Texas Longhorns spring football: Recapping the storylines at the halfway point

Malcolm Brown could see time with Johnathan Gray next fall - Stacy Revere

With eight practices now in the books and spring break underway, the 'Horns are halfway through spring practice.

The Texas Longhorns won't take the field again for practice for a few more days as spring break concludes, so it's a good time to check back in on some of the pre-spring storylines and other storylines that have emerged after the first eight practices.

David Ash is working on his leadership

The leadership question has continued into the spring and there were plenty who had feelings about Vince Young calling the Texas starter "Ashley" as a joke, but it's also the case that Young has been putting in a significant amount of time trying to push Ash to become a better leader, something that has never come as easily for Ash as it has for Young in his career, especially in college.

The increased tempo of the offense is supposed to be helping making Ash more assertive in getting everyone in place and the play communicated, while his visible emotion on his touchdown run against Oregon State and subsequent strong close to the Alamo Bowl surely helped, too. Oh yeah, and he's also the clear-cut starter for the first time in his career.

Also protecting the football, making plays with his feet

While Ash wasn't as sharp as he could have been at the first open practice, he hit some big plays on the second day when Mike Davis returned to provide him the deep threat the 'Horns badly need to create long scores and made some other impressive throws. However, he still has a ways to go in terms of making the right read on the majority of plays and getting through his progressions crisply.

The good news is that he is still protecting the football -- after the Thursday scrimmage that closed the first half of spring practice, Ash hasn't thrown an interception through the first eight practices in team work, a trend that started last spring and mostly carried into last fall.

The Texas starter also make some impressive plays with his feet, according to his head coach, scoring on a quarterback draw from around 20 yards out and picking up a chunk play on a zone read. It's rare for the 'Horns to allow their quarterbacks to be hit in the spring, but they did during the spring's first scrimmage, and it allowed them to see that Ash may still have some upside left to uncover as a runner after his strong Holiday Bowl performance in that aspect of his game.

The practices have been physical

From the quarterbacks getting hit in the first scrimmage to intense inside drills, the starting middle linebackers tackling walk ons in warm-up position drills, and open-field tackling drills for the secondary, Brown's assertion that Texas is just as physical as other teams has been on full display through the first half of the spring.

Whether it will pay off with better tackling in the fall is a question that won't have an answer for an unfortunately long time, but the team appears headed in the right direction.

The tempo will have multiple benefits

The push is on for the entire team to get into better condition as a result of the change, the playmakers will get the football more often, it's pushing Ash to become a better leader, and the defense will be better prepared for the Big 12.

Right now, Applewhite's decision looks like a good one indeed.

There are some good things happening the secondary

In the quest to replace the production of star Kenny Vaccaro, the best news that the 'Horns have received this spring is that senior safety Adrian Phillips is finally starting to perform like he was expected to last season. Head coach Mack Brown pointed out the shoulder injury that kept Phillips out of spring and given that the Garland product never had tackling issues prior to 2012 and was tackling well in both of the open practices, Brown's take may be the definitive one now.

Texas also needed to get some separation between the group of young cornerbacks and safeties. The extent to which that has happened isn't particularly clear at this point, in part because junior cornerback Sheroid Evans has been lauded for his play early in spring practice, even if he struggled a bit in the one-on-ones in one televised practice. Junior Mykkele Thompson has also started to come on with more reps.

All in all, it means that sophomore Duke Thomas is getting pushed by Evans, while Thompson is receiving some competition from fellow junior Josh Turner.

The only problems for those guys? Duane Akina doesn't typically play deep rotations in the secondary beyond using nickel and dime packages when necessary, so the losers of those two battles may have some problems getting on the field in close games.

Texas has experienced some major setbacks

Every spring, there are typically a handful of injuries that slow the development of certain players. This spring has been no exception in that regard, as Jackson Jeffcoat has been limited because of his previous injury, Trey Hopkins has been out because of his foot issue, and Demarco Cobbs has also been out after his knee injury last fall.

The losses since the start of spring are starting to add up as well. Starting tackle Josh Cochran fractured his leg/foot. Tevin Jackson suffered his shoulder injury. Jordan Hicks has been limited with his hamstring issue.

And then there was Cayleb Jones and his incident throwing a sucker punch at the tennis player who was talking to his ex-girlfriend Khat Bell, a member of the Texas volleyball team. HIs future with the team is now in jeopardy as a result.

It happens to every team every year, but the Longhorns won't be where they want to be when fall camp starts because that handful of important contributors will have missed significant parts of spring practice or all of it entirely.

Back-up offensive linemen getting heavy reps

As a result of those injuries, with two starting offensive linemen now out for the spring, young players like Kennedy Estelle, Sedrick Flowers, and Curtis Riser are benefitting from the reps that the starters otherwise would have received. With much of the activity happening on the other end of the field with the offensive linemen during open practices, it was tough to get a read on the performances of those three players -- the spring game should provide a much better referendum.

Building championship depth on the offensive line is important not only to have some margin of error to survive similar injuries that may occur during the season, but also because the back ups will have to spend more time on the field next fall regardless due to the new offensive plan to run more plays.

The ability of those three players to develop will have a significant impact on the upside of the 2013 team.

A base personnel grouping may be emerging

To effectively run the up-tempo attack planned for 2013, one of the first orders of business for new playcaller Major Applewhite is finding a base personnel grouping that can stay on the field together for an entire drive, or close to it.

Has that group emerged? With no tight ends flashing the versatility to do be true dual threats as run blockers and pass-catchers, it seems that the two-back sets Texas has been repping pretty heavily in practice may be the new base package.

It generally includes Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray lined up in the backfield together, and Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis as the wide receivers with the versatile Daje Johnson, who is trying to expand his abilities as a wide receiver this spring.

If Applewhite is indeed trying to get his top five skill position players on the field at the same time, that group is probably it.

Dalton Santos losing weight has been good for Steve Edmond

Last spring, Steve Edmond was the only true middle linebacker on the Texas roster. This spring, he has Dalton Santos pushing him after Santos dropped 20 pounds during the offseason in an effort to improve his quickness. As a result, the Man from Van is now taking the first-team reps at the position.

Both players looked faster defending wheel routes in the open practice and the vocal, intense Santos may help bring Edmond out of his rather reserved shell that can lead to a lack of intensity in practice.

Neither player may be completely ready to dominate the Big 12 next fall, but Santos is much further along than he was last year and that's forcing Edmond to become a more fit, better football player.

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