The Longhorns have some big shoes to fill.
A season-ending knee injury to Fozzy Whittaker last week leaves a gaping hole in the Texas offense, but the senior’s leadership will also be missed. Whittaker led the Longhorns with nine touchdowns and 955 all-purpose yards and was the heart and soul of the team.
“It’s a big loss but somebody has to step up and assume that role,” said junior wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. “We all have to come together closer as a team and get the job done.”
Whittaker, UT’s third leading rusher, was most effective running the “Wild” package, where he used his vision, power and speed to near perfection in the red zone. He took 25 direct snaps, resulting in 164 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
Now, the onus is on play-caller Bryan Harsin to account for that lost production. He says the Longhorns can still use the “Wild” formation.
“We’ll have to change our personnel, but the scheme won’t change,” Harsin said. “We’ll have another variation of that and get one of those backs in there. Fozzy wasn’t the only guy that was doing it [in practice]. We’ll just figure out who we put back there.”
Junior tailback Jeremy Hills carried 11 times for 35 yards after Whittaker’s injury in the first quarter against Missouri last week. Harsin said he wants a running back to assume Whittaker’s spot in the Wild, and Hills or D.J. Monroe fit the mold.
Senior left guard David Snow believes Harsin can find a solution in just one week.
“He has a knack for finding players for situations and he created the Wild package in the first place,” Snow said. “He can find something else.”
But Whittaker’s absence will affect more than just one formation. He was an important part of the Longhorns’ power run game, and with leading rushers Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron nursing injuries (turf toe and hamstring, respectively), Texas needs more production from the rest of its offense.
The Longhorns were held to a season-worst 247 yards against Missouri without that trio, and Harsin’s offense failed to score a touchdown for the first time in his 75-game career as a coordinator (five seasons at Boise State, one at Texas).
“Everybody in every position has to step up,” said senior tight end Blaine Irby. “We can’t put so much weight on the next running back. Everybody that’s playing needs to do just a little bit more.”
That means more production from the passing game. Quarterback David Ash struggled in his first road start and couldn’t find a rhythm against MU. He missed open receivers down field and had more incompletions (16) than completions (13).
Sophomore wide out Mike Davis, though, has shown big-play ability and could be the spark Texas so desperately needs. Davis is first on the team with 33 receptions for 521 yards and has four catches of at least 45 yards.
“Coach Harsin always talks about if we’re a man down, someone has got to carry the flag,” Davis said. “So a man down means someone’s got to pick up the flag, carry it and lead.”
Still, Davis is most dangerous in play-action, meaning the Longhorns will have to be able to run the ball to set up the pass. They were unable to do that against Missouri, granted they were without Brown and Bergeron. But with their status unknown moving forward — head coach Mack Brown said he can’t plan on them playing Saturday — it’s unclear how effective the offense can be.
One thing is certain, though, Harsin remains committed to running the ball.
“The philosophy’s not going to change,” Harsin said. “We’ve got guys to play. That’s how we play, that’s what we believe in and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
Now Texas just needs to find the next Fozzy Whittaker. That’s easier said than done. But if anyone can do that, it’s Harsin.