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Texas head coach Charlie Strong still confident in offense with Ash out

Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes will have a chance to shine on Saturday.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

New head coach Charlie Strong and his Texas Longhorns will wrap up the second phase of the season on Saturday with the annual Orange-White game.

During a media availability on Tuesday, Strong acknowledged that there have been some ups and down for the Horns throughout spring practice, but said that the spring game will represent an opportunity for the players to "just go out and play and have a good time."

It's also going to feature a slightly different format than in years past -- where former head coach Mack Brown liked to match the first-team offense against the second-team defense and vice versa, Strong will have the ones against the ones, the twos against the twos, and the threes against the threes.

So even though there hasn't been an official depth chart released to this point in Strong's tenure, it will be on full display Saturday minus the injured players, a group that now includes quarterback David Ash, wide receiver Jake Oliver, safety Erik Huhn, and the handful of players that have been out all spring with injuries, which is a reasonably substantial list of its own.

Unfortunately, where in the past the special teams were live, including kickoffs and punts, there will be no kickoffs on Saturday and the punt returners will not have a chance to return the ball, as it will be marked down for play wherever the ball is caught.

And whether or not Ash is injury-prone at this point, there's no questioning his toughness after he fought through his rib injury against TCU in 2012 and didn't back down against Kansas State despite his recent concussion. The same was true about his recent Jones fracture, according to Strong.

"David Ash has really done a great job for us this spring and has really performed well and is very tough because that injury for him -- I don't know how long he has had it -- he said has been bothering him and he came in for our trainers to check and we were able to find out exactly what was wrong," Strong said.

"You would've never known that he had the injury by just how well he has been practicing and the way he has been carrying himself. He understands that a team is going to come and go as their quarterback goes and he wants to be a leader."

Commendable, certainly, but hopefully the injury didn't persist for so long without treatment that it will make the recovery more difficult.

Interestingly enough and despite the praise for Ash, in regards to the quarterback competition, Strong wasn't willing to say that his most experienced quarterback had firmly taken control of the starting job before he went down.

"I wouldn't say so much that he is clear number one but he has established himself and he did a great job with just learning the offense and more with the terminology and just wanting to be a leader and lead the team."

Expect an open quarterback competition throughout the summer and into the start of fall camp then, a competition that will hopefully include USC Trojans graduate transfer quarterback Max Wittek.

As for Tyrone Swoopes, the true sophomore who will receive the first-team reps on Saturday in a chance to prove himself on a big stage following his break-out performance last year that ignited the crowd in attendance, the focus is on confidence and playing within himself, according to Strong.

There's been a learning curve for the young player.

"He can throw the football but he has just got to get comfortable throwing it," Strong said. "He is big, he is strong, he is physical and he is very smart. For him it is just more of him learning the offense."

The scrimmage last Saturday may have represented a turning point for Swoopes moving forward.

"He did a really outstanding job last Saturday. I know I don't know his numbers but he had really good numbers and threw an unbelievable ball to (wide receiver) Marcus (Johnson) down the sideline where he beat one of our defensive backs. It was a big throw but did a really good job and he settled in and had the confidence and just a different air about him when leading the offense."

The Texas head coach also seems to believe that there won't be a tremendous amount of pressure on Swoopes because the rest of the offense can pick up the slack.

"If you look at this offense, we have an offensive line that is doing a really good job of blocking and protecting the quarterback, you have big backs with Malcolm Brown being one of them, and the receivers are making plays but he just needs everyone and that is what you are looking for in a team," said the Texas head coach. "We need everyone to perform and when you do lose a quarterback, whomever you lose, someone else will have to step up so now it is Swoopes' job to step up."

High praise indeed for groups that are missing likely starter Kent Perkins at offensive tackle and Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron at running back. Speaking of Bergeron, Strong said that his big senior back will have the opportunity to be back in the summer "if he does what I ask of him." There wasn't any talk of academics being the issue, but Strong did say that "he needed some things worked on."

Back to that offensive line missing Perkins -- Strong said that the starters right now are Kennedy Estelle and Desmond Harrison at tackle, Dominic Espinosa at center, Taylor Doyle at one guard position and Sedrick Flowers at the other. No surprises there other than Doyle, who has beaten out Rami Hammad for the moment. However, Strong did mention Hammad as one of the back ups who has been playing well, along with center Jake Raulerson, an important player because he's the only center on the team other than Espinosa.

Notably absent from the discussion is former four-star prospect Curtis Riser and consensus top-60 player in the country. There's been little buzz about him as he prepares to enter his third year in the program and if he doesn't make a move this fall, the long-term prospects for him at Texas would seem to diminish considerably with each passing game.

Whatever happens in the trenches, though, rest assured that the eyes of Texas will be firmly planted on Swoopes, waiting anxiously to see if he has what it takes to eventually lead the Horns.

No pressure, big guy.