August 20, 2011

Sizing up the team after Friday's scrimmage

1. GARRETT GILBERT IS ALIVE: Maybe Garrett Gilbert has figured it out over the past week. Maybe he looked over the edge and saw Texas football moving on without him. Maybe he thought of all the victories he's been a part of in winning back-to-back state titles at Lake Travis and realized the only one holding him down was … himself.

His performance in the team's first scrimmage of fall camp left everyone wondering if he could hold onto his starting job. That maybe he didn't have the mental makeup to handle being THE starting quarterback of the Longhorns.

There were two interceptions, including a ball tipped and picked off by freshman defensive end Cedric Reed. Gilbert, by all accounts, seemed jittery and uncomfortable. His body language was that of a high school quarterback playing on varsity for the first time. Yes, it was coming against Manny Diaz's pressure cooking first-team defense, but Case McCoy and David Ash made some plays against that unit. Gilbert, it seemed, almost made none.

But maybe that was finally the wake-up call Gilbert needed. Because the last two practices leading up to Friday night's scrimmage and again on Friday night, Gilbert seemed like a new man. More confident. More vocal. More assertive.

Even when Case McCoy threw a touchdown pass in red zone work to Jaxon Shipley, Gilbert was the first one on the field to congratulate him.

Gilbert may now finally be grasping the concept that to be the quarterback at Texas, you have to be bigger than life. You have to own the situation. It isn't enough to simply call out the plays and execute them.

You have to be part of the confidence of 105 other guys. They have to feel your presence, your power and your punch.

This was a big week for Garrett Gilbert. He likely reclaimed the lead for the starting job. There are still two weeks until the opener. No time to let up now. He has to continue to build on what he's shown.

It can't just be the simple fact that in last week's scrimmage he was mostly facing Alex Okafor, Jackson Jeffcoat, Keenan Robinson and the first-team defense and that they owned him. And that this week he was facing the mostly the second-team defense, and Gilbert seemed to own them.

For this Texas team to have a chance to be one of the great turnaround stories in 2011, Gilbert has to KNOW every single time he walks on the field that he's going to lead his team to points. And that if it doesn't happen, he'll burn to make it happen the next time. And all of his teammates have to believe it, too.

If those intangibles aren't evident to the coaching staff, then it's just a matter of time before Case McCoy or David Ash takes over for him.
But as of right now, the light seems to have gone on for Gilbert. Now, we'll see how brightly that light burns.

2. SECOND-TEAM QUARTERBACK STAKES : The race right now seems to be one for the second-team quarterback, and it appears to be between Case McCoy and David Ash.

McCoy got the majority of second-team work in Friday night's scrimmage. Ash got the third-most work, and Connor Wood barely got any (two series is what I was told).

There have been rumblings that Wood is preparing to transfer, but those close to Wood say it's not true. We'll see.

The bottom line is McCoy doesn't wow with his arm, his legs, his alpha male presence or his physical tools. But all he does is make the chains move. He is the king of the underneath pass, taking what he's given and moving the offense.

Sound familiar? Like a young Colt McCoy?

But then there's Ash, who does wow you with his arm, his legs, his alpha male presence and his physical tools.

So what do you do? If you give it to Ash based on the upside factor, you could very well lose McCoy and Wood to transfer because both could and probably would start at other places. (Look at former Texas QB G.J. Kinne starting his senior season for a loaded Tulsa team that won 10 games last season.)

If the coaches make Gilbert the starter and McCoy the backup, they could redshirt Ash and might lose Wood.

But Mack Brown said Thursday: you can't make your decisions at quarterback based on anything other than what gives Texas the best chance to win.

The coaches have to decide in the next 7 to 10 days who will join Gilbert in the two-deep. And then they have to be ready for the fallout that follows.

3. OFFENSIVE LINE SHOWS PROMISE: One of the more notable developments in Scrimmage No. 2 Friday night was the offensive line play. For the most part, the offense outperformed the defense. And Manny Diaz was still dialing up blitzes.

Outside of a holding call that wiped out a 40-yard TD run by Foswhitt Whittaker (and Stacy Searels let his guys hear about it), the line held its own against Kheeston Randall, Jeffcoat, Okafor, Acho, Robinson and company.

There were holes for Whittaker, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron to run through.

The first-team unit was Tray Allen at left tackle, David Snow at left guard, Espinosa at center, Mason Walters at right guard and Trey Hopkins at right tackle. This group has been shuffled around over the past two weeks (Walters was at right tackle in Scrimmage No. 1 with David Snow at right guard and Trey Hopkins at left guard).

But the same five have been on the field for both scrimmages. It appears Searels has made up his mind about the best five.

Now it's a matter of them gelling together. If Tray Allen is truly a left tackle that can win his share of battles against the likes of Jackson Jeffcoat, then it will be one of the best stories of the Longhorn season.

Look at the defensive ends on Texas' schedule. There may not be a better DE than Jeffcoat. Tray Allen may find practices the toughest days of the season.

If Trey Hopkins is the right tackle, he may not find a tougher matchup than Alex Okafor.

What I like about the Snow and Walters at guard is that these guys have two of the biggest mean streaks on the team. Combine those attitudes with Espinosa, who is just so technically sound (flat back, great feet, solid punch and no wasted motion) as well as smart and tough, and you've got the makings of something to build on.

And considering tackles Garrett Greenlea and Paden Kelley as well as guard Sedrick Flowers continue to draw strong reviews on the second-team line, there appears to be some depth.

Garrett Porter probably stands up too much right now and gets pushed around because his pad level isn't low enough. But he gives Texas a solid backup center. Thomas Ashcraft has lost 20 pounds, but he's still struggling in the heat to stay on the field for extended snaps. So he is definitely a backup right now.

But I've been told the starting offensive line is growing in strength and stature under Stacy Searels.

"They may need a week or two to get their legs under them, but they are going to be a strength of this team before the end of the season," a source said. "And that is great news."

4. WHAT'S GOING ON AT RECEIVER?: Is it possible Jaxon Shipley has been the most consistent receiver on the team in fall camp? Yes. That's a fact.

Mike Davis and Darius White will probably be the starters along with Shipley. But Davis and White have had more drops in fall camp than Shipley.

No one looks at Shipley as a freshman. No one. This kid is working people over. Great routes. Gets out of his breaks like his brother, gaining separation simply be being able to sell a route one way, then breaking another way.

Shipley and Miles Onyegbule had TD catches in red zone work Friday night.
John Harris has had some big days, too.

So when you look at Davis, White, Shipley, Harris and Onyegbule (DeSean Hales hasn't had the camp he probably wanted to have up to this point), that group has a chance to have a much better season than last year's cast of Malcolm Williams, James Kirkendoll, John Chiles, Marquise Goodwin and Davis.

There, I said it. I think this year's receiving group (and add in pass-catching tight ends Blaine Irby and D.J. Grant in Bryan Harsin's offense) will be better and more productive than last year.

5. MALCOLM BROWN IS HERE TO STAY: Don't want to kick the hype machine into overdrive on Malcolm Brown, especially considering he virtually missed the first two weeks of camp.

But the kid has shown savvy, vision, power and presence beyond his years. He sees holes before they open. He sets up his blocks. He gets north and south. Physically, he looks like he's been in the program for a couple years.

Brown is going to get the ball. A lot. So is Joe Bergeron. And Fozzy Whittaker.

Major Applewhite said he could see three guys working in every-down situations and then some specialty situation guys.

Look for Fozzy, Malcolm Brown and Bergeron to become the every-down guys. Look for Cody Johnson to be the short-yardage and goal-line guy. Look for D.J. Monroe to be a specialty package guy as well as Traylon Shead and Jeremy Hills.

When you stack it up, the running back position has a chance to be pretty salty, especially in Bryan Harsin's new-look-but-old-school running game.
The future is bright at RB when you consider Brown and Bergeron with Johnathan Gray on the way.

Here we go.

6. THE DIAZ DEFENSE: I've said for weeks the defense is going to have to carry the Longhorns the first three weeks of the season - until the offense knows exactly what it's doing and how it's going to do it under Bryan Harsin and Major Applewhite.

And I'm starting to believe they'll be able to do it. Manny Diaz is a wild man with all of his zone pressure. But there is definitely a method to his madness. He will send everyone on a blitz and drop middle linebacker Keenan Robinson into centerfield coverage at the safety level.

Diaz seems to be limited only by his imagination, and his players love it.
As long as they are getting home on blitzes and hitting the quarterback. (Manny Diaz considers hits on a quarterback more important than sacks), then opponents are going to wilt as the game goes on and probably turn over the ball a bunch in the process.

Last year, Texas' Garrett Gilbert threw 17 interceptions, and the Texas defense only collected 8 interceptions. Those numbers need to be reversed this season. If Diaz gets the kind of pressure he expects with guys like Jeffcoat, Okafor and his band of blitzing bandits, there should be plenty of ducks in the air for Texas' young corners and veteran safeties to grab.

All I can say is this team is going to be fun to watch. This is a complete makeover. For all the fans who used to walk out of DKR cursing Greg Davis' name, even though he put up some crazy numbers, there should be no more cursing starting Sept. 3.

Fans will be walking out of DKR trying to remember all the plays that had them talking to each other. Texas fight back to prominence will be an entertaining one.

BONUS NUGGET: The Associated Press poll came out on Saturday, and Oklahoma is No. 1 and Alabama No. 2.

I don't think OU's defense is going to be good enough to get the Sooners to the BCS national title game. I'm not crazy about their defensive tackles, their middle linebacker or the fact OU has two new safeties. If you're not strong right up the middle of your defense, you're vulnerable. I think the Sooners will be vulnerable.

I'll take Alabama and Florida State (the Noles will beat OU in Tallahassee on Sept. 17) in the BCS title game.

I am once again a Harris Poll voter (my third year), and I wouldn't put Texas in the preseason Top 25 because there are a ton of question marks on paper. But I bet Texas finishes close to or in the Top 15, even with the Longhorns' QB uncertainty.

I think Harsin and Applewhite ultimately get the right guy under center, and this offense gradually improves from week to week. If things fall right, the offense could improve dramatically from week to week.

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