Texas football players react after losing 45-44 to California at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday September 19, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas is emerging from its identity crisis

Posted September 30th, 2015

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Jerrod Heard’s better.

Last Saturday he caught some type of bug that left him half-speed and little groggy for the Oklahoma State game. “My stomach was jacked up,” he said Tuesday night.

His coach has pretty much been sick to his stomach as well.

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But maybe not for long. There would be no better elixir for what is ailing Texas than a signature win, like an upset of 15-point favorite TCU in Fort Worth on Saturday. You can’t spell upset without UT, but few expect it.

To get there, Texas has to better establish its identity. Or find one. When a team is ranked 111th in total offense and 115th in total defense, well, some would say that is the club’s identity.

Alabama plays physical defense. LSU pounds you with its running game. TCU, Baylor and Oregon spread you out. Ohio State has dozens of quarterbacks. Jim Harbaugh has khakis. Donald Trump has crazy hair.

Everybody has an identity.

Boiled down, Texas’ identity is this:

Entire offense based on play-making quarterback.

A slowly improving, inexperienced defense based upon creating turnovers and scoring off them.

Special-teams blunders and bombshells.

Through four games, three of them losses, it’s been difficult for fans to stick a label on the Longhorns’ blueprint. But if you dig deeper, maybe a brand is emerging.

Texas is trying to feature a truly uptempo offense directed by an electric, athletic quarterback who’s great in space and has a much better arm than advertised. Texas has its quarterback that it’s been searching for since 2010 and some explosive receivers in John Burt and Armanti Foreman as well as Daje Johnson and Marcus Johnson.

“We want to be aggressive,” play-caller Jay Norvell said. “We want people to know we’ll attack them.”

But would it hurt to stick Daje Johnson in the backfield and give him a half-dozen or more handoffs to ensure he touches the ball more? After all, he is the team’s fastest player, albeit one with inconsistent hands. He has just five carries in four games.

Norvell is designing the offense around “Juice” Heard, but would like to see more production out of the running attack. Senior tailback Johnathan Gray, for instance, ran for 55 yards on 11 carries in the loss to Oklahoma State, but remove his 42-yard burst, and his 13 yards on 10 carries were frighteningly mediocre. D’Onta Foreman gets almost as many carries as Gray, indicating they like them equally.

“I think we’re getting closer,” Norvell said. “We would like to run the ball more effectively than we have. One thing our kids have confidence in is we can move the ball in a hurry and score in a hurry if we don’t have a penalty and can protect our quarterback.”

Charlie Strong wanted a physical defense, and in August touted a deep, rugged defensive line, but the unit has been pushed around with ease and has cratered against the run until recently.

But the offense was borderline spectacular against Cal. The defense was stingy against the run against Oklahoma State. The special teams were special against Rice, but were sporadic in the last two losses — electrifying punt returns for a touchdown and a setup of another and long Nick Rose field goals, but also with a botched extra point and punt in the closing moments of the Cal and OSU games.

However, the elements are there, at times.

It’s essential that Texas get back offensive tackle Kent Perkins, whose exit last Saturday with a knee injury mirrored a complete collapse by the offense with four successive three-and-out possessions in the fourth quarter. Without Perkins, the right side was vulnerable, and Heard was sacked four times in the quarter.

Perkins practiced Tuesday, and Norvell suggested the staff was hopeful he could play against the Horned Frogs. Texas needs every able body in this game. It has to put forth a respectable ground game to buy Heard more time in the pocket with his play-action game that is so critical to keep pass-rushers at bay.

“It probably wasn’t as much the (Oklahoma State) spies as our lack of protection,” Norvell said. “I do think it was a good learning experience for Jerrod. Once he breaks the line of scrimmage, there’ll probably be somebody waiting for him. If we protect him, there should be open lanes downfield. We want him to take advantage and run, but we want him to throw the ball downfield.”

On defense, Vance Bedford might be able to shape a more consistent unit up front from tackles Hassan Ridgeway, Poona Ford and Tank Jackson and force-feed Big 12 football to athletic freshman cornerbacks Kris Boyd and Holton Hill  so they can play more press coverage. Bedford said Wednesday the two rookies are going to play a lot more.

Would it hurt to start Boyd and Hill and perhaps move questionable corners John Bonney and Duke Thomas to safety? Bonney has all kinds of issues in coverage, but he can tackle, and Thomas might make a decent safety as well. Bedford said both have trained some at safety and could line up there for some plays against TCU.

“We’re going to play guys who make plays for us,” Bedford said. “Hill and Boyd are going to play quite a bit. We’re not playing good defense right now, but we’re going to get better.”

Against the Cowboys, Texas sold out against the run, stacking linebackers up close but leaving the secondary exposed against slants and crossing routes. Solid play from Hill and Boyd helped slow OSU down, although the Cowboys also turned conservative. Bedford had little choice and picked his poison.

With promising play from Ridgeway and the two young corners, Texas may have something upon which to build on defense. But an identity a team can rely on is crucial.

“Identity?” Bedford said. “I’m trying to figure out who I  am when I get out of bed in the morning.”

It’s a process.

 

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