Texas coach Mack Brown is still looking for a dependable third receiver and wants to get more separation among three relatively unproven running backs. But that’s not his biggest concern as the Longhorns scrimmaged for the final time Wednesday at Royal-Memorial Stadium.
If one thing is keeping Brown awake at night, it’s making sure his young safeties grow up in a hurry and that their even younger backups hold their own, starting with pass-happy Florida Atlantic in the season opener. A pair of freshmen (Earl Thomas and one of either Christian Scott, Ben Wells and Blake Gideon) will likely get the starting nods when depth charts are released Monday. The fact that Scott had the biggest hit of the scrimmage will go a long way toward easing Brown’s worries.
“Christian had a huge hit tonight on a flat pass,” Brown commented. “He knocked the guy out. He’s real aggressive. He’s got a chance to be a really good player.”
There has been so much focus on the caliber of QBs that Texas will face in the Big 12 that Florida Atlantic QB Rusty Smith has flown under the radar. Smith is a rangy (6-5, 212) pro-style pocket passer that head coach Howard Schnellenberger has actually compared to Dan Marino. Smith is uber-accurate and threw for a Sun Belt record 3,688 yards and 32 touchdowns in leading the Owls to a New Orleans Bowl win over Memphis last season.
“Youth at safety is my biggest concern with a passing team and a great quarterback coming in (August 30),” Brown acknowledged. “We’ve really studied (Smith) the last 10 days. He will be as good of a thrower as we’ve seen in here in a long time.”
Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp’s approach with the DBs has been one of information overload simply to determine how much his charges could assimilate. It’s not a tactic that Brown has used throughout his 20+ years in the business.
“We dump everything on them,” Brown said, “and then they hit a wall. That’s when we work back and figure out what they can handle. I used to think you should start slow, and then build and build and build. I think it’s better to find out what they can do and, when they hit the wall, you can start rebuilding them. That’s what we try to do now with two-a-days. The younger ones hit walls faster than the older ones. We need to know that now. If a guy hits a wall in the third quarter because he’s exhausted, we need to find that out in two-a-days. If they can’t handle it in two-a-days, they sure can’t handle it in front of 100,000 people.”
Otherwise, Brown described the level of play among the linebackers and his defensive front as “impressive.”
Brown lauded Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley for having had a “tremendous” camp, but there remains quite a bit of drop-off between them and the cluster of young receivers.
“There are guys fighting in-and-out for that position,” Brown said, “but we’re not there yet.”
It is generally expected that big RS-freshman Malcolm Williams (6-3, 215) will get the starting nod at SE; sophomore James Kirkendoll has also garnered praise at FL. But Brown was not ready to anoint a third WR even after the 20th practice of the preseason.
“You start thinking that someone is the guy,” Brown conceded, “and then he drops balls for two days. Or, then he misses his block or something else. Someone out of that pack needs to come up and help Jordan and Quan.”
Coaches have cross-trained RS-freshman Ahmard Howard at TE and DE, another move to shore up depth following injuries to back tight ends Josh Marshall and Ian Harris. Sophomore Blaine Irby is the heir apparent to Jermichael Finley, but the injuries prompted sophomore Greg Smith switch from C to TE as well.
“It was a good move because Greg is (6-4) 295 pounds and can really move his feet,” Brown said. “He made a really nice catch tonight, and he can block.”
Obviously, there are no question marks at starting QB (other than whether incumbent Colt McCoy can overcome the rash of the interceptions and tipped balls that marred his sophomore campaign). This year, he’ll have the benefit of playing behind an up-and-coming offensive line that could emerge as one of the best of Brown tenure.
Coaches had hoped for more separation among kickers, but that’s not a bad thing: candidates have been remarkably productive, Brown reports. Dependable Ryan Bailey will still be counted on for those game-winning FGs (Oklahoma State arrives October 25) but Hunter Lawrence and true freshman Justin Tucker are in a dogfight for kickoff duties. Tucker, Trevor Gerland and sophomore walk-on John Gold have all raised eyebrows.
“We have more quality guys at kicker and at punter than at any time since we’ve been here,” Brown said. “All of them can do it. I probably should just put the same number on all of them and just rotate them.”
Overall, what the 2008 Longhorns possess is speed and more speed.
“We’re a fast team. The talk that we don’t have enough speed is not true. Quan runs better than a 4.5 and Shipley ran a 4.4 in camp. (RB) Vondrell McGee ran a 4.3 in camp.”
Despite insisting that there has been “no depth chart” throughout camp, the Ones (i.e. starters) on offensive have only scrimmaged against the Ones on defense. Yet, coaches have consistently shuttled presumed starters with their primary understudies, Brown noted.
“We’ve changed guys every day. We’ve moved them up and we’ve moved them down. Even tonight, we put some of the guys who might be projected starters with the second team just to see how they would react. We’re trying to get a reaction out of everybody to see what they can do.”
Ideally, the preseason would end with 22 established dependable players but, right now, Brown estimates he’s got “about 14 or 15.” Previously, Brown said he wanted to play 22 athletes in order to maintain fresh legs as well morale among backups. But that rhetoric changed following his team’s second straight loss to Texas A&M.
“We’d like to play two-deep,” Brown said, “but we’re not going to play two-deep unless you earned that right. We’re not going to have two out there just a player needs to be out there.”
Finally, there are the intangibles that may keep Texas from stumbling against some of the lower lights on the schedule as in previous seasons: leadership, team chemistry and reduction off-the-field misconduct. So far, Brown is cautiously optimistic.
“We haven’t had kids late for anything. We haven’t had kids miss. They’ve gotten after each other. They’ve competed. They’ve been positive. Right now, all the signs off-the-field and all the signs in practice have been really good. It was better than last year at this time. You hope all those things are headed back in the right direction.”
Texas will practice in pads 3:30 p.m. Thursday before conducting its final preseason workout Friday morning.