TUFF to Keep Down: University of Texas Season Preview

After the loss of another key star and a fluid roles for remaining players, can Texas live up to their program's legacy?

Photo: Brian Canniff -- UlitPhotos.com
How will the loss of Chase Cunningham affect Texas in 2016? Photo: Brian Canniff — UlitPhotos.com

The Basics:

Coach: Calvin Lin
Captains: Chris Schultz , Logan Kinney, Joel Clutton
2015 Results: T-5th at Nationals; 3rd in South Central

Texas Men’s Ultimate  (TUFF) has only missed Nationals twice since 2001. After a nail-biter 3rd place finish in last year’s South Central Regional game-to-go, the word on the street was that TUFF was slipping. That they were having a down year. That the loss of Will Driscoll and Mitchell Bennett would be too much for them to overcome. They promptly silenced all doubters at the Big Dance, stunning Pittsburgh in the opening round of the tournament, and taking first in their pool. While they eventually lost in quarters to a streaking Oregon team, the message was clear: Texas wasn’t going anywhere.

When senior captain Joel Clutton was asked whether the history and tradition of the Texas program brought pressure or comfort to this year’s Texas team his answer came quickly and succinctly: “For this year’s team, its confidence.”

Any why wouldn’t they be confident? Under coach Calvin Lin, Texas has been the model of consistency. If they don’t win the South Central, they certainly don’t have trouble making Nationals. And at Nationals, they have held a steady spot near the top of the standings. No matter who comes and who goes, Texas is always in the hunt.

Big Names Mean Big Departures

Think of all the big name players to come through the Texas program over the past decade and a half: Stephen Presley, Mike Natenberg, Kiran Thomas, Skip Sewell, Jeff Loskorn, Will Driscoll…. The list goes on and on. But when you have big names, you lose big names, and this year is no different for Texas. The name this year is Chase Cunningham. The U23 standout and Doublewide player has graduated, and while he remains in Austin playing for the Sol, TUFF is going to look much different this year without him. Cunningham was Texas’ go-to play-maker in 2015. He led the team in assists by a wide margin, using his size and southpaw swagger to command TUFF’s classic vert stack. He was their green-light guy, sometimes loose with the disc, but only because they needed him to be.

Opposite Cunningham was his foil, the model of consistency, Carlos Vargas. While he might have flown under the radar on the national scene, Vargas was the glue that held the Texas offense together. A handler for numerous years, his steadiness was crucial next to Cunningham. Vargas too has departed, leaving a Texas team that is in search of replacement throwers.

With disc skills at a premium for TUFF, who will they rely on to throw downfield?

Expect 5th year Michael Hays to step into that role. A recent signee by the Austin Sol, Hays is a hard-nosed, gritty defender with monster throws. He might not fit the mold of your typical O-line handler, but he is a constant threat to bust downfield. On a turn, expect him to be the guy who gets the disc back for the Texas offense.

A Team Full of Hybrids

Hays isn’t alone in his distinction as an atypical handler. Texas captain Joel Clutton assessed the roster as follows: “A lot of them are more cutting-based, hybrid players. Those guys are really athletic, but they’ve developed the handler skills.” He admitted that, “we don’t really have as many set handlers and set cutters…a lot of times it will be just who’s back there is back there, and then running through all seven guys on the line.”

Clutton isn’t wrong. Looking at the Texas roster, you see cutters and defenders that could run most teams into the ground. Texas has six players either on AUDL practice squads or rosters: Hays, Dillon Larberg, Logan Kinney, Luke Simerly, Nash Mock, and Clutton himself. He’s a giant, but he’s just as likely to use his size and massive stride to get an under than to bust deep. Frankly, players like Clutton are what are going to make this team interesting to watch. Everybody does everything. You certainly won’t be able to point to one handler or one cutter to watch for Texas.

That being said, if you had to choose one player that Texas will rely on in crunch time, it has to be Dillon Larberg. Don’t let the constant smile fool you, Larberg will roast you deep or under. He quickly turned into Texas’ go-to guy downfield over the past few years, and while his weapon is his speed, his improved disc skills and field vision allow him to catch an under and immediately attack upfield. Expect him to be near the top of (if not leading) most statistical categories for Texas.

While Clutton, Hays, and Larberg are the names that get thrown around the most, Logan Kinney is poised for a breakout year. In the words of Clutton, “he is probably the reason we ended up beating Pitt… he’s one of the few people who can go stride-for-stride with Max [Thorne].”

Rounding out the list of potential impact players for TUFF is Keivaun Waugh, who might fill the hole left by Carlos Vargas with lefty breaks and few turnovers. Waugh is one of the truer handlers on a team filled with cut-first players, so Lin could have him play a big role this year.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None?

In the past, Texas ran a traditional vert stack, usually relying heavily on connections between their handlers and tall cutters. Roles were clearly delineated. Clutton admits that will likely change this year. “Our offense will be running different sets off of pull plays, scenarios, because we do have a very fast and athletic line, but maybe not quite as heavy on the really good disc skills.”

Teams like this can either be a disaster or a match-up nightmare. Without strong throwers, a team can wilt in poor weather conditions or games against high ultimate IQ opponents. However, when it works, it really works. Cutters become handlers, handlers run downfield and become cutters… it causes match-up problems all over the field. All seven players are capable of anything, and if they turn the disc over, you know they will be athletic enough to get it back.

Striking the right balance between jack of all trades and master of none, is what Calvin Lin will be tasked with this season. It’s not an easy task, and it’s been the ruin of plenty of athletic college teams in the past. We will see if Lin can pull off what he has done year after year: mold this clearly talented bunch of players into the consistent squad that we have come to expect from Texas.


Likely Floor: Loss in the Game-to-Go

The South Central has a big three: Colorado, A&M, and Texas. There has been little movement from any teams besides those three in the past decade. However, Missouri is on the rise, and they look threatening with Jay Froude and Jesse White leading the way. They could stun in a potential game-to-go, especially with a third bid for the South Central. If there are only two bids, things look even shakier for Texas. Frankly, Texas needs some disc skills to replace Cunningham and Vargas.  If they can’t find them, they could be in for a very disappointing season.

Likely Ceiling: National Semifinals

This team has a tremendous amount of athleticism and skill. If they can find their downfield throwers, their cutters and defenders are among the best in the country, and in good conditions, expect a cutter-driven offense that will be nearly impossible to defend. Texas hasn’t seen the semifinals in the ESPN era, but with their collection of skills, and their cadre of pro-level cutting talent, this could be the year.

  1. Scott Dollen

    Scott Dollen is a reporter for Ultiworld. He graduated from Gonzaga University and captained the ultimate team there for four years. He currently lives in Austin, and plays for Riverside Ultimate. You can reach him on twitter @dollensw

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