NCF Nation: D.J. Monroe

STILLWATER, Okla. -- This time, there was no time for David Ash to lean on his running game. A go-ahead touchdown drive with seven runs and two short passes didn't put Texas ahead for long enough, and down two points, Texas had 2 minutes, 34 seconds to become the first team to win in Stillwater since Oklahoma won a Big 12 South title at Boone Pickens Stadium in 2010.

The Longhorns sideline wasn't lacking for confidence in the eventual 41-36 victory over Oklahoma State that sent Texas to 4-0 and, most likely, into the top 10.

Texas coach Mack Brown was clear with his defense on the previous drive: "Hold them to a field goal, and we're going to win the game," he said.

"We were going to win the game," running back D.J. Monroe said. "That's just our mentality."

Ash stared a fourth-and-6 in the face with the Cowboys crowd louder than it had been all night. With three receivers on his left, Ash dropped back and hit D.J. Grant over the middle for a 29-yard gain on a play he admitted after the game was his first read all along.

The Cowboys were taking away the sidelines and his check-down throws to running backs. He had to get adventurous and test the middle of OSU's defense.

"It was not a time to be scared to make a mistake," Ash said. "It was a time to give it everything you had."

Two plays later, Ash indulged receiver Mike Davis, who, earlier in the night, begged him for a another chance after dropping what would have been a long touchdown grab. Blanketed by a future NFL cornerback in Justin Gilbert, Ash let it fly. Davis hauled in a jump ball for a 32-yard gain down to the 5-yard-line and Texas was officially in position to log the biggest victory for the program since a Big 12 title win at Cowboys Stadium over Nebraska all the way back in 2009.

"He will not be under any more pressure than this, and he couldn't have done this this time last year. He's really grown up," Brown said. "He's the leader of this football team."

[+] EnlargeMike Davis, Justin Gilbert
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiMike Davis hauls in the 32-yard jump ball over Justin Gilbert that set up Texas' winning score.
When it was over, Brown joined his quarterback for a triumphant trot past a delirious pocket of Texas fans in the northeast corner of the stadium. Both flashed a "Hook 'Em" hand sign on their way to the locker room with a feeling that has been all too unfamiliar in Austin these past few years.

One drive to win a game, and Texas' quarterback led it to victory.

"It's a lot of fun. When you grow up and learn the position, it's what you dream of. What you lay down at night thinking about," Ash said. "Joe Montana, Joe Cool. Tom Brady. The guys that did it in the clutch."

Texas' brand-new quarterback grew up Saturday night. It's one thing to stay calm in blowouts against New Mexico or even on the road at Ole Miss. It's another to do so on the road against a team that beat you at home in each of the past two seasons on the way to 23 wins in two years. It's another to do so against that team facing a game-deciding drive when the probability of a loss is high.

Ash's teammates couldn't stop talking about his poise and composure in the difficult, frenzied environment.

"He stayed real composed the whole time and that's how we like him," Monroe said. "We don't like him to get all frustrated. We like him to stay the David Ash that we know: quiet, calm and collected."

He finished 30-of-37 for 304 yards, and three touchdowns, just one fewer touchdown than he threw all of last season.

"The four games this year, he's been near perfect," Brown said. "He's run the offense well and he didn't get flustered tonight, even with the sacks, because we didn't do as many things up front well offensively."

He also threw his first interception of the season, but he bounced back to lead the Longhorns to a pair of go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter, including the final one that clinched the win. After the interception, Texas scored touchdowns on three of its final four drives.

"Last year, he had bad body language. He was hard on himself," Brown said. "He moved on, forgot it and left it alone."

Texas was better off for it on Saturday night, and the scoreboard showed the evidence.

"He's a lot more mature, and he makes better reads," said receiver Jaxon Shipley, who caught all three of Ash's touchdown passes. "He's always had a great arm, but he's making a lot better decisions this year."

That will lead to plenty more outcomes like Texas saw Saturday, and maybe even a few more heroics.

Mailbag: Fastest players, Tech-ISU, QBs

September, 28, 2012
Thanks for all the emails this week. Should be a fun weekend of games. Here's where you can reach me if you've got more to say.

On to this week's Mailbag:

Jason in Austin writes: David, I keep seeing you write about how fast Tavon Austin is, and as a Longhorn fan, I keep trying to compare his speed to Marquis Goodwin or DJ Monroe. Who, in your opinion, are the five fastest players in the Big 12?

David Ubben: This category is pretty tough. Ultimately, we can't know until we line these guys up and have them go at it. So, who's the absolute fastest? We have no real idea. It's a big group and I don't think you can narrow it down to just five. That said, there's a class of guys who are clearly among the elite. Here's who I've got as guys who have a case (in no particular order) as the fastest man in the league:
From what I've seen so far, Texas Tech freshman Jakeem Grant might join that group, but I want to see him with the ball in his hands a little more often.

ksucats44 in Manhattan writes: Hey DU,Could you post links to all the "where to go" articles somewhere so that we can look at them in preparation for away games?

DU: I've got you covered. I may tweet or post them during the week for every Big 12 school hosting a home game.

Here are the city guides you need for this weekend:

Big 12 Blog guides to:

The Old Scarlet and Black in Lubbock writes: You got to make up your mind Ubb's. First you put us on upset alert, then pick us to win. You say our WR's are deep but then do this talking about how WVU and Baylor as the best offenses in the league. Either take us out to dinner or stop texting us late at night! If we make it out of Ames with the win what are our chances of being the team that you think will do the upsetting next week instead of the team you think will be upset... again?

DU: It's kind of crazy, actually. People get more fired up about being put on upset alert than they actually do about me picking their teams to lose.

Here's how I approach upset alert each week: It's not necessarily a game that I think will be an upset. It's simply the underdog with the best chance to pull a surprise each week. TCU is going to take care of business this weekend at SMU. I don't think Baylor's got much of a chance to beat West Virginia and I think Texas rolls against Oklahoma State.

Tech was pretty much the only team left, and Iowa State at home is always scary. I don't necessarily pick my upset alerts in my predictions, but it's my game of the week that might go the opposite way experts expect. Nothing to get all bent out of shape about. Some weeks, there's more potential for upsets. Some weeks, there really aren't any, and I end up having to pick Texas State against Tech. Take it easy, folks.

Josh in Salina, Kan., writes: Not that it really matters much, but I wanted to ask about the shovel pass/fumble thing. I agree that super duper slow mo looked like Jones' hands were intentionally moving forward, but how many times have you seen a QB throw a shovel pass that falls incomplete and without any hesitation the QB starts to run after the ball?!? If he really had passed it, he would have just stood there and not put himself in harms way going after an incomplete pass. Who does that? ... Unless it was unintended...

DU: I've never seen K-State fans more fired up than when I insisted it was the right call. It was. This play, popularized by Dana Holgorsen in recent years, is technically a shovel pass, but it's sort of a hot potato play that's super dependent on timing.

Like we saw from Oklahoma, it can look terrible when it's done right. When Oklahoma State has done it the past two years and West Virginia does it with Geno Smith and Tavon Austin, it looks pretty good. Jones clearly possessed the ball and re-directed its path toward Roy Finch, who was completely oblivious and got an earful from receiver Trey Metoyer after the play.

As for Jones' reaction, when the ball's on the ground on a short pass like that, I'm sure his instincts just took over and he went after the ball. That doesn't mean it was a fumble.

It was incomplete, and it was the right call from officials.

Will in South Bend/Morgantown writes: Hey Ubbs. Which QB do you think goes the longest without throwing a pick among the current sans interception QBs? Which games do you think each makes their first blunder?

DU: I'm taking Geno Smith on this one. David Ash will throw a pick this weekend against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys secondary is too talented. Justin Gilbert or Brodrick Brown will get one, and Geno will be the Big 12's last man standing after this week against Baylor.

Lucien in Omaha, Neb., writes: First, you knew this was coming. You doubted Paul Rhoads (which you said never, ever, ever to do?again). Not only did you doubt Rhoads and the 'Clones but you picked TT to win by a fairly large margin. AND you've been touting how hard it is becoming to win in Ames. You know what I think it is? I think you're still a teenage boy at heart and are picking against the Cyclones just to defy your ISU alum father. I can't think of any other reason why you woul have Tech by such a large margin. When are you going to come to the same conclusion that the AP voters and Coaches have come to? Even Vegas says they are 3 point dogs. It's time to quit fighting it and give ISU it's due.

DU: Ha, I don't think that's the reason. I was never much of a rebel. I mostly think Iowa State won't be able to cover Tech's receivers, and that Seth Doege is criminally underrated around the league. With an offense back at full strength and clicking, he's going to have a huge game. Iowa State's defense has looked good of late, but that stat about nine consecutive games giving up fewer than 30 points in regulation? Let's break it down.

The first was against Tech, and yeah, that win was impressive. No qualms there. Holding Kansas under 30? Iowa State and just about everybody else last year. Oklahoma State? Impressive, but we've talked about the circumstances of that game plenty over the past few months. I'm not going to get into that any more than to say that it wasn't the same OSU team we were used to seeing.

Oklahoma? That game took place in about 40 mph winds and Oklahoma's receivers dropped about nine passes. That was in the post-Ryan Broyles era at OU, too. Kansas State? The Wildcats were seventh in the Big 12 in scoring last year and Iowa State held them just two points below their average. Rutgers? Come on.

It's an impressive stat, sure. But it's not indicative of some just amazing defense that Big 12 teams can't deal with. The Oklahoma State game was the most impressive of the lot by far, and we saw some inspired stuff from the Cyclones, but that 30-point streak ends this weekend.

Evan in Atlanta writes: What will you do if Baylor's defense pitches a shutout at WVU Saturday?

DU: Give up hope and give up this blog. If that happens, it will be official: I don't know anything about this game.

Instant analysis: Texas 66, Ole Miss 31

September, 16, 2012

Nothing short of a great win for Texas tonight. Definitely felt a lot like David Ash took some big steps toward maturity in the Longhorns' first road trip of 2012.

He completed 15 consecutive passes from the first to third quarters, and showed some big improvement as the Longhorns rolled over Ole Miss, 66-31.

Time for some instant analysis:

It was over when: Texas opened the second half with a dominant drive, going 78 yards in seven plays and capping it with a powerful D.J. Monroe 10-yard touchdown run. That put the Longhorns up 38-10 and took even more energy out of an amped crowd at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Any idea of an upset ended when Texas asserted itself to open the half and prevented the Rebels from gaining any momentum.

Gameball goes to: Ash. Did we just see his career breakout game? Ole Miss' secondary looked ragged for much of the game, but Ash, a sophomore, played the best game of his career, and showed plenty of promise that he could be depended on later in the season. He finished 19-of-23 for 326 yards, four touchdowns and still has yet to throw his first interception of 2012. Did anyone think we could see this kind of performance out of Ash this early in the season?

Stat of the game: Texas won the turnover battle, 3-0. That included an interception from Steve Edmond that opened the game's scoring. He returned a Bo Wallace pass 22 yards for a touchdown.

Unsung hero of the game: Texas' offensive line. The big uglies up front gave David Ash all day to throw, and the holes were roomy and frequent for Texas' rushing attack all night long. The focus in this game will be on Ash's performance, but the offensive line deserves plenty of credit, too.

What Texas learned: The offense can look like a juggernaut from time to time. We haven't seen an offensive performance like this from Texas in a long, long time. Texas hadn't scored this many points since the Big 12 title game in 2005, and the next game ended with the Longhorns hoisting a national championship trophy. It's too soon to have any talk close to that, but Ash's development makes that power running game up front even tougher to stop. His difficult freshman season seemed pretty far in the rearview mirror tonight.

What Ole Miss learned: The defense has a long way to go. Receivers were open all day, and when Ash put the ball in the air, the Rebels defensive backs never seemed to be able to find it. The front seven were dominated, and the Longhorns made this win look easy. Could be a long season in Oxford for Hugh Freeze's first season.
AUSTIN, Texas -- D.J. Monroe has shown flashes, but to this point, they've been little more.

The most memorable? An 80-yard scamper in Red River in 2010 to jolt the Longhorns awake from an early 14-0 deficit.

Monroe's role in the offense has been minimal, but his gamebreaking potential is enormous. That's clear to everyone, including Texas' coaching staff.

Monroe, despite his speed, would likely be little more than Texas' fourth-string running back next fall after Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown established themselves as top runners in 2011 and the nation's No. 1 high school running back -- Johnathan Gray -- en route to Austin this summer.

Texas' response? Helping Monroe get on the field by working him at receiver, where the Longhorns are much thinner.

"The best play D.J. has for us is the speed sweep, and he is a wide receiver when he does that," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "He will work more with (receivers coach) Darrell Wyatt the latter part of practice so we can try to get him in the game without giving it away that he's in there only for a play that he runs."

That could mean a bigger role for the bubble screen in Monroe's arsenal, too.

For Texas, though, it's a great move and a necessary one.

Monroe's a running back at heart. Brown made that clear.

"He can do things in space. So we've been trying to force tailback on him when our tailbacks are now 205 to 240, and that's not his game," Brown said. "He's 165 pounds, 170 pounds, and he needs to be a space player. And I think we've got something that can help him if he can grow in that area."

Giving Monroe the ball on bubbles like Oklahoma did with Ryan Broyles could birth big results next season. Monroe's a gamebreaker waiting to happen, but with his limited package, his touches have been minimal.

If Monroe can prove the slant route or a quick out are legitimate options defenses must respect, the whole team should be better off. It sounds small, but keep an eye out for big results.

And though Texas wants balance, don't expect the Longhorns to lose sight of what this move is really about.

"He needs to be outside," Brown said. "That's who he is."
We're continuing our look at the postseason rankings for each position in the Big 12. Here's a look back at where the running backs ranked in the preseason.

In this position, unlike quarterback, depth is a major, major factor in these rankings.

1. Texas A&M

The Aggies had the two most talented backs, and despite injuries to both, proved it through an otherwise frustrating 2011. Christine Michael suffered a torn ACL, but still managed 899 yards on just 149 carries. Cyrus Gray injured his shoulder late in the season, but secured his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and ranked third in the Big 12, despite carrying the ball just 198 times. This duo should have easily surpassed 1,000 yards, but even when they were injured, Ben Malena played well in the final two games.

[+] EnlargeChristine Michael
AP Photo/Brandon WadeChristine Michael averaged 6 yards per carry before a torn ACL ended his season.
2. Missouri

Mizzou dealt with injuries, too, first to Kendial Lawrence and De'Vion Moore. Cue Henry Josey. Josey became the best back in the Big 12 this year before suffering a major knee injury that included torn ligaments. He may not be back in 2012. His 1,168 yards were third most in the Big 12, despite carrying the ball just 145 times. Lawrence finished 12th with 566 yards.

3. Oklahoma State

Joseph Randle stole the show this year, rushing for 24 scores and ranking second in the Big 12 with 1,216 yards. Only Collin Klein ran for more touchdowns and Terrance Ganaway was the only player with more yardage. Still, Jeremy Smith had averaged more than 7 yards a carry, and he'd be able to start for anyone else in the league. Herschel Sims showed promise, too, with 242 yards on 31 carries.

4. Baylor

Ganaway led the Big 12 in rushing with huge performances late in the season, including a 200-yard, five-touchdown game in his final outing as a college athlete in the Alamo Bowl. He averaged more than 6 yards on his 250 carries and had 330 more yards than any other back in the league. Jarred Salubi added 331 yards, too.

5. Texas

Texas' Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were banged-up late in the season, but Fozzy Whittaker played well until suffering a torn ACL against Missouri, too. Scatback D.J. Monroe was effective in the passing game as well. Four running backs topped 300 yards and Brown led the team with 742 yards, despite missing three games and having his carries limited early in the season.

6. Oklahoma

Oklahoma got great contributions from walk-on Dominique Whaley early on, and he proved to be the team's most effective runner and best runner between the tackles. He fractured his ankle in midseason, and finished with just 627 yards to lead the team. Roy Finch emerged late in the seasons after a quiet first half and added 605 yards.

7. Kansas

KU's James Sims led the team in rushing again with 727 yards. Darrian Miller was excellent, too, with 559 yards, though he was dismissed after the season. Freshmen Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon have plenty of promise, both averaging more than 5.5 yards a carry in 2011. The bad news: All their carries were limited by an awful defense that limited KU's chances to run the ball.

8. Kansas State

K-State's rushing attack centered around Klein, but John Hubert, a slippery back from Waco, Texas, had a good year. Hubert was seventh in the Big 12 with 970 yards. Bryce Brown offered basically nothing to K-State, and beyond Klein and Hubert, the Wildcats were pretty thin. Additionally, without Klein, would Hubert have duplicated his success?

9. Texas Tech

An awful knee injury derailed Eric Stephens' likely 1,000-yard season, and the rest of Texas Tech's backfield got banged-up, too. Stephens will probably return in 2012 from his dislocated knee, and finished with 565 yards, 17th in the Big 12. Aaron Crawford and DeAndre Washington both topped 300 yards.

10. Iowa State

ISU lost Shontrelle Johnson for the season early on, but James White filled in well. He finished with 743 yards, which ranked ninth in the Big 12. Jeff Woody had 380 yards and provided quality carries late, including the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State.

Longhorns taking on Tech without top WR

November, 5, 2011
Texas' freshman trio is missing an important player.

A knee injury suffered last week against Kansas will keep Longhorns receiver Jaxon Shipley out of today's game against Texas Tech.

His status was in doubt through the week, but team officials ruled him out on Saturday morning.

Shipley's 33 receptions, 438 yards and three touchdowns all lead the Longhorns, and it'll be a huge loss.

Texas Tech can put up points in a hurry (unless they're playing Iowa State after a historic victory) and it's pretty clear where the responsibility goes now.

The Longhorns' defense has to slow down Tech, but when Texas has the ball, look for more focus on another freshman, Malcolm Brown.

The former blue-chip recruit has carried a heavy load for the Longhorns in past weeks, topping 100 yards in three of the past five games and carrying the ball a career-high 28 times in last week's win against Kansas.

Look for him to get a similar load this week, and some more work for Fozzy Whittaker, Joe Bergeron, and D.J. Monroe.

Shipley has been Texas' most reliable receiver, but when freshman quarterback David Ash is forced to throw it, keep an eye on Mike Davis. He's been somewhat underwhelming this season (27 rec., 418 yards, TD), but he might have to play big today for Texas to get the win.

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 2

September, 11, 2011
A look back on the week that was.

Iowa State is once again the Big 12's most endearing program. The Cyclones trailed five times against in-state rival Iowa at Jake Trice Stadium on Saturday. But with a handful of brand-new faces on offense and some of the league's most underrated defensive talents, it rallied to beat the Hawkeyes in triple overtime. The second-biggest crowd ever at Iowa State showed up, and the Cyclones put on a heck of a show for the brand-new scoreboard towering above the Jacobson Building. Did we see Steele Jantz write the first chapter of what could be a legendary legacy at Iowa State? If so, you couldn't ask for a better start, giving coach Paul Rhoads his third landmark victory in three years at Iowa State. Shades of Seneca, no doubt. I had Iowa State last in my power rankings last week. Expect upward movement this week.

[+] EnlargeIowa State's Steele Jantz
Reese Strickland/US PRESSWIREIowa State quarterback Steele Jantz completed 25 of 37 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns against Iowa.
Oklahoma State is all kinds of legit. Brandon Weeden was even better than he was last year, Justin Blackmon was his usual self and Joseph Randle emerged as a big time running back, nearly notching 100 yards rushing and receiving in a single game. The defense, too, looked great. Arizona isn't a great team, and yes, it was missing Juron Criner, but the Cowboys are looking the part of Big 12 contender. We'll see how they measure up to Tulsa next week (Oklahoma was up on the Golden Hurricane 44-7 entering the fourth quarter) before a huge game in College Station in Sept. 24 that is easily one of the most important games of the year in the Big 12.

Missouri might be a victim of its own success. The stars just haven't quite aligned for the Tigers. Blaine Gabbert absolutely should have left for the NFL, and he'll have success there. But Missouri's most experienced team in a long time is being led by a first-year quarterback in James Franklin. Franklin was big time more often than not in Friday night's OT loss to Arizona State, but Missouri is a top 10 team with Gabbert. Without Gabbert, it may tumble out of or toward the bottom of the top 25. Franklin's going to be very good, but Gabbert was already very good. Franklin took huge steps on Friday night, and showed lots of promise, but Missouri has to wonder what could have been. This isn't a rebuilding year. It could have been "The Year" for Missouri, despite obvious struggles at cornerback throughout the night. Missouri's going to be a very good team, but after Friday? It's pretty clear the Tigers are going to have to wait at least another year before being a major factor in the Big 12 title race. As the only Big 12 team with a loss two weeks into the season, I'll leave it up to you all to crack a "You are the weakest link" joke. There's nothing wrong with a flashback to 2003.

Kansas will be able to scare -- if not beat -- some Big 12 teams this year. Northern Illinois isn't a juggernaut, but last year's Kansas team doesn't win this game. The improvement is there for Turner Gill in Year 2, and it starts at quarterback. Jordan Webb had a big night (281 yards, 3 TD), but it doesn't end there. The Jayhawks are much more athletic everywhere, but especially at the skill positions. Darrian Miller and James Sims combined for 167 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Eight receivers caught passes, led by D.J. Beshears with seven catches for 70 yards and two scores, including the game-winner. Kansas is putting together the nuts and bolts of a team that has what it takes to win the Big 12. They've got a long way to go, but the Jayhawks are headed in the right direction.

Texas is ready to slop for wins. On the field, Texas looked pretty similar to what it had last year. Outside of a freed D.J. Monroe, Malcolm Brown doing a good job of living up to hype and Jaxon Shipley making Big 12 fans groan by catching passes from Case McCoy, Texas is a team with a strong defense and unremarkable offense. But something was obviously different on Saturday night, and it's toughness. Mack Brown drew on his team's experience last year against UCLA in a halftime speech players raved about after the game. Early in the season, it trailed 13-3 to a mediocre team. It was blown out, 34-12. Brown doesn't have to wonder if last year's team would have won Saturday's game. He knows it wouldn't. Why the difference? I'm chalking it up to humility from an awful 2010, and new strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie. "If you can get everybody to run up those bleachers at the very top, and everybody on the team finishes? That's how it is, man," said running back D.J. Monroe. Monroe compared losing at home last year -- which Texas did five times -- to having somebody take out his mother. Texas wants to "protect this house," which they spent the summer gaining an intimate knowledge of with a souped-up conditioning regimen from Wylie. "That's a shoutout to Coach Wylie," Monroe said of his comments. "After A&M, it was the worst feeling ever, and we don't want to experience that ever again. If we go out and play our hearts out every single night, I feel like that can be a result."

The Big 12 is the home for drama. And I'm not even talking about the realignment rumpus that dominated the week's headlines. OK, yeah I am. But when Baylor isn't spearheading a litigious standoff that may force Texas A&M's route to the SEC to take a detour through a courtroom, these teams make for some pretty outstanding theater on the field. Texas rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to beat BYU, 17-16, on a late touchdown. Missouri erased a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit and missed a game-winning field goal with seconds remaining before losing in overtime to Arizona State. Kansas beat Northern Illinois on a six-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left that had to be reviewed--and was upheld. But Iowa State topped them all, knocking off rival Iowa in triple overtime, despite trailing on five different occasions throughout the day. Let's do it again next week. College football, we missed you this summer. Never leave us again.

Texas gets a spark from unexpected source

September, 11, 2011
AUSTIN, Texas -- Before he took the field, Jaxon Shipley had a decision to make.

Gloves or no gloves?

Facing a third-down near midfield with just under three minutes to play, offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin dug inside the most famous bag of tricks in college football.

This wasn't Boise -- Texas still has a ways to climb before it's back on the big stage -- but it looked like it.

[+] EnlargeTexas' David Ash
AP Photo/Eric GayQuarterback David Ash makes a key fourth-quarter catch thrown from receiver Jaxon Shipley.
A running back handed the ball to a streaking Shipley who tossed it downfield to dual-threat, zone-read specialist quarterback David Ash.

BYU didn't touch the ball again. Texas wins, 17-16, after trailing 13-0 at half.

"That was something we tried to set up," said offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. "Their third-down defense was pretty good, and we needed to get some kind of spark there. It was an opportunity -- we felt it would work in that situation."

That word -- spark -- seemed to come up a lot after Saturday's win. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert struggled early. Texas' offense needed a "spark." It won't be the last time that word comes up, but most often, it'll be aimed at the revolving door behind center that replaced Gilbert, filled by Ash and Case McCoy.

But on Saturday night, with Texas trailing 16-10, it was the true freshman receiver who provided it to help "spark" a go-ahead touchdown drive with two plays before the Boise-influenced razzle dazzle took over Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

His first catch of the night? He made it in traffic for 14 yards -- and hurdled two defenders as he caught it. Not after he caught it.

As he caught it. Once his feet hit the ground -- and it was after awhile -- he looked up and ran upfield for a 14-yard gain.

"When he threw me that ball, I just thought, 'I'm not going to worry about my body right here,'" Shipley said. "I'm going to make a play no matter what."

He did, and people noticed.

"That was amazing. That was clean," said running back D.J. Monroe. "That looked like something Jordan would do. We're kind of used to it, but we didn't think it was time for him to do it yet."

It is. The comparisons to Jordan are inevitable and unavoidable. For all the talk of "The Return of McCoy to Shipley," the comparisons are far from forced.

"Jaxon made some clutch catches at the end. He does it every day in practice," Case McCoy said. "We know where he's going to be because he practices like that every day. ... On third down, he's a big target for us."

And for Jaxon Shipley, his brother Jordan isn't a bad guy to be compared with. He left Texas as the all-time leader in receptions (248) and second all-time in touchdown catches (33) and receiving yards (3,191).

But already, with a touchdown in his first game ever last week, Jaxon has done at least one thing Jordan never did.

"Coach Brown tells us all the time age doesn't matter," Shipley said. "If you don't have the mindset that you're a freshman, you're not going to play like a freshman."

Brown told a room of microphones on Saturday what he hasn't been shy about admitting. Texas isn't a great football team.

"We're probably even with every team we play from here on out, or more of an underdog," he said. "Our games are going to be 17-16 if we win, and 20-17, and that's what I thought we'd have last year, but we didn't do them in that fashion."

Games like those are decided on one or two plays. This year, Shipley is showing he can make them.

And Texas, at 2-0, is enjoying the warmth of a spotless start.

New half, new outlook for Texas

September, 10, 2011
AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas is sticking with its rotation of David Ash and Case McCoy, but with Garrett Gilbert on the bench, the Longhorn offense had its best possession to open the second half.

Don't focus too closely on the quarterbacks, though. This drive was powered by the running backs.

Malcolm Brown and D.J. Monroe combined for 61 yards on five carries, and 250-pound battering ram Cody Johnson finished off the final yard of the march to bring Texas within 13-10 with just under 11 minutes left in the first half.

Texas doesn't know what it can get from its quarterbacks tonight, but the running backs are rolling and the offensive line has played well in most facets tonight.

Youth showing its influence early for UT

September, 10, 2011
AUSTIN, Texas --Texas' offense had a pair of three-and-outs and an interception to kick off its first three drives of the day.

It's initial first down of the game came courtesy of Malcolm Brown, who carried the ball for 13 yards on his first touch of the day.

Enter true freshman quarterback David Ash, who kept the ball on an option for six yards before hitting D.J. Monroe for a 26-yard swing pass.

But Texas went back to its normal package on the following play, and Gilbert threw his second interception of the game, a deep ball down the left side of the field that was underthrown into double coverage.

Texas trails 6-0 after the first quarter.

Gilbert left the field to even louder boos than before.

Case McCoy is listed as the team's backup, and they plan on using Ash in specialized formations, but we might get to find out very soon who the coaches have the most faith in.

We know less about Texas than any team in the Big 12.

That's by design, of course, but after the team released its Week 1 depth chart on Monday, that's still the case, with apologies to Kansas State.

Texas hasn't had a practice open to the media all offseason. Quarterbacks spoke to the media today for the first time since a Thanksgiving night loss to Texas A&M.

Players weren't made available to the media during fall camp until 11 days had passed.

So, more so than any team in the league, these Horns are an unknown commodity. Coach Mack Brown provided a peek underneath the veil on Monday, but we won't get a real sense for how good Texas can be until it opens the season Saturday against Rice. We'll learn a good deal more of what we need to know when BYU travels to Austin the following week.

For now, though, here's what we've got:
  • The big news is obvious: Garrett Gilbert gets the nod at quarterback. He was the safe bet all offseason, and the guy I thought would eventually get it. I doubted originally how "open" the job actually was, but to be clear, I don't think this whole QB race was a ruse. It was open. Gilbert re-won it. As for the difference this year? There's no doubt that if Gilbert struggles like he did in 2010, backup Case McCoy will get a look much quicker. "He’s the starting quarterback. If he moves the ball and scores, he’ll keep the job," Brown told reporters on Monday.
  • Hyped freshman corner Quandre Diggs wowed in the spring game, and has mesmerized his teammates all fall. He's a co-starter at one of the cornerback spots alongside Adrian Phillips.
  • Jordan Hicks missed the spring with a broken foot, but he's come on strong in the fall, seizing a starting spot at strongside linebacker. The Ohio native was one of the nation's best linebackers in the 2010 class, but he'll get a chance to grow alongside Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho.
  • Fozzy Whittaker is the starter at running back. His backup? A three-way tie between Joe Bergeron, Malcolm Brown and D.J. Monroe. The race at running back should be fascinating to watch.
  • Good to see Blaine Irby back after his awful knee injury. He'll start at H-back.
  • Look out for Shipley 2.0. Jaxon Shipley, Jordan's younger brother, is the starter at H receiver and will return punts. Every indication we've heard is he's a playmaker and will get a chance to show it early on. He graduated early, but instead of enrolling at UT and going through spring practice, he worked out with Jordan during the NFL lockout.
  • Diggs and Monroe will handle kickoff return duties.
  • Starting center? Redshirt freshman Dominic Espinosa. Tray Allen is back at left tackle, too, after missing all of last season because of a foot injury.
Four digits is the benchmark for a great season among running backs and receivers, while a 3,000-yard year is the mark of the game's top passers.

Last year, the Big 12 had seven rushers top 1,000 yards, but only one -- Cyrus Gray of Texas A&M -- returns. Five graduated and another -- Rodney Stewart of Colorado -- will be in the Pac-12 next year. So in the spirit of our friends at the ACC Blog led by the fearless Heather Dinich, I'll take a crack at picking the most likely players in the Big 12 to reach 1,000 yards rushing next season.

A note: This list is not the list of the Big 12's best running backs, though clearly, that's a factor. Instead, it's a list of the players with the best opportunity in their exact situations to reach 1,000 yards.

Though the Big 12 notched seven 1,000-yard rushers last season, it had just four the previous two years and eight in 2007.

1. James Sims, Kansas -- As a true freshman in 2010, Sims didn't play in the opener, but it was clear as the season went on that he's the Jayhawks most consistent runner. Kansas is deep at the position, but Sims figures to get the biggest share of carries for a team with big questions at quarterback. The Jayhawks averaged nearly 40 rushing attempts per game last year. I don't see that number dropping this year. Sims got just 168 of those 470 carries, and he still managed 742 yards.

[+] EnlargeKansas' James Sims
John Rieger/US PRESSWIREKansas' James Sims rushed for 742 yards on 168 carries last season.
2. Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M -- Gray and his teammate in the backfield, Christine Michael, should both have very good years. I like both of them to clear 800 yards, and it's possible they both hit 1,000 yards, but there's only so much offense to go around. Ryan Tannehill and Jeff Fuller, along with the rest of the talented receiving corps, will have to get theres. Considering the way Gray closed the season, he's likely to start out with the biggest share of carries.

3. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State -- Randle will also be in split backfield along with Jeremy Smith, but he showed plenty of pop as a true freshman last year. Only DeMarco Murray caught more passes as a running back last year, so he may clear 1,000 yards of offense without doing it on the ground. But the Cowboys run an Air Raid system with a commitment to the run, so the touches should still be there for Randle with Kendall Hunter gone to the NFL.

4. Christine Michael, Texas A&M -- Michael will be coming back from the broken leg and looked pretty good in spring practice last week, but like I said, there's only so many touches to go around. Michael will get plenty and probably clear 700-800 yards, but he'll need to average a Gray-like 5-plus yards per carry to do it, which is possible.

5. Roy Finch, Oklahoma -- Finch has the talent to do it. No doubt. But there's no getting around doubting his health. A stress fracture in his foot caused him to miss almost half his freshman season, and the Sooners are mindful of that with a good group of backs behind him that might sap a few carries. Finch will have to hit a few big runs to get to 1,000, but if he gets hurt again, perhaps true freshman Brandon Williams or Brennan Clay could step in.

6. Eric Stephens, Texas Tech -- Texas Tech never had a 1,000-yard rusher under coach Mike Leach, but it's a new day in Lubbock. The offense will be the same, but coach Tommy Tuberville has placed an emphasis on running the ball more effectively, and Stephens will likely be the beneficiary. Aaron Crawford could be a factor if Stephens gets banged up, too.

7. Jarred Salubi, Baylor -- Like Texas A&M, Baylor has a whole lot of offense in a lot of places. Salubi could hit 1,000 yards if he becomes the featured back, but he's likely to share carries with Terrance Ganaway.

8. Shontrelle Johnson, Iowa State -- Johnson needs his new quarterback, whoever wins the competition, to play well and soften up defenses a bit, but the sophomore could be due for a nice year in his first as starter. Former Cyclone Alexander Robinson had over 2,000 yards in his final two years combined, and if Johnson continues to show the explosiveness he did as a freshman, he could have a similar career.

9. Bryce Brown, Kansas State -- Kansas State has run their backs more than any team in the Big 12 the past two seasons, in part because they had one of the league's best in Daniel Thomas. Brown has a lot to prove after an underwhelming, short run at Tenneessee, but there's no clear heir outside of Brown to pick up those 1,057 carries that the Wildcats have had in the past two seasons. Thomas toted it for 545 of those -- most in the Big 12 in 2009 and 2010 -- and if Brown gets off to a nice start, he'll be next in line.

9. Malcolm Brown, Texas -- We've seen Fozzy Whittaker and Cody Johnson for quite awhile at Texas. Both can get it done in spurts, but Whittaker has problems staying healthy and Johnson lacks burst. He's also working at fullback this spring. If any Texas back is going to have a big year, I'm pointing to the possible workhorse in Brown, rather than Jeremy Hills or D.J. Monroe.

10. De'Vion Moore, Missouri -- No Missouri running back had 100 carries last year, and Moore, the team's leading rusher, had just 517 yards. The Tigers ran the ball pretty well last year, but didn't rely on one player. Look elsewhere for a 1,000-yard rusher.

Prediction: Sims, Gray, Finch, Randle

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 9

October, 28, 2010
Here's what I'm keeping an eye on this weekend:

1. Oklahoma State's offense. They won't have suspended receiver Justin Blackmon, who's been the major driving force behind the passing game for the entire season, and leads the nation in receiving yards and touchdowns. How many more touches will that provide for running back Kendall Hunter, and can Josh Cooper step up as the primary remaining target for the Cowboys? I probably would have picked OSU to win this one by at least three touchdowns with Blackmon, and I still think it'll win convincingly, but Blackmon's absence is a big wildcard for the offense.

[+] EnlargeKendall Hunter
AP Photo, John A. BowersmithWith Justin Blackmon out on Saturday, Kendall Hunter may need to play a bigger role in Oklahoma State's offense.
2. Big hits. Clips of players easing up or doing things out of character filled NFL postgame shows last Sunday. Will Nebraska linebacker Eric Martin's suspension have any similar effects this week?

3. Aldon Smith vs. Taylor Martinez. Smith did a great job spying Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase in the second half of Missouri's season opener. Martinez will be a whole different animal. He won't be able to do it alone, but if Smith can get in the backfield and muck up the Huskers' zone read, Missouri's defense could have a great day.

4. Texas. Broad, maybe, but what's this team look like against a team in Baylor that's very capable of beating the Longhorns this week? Longhorns coach Mack Brown called out his team and assistants during the week, and it'll be fascinating to see how they respond. Texas has already lost two games this year at home to teams that aren't as good as Baylor.

5. Texas A&M quarterbacks. Last week, Jerrod Johnson and Ryan Tannehill split 82 snaps equally, but Mike Sherman has been coy about who'll start on Saturday. Tannehill played well, but he did it against a bottom-feeding Kansas team. Will Sherman stick with Johnson against a more talented Texas Tech team?

6. Cody Hawkins. For the rest of the season, it's Hawkins' team. Tyler Hansen will miss the rest of the season with a ruptured spleen, so how does Hawkins begin the end of his career? He couldn't ask for a more difficult venue, trying to end Oklahoma's 34-game home winning streak, but Hawkins beat Sam Bradford and the Sooners in 2007, the last time he took on Oklahoma.

7. Huskers are no homebodies. Nebraska has had its two worst performances of the year at home, while unleashing two butt-whippings to Kansas State and Washington on the road, and beating Oklahoma State last week. Bo Pelini says he'll make a few tweaks to the routine this week, but what effect will they have?

8. D.J. Monroe. Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis seems like he's made a weekly routine out of lamenting his under-use of the speedy, versatile Monroe, who admits he doesn't have a solid grasp of the playbook, but his playmaking ability makes it seem like the only play he needs to memorize is the "Here, take the ball and run." He had just one carry last week, and used it to run for 10 yards. How many more 60-yard scores like he had against Oklahoma are left in him this season? Texas' anemic offense needs as many as it can get against one of the best offenses in the league, Baylor.

9. Kansas' string of futility. They couldn't do it against Texas A&M, but is this the week Kansas competes? They travel to play an Iowa State team riding high after beating Texas, but the Jayhawks, 0-3 in Big 12 play, have yet to lose a conference game by less than five touchdowns.

10. Ryan Broyles. He played with two gimpy ankles last week against Missouri, and still caught eight passes for 110 yards with a thick tape job over his right cleat against the Tigers. Broyles is racking up receptions, but he's been surpassed by Justin Blackmon as the league's best wideout. With Blackmon sidelined and Broyles' ankles on the mend, what's he got in store for the Buffs, with a tough matchup waiting at both corners?
It made sense at the time, and in theory, Texas should have had the offensive line to do it.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Gilbert
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireTexas' best offensive player has been sophomore Garrett Gilbert.
"We did a lot of self study and found out that we had more explosive plays when the quarterback was under the center in the running game as well as the tailback being right behind the quarterback," Texas coach Mack Brown said during Big 12 Media Days. "The other reason that we feel like we need to go ahead and run the ball more and better is the last two years in the BCS we played two-back downhill running Ohio State, and this year we played two-back downhill running Alabama. And in both cases, we didn't tackle the great tailbacks very well. We feel like by having downhill runs and working more in the running game and against the running game in practice would help us if we go out in conference and see someone who wants to just line up and run us."

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Texas probably shouldn't expect to run into Alabama or Ohio State this postseason.

Maybe the Longhorns intended approach is best for the long term, especially with superstar recruit Malcolm Brown on the way next fall. Texas wanted balance. Through five games this season, it's clear that the running game Texas hoped to establish won't arrive with any consistency, despite three senior offensive linemen and three experienced running backs.

Texas' best chance to salvage something meaningful from this season rests with putting the ball in the hands of its best offensive player: Garrett Gilbert. Gilbert's big mistakes have been limited and the offense has been most productive when the Longhorns have spread out and let him sling it.

Big deficits forced Texas to do it against UCLA and Oklahoma.

Now, the Longhorns should choose to do it.

Its most explosive play against Oklahoma's suspect rush defense didn't come with power between the tackles. It came from the shotgun, a jet sweep handoff to a streaking D.J. Monroe, Texas' fourth running back, who quickly proved how much faster he was than anyone else on the field with a 60-yard touchdown that brought Texas to within 14-7.

It's been five games, and Texas hasn't had a longer run from scrimmage than Monroe's. So much for explosiveness from under center.

Letting Gilbert, a sophomore who will make his sixth career start in two weeks against Nebraska, determine the result of Texas' season doesn't sound appetizing.

But can Texas really trust a running that is averaging more than four yards a carry? Remember, see that number drop is likely to drop when the Longhorns hit the meat of their conference schedule.

Gilbert taking over could also help speed the development of Texas' second-best offensive player, freshman receiver Mike Davis.

Gilbert hasn't shown a tendency toward game-breaking mental or physical mistakes. In his worst game of the season -- Texas Tech -- two of his three interceptions were tipped at the line of scrimmage. Deep balls to James Kirkendoll and Malcolm Williams against Oklahoma and another to Kirkendoll against Texas Tech showed his potential. The more opportunities he gets to nurture that potential, the better.

Fake punt leads to points for Texas

October, 2, 2010
DALLAS -- Texas got it's second-best play of the day when it needed it most.

On the first play after Texas' fake punt at midfield, Garrett Gilbert hooked up with James Kirkendoll for a 44-yard gain to get Texas inside the 10-yard line.

Justin Tucker finished the drive with a 22-yard field goal to bring Texas to within 21-10.

It wasn't ideal, and the two-possession game means the Longhorns still need plenty of defensive stops. But Texas finally sustained a drive -- 13 plays for 71 yards. That's steadier than any drive Texas had in the first half, after scoring its only other points on a 60-yard touchdown by D.J. Monroe.

And how did the Longhorns do it? With Gilbert's arm.

Texas called just one run play -- excluding the fake punt -- on the drive and called 10 passes.

Penalties also continue to plague the Longhorns. On third down, they forced and recovered a fumble after sacking Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, but they let the drive continue after Eddie Jones was flagged for being offside.

Oklahoma running back Mossis Madu converted the first down with a run on the next play.