Texas’ season opener in 2022 is fittingly easy. The common wisdom in college football is that your team’s biggest leap in improvement comes between Weeks 1 and 2. Coaches and players on the same team can often only get so far playing each other in fall practices before they need the stress test of facing an external opponent to clarify what’s working and what needs changing.
So it’s often nice to have an opener against a team who can’t punish you too badly if your sense of what’s working needs major adjustments. For much of the Matt Campbell era, for instance, the Cyclones have struggled in Week 1 with some close wins against Northern Iowa and that famous loss to Billy Napier’s Louisiana Ragin Cajuns which threw everyone off the scent in 2020 only for Iowa State to rebound and go to the Big 12 Championship Game. Much of Longhorn nation spent the summer of 2021 concerned about those Napier Cajuns, I believe I even went so far to say it would be the greater challenge over the road trip against Arkansas because of the Week 1 unknowns dynamic.
Anyways, Louisiana-Monroe is not Billy Napier’s Louisiana. I checked.
Matching up in the trenches
This is generally the easy part when a school like Texas plays a school like LA-Monroe. The smaller program can’t recruit the big bodies and athletes to withstand the push of your offensive line, or to rush the passer, and certainly not to stay in the way of your own D-line’s athletes in their path to the quarterback.
As it happens, LA-Monroe is missing a huge chunk of their starting offensive linemen from a year ago including the left tackle. Of their five starters who took the field when they gave Napier’s Cajuns a close game, only one appears to still be on the roster in right tackle Victor Cutler, a 6-foot-3, 292-pound sophomore. I think that gives a pretty clear sense of the limitations of this group.
Texas’ D-line will not only be faster and more explosive than the offensive linemen across from them, which is standard for O-line/D-line battles, they may also be bigger and stronger.
The Warhawks are also losing some of their D-line starters and one of their two good inside linebackers, Traveion Webster. Their ability to put up roadblocks against Texas’ run game is also very much in question.
Another confounding factor for the Warhawks is the departure of both coordinators. Offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez did a one-year stint with them before taking a head coaching job at Jacksonville State (FCS). What’s more, he took hotshot young defensive coordinator Zac Alley with him. Head coach Terry Bowden rebuilt the staff with Vic Koenning, who was Neal Brown’s defensive coordinator at Troy and West Virginia before making insensitive comments in 2020 around the George Floyd murder which lead to his firing. On offense they retain Matt Kubik, who was quarterbacks coach and co-coordinator with Rich Rod. Continuity here is less of a concern as Kubik’s involvement and coordination predates the one-year stop by the old spread guru.
The roadmap for the ULM offense is pretty simple. They’ll spread Texas out for the purpose of running the ball with zone-option featuring either returning quarterback, both of whom are dual-threats, and try to hold onto the ball with a power-spread approach. This line can’t protect against the Texas front if they try and drop back to throw, even if Texas’ pass-rush is as limited as feared.
Defensively? Their defensive tackles both measure in at 6-foot-0 and around 300 pounds and were accustomed to getting heavy support from the linebackers in 2021 on the blitz. There’s little reason to think they can make a real stand against the Texas’ run game. They might be able to rush the quarterback effectively, depending on whether their tactics have changed with the coordinator.
Despite the presence of Rich Rod, what made LA-Monroe an interesting and often very competitive team in 2021 was not their offense. While they finished 4-8 on the year, they defeated Liberty, played LSU within two scores, went down 21-16 against Napier’s Cajuns, and held their last four opponents all under 30 points.
They did this with very aggressive coverages and blitzes from the secondary. They had a variety of six-man pressure schemes, would play press-quarters or pure man-free on other snaps, and were always all up in the offense’s business. Unfortunately for the Warhawks, five different defensive backs who were starters or played regularly in 2021 are now gone via the transfer portal (Josh Newton went to TCU) or graduation. Strong safety Jabari Johnson returns, but the cornerbacks and nickel who helped make their aggressive coverages work with their press-man coverage do not.
At Troy and West Virginia, Vic Koenning had a different approach. He’d trust sturdy, powerful defensive fronts to tie down offenses while his secondary hung back and kept the ball in front of them. To implement that strategy at ULM would be a sea change. It may or may not suit their personnel up front and would require a complete retraining of their defensive backs.
The No. 1 and No. 3 receivers are back on offense but this is a power-spread team who didn’t throw it very effectively last year and certainly won’t this year with a retooled offensive line.
The Warhawks’ best bet, should they opt for it, would be to aggressively blitz the Longhorns from every direction and try to confuse a young(?) offensive line and quarterback. If they can confuse and slow down the Texas offense, perhaps their own offense can attempt a plodding spread approach heavy on zone-option and perimeter screen passes and sneak out a win in a low-scoring game.
Texas is going to have to balance their approach with the challenge of facing Alabama in Week 2. You don’t really want to show the good stuff in this game, just rep the basics and see how your young infrastructure on the offense handles the tasks of communication, working in combination, and making the right reads.
The easiest way would be to go heavy with a lot of 12 personnel formations and simply run over the Warhawks. They could mix in some play-action bombs once they have a good sense of what coverages they’re getting. With that recipe, they could be sure to pull away eventually even if they have a sluggish start.
Then, an intense week of practice and preparation for the real season opener.