With temperatures in the 60s, a blue sky overhead, and abundant sunshine, there could not have been anywhere in Austin better to be than in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon for the second and final open practice for the Texas Longhorns in advance of the annual Orange-White game less than a month away.
The practice on Saturday marked only the second time thathas opened up practice to fans and media since August of 2010, so the last two days have provided a fantastic opportunity to preview a team that will enter the 2012 season facing increasingly high expectations after a 13-12 record the last two years.
The narrative arc is for the 'Horns to compete for a Big 12 title this season and a BCS bid before taking the next step to compete for a national championship in 2013.
So, what evidence did the Saturday practice provide that Texas is getting closer to those goals?
Follow after the jump for a position-by-position breakdown.
Quarterback: Sophomore David Ash took every repetition (or close to it) with the first-team offense on Saturday, leaving Case McCoy to work with the second team and Connor Brewer to rep with the third. The most impressive thing about Ash on Saturday was the fact that in the reps that I saw, Ash didn't throw an interception the entire practice and never even really came that close. All that despite the fact that he consistently showed the ability to fit passes into relatively small windows between defenders.
There's some obvious progress from Ash, particularly in making better and quicker decisions about when the pull the ball down and run. On multiple occasions throughout 11v11 drills, Ash was able to buy time in the pocket and then find a running lane to pick up big yardage on scrambles.
The most impressive play may have been when Ash avoided Steve Edmond on a blitz after the big linebacker got into the backfield with little resistance, then planted his foot and got up field with some alacrity. The athleticism of Ash is something that continues to set him apart from Case McCoy.
If there was a concern, it was that even though he managed to avoid the interceptions and made some extremely impressive throws, the consistency on his deep balls, even when there weren't any defenders working in the drill, still leaves something to be desired. For whatever reason, in the redzone 1v1 drills, Ash was struggling at times to put the ball exactly where he wanted. Sometimes it would be a little bit late, not anticipating the break of his receiver perfectly. Sometimes he gave himself too large of a margin for error and wasn't as crisp as he could have been.
Case McCoy was just okay. During the 1v1 drills in the redzone, he was at his best throwing fade routes into the endzone and had some consistent success there, but whatever time he has spent improving his mechanics doesn't seem to have made much of a difference, as he still has the same delivery and still struggles to spin the football at all. The ball comes out of his hand wobbly at virtually all times and that isn't just an aesthetic issue -- it makes it hard to throw into the wind and it decreases whatever velocity McCoy can put on the ball with his weak arm strength.
In the scrimmage drills, McCoy was helped by the fact that he was going against a defense featuring a walk-on at defensive end, but on one roll-out, he was sacked (the play was blown dead, more specifically) by one of those walk-ons when he failed to get the ball out on time or even throw it away at the last second. It's a practice rep, but disappointing nonetheless. McCoy also did not throw an interception on any of the reps that I saw, but he did have a ball dropped by linebacker Aaron Benson that would have gone the other way for a touchdown had the Cedar Hill product been able to secure the football.
Connor Brewer received limited reps in the scrimmage portion of practice working with the third team. At times in earlier drills, he showed the touch that was his best attribute coming out high school, but, like McCoy, also struggled at times spinning the football consistently.
Going against a defense entirely featuring walk-ons, Brewer did a strong job of standing tall in the pocket and using his high release point to get the ball out. His lack of ideal height will always be a hindrance for him, as well as his average arm strength, but he'll maximize what he has with his presence and his strong mechanics.
Running back: Sophomores Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown split time with the ones, with Brown the starter during 11v11 drills. He fumbled on a big hit from Kenny Vaccaro on the first play, but recovered after that to do some solid work out of the backfield and showed as much burst as he has in his time at Texas on one play when he hit the hole hard and showed off his solid feet to get into the second level. He looks lean and mean.
As for Bergeron, he still looks the part a bit more than the taller Brown with his thicker build. He looked healthy following the hamstring injury that limited the last half of his freshman season and made Alex De La Torre look bad on one play when he shed the early enrollee on his tackle attempt. His most impressive play may have been when he accelerated through a gaping hole on the right side of the offensive line and flat-out embarassed Leroy Scott playing safety by juking him in the open field for a touchdown.
The thought here is that Bergeron is the best back currently on the team.
Senior Jeremy Hills flashed as well against the second team defense, which had some struggles on the day, but whether that he will translate to a game is still a mystery and it seems highly unlikely. Still, he ran hard and behind his pads during a strong performance.
DJ Monroe wasn't particularly active during the day, but did catch a swing pass, which hasn't always been the case for him with his sketchy hands.
Wide receiver: The standout on the day was junior Mike Davis, who made a one-handed catch in the endzone against Quandre Diggs that was quite spectacular and another big play on a post route when he adjusted to a ball that was underthrown by David Ash and outfought Kenny Vaccaro for the football and the big play. He did have a couple drops on the ball, but overall, he looked much more like the new player reputed in practice reports than the poor 2011 version.
For whatever reason, Jaxon Shipley didn't flash often during full-team work, but he was running without a brace or sleeve on his knee and looked 100% healthy. It's extraordinarily rare to see him drop a pass ever and his feet are so incredibly quick. In drills against air, it's still impressive to see just how well and effortlessly he can pluck the ball from the air. Stud.
Miles Onyegbule was working mostly as an inside receiver in a flex type of role and had issues again dropping passes, but also made a nice play on a seam route against sophomore safety Mykkele Thompson.
Senior DeSean Hales seemingly always looks strong in the spring and that continued on Saturday, but it just doesn't mean anything until he shows the ability to do it on fall Saturdays instead of spring Saturdays.
Tight end: Without watching the tight ends specifically in the running game, it was hard to get a great sense of how they were doing at the point of attack, which is really the biggest concern facing them. However, they were extremely strong in the passing game.
Senior DJ Grant is no longer running with the hitch he had last season and looks as fast and fluid as he ever has at Texas, with the possible exception of his early days before his knee injury. Regardless, the point is that he finally appears to be healthy and it allowed him to make some plays after the catch. During 7v7 drills, Grant made an outstanding diving catch of a David Ash pass that drew applause from the Texas fans in attendance and may have been one of the best plays he's made in public as a Longhorn.
Likewise, MJ McFarland also had a strong day in the passing game, going full extension to make a play on another Ash throw in 7v7 work and providing some evidence of why he was such a successful wide receiver in high school. He worked at times split out in the flex tight end role that should suit him well. Of course, it will all come down to blocking with him, as his receiving skills have never been in question. Still, he looks the part more than any other Texas tight end, so the physical attributes are there.
As he did during the 2010 spring, senior Barrett Matthews motioned into the fullback position at times and even made a tough catch against good coverage. If his hands have finally come around, he could see the field more often in 2012.
Offensive line: The first-team group had some issues against the first-team offensive line, but also had some strong moments as well. Donald Hawkins looked strong in the running game getting into space and making blocks, but redshirt sophomore center Dom Espinosa had some more struggles with sophomore defensive tackle Desmond Jackson and junior defensive tackle Brandon Moore. Not enough to be seriously concerned, but enough that it continues a disturbing narrative.
In 1v1 drills, Kyle Kriegel and Garrett Greenlea were getting beat by walk-ons. Let that sink for a second. Not only that, but Greenlea was working at guard in those looks, while Kriegel was at tackle. Greenlea is clearly a guy who needs to step it up.
Defensive end: The best play for the star at this position, senior Alex Okafor, came when he was unblocked off the edge due to a busted assignment on a third down play in the scrimmage work, and could have done some serious damage to David Ash had the Texas quarterback not been wearing his black non-contact jersey. During an earlier, stretch, Okafor was part of the left side of the defensive line that caused havoc on multiple plays in a row.
On the other side, junior Reggie Wilson flashed at times as a pass rusher, particularly in one 1v1 rep against left tackle Donald Hawkins, the JUCO transfer, when Wilson used his first step off the edge and perfect hand placement to keep Hawkins from being able to control him. However, on another play, Wilson lost the edge in the running game against Hawkins, allowing a fairly significant gain that had defensive end coach Oscar Giles talking to his pupil about his work against the run. Until Wilson can consistently hold up at the point of attack
Defensive tackle: Unfortunately, junior Chris Whaley didn't flash much during practice, but Brandon Moore and Desmond Jackson certainly did. Jackson is just so squatty that it is extremely difficult for opposing linemen to get under his pads and keep him from getting where he wants to be, even a guy like Sedrick Flowers, who isn't that much taller than Jackson.
Moore was working with the second team and while he wasn't a dominant as he seemed to be on Friday, he still does a remarkable job of playing low for someone his height, and that allows him to hold the point of attack extremely well. He looks like a possible starter even though he took second-team reps on Saturday and has a better first step than expected. It sounds like he's working hard to get in shape and when he does, he's going to be a monster. Great pick up for defensive tackles coach Bo Davis.
Linebackers: There's a clear drop off between the first-team unit and the back ups. DLT just doesn't look the part -- more like a walk-on than a scholarship player -- and wasn't around the football much. Aaron Benson dropped an interception that would have gone for a touchdown. Overall, the group had some serious issues getting gashed in the running game.
Jordan Hicks made a big-time play on the second snap of scrimmage work when he laid a serious blow to Malcolm Brown and Steve Edmond was a beast on blitzes up the middle, a deployment of his skills that defensive coordinator will likely take advantage of often this season.
Edmond looked like he was in solid physical condition and reasonably lean, but he did struggled when he was going against the running backs, often having to resort to holding in coverage. Despite his strong size/speed combination, those aren't the match ups that highlight his strengths and he likely won't be in those situations often as a middle linebacker.
Defensive backs: Kenny Vaccaro is the star here and he was the star on Saturday, delivering the biggest hit of practice on the first scrimmage play when he lit up Malcolm Brown and relieved the running back of the football. Just an incredible strike. It wasn't the only one that Vaccaro laid on the day either.
Going against Onyegbule in redzone 1v1s, Vaccaro jammed him so hard at the line of scrimmage that Oneygbule, a big, strong receiver, couldn't even achieve a release. After battling for several seconds, Vaccaro sent the Arlington product to the turf with a shove. Wow.
The second biggest hit of practice may have come from sophomore cornerback Quandre Diggs, who leveled Bergeron on the edge. Extremely impressive. Diggs also did a good job of jumping slant routes once again.
The rest of the group was a bit more of a mixed bag. Junior Carrington Byndom wasn't noticeable at all -- which means he didn't give up any big plays, but also didn't make any either. Sophomore Leroy Scott whiffed on Bergeron on the open field and gave up a touchdown.
Sophomore Mykkele Thompson clearly brings range that the departed Blake Gideon could only dream about, but he struggled in one-on-one coverage in redzone drills and in the scrimmage portion, repeatedly getting beat in both and giving up that long touchdown to Onyegbule.
Kickers: The team didn't practice punts or kickoffs on the day, but what happened in the placekicking game was cause for serious concern. Redshirt freshman Ben Pruitt missed two field goals from inside 40 yards -- one of them an incredibly ugly attempt that had no leg on it at all and went wide left.
Will Russ wasn't any better, missing a short effort of his own. On his other practice attempts, instead of getting his kicks end over end, he was putting a weird side spin on them, suggesting that there is some mechanical issue that's causing him not to strike the ball cleanly.
If neither improve over the coming months, it will put an immense amount of pressure on incoming freshman Nick Jordan to take over those duties. Right now, kicker looks like the position on the team that could really lower expectations for these Longhorns, even more so than quarterback. Even six months away from the first game, there's some cause for serious concern here.