With Texas playing their spring game on April 1, we brought in Wescott Eberts from Burnt Orange Nation for a Q&A about the Longhorns spring practices have gone and a look forward at the 2012 season.
1) Let's start with the obvious: How did the QBs look in the Spring Game and what should be the realistic expectations for the position this season?
Until the games start in the fall, it's going to remain a bit difficult to project the upside at the position, which to me rests entirely on the development of sophomore quarterback and prospective starter David Ash to define the high end. For the coaching staff, the baseline expectation has to be to take care of the football. Ash did that, opting not to force any passes, take what was there for him, and run when he didn't see anything -- exactly what he did in the second open practice. As Ash's comfort grows with more reps, it seems that he is doing a better job of managing the job. If he does that into the fall, he's going to be the starter with the upside to help the 'Horns compete for a Big 12 title if he stays on his current trajectory.
Contrast that to junior quarterback Case McCoy, who threw two interceptions and threw a third that was dropped by junior cornerback Carrington Byndom -- not what the coaches want to see out of him, especially after the debacle in the second half of the Baylor game, when the interceptions started coming quickly for him. He worked well over the middle of the field, but he doesn't have the arm strength to work from one hashmark to the other. In other words, his physical limitations continue to, well, limit his upside leading the offense.
2) Who were the big surprises throughout the spring and what names should fans be watching for in the fall who didn't have a big role in 2011?
Besides the development of Ash, the big surprise on offense was the return to form of sophomore wide receiver Mike Davis. He was only targeted once in the game -- on the post route that sophomore safety Leroy Scott intercepted from Case McCoy -- but he also didn't play a lot on Sunday. Based on what came out from practice and on the two open practices, Davis looked much more like 2010 Mike Davis than the 2011 version that dropped passes all over the place.
Senior defensive end Alex Okafor singled out junior end Reggie Wilson as someone who improved through the spring, but he didn't flash during the game to the extent that it's safe to say he's turned the corner. And early enrollee cornerback Duke Thomas had a lot of buzz surrounding his play during the spring as well before experiencing some growing pains and giving up a touchdown catch to sophomore wide receiver Jaxon Shipley when he was in position and simply got beat out to the ball by a leaping Shipley. At this point, there's no question that his natural skills are there, he simply needs more reps at a position he barely played in high school.
Of course, this response would be remiss to not include references to two players who have seen limited action in the fall, but have been consistent spring standouts -- senior wide receiver DeSean Hales, who added a crushing block of sophomore defensive back Josh Turner to help out senior running back Jeremy Hills to a touchdown catch earlier in the game, while Hills ran hard, broke some tackles, and in general looked the best that he has since he's been at Texas. Will either contribute this fall? Hales seems more likely given the lack of depth at wide receiver against much better depth at running back.
3) For the first time in a while, Texas brought in two junior college players this spring. How did they look?
Typically, I prefer to grade the offensive and defensive lines after re-watching the film, so an assessment of both is a bit difficult without the benefit of a second look. However, Hawkins didn't noticeably get beat in pass protection and created some running lanes to his side of the field, so call it an adequate effort at the least, which is better than what Texas received most of last season before then-true freshman Josh Cochran took over. Write in Hawkins as the starter at left tackle. And feel free to do so in ink.
As for Moore, he was in the backfield early, but I saw him get planted late by junior center Garrett Porter, which fits the emerging theme for him -- he's great when he's fresh and he can use the remarkable quickness he has for someone his size until fatigue sets in, he loses pad level, and starts getting knocked off the ball. Continuing to work with Bennie Wylie over the coming months will be critical to determining how many snaps he can handle in the fall.
4) This will be two years in a row that no Longhorn will be drafted in the first round. Are there any players who could change that in 2013?
Defensive end Alex Okafor may not be the best pure pass-rusher among defensive ends in the 2013 NFL Draft Class since he doesn't have anything approaching an elite first step, but he is the early choice as the top defensive end in that group, so he has a chance to work his way into the first round if he can continue his late surge from 2011 into 2012 and work on refining his skills as a pass rusher, which are generally considered raw at this point.
Watch out for safety Kenny Vaccaro as well -- he said this spring that he received an early second-round grade and he's a guy who could challenge for the Thorpe Award this season and work his way in to the first round. His striking ability and versatility to spin down in coverage will interest NFL scouts. If he runs well at the Combine, he could easily sneak into the first-round pick.
5) It's now Year 2 with Bryan Harsin and Major Applewhite running the offense and Manny Diaz running the defense. Should we expect any schematic differences in 2012 now that they've had a year under their belts in Austin?
Obviously, in the second year under any coordinator it's much easier to add new wrinkles when all the time isn't being spent on pure installation and trying to get the players to understand the differences in terminology and that should certainly be the case in Austin when the 2012 season finally gets under way.
Starting off with Manny Diaz and the defense, the main thing is how many more blitzes will be available to him. Diaz has a mind-boggling number of different blitzes and defensive fronts from which to choose and won't be as limited by what his players know -- it should be all blitzes on deck, so to speak. Look for him to take advantage of the speed off the edge that he has at linebacker now with Demarco Cobbs and interior blitzes from Steve Edmond, who has the size and strength to take on and beat interior offensive linemen. After all, he's a few biscuits away from weighing as much as most defensive tackles anyway.
On offense, the differences may not be so stark. Rather than doing a lot of new stuff, the 2012 season offensively will be more about protecting the football and avoiding the turnovers that plagued Texas in losses last season and executing better along the offensive line. Oh yeah, and keeping the skill position players healthy after Jaxon Shipley and John Harris missed time at wide receiver -- and Mike Davis was banged up, according to Mack Brown -- while Joe Bergeron, Malcolm Brown, and Fozzy Whittaker all suffered injuries that killed any and all hopes in the running game by late in the season.