"The Eyes of Texas are certainly upon Mack Brown" - 2011 Spring Game
The 2011 Texas Longhorn football team took to the field in the annual Spring Jamboree Orange-White scrimmage at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium last Sunday. Broadcast to a national cable audience on ESPN, the first team "Texas" offense and "Longhorns" defense beat unimpressive and inexperienced second string squads 27-7 in a four quarter game. That offensive point production was close to our season average output last year. Regression to the mean? You be the judge.
The long awaited debut was met with seemingly disappointing attendance (looked more like around 30,000 than the announced 45,000) and an overcooked production in spite of an inspiring performance by the band. On a day when UT and ESPN announced the official name of the new network (Longhorn Network), what should have been a great coming out party failed to deliver on the expectations.
I suppose it's not the fault of Coach Mack Brown or the new coordinators, Harsin and Diaz. By that I mean they alluded to the progress of their players in statements during spring practice such as "We're a work in process" and "We're pleased with the effort but we have to work smarter (ie. improve the intelligence) and get stronger (ie. make up for lack of raw talent)."
No question there is a lot of pressure on the Longhorn Football team this season. No more so than on Mack Brown's shoulders. Facing an incredible uphill rebuilding effort, frankly, his job is on the line. And there was a lot of pressure on the players to execute what they have been working on to date. Mack certainly didn't parse words about his assessment of the apparent paltry first half performance when he saw a lot of standing around by the first team defense and the offense played uptight. He was emphatic in sending a message to the team, "I want them to have FUN. They've got to compete and enjoy this because if you can't enjoy college football in front of people, and you don't love the game, you don't play very well." Maybe some of that "having fun" prep work could have been kick started earlier by opening up some Spring Practices like in years past. Of course the kids are going to be nervous as the spring scrimmage was the first time the players had a chance at showing the new stuff in front of family, friends, and fans coming off last year's let down.
What did we see?
Well, I'm sure others saw something I did not. If you're like me, you anticipated a lot of bodies flying around the field and extra effort. But for the most part the players appeared to me just going through the motions. The weaknesses are obvious. The strengths are not quite as obvious. The players were just too tight. And if you get a chance, I highly recommend you read Scipio Tex's Spring game recap series at Barking Carnival (Part 1 and Part II) as he forges a unique blend of imagery and spot on analysis of player performances.
Quarterback - A lot has been written the last few days of our plight (read GhostofBigRoy's spot on analysis here). Mack has been openly criticized in the media for leaving the position in limbo until fall camp with four possible options. Given this is such an important position, I'm not sure the criticism isn't warranted. The quarterback must lead the team in confidence and be the Numero Uno BMOC. A football team sleeps better at night knowing who to rally behind.
It is obvious that Texas is currently lacking a QB who exemplifies all of the necessary attributes to be great. But what about one that is even serviceable? Sure looks like the position is Garrett Gilbert's to lose. But Gilbert has mechanical issues, not to mention an obvious lack of confidence from the players. As for the others looking to unseat Gilbert, all are young and have uninspiring credentials. Case McCoy showed some playmaking grit but do you hoist the Texas Longhorns on his shoulders? Likely not. Connor Wood and David Ash have great physical skills but have yet to read the play cards correctly. With that said, I'm not sure we even have a talent as good as Jevan Snead and we all know how that story turned out.
Coach Brown praised both Gilbert and McCoy during the broadcast in spite of Gilbert throwing another patented pick and McCoy displaying a sort of blacktop, pick-up game skill set with poor foot work and fundamentals. With that said, Gilbert did fight off his sluggish start to grind out a mediocre performance. But even he didn't throw one touchdown pass today and failed to pick up a touchdown to close the half after marching the team down the field in the 2-minute warning. And in spite of his apparent lack of natural talent to play the position, McCoy did manage to step into one throw on the TD strike to Patrick McNamara. Who? More on him later.
As for the other two QB's vying for the starting role, I would grade them as "raw". The physical attributes certainly are there and they look the part but it's a whole different animal to actually stand in the pocket and move the team down the field. It is unfortunate that Wood and Ash didn't get the same number of reps with the starting OL and that did not help their grade. But even beside that, neither impressed.
Offensive Line - The interior triangle of Trey Hopkins, David Snow, Mason Walters is impressive and combined with the new rush blocking scheme will be the strength of the offense. Our big backs will shine running downhill behind this trio. But 180 to that is the edge. Our pass blocking appears to need a ton of work with both Tray Allen and Mark Buchanan getting taken to the woodshed during the scrimmage.
Running Back - Where is Malcolm Brown? I know it is not fair to put so much on a player who has yet to enroll in class but the team will need his skills Day 1.
Cody Johnson is sporting a new number (#11). Not sure I remember reading the reason but I'm sure there is one. He has always shown good in these events and against obvious weaker opponents. His inane talent is running downhill. And he is solid in doing so so long as he avoids the skip-to-my-lou square dance steps. But get him into a play requiring a read or cutback and he starts thinking like a finesse runner. Not a good recipe for Cody. It will be interesting to see how he ultimately fits in to Harsin/Applewhite's system.
Fozwhitt Whittaker dinged his shoulder on an out route when he fell to the field turf untouched. The guy can't catch a break and in spite of his senior experience will more than likely be limited in action this upcoming season.
Jeremy Hills - Mean and raw. As the game wore I noticed the action slowed down for him. I like his burst and vision and the fact he hates negative yards. He needs more reps.
Traylon Shead - playing dinged up, did not show much against first team defense. Still has a lot of work to do in technique.
A note on D.J. Monroe. It is apparent that Harsin wants to get him touches. I don't disagree given his speed. He showed some flashes today of the risk/reward in giving him the ball. He is good for 3-4 big explosives this year.
Wide Receivers - A good, not great, showing among this group. The good news is they caught balls and did not lay it on the ground.
Mike Davis - You can't spell Davis without an "A" and that is what he brings to this offense. I can only offer one critical observation in that he should sharpen his vision. Know when the play is over and get down. Possession is 9/10's of success at this level. Extending the play leaves the door open for turnovers and injury. Save the playmaking for obvious opportunities.
Darius White - One word: Specimen. The 1st quarter catch/adjustment on the McCoy underthrow was made possible because of the fly speed push upfield. After the McCoy TD throw to McNamara, White shows more blazing speed on the kick return. Coaches better figure a way to get this man some touches.
Patrick McNamara - Where did he come from? A walk-on who has been in the program a while, he is an early candidate to "earn" a scholly with good team play and taking advantage of his opportunities. I think Sunday was a way for Mack to highlight his play and dedication with his "one shining moment" to earn paid tuition. Good for him.
Last year's weakness known as "the middle" will not be one this year. Another year older are the very physical partners of Randall and Robinson. Robinson has not received overly glowing reports about his move to the middle but I think it an intelligent move.
Safety - Excellent physical play and speed. I really liked Blake Gideon, and of course Kenny Vaccaro. But the surprising thing I saw was a reinvigorated Christian Scott. His awareness and athleticism was on full display. No one play stood out but really appreciated Scott's effort given he has been flying under the radar.
Cornerback - Duane Akina has his work cut out for him. Adrian Phillips and Carrington Byndom are your front runners. They will have their work cut out as Diaz has stated he will aggressively use second level defenders to pressure the opposition passing attack. Learning zone will come with produce resulting let down but the benefits the following two seasons will pay huge dividends.
Alex Okafor - his speed off the edge is impressive as he is back to playing at his natural position. Defensive POG with five sacks, he said after the game "I never even had five sacks in one game in high-school."
Reggie Wilson - he'll be a nice bookend with Okafor the other. His bang-bang play in the first half were awareness on the jet sweep blow up play on DJ Monroe. A lot of giddyup on the McCoy sack after the chip block by Fozzy.
DeMarco Cobbs - For all the talk about him getting a look at LB due to Hicks injury, he did not take advantage of his opportunity missing a tackle in the first quarter after making a big hit but not wrapping up. The good news his reads were good and he was on the plays. Offseason technique work will be a priority.
Quandre Diggs - Here's a kid who should be going to his senior prom this weekend. Seriously. But nonetheless, he's on the football field in a Texas Longhorn uni. What a very special football player. Not only does he possess some unique skills but he looks the part. Having an older brother in Quentin Jammer certainly paid off. The kid looked like a veteran when he ran stride-for-stride with Davis on straight up man coverage and nearly intercepted the fade route in the end zone. That was exciting. He looked good as a punt returner, too.
Diaz spoke of Diggs post game: Quandre is a guy who was born to play defensive back. He just has the knack. Some guys you have to draw them a map, but Quandre understands what it takes to play there. He is still young, and like young guys do, sometimes they are there and sometimes they are not. But we are glad he is with us.
Special Teams - Not sure if we got a clean assessment between the breezy conditions, fair catch punts, and first teamers playing thud against scout teamers. We did see Diggs and Davis getting looks at punt return. Russ had a miserable day punting. I'm sure it was the wind but given the amount of time in the program was definitely not impressed.
Justin Tucker is a football player who got jobbed last year with very little post-season award notoriety. He showed a lot of speed forcing DJ Monroe to the sideline on the opening kick. His maturity and experience will help UT win one or two games this upcoming season. Bank.
Turnovers - Given the abysmal performance in this category last season, it appeared to me we are right back where we started with a -1 on the day. There was a lot of emphasis placed on protecting the ball this spring as well as forcing turnovers. Was not surprised that Gilbert through an interception. However, I was very surprised the first team defense did not cause a turnover.
What came to pass on Sunday was certainly a dialed back football team who struggled to dial in with the new systems. There were about 7-9 prime time players who took to the field. That is about 9-10 short of what you need to compete at the highest of levels.
I will say a word about encouragement because the young talent, albeit raw, was on display...Diggs, Moss, Harris, White to name a few. Their play is certainly worth a mention and has me enthusiastic about their potential. I will be watching their development closely.
Coach Manny Diaz stated in his post scrimmage comments, "If we just drafted two teams and split up 11-on-11, who would you want to pick on your team?" That's a great question. Everyone will have their opinion but I believe we currently fall woefully short to identify, or even possess, the winning combination of talent needed to compete at the top of the conference, let alone nationally. Bennie Wylie will be the hardest working overseer in the upcoming offseason. I do so want to believe we'll be a better team...a different team. But what I saw Sunday did not go very far to convince me this is an honest assessment. No, this team has a long way to go in that regard.