AUSTIN — Friday night was Date Night with Charlie Strong as Texas football kicked off the 2015 campaign with its first practice of the preseason.
“I like the way the guys came out, moved around and competed,” Strong said, which was not always his assessment last August Camp.
It was clear from Strong’s body language, however, that the up-tempo offense didn’t have the pace he wanted. Each QB typically took about 15 seconds to run the play and, on more than one occasion, Strong exhorted the offense to speed things up. (Strong spent the 1st half of practice with the D-line and linebackers)
It’s reasonable to expect dropped balls on the first day, but several receivers and three different tight ends allowed balls to glance off their fingertips, early and often. Sophomore WR Roderick Bernard, for example, showed he can get separation from DBs but suffered three drops. WR Marcus Johnson allowed an underthrown-but-catchable toss to glance off his chest into the arms of linebacker Peter Jinkens for the first INT of the preseason.
Strong was frequently livid last August because of all the drops. For now, Strong does not expect history to repeat itself.
“They’ll make those catches,” Strong assured. “We’ve to continue to make the throws.”
The exception was freshman WR John Burt. The Florida native opened with the 1’s at the slot, displayed Velcro hands and played taller than his 6-foot-2 frame. The freshman has the tools to become one of Texas’ most explosive weapons, reminding onlookers why he was a 110-meters hurdles prep star.
Burt was clearly the most consistent receiver on the field Friday but he was victimized by the defensive play of the evening. It appeared Burt made a highlight reel, leaping grab on a ‘go’ route inside the Red Zone. But true freshman DB Davante Davis came away with a last-second theft, ripping the ball from Burt’s hands as the two tumbled to the turf. Immediately, WR coach Jay Norvell wrapped his arm around Burt’s neck and told him “you just have to go up and get that ball.”
Strong was more forgiving of the dropped passes and two INTs than he was of a defense that occasionally gave up the deep ball. Now, Strong is generally pleased with the speed he sees among his receivers.
“We’ve got a lot of speed outside,” Strong surmised. “You always look for a wide receiver who can take a 5-yard hitch and turn into six points.”
Again, QB Tyrone Swoopes would follow an inexplicably poor throw with a dart that was right on the money. Jerrod Heard hit receivers in stride on intermediate seams but still has the propensity to bail on the play with a tuck-and-run. At times, he forced the ball into double- or triple-coverage. Yet, both QBs look far more comfortable managing the huddle than they did last spring. There was the expected uptick in their accuracy toward the latter part of the evening.
“The quarterbacks made their throws,” Strong said. “It won’t be hard to separate them. It won’t be as tough of a decision as you think it will be.”
Freshman CB Holton Hill missed practice due to a minor knee injury. Strong expects him to return in couple of days.
Strong expects many happy returns from a punt game that, last year, typically saw Jaxon Shipley signal for the ‘fair catch’. Now, Strong expects the likes of Daje Johnson, Marcus Johnson, or true freshman Ryan Newsome to use their speed “to get vertical for us and get us some positive yardage.”
Again this year, the Longhorn decal was missing from helmets. Said Strong: “We will earn everything we get. There are no excuses. They’ll get the decals in due time, but they’re going to have to work to get them.”