Texas backs, receivers fighting for playing time

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

A subtle change has been clear to Texas quarterback Colt McCoy over the last few weeks.

The intense battle for playing time has resulted in a noticeable elevation in practice habits for McCoy’s running backs and receivers.

“Everybody wants to play and be a part of what we’re doing,” McCoy said. “When you have a little competition like this, it requires them to come to practice and be prepared every day. If they have a good week of practice, they know you’ll see them get a chance to play more on Saturday. It has helped us and you can see it in our offensive work.”

So much, in fact, that McCoy sees practices as being nearly as competitive as the games themselves.

“We’ve got guys who really want to get involved,” McCoy said.

The Longhorns made a major offensive switch after the Oklahoma game as they inserted Fozzy Whittaker into the starting lineup at running back. Whittaker’s abilities as a runner, receiver and a pass blocker make him the most accomplished back in the Longhorns’ stable -- if he can remain healthy.

During the course of the season, Vondrell McGee, Cody Johnson, Tre’ Newton and Whittaker all have had their shots at the starting job. But the job appears to be Whittaker’s at the present time.

“It’s been crazy,” Whittaker said. “We’ve had several different starters going into the year. We can play off of each other’s talents and give each other help when one person goes down, because another can step in."

Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis elevated Malcolm Williams and Marquise Goodwin into the starting lineup at receiver, while moving Jordan Shipley into the slot. John Chiles and James Kirkendoll were benched as the Longhorns have mothballed the four-wide receiver set that was used as the primary offensive formation late last season after Blaine Irby’s season-ending knee injury.

Williams is a tall, athletic receiver who has a knack of making big plays in traffic. Goodwin might be the fastest among the receiving corps. And moving Shipley into the slot makes him more dangerous matched against safeties and linebackers and a threat on short passes and screens that he and McCoy have been relied on during their careers together.

Williams had been benched earlier in the season, but worked his way into the mix with dedication at the Longhorns’ practices.

But the hardest task for him was to regain the confidence from McCoy and the coaching staff.

“It was more getting Colt’s trust back because I wasn’t really working with him that much when I moved down,” Williams said. “I have to make a play when he throws me the ball.”

It has been clear midway through the season that the Longhorns haven’t been nearly as productive offensively as last season. McCoy’s completion percentage is down from an NCAA record 76.7 percent last season to 71.7 percent this year. He ranks 29th nationally in pass efficiency this season, compared to third last year. His per-game passing yardage is down from 297 to 258. No Longhorn has averaged more than 40 yards rushing per game.

But the Longhorns showed flashes of rebounding in McCoy’s best game of the season against Missouri last week. The Longhorns scored on their first three possessions as McCoy hit his first 11 passes and was strong throughout the game as he matched his season high with three touchdown passes.

“We’ve got the Colt of old back now,” Texas coach Mack Brown said.

Another subtle move was that the Longhorns have begun relying heavily on their “11” personnel from a formation that includes three wide receivers, a running back and a tight end. Davis estimated that the set was used about 75 percent of the time last week against Missouri.

The benefits are obvious. The installation of 6-foot-5, 260-pound Greg Smith as a tight end provides another huge, willing blocker to enable the Longhorns to run the ball better.

“What we are telling our kids now is for us to have a successful run, it needs to do one of three things – it has to be a four-yard gain, it has to get a first down or it has to score a touchdown,” Brown said. “That evaluation process is more effective than going by an average per carry because you might end up with a bunch of second-and-short, third-and-short or goal-line plays that may end up killing your average per carry.”

Brown said the Longhorns were effective at these standards a 67 percent last week.

And it also helps in McCoy’s protection. In the Oklahoma game, McCoy was knocked to the ground 14 times in the first half alone. Against Missouri, he was knocked down only four times in the entire game.

The passing game should work against Oklahoma State, which has struggled against passing teams in recent weeks. The Cowboys rank 106th nationally in pass defense and have had trouble rushing the passer with only two sacks in the last two weeks.

With the increased competition for playing time around him, McCoy is clearly more relaxed. That attitude was particularly apparent last week in his strong outing against Missouri.

“It’s not worrying about anything else but going out there, competing and doing your best,” McCoy said. “When you’re scoring a lot of points and doing really well, that’s when the fun comes.”

And for his receivers and running backs, just being in the lineup might be enough satisfaction in itself.