On a sunny Friday afternoon at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, the Texas Longhorns held their first open practice of the spring in front of a crowd of about 100 fans who came out to get their first viewing of the team since the Alamo Bowl at the end of December.
Some notes and observations:
-- The new tempo was apparent in the early going as the offense worked against air, even breaking out a formation with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray in a pro-style set flanking David Ash in the shotgun.
-- The early part of practice also featured some extensive work with Gray taking snaps in the Wildcat, a sign that Major Applewhite will continue to use the package and may even expand it based on how much attention it received. Joe Bergeron also got some reps as the trigger man in what would likely be the short-yardage version of the look, though Gray got those reps last late season.
-- Anthony Fera spent the entire day working with the punters with William Russ out for the spring with his back issue. Nick Jordan was the first-team place-kicker and had a solid day, comfortably hitting all of his kicks inside the redzone in team drills and looking consistent from 40 yards. He was backed up by Nick Rose. Since there's only Michael Davidson to push Fera right now, it looks like Jordan may handle field goals moving forward as Fera focuses on winning the punting job.
-- When the linebackers worked on wrapping up against their position mates early in practice, Steve Edmond absolutely rocked a walk on, taking them to the ground in a drill that is essentially supposed to be in thud tempo. Not to be outdone, Dalton Santos responded by doing the same. Poor walk ons. Being cannon fodder is not the most glorious task in the world, but someone has to do it.
-- Both linebackers looked thinner, with Edmond's listed weight now at 255 pounds, down about 10 from last season. It helped him move better in coverage, as he was excellent defending wheel routes, closing on Daje Johnson to knock one pass away when it appeared the speedster had an easy touchdown, though the ball from Case McCoy hung in the air a bit too long. The Texas quarterbacks repeatedly tried to hit that play in redzone passes drills, but were unable to connect a single time due to strong efforts from Edmond and Santos, both of whom looked at least a half step faster than last season.
-- Santos was the starter at middle linebacker, with Tevin Jackson playing on the strongside and Peter Jinkens the weakside with Jordan Hicks held out of practice due to his recent hamstring strain, though Hicks was dressed and participated lightly in several of the position drills.
-- Jackson Jeffcoat was also dressed and the situation was similar for him. Listed at 245 pounds, Jeffcoat looked noticeably thin in the upper body part of the way through his second straight offseason with a pectoral injury. In fact, Shiro Davis is listed at 236 pounds, but looked bigger than Jeffcoat, who may be closer to that weight right now. The fact that the son of the former Dallas Cowboys star has missed so much time in the weight room could cost him some positioning from the NFL Draft comes around next spring.
-- Hassan Ridgeway looked as good in person as expected. What's remarkable about his progress physically over his roughly nine months at Texas is the fact that he's gained so much weight, but is still incredibly lean -- much more lean than the other defensive tackles, with only the barest minimum of bad weight around his belly. Ridgeway received a lot of individual instruction from defensive tackle coach Bo Davis and flashed several times in the team drills with his quickness.
-- Tyrone Swoopes was as expected -- erratic at times, especially in work against air with the other quarterbacks. The Longhorns often had three quarterbacks throwing at the same time, right next to each other but working on different routes, something they didn't do last year, but a tactic that allows for more reps for each of the quarterbacks. Swoopes had some struggled working on the skinny post routes, when his velocity appeared to eat up his receivers and his throws were often high. His best throw of the day may have been one that was dropped, as he tried to hit Bryant Jackson down the seam and put the ball where only his receiver could catch it, but a nice play by several defensive backs helped knock the ball free.
-- In a drill from inside the 10 that worked on fades and back-shoulder passes, Case McCoy probably exhibited the most consistent touch on throws that favor his ability to put some air under passes. David Ash struggled notably to hit the back-shoulder passes and in general had an average day, though he wasn't making mistakes. While that would have been acceptable last season, the expectations are higher and based on Friday's practice, he hasn't made any noticeable strides through the first few spring practices, though one practice is hardly cause for concern.
-- Jalen Overstreet looked a little more thin in his lower body than he did on film in high school, though he was probably quicker than expected, taking the edge on Caleb Bluiett in the redzone running drill. It was difficult to get a read on his accuracy based on his fairly limited reps, but he didn't appear to have the same issues spraying the football that Swoopes was having.
-- Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has now supplanted Stacy Searels as the coach most likely to throw his hat, as his cap took a substantial beating on the day, hitting the ground in disgust at least five times, with the primary culprit being his position group missing on their run fits. Tevin Jackson in particular drew a lot of heat late in practice for missing his gap and Kendall Thompson notably ran himself out of one in the redzone running drill, a common theme for him last season when he wasn't being dominated by blockers.
-- The first- and second-team defenses dominated the offense in redzone 7-on-7 passing drills, providing virtually no passing windows for any of the quarterbacks and forcing almost all the completed throws to be made to the flats. A coverage breakdown resulted in an easy catch and run touchdown for Cayleb Jones when he went inside and the running back went outside to confuse the defense. Another touchdown pass from David Ash to MJ McFarland, who beat Adrian Colbert on an outward-breaking route that was well-delivered, but other than that, there wasn't much given up, even though the offense was in 10 personnel and the defense stuck with their base 4-3 alignment.
-- The Longhorns really got into their tempo offense with redzone team drills late, often getting plays off within about 10 or 15 seconds, while also doing more checks at the line of scrimmage when they would align and look back to Major Applewhite for their playcall. It didn't have much of a positive impact, however, as the defense was able to hold the offense to a field goal on every single drive in team drills at the end of practice.
-- Mack Brown called the perception that the 'Horns don't have physical practices a "farce" and a "myth" when spring practice started and backed it up on Friday, as the intensity went up several notches for inside drills that pitted wide receivers and defensive backs, the offensive and defensive lines, and the running backs and linebackers. The running backs and the linebackers were probably the most intense, as players had to be separated after virtually every play and the respective position group whose player won the battle would explode with emotion. Throw in the hits from Edmond and Santos and some fierce tackling in team drills, and the practice was one of the most physical that the Longhorns had opened to the public in recent years. If this was how Texas practiced all last fall, the amount of hitting in practice wasn't the problem.
-- Malcom Brown absolutely took down Sedrick Flowers in one one-on-one battle during the inside drill, while Caleb Bluiett notably dominated Greg Daniels on another rep. Bluiett was one of the fiercest defensive ends on the day, consistently displaying some serious attitude and want-to, especially during the team portions. Based on his play Friday, he could factor into the rotation this year. MJ McFarland had a rough couple of reps when he was beaten handily by Bryce Cottrell, who has earned some buzz this spring with his work. McFarland may still be another year or so away as an in-line blocker, though the hope is that he can do better work as an H-back, though McFarland informed me on Twitter after practice that he's got it and I can chill out. Want-to certainly doesn't seem to be the issue for him and he seems to be going about the process right, so the odds are high that if he has the potential to become a good blocker, he'll get there.
-- The Longhorns used an offset I in the Pistol that featured Johnathan Gray next to the quarterback and Malcolm Brown as the deep back in one redzone drill, but Gray was absolutely blown up on his trap block. While it's an interesting look, it's one the 'Horns may have to scrap if they are consistently going to have Gray going against a much bigger player.
-- Kendall Sanders didn't always look like he was on the same page as David Ash, stopping on one route that Ash threw over his head and into the endzone and dropping an open out route that went off his fingertips. However, he did make an impressive diving catch in the endzone on a Tyrone Swoopes pass and made several tough catches in traffic.
The Longhorns will be at it again on Saturday starting at 2:00 pm CT. Bring your sunscreen folks, as the forecast calls for clear skies.