Back in 2007, the future at the TE position at Texas was bright. Jermichael Finley had replaced David Thomas, Vince Young's favorite receiver, as an even more explosive weapon in the middle of the field and there were rumors that Blaine Irby, his backup, might be even better.
Then everything began to fall apart. Finley left early for the NFL and Irby blew out his knee on the crown of a Rice Owl helmet. The position hasn't recovered since.
Jordan Shipley and the 4 WR offense in 2008 provided an excellent stop-gap, but subsequent seasons of offensive ineptitude forced Mack Brown to overhaul the entire system and bring in Bryan Harsin from Boise State.
Harsin re-emphasized the running game and a balanced attack that wouldn't collapse if the QB took a fluke shot to the arm in a championship game. But in order to achieve that result, the Longhorns will have to face their demons, for the underrated key to Harsin's Boise offense was the versatility of their TE's.
Boise developed players like Derek Schouman and Kyle Efaw and then shifted and motioned them across formations to create leverage in the running game and passing game. With large, capable blockers on the edge, the Broncos offense could seal the edge of a defensive front and allow running backs to turn the corner and come at the defense with a "downhill" angle, rather than running laterally with linebackers or safeties nipping at their heels.
2011 proved to be particularly cruel to Longhorn fans as the importance of the TE position was emphasized every weekend. They saw the shortcomings of the Texas offense on Saturday and then the brilliant performance of TE-dominated NFL teams like the New England Patriots on Sunday.
With Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez manning the position, the Patriots achieved spectacular balance in their offense and were able to alternate between power running and spread passing concepts without changing the personnel on the field. Combining that ability with occasional bursts of lightning-paced no-huddle offense, New England could push the defense into fielding personnel vulnerable to either the passing or running attack, and then quickly punish them for whichever choice they made by moving too quickly to allow substitutions.
Between them, their two TE's combined for 2237 receiving yards and 24 TDs while enabling a running game led by BenJarvus Green-Ellis to became a serious threat for opposing defenses. Monumental tasks, all.
The Longhorn roster, meanwhile, presented Harsin with a depth chart devoid of players who could be trusted to both block a defensive end and make catches down the field.
What he did find was the result of the previous offensive staff stockpiling big WR's like DJ Grant and Darius Terrell in the hopes that they would grow into heirs for David Thomas and JerMichael Finley. Instead, it was merely a collection of oversized receivers who couldn't block.
Eventually, Harsin was forced to play Luke Poehlmann, an aggressive but undersized offensive lineman, at TE. It was an "all-in" move to support the emerging power running game that was going to make or break the season for the Texas offense.
For 2012 and beyond, if Harsin wants to achieve the balance he had in Boise, Harsin will need players who can make blocks on the perimeter and at least draw attention in the passing game.
But the answer may not be rebuilding exactly what he had in Idaho, certainly not in 2012 where the passage of a year has not been sufficient for Dr. Harsinstein to find enough pieces to build monsters on the edge. Nevertheless, the strength of the team still centers around the running game, so Harsin may need to borrow tactics from neighboring programs.
For instance, the brainiacs down at Rice. In game 1 of the 2011 season, the spread-option Owls gave the Texas run defense some problems combining an experienced OL with the following "receivers". Luke Wilson, a 6-5 250 pound tight end, and Vance McDonald, a 6-5, 260 pound "slot receiver".
By "flexing out" these players off the line, they were able to create angles and leverage on the perimeter. In order to defend their option plays and receiver screens, Texas defenders had to fight through these massive blockers to reach the ball carriers. Adjusting their alignments created the possibility of being undermanned in the middle.
Rice isn't the only team to utilize this tactic. Nebraska began flexing out their TE McNeil in 2010 when they handed the keys to their offense to
Runningback Quarterback Taylor Martinez. Missouri has wreaked havoc with flexed out tight ends since 2007 when they had Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman on the field.
So how is this relevant for the Longhorns? Big John Harris is healthy again. Harris was beginning to make a name for himself when, against the physical BYU offense, he made a "crack back" block that nearly killed one of their sturdy linebackers. The 6'3" 218 pound sophomore is a bruising blocker and he's the current starting slot receiver.
Spread teams generally like to use shifty receivers like Wes Welker or Jordan Shipley in the slot to find seams and creases in the middle of the field against slower linebackers and safeties. However, Harsin seems to be borrowing the approaches of running-focused spread teams by using bigger bodies that aren't liabilities as blockers.
Harris isn't the only player that matches this approach. Sophomore Miles Onyegbule is expected to move into a half-back role after seeing his body began to fill out a frame that is 6'4" 235 and growing. Harsin had similar designs for Malcolm Williams, but the large and explosive receiver had to leave the team for personal reasons.
Nor is this a short-term approach, as future recruits like Jake Oliver and Ricky Seals-Jones (hopefully) also fit the mold of players who can motion into the backfield or out to the perimeter and threaten a defense as a blocker or receiver from either location.
And so, with such hybrid personnel, Texas could field versatile squads that can rotate between power and spread formations without changing personnel. A nightmare for defensive coordinators trying to maintain the advantage.
What's more, in addition to making use of the smaller personnel already on campus, this approach takes advantage of how Texas High Schools are producing such hybrids in great numbers through their spread offense programs. Given Mack Brown's primary strategy of shaping his teams around the best talent in Texas, Harsin is wise to adjust his approach to utilize these talents.
There are of course potential flaws or objections to this plan. Many fans might ask, "how would this approach differ from the failed tactics of Greg Davis that got us into this mess?"
This objection flows mostly from a "do everything differently!" attitude that often accompanies big systematic changes in an organization and blinds the reformers to anything positive in the previous approach. The flaws in Greg Davis' WR-into-TE program were related to recruiting and development, not the underlying concept. Players like Dan Buckner and Darius Terrell were not designed to be fashioned into 250 pound bruisers but they were used that way, like square pegs in round holes.
Additionally, the Greg Davis offense placed an overriding priority on passing drills in practice that came at the cost of building cohesion and expertise in the blocking schemes. On the occasions in which the Texas OL made their blocks, they often saw the play thwarted regardless because of a missed assignment by a TE or a WR.
With the Harsin offense, blocking drills and the running game are not being neglected in the practice regimen. With less lazy scouting to find players with the potential to grow and develop into new positions and better development through practice, there's no reason Texas can't find more success developing TE's from players who played a different position in high school.
Ironically, the possible flaw with this strategy is that it requires competence in the passing game. If a flexed out John Harris isn't a threat in the passing game, opposing defenses can ignore him and gain leverage against the running game and handicap the strength of the Texas offense.
On the other hand, if Harris is a receiving threat he may force wider alignments from the secondary or nickel personnel that will help the offensive line against a diminished run-stopping front. Implicit in the "hybrid" designation is the assumption that players like Harris are actually effective in multiple capacities. Should he do so, he may find himself involved in multiple packages that form the cornerstone of the 2012 offense.
Again we find that the adjustments and tactics that will carry Texas back to offensive excellence will require some play-making in the passing game from a QB who isn't Colt McCoy or Vince Young. However, Longhorn fans often overlook that those players had a great deal of help, and Harsin intends to arm Ash with whatever weapons he can find...until that mysterious Manhattan project is finally complete.