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Texas Longhorns spring game analysis: Linebackers

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Review of the spring game creates more questions than answers from the linebacker position

247Sports

Tom Herman’s first spring game at Texas has come and gone, and now we, the fans have four and a half months of wanting, waiting, and analyzing before we get to see our beloved Burnt Orange in action again.

The main takeaway from this game was that it was uneventful. Sure, we got to see the dynamic combination that Shane Buechele and Collin Johnson are becoming on display for the first time in the Tom Herman era, but that has already been discussed in depth, so I am not going to analyze that any further. If I’m a Big 12 defensive coordinator, I’m extremely nervous about that combination after watching this game.

Aside from that, there are really no major takeaways from the Easter weekend affair, but I will do my best to garner some analysis from what was displayed on Saturday.

Analyzing these spring games is an extremely difficult task.

There are several reasons behind this; the first being that both the offense and defense bring a greatly simplified playbook to the inter-squad matchup. What we saw on Saturday was just a shell of Tim Beck’s offensive playbook. This is understandable, as Beck wants to get enough insight to evaluate the talent he has and improve his player’s performance without giving Maryland the advantage of seeing his entire hand on display. One advantage he has in his first year working with Herman is that teams don’t have a full understanding of what the offense will look like, and will have to piece together an idea based on film from Ohio State and Houston games. Providing them more insight than a few vanilla passing plays would reduce that advantage and is really unnecessary in the scope of this scrimmage.

Another factor which limits the ability for analysis of these types of competitions is that the first teamers are competing against the second teamers. That begs the question as to whether the ones are performing really well or the twos are just that bad or vice versa. What we did see is at this point, the defense is surely ahead of the offense in execution, both ones and twos, but that’s to be expected at this point in the installation process and will likely be the case when Texas takes on Maryland on September 2, as well.

Lastly, Texas featured a backfield consisting of only one scholarship running back, who has only been on campus for three months. Carter looked good at times, but struggled with ball security; one of Tom Herman’s major points of emphasis. This can be expected from a true freshman who is not used to the physicality of Division 1 college football, however, it is a problem nonetheless.

Because of this issue, it seemed that Beck did not display much of a running game, which makes it impossible to determine just how good Texas’ run game is on either side of the ball. Without knowing this, it is virtually impossible to gage how good the team will be, especially considering how not utilizing the run game on early downs affects the complete dynamic of the game. With that said, there are a few takeaways from the game that can be addressed. This will start a series of position by position breakdowns of the Longhorns spring game, starting with the inside linebackers.

Malik Jefferson, where have you gone?

Jefferson worked with the ones during Saturday’s scrimmage, but seemed to be mostly ineffective. Without seeing much of a run game from the offense, it’s difficult to really judge exactly how the projected leader of the defense has progressed, but he was slow to process on several occasions, leading to missed opportunities.

Jefferson didn’t effectively execute the blitzes he was sent on, being blocked most of the time, and when in coverage, there were times when he was late to recognize the proper angle to the ball, allowing for passes to be thrown through his window. He did appear to play a more physical game, and while sometimes, still resorting to his habit of playing too high, he was able to effectively hold his own against the second team offensive line. It appeared that Jefferson was overthinking his responsibilities, which leads to slow decision making, and the on-field result is being a half-step too late to the play, which he was on several occasions.

There were also occasions in the blitz game where he failed to see the blocking scheme and adjust his route appropriately. This resulted in missed opportunities at quarterback sacks and pressures, and in some cases, allowed Buechele to break the pocket for a successful scramble. Edwin Freeman, on the other hand, seemed to be making the plays Jefferson was not, recording a sack in the game while being involved in several other successful defensive plays. It is also worth noting that Freeman was making these plays against the first-team offense; an even more impressive feat. At this point, it seems that the competition for the starting Rover position is alive and well, and based on the limited exposure from Saturday’s game, it appears as though Freeman may have an edge on the starting spot for this position at this point.

Breckyn Hager’s absence leaves a question mark.

Hager’s move to the inside linebacker spot was one of the top stories of the spring. In 2016, Hager was first on the team in tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (6) and second with 64 tackles, leading to second team All-Big 12 honors. He appeared to be a rising star at the outside linebacker position, but this spring, largely based on the lack of depth on the inside, Todd Orlando decided to move Hager to the Mac position.

How Hager’s skill set would translate to the middle linebacker position was questioned by many, including myself, and his ability to read and react at the position was one of the most interesting questions for the Longhorns defensively going into the spring. Hager appeared for a few plays in the first series with the number two defense, and was regulated to the sideline thereafter. The reason for the lack of field time has not been disclosed by Herman and staff.

On the bright side, Anthony Wheeler, who worked at Mac with the ones was able to hold down the position, making several plays throughout the game, and backup Erick Fowler seemed to be serviceable as well. While neither player was dominant in the game, both seemed to be adequate options at this position and more help is coming this summer with the addition of JUCO All-American Gary Johnson.

All in all, the play from the middle linebacker position was simply okay. If I had to put a grade on this position group for Saturday, it would be a C+, but there is good news. The Longhorns still have all of fall ball to get this position group ready for September 2, and not every player in the competition is on campus yet.

More reason for optimism is that there seems to be a healthy competition at the position, which will lead to more depth and hopefully greater growth for all of the personnel involved. Lastly, the linebackers seemed to have improved in their physicality over last season, and there were surely fewer missed tackles in the spring game than we saw in 2016. They have one of the best teachers in college football with Todd Orlando, so while there is room to grow, these young men are in a great position to take advantage of the opportunities for improvement that presented themselves on Saturday.