Offensive line emerging
No position unit for Texas has had to fight its way through as much adversity and inexperience than the offensive line has during the 2014 season. After a season-ending injury to Dominic Espinosa in the season opener, Texas went into its game against BYU with a lineup that had just five career starts amongst the group. The Longhorns have gone on to use five different starting combinations, and five players have made their first career start this season.
Predictably, Texas had some growing pains in the early going, but in the last few weeks the group has come together. After averaging just 120.5 rushing yards in the first four games this season, Texas has averaged 181.2 in the last six.
Offensive coordinator/o-line coach Joe Wickline has stuck with the lineup of Marcus Hutchins (LT), Sedrick Flowers (LG), Taylor Doyle(C), Kent Perkins (RG) and Camrhon Hughes (RT) four straight games and it has paid dividends. The offense has produced its top three outputs of the year in the last five weeks, while running backsMalcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray have led an effort that saw Texas rush for 241 yards at Texas Tech and 227 vs. West Virginia.
"With that group of guys, it's almost like they're forming a bond," said head coach Charlie Strong. "Now they're realizing just how focused and how tight they have to be for everyone to really trust and believe in them, and that's what happened with the running game. Now the running backs are trusting them and believing that they're going to get people out of the way just to give them a seam."
It was especially evident against West Virginia, with the running game ripping off seven explosive plays (rushes of 12 yards or more).
"You look at the run that Malcolm had, it just opened up, and he probably could have driven a car through there," said Strong. "Now they're trusting and believing in the offensive line. I think at the very beginning they didn't have that feel because you're looking at a group that never started before and you're looking at two running backs that played a lot of football. They played behind some really good players, and so now you see it happening and now the trust factor is coming into play."
While the offensive line has had to build chemistry and consistency, the back end of Texas' defense has had the benefit of relying on established players.Quandre Diggs, Duke Thomas and Mykkele Thompson all came into the season with plenty of experience, and after welcoming in safeties Dylan Hainesand Jason Hall, the group has excelled.
Texas ranks 14th in the nation in passing defense, allowing just 184.4 passing yards per game while going against some of the best aerial attacks in college football. In the past three games, the Longhorns haven't surrendered a single passing touchdown and it has been a span of 127 passing attempts since UT allowed one.
Diggs has moved into the top 10 on UTs career interceptions and pass breakups lists, Thomas has three interceptions, and Thompson delivered two of the hardest hits this season in the WVU game.
The play of the secondary, especially when considering defensive coordinator Vance Bedford's tendencies to blitz and leave his defensive backs "on an island," has been a strength for Texas all season.
Like he's done throughout his standout career, Jaxon Shipley continues to be a reliable producer. The senior moved to third all-time on Texas' career receptions list in the West Virginia game, reaching 213 catches to move past Quan Cosby (212). Just his brother, Jordan (248), and Roy Williams (241) have caught more passes in school history than him.
Shipley is also one of just three players in school history to post three 50-reception seasons, joining Williams and Mike Adams on the exclusive list. Strong praised Shipley's attitude, work ethic and reliability in explaining what's enabled his success in the last four years.
"You know what it is with him? He's just so reliable. You look at it, he makes the catches, works hard, and never says nothing. That's why I really like him. He doesn't say anything. He goes about his day, he goes about his work, and you just feel him on the football field. Even in practice, you look around and say, hey, where's he at, and all of a sudden he'll make a catch or he'll do something exciting. He is one of those guys that's all about his work ethic. You can just tell that, probably because he follows [in his brother Jordan's footsteps]. A lot of times guys don't like to follow their brother, because there's so much of a comparison made, but I don't think it bothered him one bit, because I think that's what he really wanted to show everybody: hey, I can play, also."
Swaim finds end zone
It was a highlight for many of the players and coaches to see Geoff Swaim find the end zone on a two-yard score – the first of his career – to complete Texas' opening drive vs. West Virginia. Swaim and fellow tight ends M.J. McFarland, Greg Daniels and Andrew Beck can sometimes go under noticed for all the work they put in.
Not only has the group been more involved in the passing game this year, with Swaim and McFarland each catching 10 passes, but they're relied upon to complete a variety of assignments in the offense.
"They have a tough job," said senior running back Malcolm Brown. "Those coaches expect a lot out of them, just like the rest of us, but those guys, they're running routes, they're pass blocking, they're run blocking, they're doing so many things, they're getting in the backfield with us a couple times. They're doing so many things with this offense, and they're so important to this offense. They know that and they've been doing a great job handling it."
Hicks, Brown enjoying stellar seasons
Both linebacker Jordan Hicks and defensive tackle Malcom Brown are in the midst of seasons that should garner all-league and perhaps All-America honors. Hicks has a team-high 130 tackles, making double-digit stops in all but two games, while also recording 10 tackles for loss and two interceptions. Brown, meanwhile, has dealt with double teams much of the season and still made 62 tackles, a team-high tying 12 for a loss and 4.5 sacks.
When asked what has helped them achieve such a high level of success this year, both Hicks and Brown were quick to credit the coaching staff. Strong and Bedford's involvement in every detail, and their ability to teach and relay messages has made a big impact, Hicks said. Brown credited assistant head coach/defensive line coach Chris Rumph's emphasis of doing the little things well in his overall improvement.
And beyond the X's and O's, the work in the film room and on the field, Hicks and Brown said it was the personal relationships they've developed with the coaching staff that have truly made a difference.
"We can relate to these coaches," said Hicks. "They do a good job of letting everybody know that they truly care about you, that they want to relate to you. They do a really good job of that and being personable. I think that plays a big part in it, as well."
"He keeps high energy around us," Brown said of Rumph. "We're always talking smack to other positions, really, trying to compete with them. Then when you walk up in the coaches office, they're in there talking smack to each other about what we were doing in practice and talking about giving us too many points in practice because we did something good. This whole coaching staff is just really fun and they keep high energy."
Two former players nominated for NFL's Salute to Service Award
Former Longhorn players Derrick Johnson (Kansas City) and Roy Miller (Jacksonville) were nominated Wednesday for the NFL's fourth annual Salute to Service Award presented by USAA (hyperlink here - http://salutetoservice.com/nfl-and-usaa-announce-salute-to-service-award-nominees/). The award was created to acknowledge the exceptional efforts by members of the NFL community to honor and support U.S. service members and veterans.
Finalists will be announced in January, and the winner will be recognized at the "4th Annual NFL Honors" awards show in Arizona on NBC on Saturday, Jan. 31, the night before Super Bowl XLIX.
Fans may send support by tweeting out to these great nominees. Click here to tweet support for Johnson and Miller (http://www.nfl.com/labs/rr/salute/sts)
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