One of the main themes of every spring is some wondering and gashing of the teeth over who will step up into leadership positions to fill in for the departed seniors in those roles. On the defensive side of the ball, leaders like Sergio Kindle, Lamarr Houston, and Roddrick Muckelroy departed, as well Earl Thomas, who began to take on a larger role in the secondary as he came to better understand the schemes as a whole in Muschamp's defense -- looking through the door instead of the keyhole, as Boom put it last year, leaving a leadership void that will have to be filled for Texas to excel this season.
Several of the candidates to step up defensively into leadership roles are becoming apparent and linebacker Keenan Robinson is one of them:
That's something that I talked to Coach Muschamp about. It's something that I talked to Mad Dog (Jeff Madden) about. I need to step up and be a leader on the team and on defense too. That's something I've been looking forward to doing the rest of the spring.
Another junior is taking on a leadership role on the interior of the line due to his seniority -- Kheeston Randall:
I just have to do what the coaches want me to do and play to the best of my ability and give leadership. That's what I'm supposed to do. I'm the oldest in my room. That's my job.
Right now I feel real comfortable, because Lamarr left the club in good hands. It's my turn to just keep pushing.
Perhaps the most obvious candidate is one of the few seniors on the defense and one of the most mature and well spoken players on the team. Like Lamarr Houston two years ago, Sam Acho is now getting used to to move inside to play some defensive tackle next to Randall, who says:
(He) has been doing great. He's real excited about the move. He's still providing the leadership that we need out of our senior d-linemen. It's great for him.
Until the team steps onto the field in the fall and faces some adversity, the true extent of that leadership the three experienced players are discussing will not truly be known, but the early indications seem positive. The coaches work hard to identify potential leaders and push them to take those roles.
Over on the offensive side of the ball, the concern isn't about leadership -- this is clearly already Gilbert's team in a way that even Colt McCoy was not able to command in his first year as a starter, partly due to the experience along the offensive line in 2006 and how scared McCoy was at times of going into the huddle with them -- but the focus is on the major changes in the running game and the influence that is having on the attitude of the offensive line in particular.
Fozzy Whittaker, somewhat surprising sitting directly behind Tre' Newton on the depth chart at the moment, has already noticed a change in the big nasties who patrol the trenches for the Longhorns:
I think they like it a lot, as much as I talk to them every day, they're always talking about getting downhill and just rolling people out and every time I say that, they get big smiles on their faces, so I think they're liking it as much as we are.
New left tackle Kyle HIx confirms that excitement, specifically about being able to play more often in a three-point stance with his hand on the ground:
(The offense) is kind of more downhill than anything, a lot more double teams I guess you call it and tying to get more movement instead of just trying to get people in space and get them out. It's more of coming off the ball and hitting instead of trying to zone and reach people.
I did this type of offense in high school so I'm just going back to what I've always done my whole life, and I like putting my hand on the ground a lot more than trying to run block out of a two-point stance. There's nothing wrong with the other offense, obviously, but I'm a little more adept at this offense.
Hix, Michael Huey, and Tray Allen -- possibly even Britt Mitchell as well -- all seem like players more comfortable drive blocking than reach blocking, so this may be the perfect year for Texas to make the schematic shift. Not only does this group of linemen seem like a better group overall to be drive blocking than last year's group, but they seem to be buying wholeheartedly into being able to fire off the ball at people and adopt a physical attitude and nastiness that has been absent since 2006, an attitude never demonstrated better than in the Cotton Bowl that year when the Longhorns several times picked up almost five yards on quarterback sneaks, the epitome of blowing the other team off the ball.
More than just instilling a higher level of aggression along a line known last year for their overall lack of pride, aggression, and a host of other toughness-related intangibles, the new-look offense is helping the running backs. According the Fozzy Whittaker, going under center has helped his vision, along with keeping the defense guessing as to the exact direction of the running play, as Hix mentioned in one of his comments:
We actually get a view of the whole field a little bit more, we're able to see everything all the way from corner to corner. Basically whenever you're in the gun you're offset to a side and have a little bit more focus on the side that you're offset to or it's a little harder to see away from the field, but in the I(-formation), you're able to see a lot more.
We have different aiming points; we changed some of the aiming points that we had before. With being in the gun like 80 percent of the time in years before, it's different aiming points coming from five yards rather than seven and a half yards when we're in the I(-formation), so that's the biggest change.
Instead of moving sideways, where the running back can only really use half of his vision (due to his shoulders often being perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, especially on the outside zones), Whittaker and the other backs can know read what is happening in directly in front of them with their shoulders squared to the action, rather than anticipating what will happen in front of them horizontally on the field, which makes it more difficult to see any holes that may open up.
From open practice, it was also apparent that the running backs had an easier time seeing and hitting the cutback lanes, especially when the Longhorns ran their zone plays from under center. Whittaker was the only back who was occasionally able to hit those lanes from the shotgun, but the backs as a whole were much more inconsistent with that than they will likely be this season.
In regards to the future past this season, there are several groups of young players attempting to earn playing time with good spring practices. Keenan Robinson mentioned AJ White, who is learning quickly going against the second-team wide receivers, and Kenny Vaccaro, the hard-hitting safety who has continually been mentioned this spring as a player who could earn significant playing time this season. In terms of being consistently mentally strong, playing Christian Scott and Vaccaro together at safety may result in too may mental breakdowns, but would represent the hardest-hitting safety duo at Texas in a number of years. Those two patrolling the middle of the field would be enough to cause a rash of alligator arms among opposing wide receivers.
On the offensive side of the ball, building depth at the offensive line position is crucial heading into 2011. There hasn't been as much buzz around older players like Mark Buchanan or Luke Poehlman, which is disappointing, but several members of the 2009 class have drawn attention. Hix mentioned guard Thomas Aschraft by name, the player who is currently in line for playing time behind the two starting guards and whom Hix described as having the best of any of the offensive linemen.
At the center position, Garrett Porter received commendations from Hix for his play at what is a new position for him -- he may slot in as the backup to David Snow as the coaches seem intent on avoiding overloading the interior linemen with playing guard and center, one of the prevalent theories as to why Snow seemingly regressed from his freshman to his sophomore year. Paden Kelley has also received some positive comment from the coaches for his work at left tackle.