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Making sense of where Texas is this spring after the second scrimmage

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For the first time under Tom Herman, the offense is ahead of the defense.

Texas football

On Saturday, when the Texas Longhorns scrimmaged for the second time this spring, the offense won for the second time, largely behind big runs allowed by the first-team defense. Meanwhile, the second-team offensive line “took a step back” on Saturday — Herman credited the second-team defensive line for making plays and keeping that side of the ball competitive during the scrimmage.

“Everything is fixable. We’ve got enough talent on both sides of the ball to be a good football team, but we’ve got to correct some of these mistakes,” Herman said.

In other words, the problems on defense right now are about technique and fundamentals — gap integrity, leverage, tackling.

Despite the zero-sum game of intrasquad scrimmages, the success of the running backs is extremely heartening for an offense that failed to produce a running play of 40 yards or longer and only managed five runs of 30 yards or longer. Only five schools failed to accomplish the former and the latter ranked tied for No. 100 nationally.

Clips from practice help provide some insight into what exactly happened on several of those big plays.

On one, sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram appeared to bounce a run outside behind strong blocking from the right side of the line — junior Denzel Okafor at right tackle and junior Derek Kerstetter at right guard.

Ingram met senior Rover Jeffrey McCulloch just beyond the line of scrimmage and McCulloch appeared to do everything right as a tackler, but Ingram, who is now combining his natural slipperiness with greater strength and mass, ran through the tackle.

Somehow, Ingram managed to stay balanced — watch how he keeps it by bracing himself with one hand. Not for one or two steps, but for three steps. Somehow, he was then able to instantly use his signature slide cut to make a safety miss in the open field. Another defender, likely redshirt freshman Mac linebacker Ayodele Adeoye, caught him from behind, but Ingram stepped out of the tackle. Another sign of his improved strength.

It looked like the run went for about 45 yards — longer than any run last season — thanks to flashes of what made Ingram such a promising player as a freshman and flashes of what he could do this season with the extra muscle he’s gained, currently more than 10 pounds.

Another run by Ingram, just a brief snapshot, showed him spinning out of a tackle and a catch down the sideline against Adeoye was probably a wheel route from the backfield.

Freshman Jordan Whittington unsurprisingly made an appearance as well, leaving three Longhorns in his wake on an outside run, including one stiff-armed by Whittington. That run also went for significant yardage down the sideline, though it’s not possible to tell just how far.

Both running backs were named the offensive players of the scrimmage.

After the scrimmage, Herman wasn’t prepared to identify whether those breakdowns were mostly at the linebacker or safety level, but he did say that he wants to watch the film to see if the entire team is running to the ball hard enough. Missed tackles in the open field happen, so the best way to limit the damage from those mistakes is excellent pursuit by every player on the field.

The quarterbacks had several runs into space, too, with Whittington serving as a lead blocker on a run by junior Sam Ehlinger and redshirt freshman Casey Thompson also making an appearance.

Other scrimmage clips included freshman wide receiver Bru McCoy beating sophomore cornerback Kobe Boyce when an impressive leap by Boyce wasn’t able to connect with the football. Another showed the reverse — Boyce breaking up a touchdown pass intended for McCoy.

Texas football screenshot

Consider that evidence of Herman’s claim about Boyce’s ball skills from early in spring practice.

Kobe Boyce has showed us that he can really play the ball well,” Herman said. “He’s got a knack for getting his head around on deep balls, breaking on balls.”

Possessing a vertical that measures at 37.5 inches in high school helps, but playing the football effectively in the air is an extremely difficult task and one that causes struggles for many high-level defensive backs who possess every other element of an elite player at the position. Brandon Jones definitely knows that feeling.

At the cornerback position overall, Herman likes the ball skills of his available players and lauded the aggressiveness, physicality, and tackling ability of sophomore cornerback D’Shawn Jamison, who spent his freshman season on offense. However, the whole group needs to improve in its fundamentals, in Herman’s estimation, hardly surprising for such a young group.

“We’re out of position a little bit too much,” Herman said. “Maybe that’s why I notice them playing the ball so much — because they’re having to make some really spectacular plays just to get their finger tips on the ball, where if they were in some better position from some better technique, they wouldn’t need to.”

The surprise appearance on the scrimmage video was from sophomore wide receiver Jordan Pouncey, who failed a catch a pass last season in seven appearances. Pouncey caught a long touchdown pass from Thompson against sophomore defensive back BJ Foster.

“Casey probably had his best scrimmage,” Herman said. “I thought he looked really good and made some really, really nice throws. Had a couple checks that were not great, but that’s to be expected.”

After running the scout team last season, Herman believes that Thompson has progressed as well as could be expected given that he moved up two spots on the depth with the departures of graduate transfer Shane Buechele and 2018 classmate Cameron Rising.

“To be realistic, I think he’s at or ahead of schedule,” Herman said.

Johnson, meanwhile, is still dealing with the typical struggles of an early enrollee at quarterback — everything is happening really fast for him. Despite that typical learning curve, Herman said that the Port Neches-Grove product “made some good throws and a couple nice reads.”

Another big passing play during the scrimmage went from Ehlinger to redshirt freshman wide receiver Malcolm Epps on what looked like a post route for a touchdown beyond sophomore cornerback Jalen Green. Given the lack of safety anywhere near the play, it looked like a busted coverage.

On defense, senior cornerback Donovan Duvernay picked off a pass from freshman quarterback Roschon Johnson.

Herman hopes that the absence of his three top safeties — senior Brandon Jones (ankle), sophomore Caden Sterns (knee), and junior Chris Brown (lungs) — is a major factor in the defense’s struggles with busted coverages and giving up big plays overall. And that’s understandable because the current starters, the only healthy scholarship safeties on the roster, sophomores Montrell Estell and DeMarvion Overshown, are both young and don’t have any game experience at the college level.