The Garrett Gilbert era may be closer to nearing an end after a poor performance Saturday in the first Texas scrimmage of the fall.
Heavily favored to earn the starting job after taking over for Colt McCoy last season, Gilbert threw two interceptions during live action at DKR Saturday evening, continuing a disturbing trend that began when he threw four picks against Alabama in the national championship game, carried over into the 2010 season with 17 interceptions, and did not abate in the spring game with another poor decision resulting in a Bryant Jackson takeaway.
Gilbert only picked up one first down during his time and the field and, according to Barking Carnival, showed the poor body language that often defined his time on the field last season.
Equally familiar was the nature of those interceptions. On one, freshman defensive end Cedric Reed deflected and intercepted a pass, a sign that Gilbert still has trouble anticipating the development of passing lanes, something that Colt McCoy always did extremely well at Texas. On the second, sophomore linebacker Keenan Robinson dropped deep into coverage and made an "NFL-caliber play" on the ball. For some quarterbacks, that might be easy to forgive. But for Gilbert, it represents just another data point in a disturbing trend of failing to see underneath defenders dropping into coverage.
Right now, Gilbert just doesn't seem to have the ability to read defenses that sets competent quarterbacks apart from the incompetent. With one observer telling Inside Texas ($) that Gilbert's play was "abysmal," the junior may not have the opportunity this fall to continue to make poor decisions during games -- if he doesn't perform well in the next two scrimmages before the Rice game, he may not even be the back up when the first depth chart comes out.
Considering the buzz surrounding his efforts during the spring, summer, and fall, true freshman David Ash was either the best or second-best quarterback on the field, depending on the source, and received some first-team reps, a telling sign. Able to keep plays alive with his feet to either complete passes downfield or pick up positive yardage, Ash also impressed in other ways:
The Asset tells us Ash moved the team with some pinpoint accuracy and some plays with his feet. More importantly to Harsin perhaps, was the fact the true freshman continued to play mistake free football. Among Ash’s best plays of the night was an absolute pea delivered to Miles Onyegbule in a tight window for a big gain, along with some athletic plays running the ball. Right now Ash is the total package. He displayed arm strength, accuracy, and athleticism in last night’s scrimmage. Ash also "commands the huddle" better than any of the other QB’s we’re told. He’s a leader, and he’s had the best August, our source close to the staff said.
Right now, it looks like Ash is making a serious run at the starting job, potentially leaving Garrett Gilbert and sophomore Case McCoy battling for the back-up job.
But McCoy's struggles with spinning the football continued, a combination of his poor footwork and lack of arm strength. Though at least one observer described his jump-ball touchdown in the endzone to true freshman wide receiver Miles Onyegbule as a good throw, the Asset described it as one of four "ducks" on the day, the type of throw that seems to define McCoy as much as his Colt-like accuracy.
For McCoy, the uncomfortable fact remains that his inability to drive the football down the field makes him a poor fit in Bryan Harsin's offense and unless he can eventually gain strength and refine his footwork, it looks unlikely that he will ever be able to fulfill that basic requirement.
The final candidate, sophomore Connor Wood, may well be on track for a transfer -- he looks like the fourth quarterback on the depth chart despite his intriguing potential. It's not exactly news at this stage that he struggles with his accuracy and that inability to consistently deliver the ball on target overshadows his obvious physical skills of strong mobility and an equally strong arm.
Despite the intense focus on the quarterback position, there are plenty of other positions at which coaches need to see separation. Until the inevitable injury happens, senior running back Fozzy Whittaker has been impressive throughout fall practice, having taken to Bryan Harsin's scheme. An I-back in high school, Whittaker seems to have found a comfort zone entering his final season. For what feels like the 20th year in a row, Whittaker could finally break out. As long as he stays healthy. With Whittaker, "if" remains the operative word. If bad luck doesn't strike -- helmet to the knee, a twisted ankle -- the key for the senior back could be the strength of his shoulder, which could help him avoid the stinger that plagued him last season.
Elsewhere at the position, true freshman Malcolm Brown did not participate in the scrimmage, as he's been limited in practice during recent days with a minor leg injury, though he did take part in the opening drills. Fellow frosh Joe Bergeron has drawn rave reviews throughout the fall for his developed physique and ability to use that strength to pick up yards after contact. He's also starting to gain a repetition for running over defenders in practice. With Cody Johnson working exclusively at fullback, Bergeron could be in line for more carries as a feature back than previously believed. Redshirt freshman Traylon Shead ran for a touchdown, but he hasn't had much buzz surrounding him since last season and it's unclear if he has improved his pad level, a serious issue during the spring.
Fan favorite DJ Monroe, the junior scatback, nearly broke a long run and reportedly caught the ball well out of the backfield, a major question mark entering the season after struggles catching the ball throughout his career. A player accustomed to having the ball handed to him, it could be that Monroe has finally resolved the concentration issues that seemed to be more of a problem for him than simply having poor hands. The good news is that it continues to sound like Harsin and Applewhite have a set of plays for Monroe to get him the ball. Freed DJ Monroe?
Along the offensive line, the major development is the move of sophomore Mason Walters out to right tackle. A move long expected by Texas fans hoping for him to answer the questions about the tackle position, Walters at tackle significantly increases the margin of error for the offensive line by reducing pressure on sophomore Paden Kelley to emerge as a starter. Walters reportedly struggled against Alex Okafor on the edge during the scrimmage, but increased repetitions should help. Not to mention the fact that he probably won't face many defensive ends as good as Okafor, who looks primed to become an all-conference performer.
At the other four positions, senior Tray Allen held up well at left tackle, while senior David Snow kicked out to guard with redshirt freshman Dominic Espinosa starting at center. Sophomore Trey Hopkins held down the other guard spot, with sophomores Thomas Ashcraft and Garrett Porter backing up the interior of the line, which should prove to be the strength of the unit, an opinion supported by the group's strong play opening up running lanes in the scrimmage. Junior Luke Poehlmann still doesn't sound ready to shoulder heavy reps -- he's still not strong enough.
Sophomore Mike Davis and true freshman Jaxon Shipley continue to receive the most buzz and look like the top two receivers entering the season, though both suffered drops on the night. Redshirt freshman John Harris and sophomore Darius White look to be next in line in the rotation. The emerging name is true freshman Miles Onyegbule. While far from being a quick-twitch athlete, Oneygbule is a big target and showed his ability to go up and get the football in jump ball situations with his acrobatic catch in the end zone over true freshman cornerback Josh Turner to haul in the pass from Case McCoy.
After missing the last two seasons to injury, junior tight end DJ Grant may finally be ready to shine and could also be the starter at the position against Rice. Always a threat in the passing game as a converted receiver, Grant is now willing to do the dirty work as an in-line blocker. And though there are no reports of him making any notable plays, senior tight end Blaine Irby participated fully and did not seemed limited by his knee. Positive news. Redshirt freshman Darius Terrell caught a touchdown pass and could stretch the field as an H-back or inside receiver.
On the defensive side of the ball, junior defensive end Alex Okafor was strong off the edge against Mason Walters. Okafor's going to be a star and it's going to happen this year. Sophomore Jackson Jeffcoat is a known commodity at this point despite being limited by his high ankle sprain as a freshman, while sophomores Reggie Wilson and Chris Whaley have all the athletic talent in the world, but need refinement. True freshman Cedric Reed flashed with his interception, though he may not be entirely ready for the jump in competition.
The linebackers may be the best unit on the team on either side of the ball. Sideline to sideline, the athleticism of players like senior Keenan Robinson, fellow senior Emmanuel Acho, and sophomore Jordan Hicks is extraordinary. The issue is that both Robinson and Acho still struggled to come downhill and separate from blockers. Unless Hicks is ready to step in at middle linebacker, the team could struggle some to defend the run if offensive linemen are getting free runs to the second level. Even if he doesn't end up at the Mike, there are plenty who believe that Hicks is already the best linebacker on the team. High praise.
Among the back ups, both redshirt freshman Aaron Benson and sophomore Demarco Cobbs flashed, with Benson being a pleasant surprise in that respect and Cobbs much less so after drawing rave reviews throughout the spring and summer. Expect the Tulsa product to see serious playing time this season.
For the players tasked with keeping the offensive linemen off the linebackers, the reviews seemed mixed. Senior Kheeston Randall is the known there, but sophomores Ashton Dorsey and Calvin Howell struggled at times holding their ground against the interior of the offensive linemen against the running game. True freshman Desmond Jackson has the same problems, but could be a situational pass rusher with his ability to shoot gaps. No real answers there, yet.
With junior safety Kenny Vaccaro out with a minor hamstring injury, junior Nolan Brewster started along senior Blake Gideon at safety. Gideon intercepted a McCoy pass and apparently played his centerfield position well. Not a shock, as Gideon plays that role well. Sophomore Adrian Phillips also saw some reps there with Vaccaro and Christian Scott out and redshirt freshman Bryant Jackson moved to receiver.
Phillips is getting reps at safety partly out of need and partly because it looks like super frosh Quandre Diggs has taken over one of the starting cornerback jobs. It's increasingly more astounding every day that it took so long to offer the kid. At the other corner position, sophomore Carrington Byndom looks entrenched and continued to do a solid job, while younger players like freshman Josh Turner and sophomore Adrian White had some growing pains. Texas needs Byndom, Diggs, and Phillips to be good and probably doesn't have much room for injury there.
On punt returns, Diggs, Shipley, Phillips, and Davis all got reps, while Diggs, Monroe, and Darius White returned kicks. the big question on kicks is whether or not Texas can find someone to replace Malcolm Williams as the lead blocker, a role Williams played well. If the unit can once again become a team strength, it could take a lot of pressure off the offense by handing Harsinwhite's group better field position.
The real story, though, continues to be the quarterback situation, which will be the focus until the first depth chart comes out. And beyond. Is there another quarterback controversy brewing in Austin? Feels like it.