Mack Brown reached inside the aircraft carrier that passes for his desk late last month and produced a legal pad. On the first page the Texas coach drew an offensive formation that, if all goes according to plan, the Longhorns will use as their base for the 2010 season and could have a ripple effect far beyond Austin.
With a few strokes of his pen, Brown diagrammed a formation with the quarterback under center and a tailback directly behind him. Then he explained that depending on the play, an H-back would line up either in the slot, next to a tackle or as a traditional fullback—essentially a pro-style set used by many NFL teams, including the Colts, but one that had seemed in danger of extinction on the college level.
The formation bears little resemblance to the ones Texas used for the last six seasons, with quarterbacks Vince Young and Colt McCoy pulling the trigger out of the shotgun spread. The Longhorns' change in philosophy is designed to kick-start a running attack that last season averaged 147.6 yards, Texas's worst since 2002. "We just kept getting further away from balance," says Brown, whose team ranked 61st in rushing but 22nd in passing in '09. "We threw the ball so much that we lost our play-action pass. And that's your best way to get explosive plays downfield."
The Texas transformation is a vote of no confidence in the spread, the trendy offense of the last decade. And with Florida, South Florida and Texas Tech also tweaking their versions of that scheme to achieve better run-pass balance, the spread may have reached its peak.
In their new offense the Longhorns will put strong-armed sophomore Garrett Gilbert under center. For the crucial H-back position, the leading candidate is Barrett Matthews, a 6'2", 235-pound sophomore who arrived in Austin as a tight end and has the speed and size required to be a blocker and receiver.
The formation will also demand different skills from the linemen, who didn't excel at run blocking in the old system, which stressed zone blocking. "You're coming off the ball and hitting people in the mouth instead of trying to zone and reach block them," says senior tackle Kyle Hix. "It's a lot more fun."
The biggest beneficiaries should be Gilbert, who won't be forced to carry the team in his first year as the starter, and the running backs—led by Tre' Newton and Fozzy Whittaker—who will be building forward momentum, unlike in the spread, when they take handoffs. In Texas's annual spring game on Sunday, the team demonstrated its emphasis on the ground game by running on its first 11 plays.
The new look is a gamble given that the Horns went 25--2 over the past two years, but if the switch succeeds, Texas might be the program that inspires the rest of the nation to put the shotgun spread back on the rack.
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Here is who's up and who's down from SI's early 2010 rankings in the Jan. 18 issue.
1 Alabama Replacing nine defensive starters will be the key.
2 Boise State The defense could be better than expected.
3 Ohio State Bucks are lethal with the repaired knee of Terrelle Pryor.
4 Texas There are still many questions on offense.
5 Iowa RB Jewel Hampton(below) is back after ACL surgery.
6 Oregon QB Jeremiah Masoli's suspension moves Ducks way down.
7 TCU Horned Frogs are just fine-tuning an experienced lineup.
8 Georgia Tech Jackets lose RB Jonathan Dwyer, star defenders.
9 Virginia Tech RB Darren Evans, out in '09, looks healthy.
10 Wisconsin Backup QB Curt Phillips tears ACL, will miss the year.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
HORN TO RUN Gilbert (7) should benefit from the added emphasis on the ground game.
STEPHEN MALLY/ICON SMI (HAMPTON)