is that Texas still has several areas that need to fixed, and if it doesn't happen in a hurry this team's post-season hopes could be hanging by a thread.