With one-half of the 2011 spring practice in the books, the Texas Longhorns football team heads off to spring break while the coaching staff spends excruciatingly long hours dissecting both practice and scrimmage film.
Seven days into practices have provided sparingly little personnel detail and possible separation. Coaches have stated in their limited commentary that the initial objectives are installing schemes and teaching techniques specifically suited to execute those schemes correctly. Players have offered comments about defensive flexibility and "freedom". Offensively, the Texas Longhorns will not mirror anything remotely close to what we've witnessed the last thirteen seasons. There is a significant amount of pre-snap motion with the tight-end(s) becoming primary readers of defensive adjustments.
Coach Mack Brown spoke briefly to the media on Thursday following the mid-spring session scrimmage in which there was no "game planning". In terms of his goals for the scrimmage, Brown stated, "It was also about effort and attitude, toughness, body language, swagger, confidence - all of those things built into one." That's what we'll watch when we're grading this video."
Given the goals of the game simulation session, what were the results in the eyes of Coach Brown?
Point of Attack
Mack specifically described in his comments the need for the team to get better at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. He also mentioned running the ball better and stopping the run. These are fundamental to the point of attack. And he knows it. Was he sending a message to his players that there is still a lot of work left to do? You betcha he was. This is all part of the psychology of moving as far away from the entitlement bug that bit so hard after the multi-season successes the Horns enjoyed (championship trophies aside).
No doubt the team is desperately thin on the offensive line. Defensively, the Horns are weak at end and very young to boot. Both Searels and Davis have their work cut out for them but early reviews indicate they recognize this and are showing seasoned leadership on the practice field to get their respective troops in the right place at the right time. This is further proof the new, energetic coaches bring much needed intensity to these platoons.
"We are thin" is an understatement. Currently, the team reports only 10 offensive positional lineman on the Spring depth chart with one, Luke Poehlman, not participating due to continued rehab work stemming from a severe knee injury last season. It doesn't help that when he returns he is still an unproven on-field talent. Here's the roster line-up.
Others: Mark Buchanan, Dominic Espinoza, Luke Poehlman
Getting Tray Allen back will be important as he was forced to red shirt last season after breaking his foot. No details were provided about this injury and it was assumed it happened at practice. But Alan Trubow was told by Allen himself in an interview it was a weight room accident. "I was in the weight room," Allen said. "I picked up some dumbbells and I wasn't paying attention. There was a dumbbell on the ground. I turned and I caught the side of it. It hit the side of my foot and I broke my fifth metatarsal." This story is a sad revelation given the apparent lack of supervision in that area with Coach Madden's priorities not straight.
We all recall the issues faced last season with only one strong DT playing in Kheeston Randall. Randall still is showing strong and good news is Ashton Dorsey appears to be stepping up as his backup as Alex Okafor has slid over to defensive end which for his weight and instincts are a more natural position.
Regarding the new coaching energy, Hookem247 ($) reported during one of the practices:
At DT, Bo Davis had them all redoing hand placement drills over and over for not striking fast enough or coming off the ball. Rod Wright was there helping. Davis was in their grills about not going hard enough and being sloppy. Big on striking with the inside hand first on the chest of OL to anchor and then pushing up field with the legs and other hand. Kheeston Randall and Ashton Dorsey ahead of others but got equally chewed out. Bible had trouble firing off the ball and staying low.
Brown also mentioned the youth and cornerback. Akina is basically starting over, losing three starters to graduation and NFL draft declaration. Who is stepping up at this critical edge position? It was reported that Quandre Diggs showed big during the scrimmage and had his best results to date. However, look for Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips to begin separating coming back from the break. So far, these two have shown the best. Finding the right mix of speed and skill is still the priority for Akina as the defensive backfield is a work in progress.
At quarterback, Brown said, "We've got to continue to work at getting the quarterbacks comfortable enough with the offense that we can make a fair evaluation of them to try and separate those guys." Coach Harsin mentioned there has to be a "pecking order" to start the process if for no other reason than to peg a starting point. That starting peg is a de facto Garrett Gilbert as GhostofBigRoy reported in his detailed post earlier this week. Word has it he is showing much improvement on the intangibles, namely leadership and athleticism. Witnesses at practice and the weight room have pointed to his interaction with players in terms of motivation as well as support. That is encouraging given that often Garrett would go into a shell last season on the sidelines and mentally disappear when his team needed the vaunted QB to "step up" and lead them to victory.
However, behind Garrett are three prime-time players that are working hard to unseat him. Case McCoy won the back-up role last season but so far appears he is being surpassed in the early going by Connor Wood. Recall in the earlier reporting that Connor spent his Holiday break working with well respected quarterback coach Tom Martinez at Football University in California. Martinez is Tom Brady's personal coach and assisted Tom prior to this last season in tweaking his game. Clearly the work is paying off as those watching are impressed. He still struggles with timing but that will come with increasingly more reps. David Ash is a young gun and is said to have the best touch on the ball. Doubtful he will crack the top two spots due to his youth but give him a couple of seasons and we could be looking at a championship leader.
That leaves Case McCoy. The reviews have not been encouraging about his performance and chances to retain the backup role. The questions are numerous about his game. Nothing to do with his heart or desire, but everything to do with skill-set.
With certain skill players either not participating in spring camp (Williams) or not yet enrolled (Shipley, Brown, Bergeron) expect the running back and receiver squads to continue to evolve. But there is no doubt that one player is head-and-shoulders above the others - Mike Davis - as GBR highlighted. Those discussing practice activities all believe Davis to be a 3 year player. He's that good. Look for HarsinWhite to rely strongly on his playmaking abilities going forward.
With 8 practices remaining leading up to the Spring Game on April 3, the Horns have miles to go to impress. Hopefully the break comes and goes without any off field incidents as that is the biggest thing you worry about. It's natural for players to get home and loosen up their discipline. I think this team is focused and won't deviate from the mission. Especially since starting slots are "wide open".
Don't think for a minute the work is anywhere near complete. Mack is so far impressed with the effort and attitude. While these are certainly important attributes for a winning organization, let's hope this ultimately translates to results on the field.