Today is the last day of spring practice before the annual Spring Jamboree Orange-White open scrimmage. Given this is the first look for almost all of us, rest assured nerves are high for coaches, players, and fans alike. While still stinging, 2010 is hopefully a distant memory and your 2011 Texas Longhorn football squad is ready for its debut with many new faces all around. With Sunday's scrimmage a FREE event, I certainly hope there is a renewal of enthusiasm and excitement among the faithful Longhorn followers with DKR packed and rockin'. If you're reading this and in the ATX on Sunday, please whittle out the few hours and go support the team. If for no other reason than for the gazillion odd diehard burnt orange folks who are not able to attend.
Spring practice started with many questions. Coach Brown discussed in his pre-practice statements that all positions were "open". He reiterated along the way that a depth chart is probably not going to be published after the spring session. However, I think it safe to assume that who we see playing the first few series come Sunday will be prominently showcase their talents on Saturday's this fall.
In spite of the announced "closed" practice sessions, team officials have done an excellent PR job availing coaches and players to Q&A sessions with key media personalities. And with in$ider reports, Longhorn fans have been treated to several assessments of the progress made this spring. Coach Brown offered an assessment following a late spring practice scrimmage session.
On what they are looking for in scrimmages: We want to be physical. We want to be mentally tough. I saw a guy hurt his shoulder a little but once, came right back on the field. I saw a guy grab a groin muscle a little bit, came right back out on the field. So the guys are really competing, and they are trying to get this thing better. The coaches are putting in a little bit more each week. So with this being a closed scrimmage we could do a lot of things today that we may not do next week (Orange-White scrimmage).How have the new Coaches performed?
Bennie Wylie is your MVP. He started his hopefully long tenured run as the Strength and Conditioning-Football Coach with a bang. If reports and interviews are accurate, which there is no reason to believe they are not, then he is the real deal. Native Texas Wylie is indeed the new sheriff in town. He has instantly rejuvenated the S&C area in such a way that players believe in themselves, but most importantly, have bought into his methods and techniques. Many a tweet was written about "gettin up to grind" during offseason workouts. And the Wylie youtube clips gave us all a glimpse of his workout intensity. He literally will run right alongside his players. Case in point, take Taylor Bible. Wylie has spent a sizeable amount of time working especially hard to bring Taylor along. That is dedication on both their part but certainly a real testament to the type of commitment Coach Wylie brings to the job. This may prove to be Coach Brown's best hire on the new staff.
What is also encouraging is the fact that a different tone has been set and with the new staff, there is seemingly not a "favorites" issue. By that I mean previous coach/player relationships were severed. This meant that legacies blew up in smoke. Each player had to reestablish their credentials in all areas: film room, weight room, and practice field.
By all accounts the new staff - - Davis, Diaz, Harsin, Searels, Wyatt - - has passed the eye test. And as mentioned in my previous Spring Football post, Diaz is proving himself to be Coach Brown's front man with the media, equipped with a dazzling array of quips and quibbles.
Replying to a question regarding if he had any All-Americans on his defensive squad, Diaz quipped, "Watching or practicing? We've got some great ones that are watching on the sidelines. As for All-American, I'm not sure if you're talking about North, Central or South."
It's a seemingly welcome change compared to the robotic "coach speak" we were blessed with in previous coordinators. Nothing wrong with "coach speak"
One final note on this subject. We were certainly excited when it was announced Jerry Gray would assume the coaching duties for secondary. No sooner had he finished his press conference and helped secure the 2011 top-five recruiting haul than he landed one of 32 defensive coordinator positions in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans. This was potentially a huge setback for Coach Brown after a promising start to rebuilding his staff. Well, a big ‘ol tip of the hat to Coach Duane Akina for his willingness to return to the 40 Acres. Coach Akina, if you are reading this I want to extend a thank you for your tireless and dedicated efforts in coaching up some of the best defensive backfields ever to play in Austin. We appreciate you more than you could possibly know.
The upgraded offensive scheme has only been described as the "Texas System" and certainly not like anything we've seen in Mack Browns 13 seasons. I had not read any reports describing how the play calling would arrive on the field until Mike Davis piped up the other day.
On the hardest thing about adjusting to a new offense: Really, I think the signals. We know the plays and stuff, but on the sideline we've got somebody with the cards, somebody with the plays, and somebody with the formations. So you've got to get your eyes over there and look at three different people. It's kind of tough, but you have to get focused and look over there.
The 2011 Longhorns find themselves in yet again familiar territory in that the offensive line is short on experience and excruciatingly thin after the starting five. And that is one scary proposition. Given the repetitive mission statement of forging a stronger running game, the fact the OL is somewhat limping into the offseason will put tremendous pressure on Coaches Wylie and Searels.
The uncertainty on the OL is offset by the excitement in the receiver corps. As reported in many posts, Mike Davis is killing it. Several next-level players and coaches have mumbled he is a "3 and done" type of player inferring he forgo his 4th year of eligibility, when it comes, and declares for the NFL draft.
With Goodwin focusing on track again this spring, other receivers have had a chance to showcase their skills. Darius White is slowly becoming the second go-to wide out behind Davis. His raw talent has somewhat been his Achilles heel but reports have been positive about his contributions not just in terms of playmaking effort but also his off-ball capabilities. John Harris and DeSean Hales off also received praise for their work toward securing playing time.
If the new offense is to be successful, improvement will be required of their route running craft as well as tactical blocking skills. Receivers were given a sub-par rating last year in these categories. Even marginal improvement will be head and shoulders better.
Tight end and H-back has seen renewed attention as with the Boise system. A lot, I repeat, a lot of pre-snap movement has been mentioned in the new offensive look which fans will not recognize as part of the Mack Brown's "pro set" look. Malcolm Williams sat out the early part of spring practice but since he has joined the team, he's been provided a chance to showcase his talents at flex tight end and H-back and has impressed. He's solidly built but a bit behind in conditioning. D.J. Grant has moved to the front of the pack
The usual running back suspects have garnered much attention during spring camp in Whitaker and Johnson. The seniors are in shape and have worked hard to compete for starting looks. Will this hold? No one is really sure at this point given the all-star Cibolo Steele recruit Malcolm Brown has yet to grace the field. And RS freshman Shead definitely looked the part showing good early, but has been significantly limited with a hamstring injury. I still think he is an under reported talent and will surprise once fall camp and the new season arrives. I loved him as an all-time Texas school-boy record holder and love him in burnt orange. Call me a HUGE fan and expect big time playmaking from this exceptional young man.
Finally, QB reports have been inconsistent. What this tells me is there is clearly no real front runner which really says the position is Gilbert's to lose. Beyond that about the only thing that has been consistently reported is David Ash has "it" to be the next quarterback for Texas. While not many are saying this I look for Wood to transfer. He has put in the time and effort both on and off the field and can be a starter for many a D-1 level team. This is a wild hunch on my part with little in the way of firm evidence to support. Again, this is just a hunch on my part.
Unlike the new "Texas System" offense, we've learned quite a bit about the Diaz system. It exploits the speed and athleticism of the talent and he is focused on getting the best eleven players on the field regardless of the position they played or were recruited for. He wants FOOTBALL players. And, in his system, players are put in the best position to attack and be successful BEHIND THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE. Those are all winning improvements in this man's view. If we recruit 4 and 5 star talent then let's exploit that talent. Why harness the instinctual play making capabilities? I realize
The weakest part of the defense is Akina's secondary, especially at cornerback due to any game experiencing to speak of. Phillips and Byndom have lept to the front but Akina has his work cut out for him in getting this crew ready for the new season. Diaz has stated we'll see more blitzing to incite quarterback pressure and reduce the exposure on the edge somewhat. But this is a high risk-high reward style. It will be interesting to see if Mack has the stomach for this style of play.
Kenny Vaccaro made some waves early in camp but has been relatively quiet ending the session. More than likely he has been moved to the side to allow the younger players more reps given he has all but secured an every-down role. As we have seen in the past, his physical play is electric and you want a guy like that on the field because he will create the natural competitive mimicry so key in today's ego-centric athlete.
Look for Blake Gideon to secure the other starting safety position. Gideon will be a four year starter for the Texas Longhorns. Very few, repeat, VERY FEW football players that have graced the 40-acres can boast of that accomplishment. His football acumen and leadership skills are invaluable. He has worked hard to earn his playing time contrary to what many would have you believe. There is no such thing as a guarantee starting role, especially in Akina's backfield. Gideon has been very vocal about his enthusiasm for the new Diaz defense and I for one think we'll see his best effort this upcoming season.
The other 6-7 defensive spots are really the meat and potatoes of the squad. Last season's leading tackler, Keenan Robinson, has moved to middle linebacker which will allow a healed Acho to slide over to his natural SAM position. Unfortunate that Jordan Hicks fractured his foot but that gave the youngster Cobb the opportunity to slide down from safety and showcase his physical talents at LB. And the reports have been glowing.
"He's a great young man. Very smart, very humble football player. He's very passionate about being a great player. That's what you want. You want guys who say ‘Hey, it's a clean slate.' You want somebody to jump forward. I think if you walk in the locker room right now, Jordan Hicks has the respect of everybody on our football team.
And unlike last year, look for the Longhorns to be more physical and formidable in the middle with returning DT Randall and his backups.
Other than a few mentions by Coach Brown, we've not learned a heckuva lot here. Coaches Applewhite and Akina were named co-special teams coordinators. I for one hope this is an area that receives renewed emphasis and if Brown has his way it most certainly will. One thing about Brown, he has consistently stated that games turn on the play of special teams and turnovers.
On the importance of special teams: All of the pro scouts, pro coaches, owners and head coaches that come through here tell us that if a young guys is not in the top 10 picks in the NFL and he doesn't play on special teams, he's probably not going to get drafted and especially not very high. So they expect everybody to play special teams, and that's what we're really challenging our team to do.
Outside of kick return, the youth movement is in full force if Hookem24/7's observations of one practice session come to pass.
Starting kick returners were Darius White and Monroe on kicks with Williams rotating in. On punts, Adrian Phillips, Diggs and White all got reps. Fitzhenry held on snaps.
Hardly a spring practice doesn't go by without one or two marquee players suffering a practice ending injury. This year Jordan Hicks drew the short straw suffering a foot fracture which will sideline him until fall camp.
Chris Whaley decided to follow in Henry Melton's footsteps. Whaley has taken to the defensive end position with strong, physical effort but unlike Melton, has not necessarily proven a natural at the position. It will take a significant amount of study and reps for him to make a run on the defensive side of the ball and most importantly to impress Diaz.
"When the novelty wears off, does he have the wherewithal to stay with it day after day. With him being new to me, I don't know that about him. He may or he may not. Like I said, the jury is out a little bit. Could he play defense? I couldn't tell you."
Even if he doesn't earn a starting role, any reps he can offer at this depleted position will be plus ones.
Making the Grade
Don't expect to see more than basic plays in Sunday's spring scrimmage. Coach Brown spoke to this in his most recent media availability.
We are a work in progress. Even if we had everything in we wouldn't show it. It's [on] national TV with ESPN. We'll have a huge crowd there to watch. There will be some opponent's fans in the stands. There will be people trying to video stuff in the stands, and you don't show everything. What you do want to show is your fight, your competitive nature and that we've got enough athletes to go back and win.
Coach Brown offered his assessment of what he's seen this spring. Clearly the team is starting over more so than any point in Brown's tenure.
We ask our players with the new ideas and the new staff to move forward and act like it's their first day at Texas. We ask the staff and coaches that were here to greet the new coaches and staff that came in like it was everybody's first day at Texas. I committed to start over like it's my first day at Texas, and I don't think I've ever had any more fun at a spring practice. These guys have really worked hard. We have a lot to do. We're not near as good as we have to be next fall to be competitive and get where we want to get, but everybody's trying and that is a positive sign.
Mack Brown is due a lot of credit. He was humbly contrite to the team and fanbase after last year's disappointing season. He responded by overhauling a program that had grown complacent, and let's face it, was stuck in a rut. A successful team has to