Texas head coach Mack Brown is still working to build quality depth on his team. (Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE)
There's a reason why the 2011 Texas Longhorn football team played 18 true freshman. And it's not just because head coach Mack Brown no longer likes to redshirt players who could leave after only two seasons on the field, a la Jermichael Finley and Earl Thomas.
No, those 18 played in large part because of the lack of quality depth stemming from years of recruiting malfeasance, poor development, and attrition.
On Sunday at the Orange-White game, it was clear to see that the 'Horns still don't have championship depth.
There was walk-on Matt Zapata starting at safety with the second-team defense. There was walk-on defensive end Chris Terry starting with the same group. There was the second-team offensive line getting whipped by the first-team defensive line for nearly the entire first half.
The first two issues will find some resolution this fall when Jackson Jeffcoat, Adrian Phillips, and Quandre Diggs return from the injuries that kept them out on Sunday, but the issues along the offensive line aren't as easy to solve.
What Sunday revealed was just how small the margin of error for this team is at positions like defensive end, offensive line, linebacker, wide receiver, and in the secondary. Virtually everywhere, that is.
That is not the mark of a championship team. Injuries are inevitable in a game like football and it takes a monumental amount of luck for a team like the 2005 national championship group to make it through a season without injuries.
Last year provided a chilling example of how quickly things can deteriorate as a result of injuries. The near-elite defensive unit mostly avoided injuries with the exception of Jackson Jeffcoat, who had to play through his torn pectoral muscle late, but the offense suffered mightily with the losses of Jaxon Shipley, John Harris, Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, and Fozzy Whittaker.
Fortunately, the paper-thin offensive line didn't suffer similar casualties that would have resulted in a full-blown disaster.
Building that depth was a major emphasis during the 15 spring practices, according to head coach Mack Brown:
We are trying to get more depth and be competitive. Depth and toughness are the words we have used all spring. We are really trying to send that message to the players. It is about being at least two deep at every position.
The assessment from defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was stark and candid following the scrimmage:
Well, we're not two deep. What we really need are some (more) at-bats.
We have some talented guys we're asking to step up their roles compared to where they were last year. They all make that step at different times.
Unfortunately, the young players won't get any of those at-bats until fall camp starts in early August, so it's up to them to continue to improve on their own through their conditioning work, 7on7 workouts, and mental reps in the film room.
After giving up numerous big plays through the air, it's clear that the young, unproven talent in the secondary still needs a few more of those at-bats.
On defense, the tip of the spear is up front, but what gets you beat the quickest is in the back. The nature of the positions they play is if you're wrong two or three times, it gets you beat.
If our second 11 doesn't come on, then we'll be exposed. That's fairly obvious.
That pronouncement may be a bit more dire than the actual reality, but there's no question that Josh Turner, Mykkele Thompson, and Leroy Scott all struggled at times, while the second-team linebackers all failed to flash, excepting the big hit that Tevin Jackson put on walk-on running back Heath Hohmann late.
Reinforcements are coming in the 2012 class, especially at wide receiver, linebacker, and defensive end. Still, each of those players will have a different learning curve, as Diaz pointed out, making it virtually impossible to accurately predict when each individual will be ready to contribute.
And even if Texas does manage to get strong contributions from some TGOD members, the 2012 group likely won't make an impact on the still-thin depth along the offensive line, at least no one other than junior college transfer Donald Hawkins.
Unfortunately for offensive line coach Stacy Searels, the effects of poor recruiting and development along the line aren't fixed quickly or easily.
Until they are, Texas won't have championship-quality depth to survive injuries. And Mack Brown probably won't sleep easily at night.