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Texas Tuesday practice notes and observations

The Horns were in pads at Frank Denius Fields for the fourth spring practice and the media was allowed a viewing window.

AUSTIN, Texas — On a cloudy, humid Tuesday, the Texas Longhorns held an early practice at Frank Denius Fields, the fourth of 15 overall in head coach Steve Sarkisian’s second spring, and the second in pads.

After practice concluded, Sarkisian expressed some disappointment with the overall level of intensity during the practice, citing the weather and alluding to some potential letdown after standout former quarterbacks like Colt McCoy and Sam Ehlinger were in attendance on Saturday with a host of top recruits, highlighted by the presence of 2023 gunslinger Arch Manning.

“I thought the energy was okay today — I thought we had to kind of poke and prod a little bit to get the guys going,” Sarkisian said. “Obviously, weather wasn’t as nice. It was a little earlier in the day. They know they’ve got three practices this week, but those are the things that we have to fight we can’t fight the pick and choose you know, when our energy and our passion is up to the standard that is needed on a daily basis or weekly basis in-season.”

Sarkisian was happy with the physicality as he noted other high-level imperatives — avoiding glaring errors like blown coverages or blocking assignments, poor ball security, route-running mistakes, and reads by the quarterbacks, trying to avoid focusing too much on outcomes and not enough on the process.

“We want both sides to play really well and I thought we had moments today where that was true — both sides played well, played hard, played physical, played smart. And clearly there were errors made that we’ve got to get corrected so we can keep moving forward and improving on a daily basis.”

The first period open to the media featured warmups before Texas went into some ball security drills split up by position groups, then a special teams period focused mainly on punting where wide receivers Jordan Whittington and Xavier Worthy served as the primary return men. There was a bad snap resulting in a blocked punt during that period, but it came from a walk-on offensive lineman serving as the backup long snapper until signee Lance St. Louis arrives this summer. So, not exactly concerning.

The small available group of offensive linemen then split off to go through some drills on the field behind the Bubble and the defense was difficult to observe working down at the southern-most practice field, leaving the readily-available observations primarily on the offensive side of the ball.

A few impressions:

  • After watching players like Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Pat Mahomes in 7-on-7 or Elite 11 settings over the years, it’s clear that quarterback Quinn Ewers belongs in that same group just in terms of how the ball comes out of his hand after seeing him throw in person for the first time. It’s so easy that it almost seems effortless and the ball jumps out cleanly every time. With two quarterbacks throwing and multiple other position groups working through drills just on the offensive side, some of the biggest impressions come from flashes. One with Ewers was catching only the end of a pass that floated perfectly into a wide receiver’s hands — only seeing that touch on it, I knew that there was only one quarterback on the field who could have thrown it. Sure enough, it was Ewers.
  • Hudson Card received a lot of praise from Ehlinger last year over his own ability to spin the football and while it’s impressive, it’s not quite on the same level as Ewers. It’s a subtle difference, but on some long balls it seems like Card throws the ball up and lets the receiver go get it. Ewers, in contrast, seems to process the dynamics of those throws differently, hitting the receiver in stride more often than not on a much more efficient line.
  • Charles Wright was still working behind walk-on Ben Ballard and was inconsistent spinning the ball. There’s a significant gap between Card and Ewers and those two, which isn’t exactly a revelation, but it was noticeable. Maalik Murphy was out of his walking boot and received praise from Sarkisian for his mental reps and work in the meeting room, but he still has a lot of mobility he needs to regain before he’ll be ready to practice.
  • In the running back group, Jaydon Blue looks like he belongs with his athleticism, which he certainly proved on the track and on the field before he opted out of his senior season. No small feat going through drills with the varied high-level skills of Bijan Robinson, Roschon Johnson, and Keilan Robinson, though. Jonathon Brooks was not in attendance for personal reasons, according to Sarkisian.
  • Transfer Isaiah Neyor is one of those players who jumps out physically. He looks every bit of his listed 6’3 and Sarkisian credited him for transforming his body since arriving in Austin about two and a half months ago. Out on the field, he’s fast and fluid and looks crisp with his route running.
  • Sarkisian has made sure to note the ability of new wide receivers coach Brennan Marion teaching technique and the Texas players have made some strides there, in part because most of them have a better understanding of the offense and a greater level of comfort in it. Unfortunately, the Longhorns are still a bit thin at the position this spring. Troy Omeire and Jaden Alexis are both out as they rehabilitate from their knee injuries and 2022 signees Brenen Thompson and Savion Red don’t arrive until the summer. After being banged up for two years, Dajon Harrison is healthy and does bring some dynamic ability to the position, but he’s also still a long way from securing a spot in the rotation for the first time in his career.
  • At tight end, Ja’Tavion Sanders is obviously the player who catches your eye on the field with how he’s built and how he moves. Gunnar Helm isn’t too far behind in impressing as he runs routes. Billingsley looks more like Lil’Jordan Humphrey than a pure tight end, but he’s another big, fluid athlete like Neyor, and not a lot bigger. Sarkisian praised Billingsley’s physicality as a blocker, but noted the need for him to be more consistent, a complaint consistent with how Billingsley was viewed when he left Alabama to enter the NCAA transfer portal. Brayden Liebrock is still a little bit limited in what he can do after multiple shoulder surgeries and was wearing stabilizing gear on both shoulders.
  • Texas is definitely in a better spot than it was a year ago in having those really special-looking athletes on the field, but offensive line is not one of those positions. Right now. There’s not a Connor Williams or a Sam Cosmi on this team and the guys who could fill those roles either need to show it on the field or show up to campus this summer. It’s a notable weakness until it’s not.
  • One of the positions I was hoping to get some clarity on is nickel back and that was difficult with the defense working so far away and my desire to watch the quarterbacks and tight ends/wide receivers. I asked Sark about it and he said that Jahdae Barron, Jerrin Thompson, and Anthony Cook are all working at the position and that they’ve made some tweaks to how they’re utilizing that role. I followed up by asking for a rep split for Cook between nickel and safety and Sarkisian wasn’t willing to offer anything more than he’s playing defensive back. Texas is still seeking a lot of clarity at that position and, relatedly, how it will important personnel and playing time at safety, where Cook and Thompson could conceivably be the starters.
  • Along the defensive line, Sarkisian noted that they’re still trying to figure out what defensive fronts are the best fit for this group and admitted that he underestimated the loss of Jacoby Jones to the edge-rush position when he went down against Oklahoma.