During the final week of spring practice, university professors and their guests were invited to come watch the Longhorns at Frank Denius Fields. Even some of the sharpest minds in academia had difficulty gauging what they saw.
“OK, what am I looking at here?,” one professor asked.
Therein lies the difficulty of measuring spring practice.
Texas coach Tom Herman has talked up his charges over the last five weeks. The Longhorns will conclude spring drills with their 15th and final event on Saturday — the annual Orange-White spring game at Royal-Memorial Stadium. Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free.
The athletic department has planned a full-blown extravaganza. Four live bands will play at various stadium gates. Fans will be allowed onto the field afterward for an autograph session. Dozens of top-flight recruits will be in attendance, all getting the burnt-orange carpet treatment.
Forecasters have predicted rain on Saturday. Herman is hoping that every weatherman in town is dead wrong. Worst-case scenario, Mack Brown can commandeer the Longhorn Network microphone and spin yarns should things get soggy.
The “game” itself is mostly a glorified practice. Fans are coming to see quarterbacks Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele. They want to see a retooled defense that lost four key starters. But most of all, they want to see if a program that went 7-6 last season has made dramatic strides.
Asked what he wants to see, Herman said, “Clean game. Substitutions, not a whole lot of busts with the (first team), if any on offense or defense. Coaches aren’t going to be out there screaming at their guys on where to line up and what calls to make. See if we can play penalty free, if we can play as assignment-sound.”
Knowing the game is televised on LHN, Herman does not want to give away trade secrets. So expect a lot of inside zone running plays with Toniel Carter and Danny Young. Schematically, running off tackle is bread-and-butter stuff, something all teams worth their salt should do with ease.
But Carter’s had fumble issues this spring, and Young apparently hasn’t blown anyone’s doors off. In fact, Herman moved a linebacker over to running back and turned it into an open tryout.
The Longhorns are operating with only eight healthy scholarship offensive linemen at this point. “We’ve got a lot of work to do with the (second team), man. A lot,” Herman said.
Thus, it could be hard to tell how much Ehlinger or Buechele have improved. Neither has performed well enough to have won the starting job. Herman demurs when pressed about both, only offering universal praise for the group, including freshmen Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson.
The competition to become UT’s starter will go into August training camp. Expect to see all four on Saturday. Typically, the quarterbacks are hands-off for the defense in these settings.
“My biggest thing is going out there and executing. That’s it,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “I don’t want them to play perfect. They’re going to put a lot of pressure on themselves, squeezing the football a little harder or holding on to the ball a little longer. I don’t want that.
“They’ve had good springs,” Beck added. “They should play with a lot of confidence and let it rip.”
Said Herman: “Just kind of thinking out loud here, but I think we’ll monitor the reps. If it gets silly toward one or the other, we might let one guy go back-to-back series with his respective team.”
This spring game could be a showcase for defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and his outfit. Orlando, already the program’s highest paid assistant, got a huge pay bump to $1.7 million annually this offseason when other suitors came calling.
Orlando’s confidence about his side is noticeable. Linebacker Malik Jefferson, safety DeShon Elliott and cornerback Holton Hill are all likely to get drafted next weekend. So, too, will defensive tackle Poona Ford. But the Longhorns have reshuffled things and nobody seems all that worried.
Charles Omenihu, Chris Nelson and Ta’Quon Graham have all impressed onlookers up front. Gary Johnson was having a terrific run until a groin injury. Edwin Freeman is also banged up with a triceps injury. That’s allowed Malcolm Roach to turn heads at linebacker in addition to his duties at defensive end.
Three early enrollees — Anthony Cook, Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster — have all impressed in the secondary, along wit,h veterans Kris Boyd and Brandon Jones.
“Last year, and I think this is collectively as a program, it was a lot of new stuff,” Orlando said. “The culture was different, and they’re not used to it. Then we saw in winter conditioning where guys were completely bought in. When you see them out there, they can show a little more of their personality. There’s more ownership there.”
Herman was a broken record at times last season: “We will win with defense.” Orlando feels like this unit could do just that.
“Some of these guys, they’ve had enough and it’s time for their moment,” Orlando said. “Let’s turn the corner in this program.”
Several Longhorns queried this spring feel there’s more give and take these days. “I see an offense and defense destroying each other,” pass rusher Breckyn Hager said. “It’s always been one-sided in these spring scrimmages. Now it’s actually somewhat of a fight, and I’m impressed.”
Texas fans have discriminate taste. It’s hard to tell in mid-April whether a team will be good in the fall. But most can spot a bad football team watching from the upper deck or LHN.
To be sure, Saturday is nothing more than a well-publicized practice. But it helps to practice in style.
“They’ll see on both sides of the ball, to the naked eye, our guys look better after a year with (strength coach Yancy) McKnight and his crew,” Herman said. “Hopefully we can protect the football and protect the quarterback so when we do pass, we can complete some balls.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email email@example.com.
6:30 p.m. Saturday (admission is free), LHN, 104.9
3:30 p.m. — Gates 8, 14, 16 and 25 open; Team Shop “fire sale” begins outside Gate 28
3:30-5 p.m. — UT “on-field experience” at Royal-Memorial Stadium
3:40-6 p.m. — Live music (The Nightowls/Blue Water Highway at Gate 8, Travis Parker/Django Walker at Gate 25)
4:30 p.m. — All DKR gates open
6:30 p.m. — Kickoff
Postgame — Player autographs and fireworks show