As far as practices go, Sunday's event was largely uneventful. In Charlie Strong's second year, the contrast from prior season to current season wasn't as stark as the previous open preseason practice. But there was still plenty to take away from observation: pecking orders, who's looking to breakout, and what the new offense is going to look like.
The team was in helmets and shoulder pads. Structure of the practice was fairly straightforward: position drills, inside hull with linemen and running backs against the defensive front seven, 1v1s with WRs vs. DBs and RBs vs. LBs, board drills with the lines, 7v7 and some light 11v11. And of course, everyone's favorite, circle drill:
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/fj8levZms-s" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Injuries: DT Hassan Ridgeway was not in pads with an undisclosed injury (not believed to be serious), as was LB Tim Cole. CB Sheroid Evans was not out participating and could be headed for a redshirt season. LB Dalton Santos was dressed but did not participate in team hitting drills, as was DE Caleb Bluiett. Freshman Holton Hill did not participate. Freshman safety DeShon Elliott left practice early with what is being called a toe injury. Sophomore WR Armanti Foreman briefly left the field with a rolled ankle but returned to action.
The question on everyone's mind: who will be Texas's quarterback in 2015? Unfortunately, Sunday's practice was not going to be the environment with which we could make any definitive proclamations. Given the predominately pass-focused nature of the session, Tyrone Swoopes was going to be the standout, and that's how it played out. He can still make every throw on the field and looks best when tossing deep bombs and attacking outside the hashes. The big junior signal caller is the most consistent QB on the roster and will likely be the first to take a snap in South Bend.
As for Jerrod Heard, the RS-Freshman displayed enough improvement over the spring to make it apparent he's earned snaps in live action. The practice didn't give him an opportunity to highlight his dynamic running ability. As a passer, he still has merely adequate arm strength. He can reach enough of the field to be a threat, and when he has a chance to plant and drive he can make tough throws, but he won't overpower anything and is inconsistent when needing to put something on the throw. While not quite displaying a Case McCoy level of arm, his deep ball and passes outside can flutter.
The position is still up for grabs, but Swoopes is still clearly the first guy out (he received all snaps with the first offense). Until we see a live fire exercise, we won't know what Heard has to offer.
A brief note on the new arrivals, Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick. Locksley is an impressive prospect, moves well, and has solid mechanics to show he deserves an honest look at quarterback. But a couple of airmailed passes that nearly ended up in the stands show just how much work he'll need. Merrick is a sidearm slinger that will quite a bit of work on his mechanics before he can start to make some noise.
First line (left to right): Marcus Hutchins - Sedrick Flowers - Taylor Doyle - Kent Perkins - Connor Williams
Second line (left to right): Elijah Rodriguez - Patrick Vahe - Jake Raulerson - Garrett Thomas/Alex Anderson - Tristan Nickelson
In fairly stark contrast to last season, Joe Wickline's charges featured significantly fewer combinations and tinkerings, with the first and second squads remaining the same throughout the morning. The first offensive line matched the squad from the spring, with true freshman Connor Williams continuing to cement himself as a potential longtime starter. There are two ways to look at the lack of movement in the starting order: 1) the starters are not being pushed enough by the backups, or 2) the line returns 4 starters and will be better with that experience.
Given Joe Wickline's record in developing linemen, I'm inclined to believe the latter. The group looked solid in drills against the defensive front, and on inside hull took advantage of Hassan Ridgeway's absence in blowing open consecutive holes for RB D'Onta Foreman. Kent Perkins may be the strongest man on the roster and put defenders on skates often.
The biggest takeaway from the practice for the line is Wickline now has a legitimate two-deep and is comfortable enough slotting players into positions. And while the starters feature 4 experienced players, the second group includes two redshirt freshman, a true freshman, and one of the JUCO members of the 2015 class that has plenty of room to grow.
Wide receivers and tight ends
First group: Armanti Foreman and John Burt outside, Marcus Johnson slot, Alex De La Torre and Andrew Beck H-back.
Second group: Lorenzo Joe and Dorian Leonard outside, Daje Johnson/Jacorey Warrick slot, Blake Whitely, Garrett Gray, and DeAndre McNeal at TE/H-back.
Drops. Drops. Drops. A mean case of early camp dropsies afflicted this group on Sunday, and it made evaluating the quarterbacks and the offense difficult. Leonard, Joe, and Marcus Johnson had more than their fair share of drops. And it sure seems that the drops will impact how playing time is distributed, as John Burt was likely the most consistent pass catcher and looked smooth running routes and has been rewarded with first team reps. I don't think he was dynamic as Armanti Foreman was in last season's open practice, but he showed enough to confirm the belief he will earn a significant share of snaps in South Bend.
Early pecking order: Johnathan Gray, D'Onta Foreman, Duke Catalon, Chris Warren, Kirk Johnson, Tristian Houston
Nothing too surprising or noteworthy from the backs, as the practice didn't really provide enough of an opportunity for them to differentiate. But once the pads come on, it should be a very interesting battle for the second back reps behind the senior Gray.
Defense as a whole
First defense: NT Paul Boyette, DT Poona Ford, DE Shiro Davis, Fox Naashon Hughes. MLB Malik Jefferson, WLB Ed Freeman, SLB Peter Jinkens. CBs John Bonney and Duke Thomas. Safeties Dylan Haines and Jason Hall.
Second defense: DTs Chris Nelson and Tank Jackson, DE Bryce Cottrell, Fox Derick Roberson. MLB Cecil Cherry, WLB Anthony Wheeler. CBs Kris Boyd and Bryson Echols. Safeties Adrian Colbert and PJ Locke.
I wasn't able to catch too much of the defense, as they spent a significant chunk of the practice working through rotations and spots, not much my untrained eye could take away from that.
The one obvious takeway: youth. Lots of it. We may very well be looking at starting a true freshman and redshirt freshman at linebacker in Jefferson and Freeman, unless Cole and Santos get healthy and make an impact soon. I'm not sure where Jinkens fits in here, as he played the strongside linebacker spot that doesn't see the field in Texas's preferred 3-3-5. The backups to Jefferson and Freeman were Cherry and Wheeler, a pair of true freshman.
The linebacker group is fast, plain and simple. And the Freeman/Jefferson tandem was often in the right position to make plays, whereas the Cherry/Wheeler tandem was the subject of plenty of coaching.
At DB, I was bummed to not get a good look at DeShon Elliott, who could push Haines and Hall for a safety spot immediately. Elliott left shortly after the circle drill with what Charlie Strong is calling a toe injury. Given Kris Boyd's great general athleticism and overall scrappiness, I wasn't sure where the Gilmer product would fit in. He sure seems at home at one of the outside corner spots. What he lacks in technique at this point he easily makes up for with great speed and change of direction. Boyd absolutely dogged WRs in 1v1 work. He'll play, and soon.
There's not much to say about the defensive line other than the fact that Bryce Cottrell ends up in the backfield more than any defender on the roster. He'll be a weapon against the passing teams on the schedule. If you have him as a breakout player in 2015, you might just nail that one.
Odds and Ends
- Daje Johnson will get first crack at punt returner, and was steady catching them Sunday. Armanti Foreman will get the second look and dropped a couple. Ryan Newsome was in third and has loads of potential here.
- Aussie kicker Michael Dickson can rocket punts, when he gets them headed straight. He and walk-on Mitchell Becker are pretty even at this point and each had their share of shanks.
- DeAndre McNeal is one of the most natural pass catchers on the roster. At one point he was hanging out with the receivers and fielding punts with ease. At 228 lbs, he was taking care of business in blocking drills as well. When he learns the playbook and knows where to line-up (he was getting constant attention from TE coach Jeff Traylor and WR coach Jay Norvell for being out of position), he will be a difference maker for this offense.
- Underestimate freshman LB Breckyn Hager at your own peril. I was skeptical about his prospects at linebacker, expecting him to grow into DE soon, but he showed plenty of promise navigating the wash during inside hull and planting running backs on a few occasions. Mix in his impressive showing in the circle drill, and the younger Hager may live up to his family's heritage.
- The highlight of the practice? RS-Fr DE Derick Roberson and JUCO transfer OT Tristan Nickelson getting scrappy after the whistle in 11v11 work. The two went at it for a good spell and got quite a few punches in. The team and coaches let them have a moment before pulling them apart and getting them right back to work. I'm on the side of camp skirmishes being a good sign the team is putting in hard work.