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Harsin struggles in first year

AUSTIN, Texas -- Mack Brown has been almost unequivocal in his support of first-year co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin.

"He's smart. He's tough. I'd hire him again."

Though a glance at the offensive numbers leaves a little room for criticism.

Texas, a team that played fast and loose for so much of the decade, hit belt-tightening reality in 2011. The Longhorns' passing offense was No. 85 in the FBS with just 193 yards per game. During one stretch, Texas went 47 series and produced one touchdown pass. Throw the Kansas and Texas Tech games in there, two games in which the Longhorns abandoned the passing game for the run, and in 69 drives Texas produced two touchdown passes.

And all Brown wanted was balance. Well, this offense, when there was an offense to speak of, was about as balanced as Bevo on a high wire.

But are the scales of justice tipping in favor of or against Harsin? That is what has to be evaluated now that the regular season is complete.

Harsin came to Texas as a wunderkind from out West. Boise State was the team few beat, but then again very few AQ schools played. Still, when it mattered, the Broncos showed ingenuity and gumption.

Harsin's schemes. Texas' athletes. What could go wrong?

Never had he had a collection of athletes such as these. But athletes and talent to fit his scheme are quite different.

Harsin, now in a situation where he couldn't mature his players against lesser competition as he had for five years as offensive coordinator at Boise State, had a team that was ill-equipped Texas to deal with the Big 12.

These players had stagnated in their growth. While any one of them would have been offered a scholarship at Boise State, since their arrival at Texas, the former Longhorns staff had not developed their talents.

Brown has repeatedly said that complacency took over his program as the 10-win seasons began to pile up. That complacency manifested itself on the depth chart. Texas didn't have a developed quarterback, started two freshmen on the offensive line, had a true freshman as its go-to wide receiver and was led in rushing by a pair of true freshmen.

Harsin used his unique sets, misdirection plays and team speed to beat three so-so teams and get a narrow win against BYU.

Oklahoma, however, exposed some of that. His plays, with all the movement and reverses, were too slow to develop. His quarterbacks were too slow to react. The offense simply had no answers for the Sooners.

By the following day, Brown did.

The coach and Harsin met. The message was to simplify. Harsin was trying to do too much with too little. Brown wanted the playbook trimmed, the responsibility of the players lessened and the mistakes eradicated.

Brown and Harsin also decided they wanted David Ash at quarterback. He would be Texas' third starting quarterback in six weeks.

The thought was Ash was a better runner and with Texas simplifying the offense, he fit better into the read option scheme the Longhorns wanted to deploy.

The reality became that Ash was not the answer. The freshman averaged an interception every 19 pass attempts. The passing game was so inept that Texas elected not to even utilize it against Kansas and Texas Tech. When the coaches did call Ash's number against Missouri and Kansas State he was so wildly ineffective that he was ultimately replaced by Case McCoy.

This might be the largest indictment of Texas' offense in 2011 -- the coaches failed to recognize which quarterback was the best fit and develop him.

Instead, Harsin held steadfast in his belief that the quarterbacks were like light bulbs, each interchangeable, ever ready to shine. It only illuminated each player's ineffectiveness.

Both players struggled with deep throws. Ash, in particular, struggled with his decision making, but neither he nor McCoy could produce enough to truly balance the offense.

The other issue, and this one holds up to scrutiny, is the decimation of the running game by injuries. In the final five games, a stretch where Texas went 2-3, the Longhorns never had a full complement of running backs. That void left Texas leaning on little-used Jeremy Hills as the featured back.

"When you don't have some of your key players out there, that is going to hurt some of the things that you're trying to get done," Harsin said. "That doesn't matter, pass game or run game. When guys are healthy and you can keep guys fresh throughout the year and key guys are out there playing it obviously helps."

What did help Harsin, and the entire staff, ironically was a run, albeit by a quarterback, for 25 yards at Texas A&M. That set up Texas' only win in the last four weeks.

It was during that game, as Texas failed to move the ball again and again, that Harsin continued to preach patience.

"He didn't panic," Brown said.

Harsin knew eventually Texas' time would come.

With a little more patience so too might Harsin's time at Texas.

Carter Strickland covers University of Texas football and recruiting for HornsNation

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