On Saturday, the Texas Longhorns held the first scrimmage of the Steve Sarkisian era, with the new head coach meeting with the media afterwards via Zoom to describe in broad outlines what happened during the 100 plays that the Longhorns were on the field.
On Sunday, the school released a minute-long video that provided perfect fodder for the type of frame-by-frame analysis that involves squinting mightily at the computer screen and attempting to identify players in practice jerseys that don’t feature the secondary numbers on the shoulders.
Yes, that means it’s closed practice season.
Scrimmage 1: Another Step pic.twitter.com/i7ZxMIbmxl— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) April 12, 2021
The video leads with the first of several hard hits from the Longhorns defense as sophomore safety Jerrin Thompson finishes a form tackle of a Texas receiver with the type of physicality that didn’t flash as one of Thompson’s best traits in his limited playing time last season. With the benefit of winter conditioning this year, the lead clip from the first scrimmage suggests that Thompson may be taking the next step in becoming a more formidable presence at the safety position.
A handful of the clips show similar hard hits from other defenders — even from the small number of flips emerging from the 100-play practice, there were an impressive number of hard hits from coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s group, including sophomore linebacker David Gbenda arriving with the football and forcing Helm to drop the pass.
Sophomore defensive tackle Alfred Collins also made an appearance with a solo tackle of junior running back Roschon Johnson near or behind the line of scrimmage. As Texas tries to replace the production of Ta’Quon Graham as the position, Collins is the prime candidate to continue building on the strong performance in the Alamo Bowl that featured his incredible one-handed interception and a career-high five tackles. Sarkisian had positive things to say about Collins, who had to recover from a wrist injury he suffered at some point last season.
Another hard hit by the defense featured Johnson going down behind the line of scrimmage by a tackler who is difficult to identify, but may be junior Tyler Owens working at linebacker, a position change from safety that Sarkisian confirmed on Saturday.
Even with those big strikes by the defense, the 1-2 punch of Johnson and sophomore Bijan Robinson at the running position clearly resulted in some significant plays during the scrimmage, too.
As Sarkisian criticized the quarterbacks for not showing enough pocket presence and taking too many sacks, it looks like the running game is ahead of the passing game at this point, especially with the quarterback competition and junior wide receiver Jake Smith out with his foot injury.
Robinson provided a rough introduction to freshman safety JD Coffey, getting behind his pads as he crashed into a group of three defenders, then executing a tight, violent spin move that left Coffey attempting to make an arm tackle. Note to the rest of college football — attempts to arm tackle Robinson are not going to cut it this season. Robinson turned the mistake into an explosive play.
Owens made a similar discovery about Robinson on a run that also included Robinson making a nasty cut to ensure that sophomore cornerback Jahdae Barron couldn’t even get close to him in the open field. It’s not just the tackles that Robinson can break that make him so dangerous, it’s his ability to set up defenders and make them look foolish from a distance.
In another play at the goal line, Robinson showed off his strength, discarding a shoulder from sophomore Kitan Crawford, one of the sturdiest Texas cornerbacks at 5’11, 198 pounds. That tactic didn’t work either.
Both players looked powerful and difficult to bring down once they generate downhill momentum, particularly near the goal line, an important development since Sarkisian doesn’t plan on gaining the extra hat provided in short yardage by running the quarterback.
Both players also entered spring practice with room for improvement, like Robinson showed a flash of in getting behind his pads before contact to make his spin move effective or Johnson simply having a chance to work at the position during spring practice for the first time since his position change before the 2019 season. Consistent ball security from Robinson is still a work in progress, but he did look better in traffic based on the clips from Saturday.
Junior nickel Chris Adimora had more success in the open field than some of his teammates against the running backs, dragging down sophomore wide receiver Jordan Whittington thanks to a handful of his jersey.
Other than the pass breakup by Gbenda, there wasn’t much from junior quarterback Casey Thompson or redshirt freshman quarterback Hudson Card as they compete for the starting job. But one quarterback did get one positive clip, with Card finding sophomore wide receiver Kelvontay Dixon over the middle uncovered for a touchdown and Thompson hitting junior wide receiver Marcus Washington down the sideline against coverage from senior cornerback Josh Thompson.
Amidst talk of Texas using more 12 personnel this season, the development of Dixon and Washington this spring will be important for the wide receiver room. Dixon in particular is one of the team’s fastest players coming off of a year that saw him struggle with injuries. When he was healthy, the previous staff clearly wanted to get him on the field, as evidenced by a package of plays put in for him for the Baylor game. Washington was also slowed by injury and didn’t record any catches after the first two games.
Back to Josh Thompson, though — junior defensive tackle Keondre Coburn noted on Thursday that the senior is finding ways to intercept passes in every practice, a trend that continued during the scrimmage when an overthrown ball intended for junior wide receiver Al’Vonte Woodard. Thompson returned the pick for a touchdown.