Longhorns running game still needs work, but defensive front smothers just about everyone and piles up six sacks to end spring practice
Posted April 21st, 2018
The calendar says it’s 2018, but Royal-Memorial Stadium sure had that 2017 feel Saturday night during the Orange-White spring game.
The Longhorns were in prime scoring position after Lil’Jordan Humphrey caught a 24-yard bullet down the seam and reached the 1-yard line. First-and-goal.
But Toniel Carter got stuffed on first down. Then he was smothered again on second down. The coaches called on Humphrey, who spent the majority of spring practice at receiver, to line up as a running back. The uber-talented Humphrey punched it in, proving to everyone he might be the Longhorns’ most versatile athlete.
“That’s the No. 1 thing in this program: Stop the run and protect the ball,” said Malcolm Roach, who’s become a defensive Swiss Army knife of sorts. “If we do that, we’re good.”
It was just three plays out of a 102-play intrasquad scrimmage, but it highlighted two undeniable truths about these Horns.
The defense, specifically the front seven, continues to strengthen, something that was evident last November and December. And the offense still struggles to run the football, something that was apparent all last season.
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To be fair, Texas called no special goal-line plays for opposing coaches to diagram this summer. It was vanilla, straight-ahead inside zone running. Still, it would be helpful if the first-team offensive line and the team’s best running back could line up, smash people and score at will.
Said UT coach Tom Herman: “We still need improvement, but how do I feel? I feel a lot better than I did this time last year. I feel a lot better than I did in December.”
The entire roster was halved, and coaches put quarterback Sam Ehlinger in charge of the White team while Shane Buechele ran the Orange. For the historians, the White team won 23-13 in front of a crowd that athletic director Chris Del Conte estimated at 35,000.
Hundreds of those fans roamed the field beforehand, getting pictures on the 50-yard line and selfies with Bevo XV in a master stroke of promotional genius. Tons of those fans stayed afterward for a lengthy autograph session.
Ehlinger led all rushers with 29 yards on four carries while Carter had 25 yards on 10 carries. Walk-on Tim Yoder led the Orange team with 24 yards on four carries, all coming against assorted backups in the fourth quarter. The Orange team’s best running back, Danny Young, had 17 yards on three carries.
“I think you certainly didn’t see the full gamut of our run game or what we installed tonight,” Herman said. “But over the course of the spring, yeah, I think they’ve improved. Do I wish we had made the giant leaps that maybe some other positions made? Yeah, maybe. But I would be selling them short if I didn’t recognize a little bit of improvement.”
Turn the spotlight on the defense, and Herman’s smile was as explosive as the post-game fireworks. “Our front seven, whoa,” he said. “We’ve got a chance to be pretty good up there.”
The White team was credited with six sacks. Linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch had three alone. Roach, Charles Omenihu and Marqez Bimage also corralled Buechele and Casey Thompson.
Demarco Boyd helped stop Carter on both of those goal-line plays as part of his active night for the Orange defense. Josh Thompson had a game-high eight tackles, and Anthony Wheeler had seven. Freshman B.J. Foster turned heads by almost snagging a one-handed interception.
And this was a defense playing without injured linebackers Gary Johnson and Edwin Freeman, defensive tackle Chris Nelson and safety P.J. Locke III. Every one of those will be active participants this fall.
The offense had some impressive moments, to be sure. Humphrey left fans’ tongues wagging with his all-around night. He caught seven passes for 100 yards, ran for 14 more and scored twice. It was just the type of all-around performance the coaching staff wanted to show versatile Lake Travis receiver Garrett Wilson, a high priority for the 2019 recruiting class.
Jerrod Heard (89 receiving yards), Devin Duvernay (43) and Jordan Pouncey (35) all had standout individual moments, too.
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The same Collin Johnson that showed up to demolish USC showed out, too. He had six catches for 91 yards and caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Buechele, who scrambled to keep the play alive. “I’m trying to do that more consistently,” Johnson said. “I love making plays for my team and I just love football, man.”
Even kicker Josh Rowland got back on solid footing with field goals from 29 and 50 yards. Freshman punter Ryan Bujcevski, the Australian-born cousin of Michael Dickson, averaged 41.1 yards on eight attempts.
More than anything, the spring game signaled an end to a grueling five-week process. Multiple players said more people are bought in these days, at least more than this time last year. Herman said last spring some players were “compliant but not convicted.” That’s changing.
“I was an older guy last year, and he knows just as good as anybody you can’t let guys get away with anything, even the small stuff,” said veteran tight end Andrew Beck, who landed in Herman’s crosshairs last year. “He didn’t let me get any with anything, including something I thought was small was a very big deal. And he let me know. It kind of let the whole team know.
“At the end of the day, I’m very glad it happened and I’m very glad he did it,” Beck added. “It really did help establish that culture and help me as a leader.”
Del Conte compares the Texas athletic department to a battleship, something that can’t turn on a dime. There are still some kinks, but Herman truly believes his football program is full rudder, starboard bound.
The Longhorns believe it, too.
“How better are we?,” Roach said. “We’re not going to play a game until September. We’ve got to continue to build. Spring is about building an attitude and physicalness. I think we did that this spring.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email email@example.com.