On a sweltering Sunday morning, Coach Strong played host to a 2.5 hour glimpse at what his first Longhorn squad will look like. The practice was in helmets (still blank slates lacking the burnt orange logo) and shoulder pads, so it was difficult to get any large takeaways from the session. Regardless, the drill work and individual performances were enough to note who may be making noise in the fall.
On the housekeeping side, Jaxon Shipley and Donald Catalon were both held out today, Shipley nursing another hamstring strain and Catalon a new, undisclosed injury. Darius James was in a walking boot on his right foot. Sheroid Evans suited up, but didn't participate in drills and spent the practice stretching on the sidelines. Jordan Hicks began the practice fully participating, but joined Evans as a spectator at some time during team drills. I also didn't catch Miles Onyegbule at the practice.
Ash's health as important as ever
If you were worried about Ash not being sharp after missing so much of his last year, don't be. His footwork and throwing are as crisp as ever, and was easily one of the most consistent participants in practice. Aside from an overthrow in 11v11, I don't recall a single misstep from Ash on the day.
Which is good, because the options behind him are limited. Tyrone Swoopes continues his development, and remains the number 2 option. His footwork remains a little slow, and his decision making wasn't as sharp in 7v7 work, but he still has nice touch on the deep ball and throws accurately when his footwork isn't cluttered.
And make no mistake, state records and championships and polish aside, Jerrod Heard still needs a redshirt. He may be the type that performs much better in games in practice, but Heard has a ways to go before he's ready to take the keys. His footwork is sharp, and ahead of Swoopes, but the more you throw at him the more the accuracy drops off. If this was a straightforward, one read offense operating out of the shotgun all the time, Heard would be ready. But Shawn Watson looks like he'll still run a pro-style system, and expect his QBs to drop back. During some of the more complex footwork drills, Heard completely missed some targets. He'll be great down the road, but the coaching staff would love the opportunity to redshirt him.
In the trenches
Today's starting offensive line read, left to right, Kennedy Estelle - Sedrick Flowers - Dominic Espinosa - Kent Perkins - Desmond Harrison. This is as close to a post-suspension starting five as I think we'll get, but Joe Wickline is cross training just about everybody. With James sitting out, Perkins inside at RG, and Jake Raulerson running the second team center, the second unit tackles were Marcus Hutchins and Cam Hughes, neither legitimate options at this point. Wickline will continue to cross train and mix-and-match until he gets a top 7 or 8, then use players who can play multiple positions like Raulerson and Perkins to fill gaps as they arise.
On the defensive side, the first four remains Cedric Reed and Shiro Davis outside, and Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson inside. Without full pads, it's hard to take any substance from their work today, but it's a long, athletic, and strong group that had little issue getting past the OL and deflecting passes in 11v11 drills. Hassan Ridgeway continues his rise, as he still has incredibly quick feet and continually developing physique. By the end of 2014, he'll be a force. Caleb Blueitt and Bryce Cottrell will get their fair share of reps at DE.
Opportunities abound at the skill positions
As of today, your skill position reads: Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown, Marcus Johnson, and a whole bunch of guys that'll fight for time. Duke Catalon's injury means an even thinner RB position, making D'Onta Foreman's arrival even more anticipated.
At WR, your first group was Marcus Johnson, Jacorey Warrick, and walk-on Ty Templin in the slot. Daje Johnson continues to look for work as he works his way out of the dog house. John Harris will need to step his game up before he gets passed by younger options. Jake Oliver showed off his strong blocking skills in Bull in the Ring, but drew a lecturing from OC Shawn Watson for an error in 7v7.
With the injuries and suspensions ahead, the deep class of freshman WRs will get their shot. Join me aboard the Armanti Foreman hype train. Foreman is incredibly quick, has some of the surest hands, and is just flat smooth on the field. You'd have to convince me he's not one of the 3 or 4 best WRs on campus right now. Lorenzo Joe also showed off some steady hands snagging a deep ball on a go-route in the endzone as Bryson Echols (or Jermaine Roberts, hard to tell from my seat) dragged him to the turf. I wouldn't be shocked to see him contribute this year as well.
As for the other freshman WRs, I'll be expecting redshirts if the staff has the luxury. Garrett Gray and Dorian Leonard are big targets, but could use some further development before they're ready to contribute. Roderick Bernard fought the ball on a several occasions today. It may be him wearing #27, but he's got the build of a running back and sure looks like one with the ball in his hands. Wouldn't be surprised if he redshirts as the staff figures out where he fits best.
Searching for a 4th DB
Quandre Diggs is a clear leader of this team, consistently performing and one of the most physical players in the practice. Maybe someone forgot to tell him they weren't in full pads today. Duke Thomas was the other starting corner, and you'd hardly notice he was out there, which is a good thing in his case. This might be the year Mykkele Thompson puts it all together, as he flashed his incredible athleticism and range on the back end of the defense and showed some flexibility covering guys lined up as a wide corner. And despite not being in full pads, he wasn't afraid to put a pop on someone.
Beyond those three, and with Evans still coming back, the situation isn't so clear. Walk-on Dylan Haines remains your starting safety opposite Thompson, and he certainly isn't back there simply as motivation for the other DBs: he looks like he belongs. Physical, and a sure tackler, Haines is the steadiest of options right now. When Thompson drops to corner, Haines is lined up as a single high safety. But the staff won't try to hide Haines in coverage, as 11v11 work had Thompson and Haines flipping FS/SS responsibilities depending on formational strength and offensive motion. In 1v1 work, Haines held up in coverage, out-physically John Harris across the middle at one point.
Another option at safety is sophomore Adrian Colbert, a physical striker on the back end that continues to receive coaching on his coverage abilities. A name to watch out for is true freshman Jason Hall. I had little expectations for Hall going into the practice, but he absolutely grabbed my attention by destroying Lorenzo Joe early in the bull in the ring drill. Spent plenty of the rest of practice keeping on eye on Hall, who is incredibly physical and was used all over the field by the defense. He'll play this year.
That's the notes I had, but there was still plenty of things of note. If you have questions, I'll try to keep up with the comments.