Every year, Mack Brown and his coaching staff make subtle tweaks to the recruiting process, fine-tuning certain areas to ensure that the staff makes the most of relatively limited opportunities to have direct contact with signees and commits:
We invited our signees, some of our commitments for 2011 and some guys we’re still recruiting to watch practice, and we do it indoors. We felt like, after last year, instead of having a scrimmage, (the recruits) want to watch practice. The spring game is so crazy with all the juniors and sophomores that come. We felt like this would be a great day to have a good practice, review our scrimmage on Thursday but also let each prospect see exactly the guys on our team, how they’re practicing and how the coaches respond and react. It’s a good day. I’ll actually leave here and go eat lunch with that group.
The new plan allows the recruits to observe a collegiate practice in preparation for their respective arrivals over the next year and a half, while providing a chance for the classes to bond as individual groups and as a whole. It gives the 2011 group a head start on any other class in the country, helps ensure that there is a deeper connection with each other, thereby tying them more closely to the school and strengthening their commitments.
In the case of Darius White, the strong bond of the players committed to Texas attracted him to the group and though it was probably not the deciding factor in his decision, it undoubtedly ranked as a contributing factor. Both the 2010 and the 2011 classes should step onto campus as one of the most cohesive groups in the country.
Texas will continue using the rugby punt with Justin Tucker, but are also working with John Gold to build depth at the position and keep Tucker from taking on all three kicking phases:
We’re still working with our punting game to see what type of protection ties together the best. John Gold has had an outstanding spring punting. We still have Justin Tucker punting, and we would like to have the rugby and the normal punt. I don’t see people doing that across the country so we’re working hard in that area.
The talk of protection no doubt results from the Big 12 championship game, when Nebraska had success pressuring the edge of the Texas punting formation, resulting in a deflected punt -- if the Longhorns aren't going to use Tucker's ability -- albeit inconsistent -- to kick left-footed, protection may continue to be a problem. Of course, the Longhorns had a breakdown in protection in the Wyoming game with Gold punting that resulted in a blocked punt and Wyoming's only touchdown of the game.
The major benefit to having both available is that it gives the Longhorns more circumstantial flexibility, but the coaches need to determine which punter can better down punts inside the 20, an area in which Texas was not particularly adept last season, as Tucker struggled getting the bounces as a sophomore that made rugby punting so successful in 2008. As Brown mentioned, having both styles available forces teams to prepare for both types, time that can't be spent in other areas.
Aaron Williams is working as the starting punt returner and Brown reported that he had a long return in the 100+-play scrimmage conducted on Thursday. Of the three players who worked returning punts -- DeSean Hales and Curtis Brown along with Williams -- Hales probably has the best burst, but Williams is the biggest and most physical, giving him the most potential to break arm tackles and turn a play that isn't perfectly blocked into a big gain.
Barrett Matthews and Greg Smith will continue to cross train at both tight end and H-back, but the most promising sign may be that Dominique Jones drew praise from Brown for his work at tight end, as he had mostly worked as the back-up H-back through the start of spring practice. Jones doesn't have the same good feet as Matthews, which makes him less effective as an H-back and though he represents the best option at the position if Matthews sustains in injury, any contributions from Jones in the passing game could substantially lift the offense since EBS provides so little in that regard. In addition, Ahmard Howard continues to do little to distinguish himself.
According to Brown, the move of Huey to left guard made sense in terms of the continuity of the line, as Hix and Huey have worked together on the right side for major parts of the last two seasons. In the middle, Brown reports that David Snow is playing at the same level that he did his freshman season and seems significantly more comfortable at center than he does at guard.
Sherrod Harris has likely won the backup quarterback job, mostly due to his experience in the system and the difficult adjustment period for both young quarterbacks. In other words, it's more about what Connor Wood and Case McCoy are not currently capable of doing instead of what Harris running away with the job, which does not appear to be the case, especially after looking completely unimpressive at both open practices. After saying that only one quarterback would redshirt back at his Signing Day press conference, Brown said Saturday that both quarterbacks could redshirt to separate them from Garrett Gilbert.
In the wide receiving corps, the top three receivers are no real surprise -- John Chiles, who drew praise again for his transition inside to the slot, James Kirkendoll, and Malcolm Williams, along with Marquise Goodwin, in whom the coaches believe so deeply that he is basically entrenched without practicing this spring. At the moment, DeSean Hales and Greg Timmons would round out the rotation, but both need to reach a higher level of consistency and will be in a competition in the fall with the incoming freshman to see the field. Though he was known as a solid route runner coming out of high school, Timmons needs more work on running his routes at the proper depth and getting into and out of his breaks more quickly, particularly on comeback routes.
The news with the running backs is that Cody Johnson hurt his hamstring again over spring break -- a similar injury last season derailed him from his trajectory towards earning the top spot on the depth chart entering fall practice. Brown put his problems succinctly, noting that whenever Johnson starts taking a step forward, something sets him back.
Chris Whaley benefited from the opportunity, carrying the ball 16 times during the scrimmage. Brown admitted some stubbornness is wanting to get a solid evaluation of Whaley before thinking about moving him to another position and noted that Whaley must increase his consistency, a catch-all type of problem for young players. It's clear that Brown wants to give Whaley every chance to earn a spot in the running back rotation before thinking seriously about moving him to H-back.
Newton and Whittaker still top the depth chart and gave way during the scrimmage so Jeremy Hills and Vondrell McGee could get work. Hills looked impressive at times and so the lack of separation by the rest of the members in the group may partly be a result of Tony's little brother stepping up his game.
Brown confirmed that although the coaches like Sam Acho inside at defensive tackle, the preference is to have one of the young defensive tackles step up and that hasn't happened yet from Calvin Howell, the best candidate, or Derek Johnson, who was so raw when he came onto the campus that serious contributions from him probably can't be expected until 2011. Brown's comments indicate that the move inside is a ploy to motivate the young defensive tackles as much as it is a practical solution to the lack of depth.
At the Buck position, Dravannti Johnson continues to draw mention at almost every press availability -- both players and coaches. His development should help the Longhorns rushing the passer from the edge, especially with Sam Acho, the first or second-best edge rusher on the team, possibly spending more time inside. It's positive news about a player who was in the doghouse at times early in the his career and comes leading up to a season in which he needs to distinguish himself with a variety of linebackers and defensive ends arriving in both the 2010 and 2011 classes.
The absence of Nolan Brewster has hurt the depth at the safety position, where Blake Gideon and Christian Scott are the starters. As has become the norm for this spring, Kenny Vaccaro's name came up several times:
Duane (Akina) is really excited about Kenny Vaccaro and his progress. He’s learning to play the position and not just knock people out.
Expanding on that point, Brown continued later, drawing Scott into the discussion as well:
Christian and Kenny Vaccaro always want to hit you. They just want to knock it out. They don’t want to sit and wait. Duane (Akina) is a good teacher. Both of them may be showing up a little less in the backfield in a flash, but they’re covering better. We really feel good that both of those guys now are not just hitters, but they’re becoming good football players. Kenny is behind obviously. We’re excited about Christian. He’s lost some weight, because you get a little heavy when you don’t play. He’s so excited about playing and we’re really pulling for him.
It's possible that Scott isn't finished completing the transition from overaggressive hard-hitter to refined football player and Vaccaro is probably a year or more away at this point, but may be able to contribute in a support role this season if some of his hard hits during "thud" portions of practice and near-interception against Garrett Gilbert that would have gone back for a touchdown had he secured the football truly provide insight into the state of his development.
If Gideon can continue taking away the deep part of the field from opposing quarterbacks and finish interceptions and Scott can keep himself around the ball in run support and the short/intermediate passing game, the Longhorns won't experience too much of a dropoff in the secondary from Earl Thomas' high level of production.
- Johnson is the only reported player with a new injury as he attempts to get his hamstring back to full strength.
- DJ Monroe practiced for the first time all spring on Saturday. For a player who desperately needed reps at the wide receiver position and for the team to work on incorporating him into the offense in other ways. With the new approach prominently featuring only two wide receivers on the field at a time, will there be jet series plays in that personnel grouping to get Monroe the ball or will he continue to work from the 11 personnel grouping?
- Blake Gideon is now back to full speed after shoulder surgery and wearing the green jersey during the first open practice.
- Eryon Barnett is full speed as well after his fall shoulder surgery and Brown was pleased his work and "a better evaluation of him" than the coaches expected.
- Emmanuel Acho is fully recovered from his sports hernia and is now practicing with the team -- he will be a critical piece at the linebacker position this year with contributions from Jared Norton, Tariq Allen, and Patrick Nkwopara all questionable.
- Mason Walters should be fully recovered by the fall, according to Brown, and would provide a major boost to a line still searching for quality depth. The question is whether he will play inside at guard or center, two positions that have depth, or move outside, where he ultimately projects to play in 2011 and beyond.