Major Applewhite doesn’t mind being brutally honest at times.
The Longhorns co-offensive coordinator admitted the defense won Monday’s scrimmage and even took a light-hearted jab at himself when he said “We all continue to mature, right?” while describing the development of talented swingman Daje Johnson.
Who could blame Applewhite for being in good spirits? There’s plenty to be happy about this offense entering the 2013 season. The pieces appear to be in place for — dare we say it? — a return to brighter days on that side of the ball.
A quick look at the offensive checklist:
Quarterback? Check. David Ash returns for his junior year with a wealth of experience. Even if there are rumblings that he isn’t special — Vince and Colt sure spoiled this fanbase something awful — he’s playing and speaking with more confidence than in previous offseasons. And if he falters, Case McCoy has proven capable of providing credible bullpen relief in a pinch.
The offensive line? Check. Often the most maligned unit on Mack Brown’s teams, the 2013 group returns five starters, plus 6-8, 315-pound man mountain Desmond Harrison. That is, if he straightens out his academic issues.
Running back? Check, check, check. Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe “Slim” Bergeron form one of the deepest backfields in the country and could get an added boost from Jalen Overstreet and Johnson.
Tight end? Make this a post-dated check. If M.J. McFarland plays like he practices, the position will become productive for the first time since Jermichael Finley left early for the pros. McFarland has been a difficult cover in camp for linebackers and safeties.
Then there’s wide receiver. It’s a check that Major is hoping doesn’t bounce.
Question marks abound at the position because the dogs that have barked the loudest over the last couple of seasons are still on a relatively short leash.
Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley combined to catch 116 passes for 1,676 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Big 12’s sixth-ranked passing offense, but have been slow out of the gate this preseason. Davis underwent sports hernia surgery last month, while Shipley had a hip procedure.
In the next-to-last practice witnessed by the media, both receivers dressed in pads but neither engaged in any contact drills. The thinking has to be that the coaches already know what they’re getting out of the veterans, so it’s an opportunity to give some younger receivers a chance to move up the ranks.
“That’s something we’ve talked to our guys about, with Jaxon and Mike being out,” Applewhite said. “It can’t be an excuse for us. The time for excuses is over. It’s been over. We’ve got to go out so guys like John Harris can perform. Our younger guys are being forced to play a ton of reps and really get their work in.”
While Harris has had his moments, the youngsters have taken center stage. Sophomores Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson have made the most noise on the outside, though Johnson injured his knee last week. Newcomers Chevoski Collins, Jacorey Warrick, Jake Oliver and Montrel Meander are also getting reps, while junior Bryant Jackson has had his ups and downs.
“We always tell our (new) guys, if you’re good enough, then you’re old enough,” Applewhite said. “So we could (not) care less how old you are.”
The uncertainty atop Texas’ receiving food chain has undoubtedly created an opportunity for someone like Daje Johnson to make a play for a starting job. Johnson should have played more last season, but then-play caller Bryan Harsin seemed more intent on spreading the love around. The subsequent watering down of the receiving corps may have prevented Ash from developing more chemistry with Johnson, a potential game breaker.
Johnson has Percy-Havin type potential. Hand it to him. Throw it to him. Let him return kicks. Do whatever you must to get him more than the 50 touches (27 carries, 19 catches, four kickoff returns) he had last year.
He has had a great camp on the field, and just as important, is showing more maturity. By most accounts, Johnson is going all out in every practice, something that wasn’t always the case. Mack Brown said that as a freshman, Johnson would bring it one day then not go as hard the next, which hurt him in the consistency department.
But this offseason has been different.
“He just has a unique skill set with his ability to run routes and catch the football,” Applewhite said. “He brings a sense of urgency for the season.”
It would be easy to buy into this offense being much better than the last three that Texas has produced, but it would be a much easier sell if these receivers can produce that final check mark.
A glance at Texas’ wide receiving corps heading into the fall. Only six wideouts caught a pass last year: