Inside the Gameplan: What I’m watching for at Orange-White

John Burt during Spring practice. (Will Gallagher/IT)
John Burt during Spring practice. (Will Gallagher/IT)

We all know what will actually happen in the 2016 Texas Spring game.

We’ll see Tyrone Swoopes and Shane Buechele “compete” in a carefully controlled setting and everyone will see enough to entrench themselves deeper into their current position regarding who they think the starter should be in the fall.

There is some merit to evaluating how the QBs look in the spring. You could tell from the 2014 Spring game that relying on Tyrone Swoopes would go poorly and you could tell from the 2015 Orange-White scrimmage that Jerrod Heard wasn’t ready to execute a collegiate-level passing game. The key is in knowing where to look to discern these truths.

Spring football is all about base install and fundamentals. All of the schemes are vanilla, much of the play is scripted, and coaches are motivated to put forth a product designed to entertain fans and avoid tipping off opposing scouts.

I was at Michigan’s 2016 Spring game and coach Jim Harbaugh did all he could to make the contest worthless for the purpose of scouting the Wolverines. He had two top assistants draft opposing teams and then they went at it with units and combinations that rarely ever play together. More and more schools are doing things this way so that you can’t evaluate how well particular OL execute combo blocks or defensive communications on the back end. Instead, Michigan lined up a backup QB at WR and had him execute a throwback trick play to amuse the plebes.

Texas hasn’t reached that point of obfuscation and spectacle yet so there are a few things that can be discerned on Saturday for careful eyes.

How does the Texas offense respond to the blitz?

If the Texas defense refrains from blitzing the QBs you can probably assume that the answer is “not particularly well.” In the 2014 Spring game, the staff made a late switch to avoid “good on good” 1st team vs 1st team competition and instead pitted young Swoopes against the 2nd team defense.

It didn’t matter.

The 2nd team defense brought pressure and the offense couldn’t handle it. The staff called off the dogs, lightened up the blitzes, and mixed in more 3rd stringers and viola!

Most everyone was selling a “Swoopes started slow but then settled down and found his groove” narrative that was completely bogus and manufactured. No defense would ever allow a young QB to settle down by calling off the dogs in a real game after drawing blood early. This was inevitably borne out in the following season.

How Buechele and Swoopes respond to blitzes and any kind of coverage disguise could be a major factor in who wins the job and whether 2016 Texas is actually very good on offense or not.

Tyrone’s best answer to the blitz will be to run the ball whereas Shane will need to command the offense well enough to know where to throw it and get it there on time and accurately. Will they allow the QBs to do what they do best and exhibit their skills or will they test them early in this game? Will Shane get blitzed? Will Swoopes be given real carries?

Sometimes what you don’t see in the Spring game can tell you as much as what you do see.

Is Texas controlling the middle of the field on defense with sound fundamentals?

How are the LB run fits against the basic running plays the Texas offense will bring into this game? Are they doing a good job of making coverage drops and taking away the easy throws over the middle and forcing the QBs to check down? How well are the non-blitzers holding up when Bedford sends the wolves?

Shane Buechele. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Shane Buechele. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Safety play should be particularly interesting with Haines out and more “good on good” snaps to go around for the younger DBs. Texas could benefit more than a little from a box safety stepping up and owning the middle and I’m sure everyone is very keen to see how close DeShon Elliott is to filling that role.

Where is the Texas passing game?

There were a few key plays in the 2015 Spring contest that really raised my eyebrows about where the UT passing game was at heading into an important season for Shawn Watson. One was when Heard tried to hit a snag route into a tiny window that was made more difficult by the TE’s route to the flat and the overall timing of the play.

The execution of the routes and the drops made the throw needlessly difficult and it was clear that the offense wasn’t at all comfortable with that kind of quick game, and West Coast staple.

There were other bad indicators as well, such as Armanti Foreman failing to work inside on a slant and nearly getting Swoopes picked, or the way the offense missed on some deeper throws. The big things to watch for in this Spring game will be execution on RPOs and whether Shane or Swoopes can find targets in the vertical passing game.

What’s going to happen at the slot position?

The unfortunate and largely unexamined truth of the new offense is that it doesn’t actually mesh particularly well with the direction Texas has been going at receiver. Collin Johnson and John Burt figure to be as devastating a tandem outside as any offense could hope for, but Texas has been stockpiling big targets and possession receivers and is now running an offensive system that needs a vertical threat in the slot.

The inside receiver(s) in this offense need to be burners that can hurt teams after the catch on bubble screens and who can blow by safeties deep. After Johnson and Burt, Texas has the following guys available to man the slot:

Lorenzo Joe: A big target who’s future is probably outside.

Dorian Leonard: Ditto.

DeAndre McNeal: At 6-foot-2, 227 he’s a fascinating player but is he going to beat deep coverage with double moves and acceleration?

Jacorey Warrick: Now a senior who’s failed to make much of an impression, albeit in an offense that hasn’t made any receivers look particularly great.

Armanti Foreman: A true burner but a guy who’s been unreliable in terms of running the right routes.

Ryan Newsome: We’ve seen very little from Newsome yet and he wasn’t running a lot of true vertical routes in high school.

Ty Templin: A reliable target but not a burner that will regularly threaten to take the top off a defense.

Lorenzo Joe and Dorian Leonard at Kansas. (Justin Wells/IT
Lorenzo Joe and Dorian Leonard at Kansas. (Justin Wells/IT

Unless the staff has a position change in mind for an athlete somewhere else on the roster – imagine Kris Boyd lined up in the slot between Burt and Johnson, ohhh the possibilities – you’re looking at either Foreman making a leap or McNeal demonstrating some explosiveness if Texas is going to find a good veer and shoot slot. The Spring game pecking order and the play of the slots will be something to watch for.

The zero sum game in the trenches

It’s going to be very difficult to summarize the play of Texas’ interior OL and the DL. On the one hand, there are major question marks at DT. On the other hand, Texas is going to be starting new faces at LG and OC and the center is a true freshman. It’ll be tricky to work out where Texas’ trench players are at given how little we know about guys like Shackelford and with the questions marks about the progression of younger guys like Ford and Nelson. Plus, Texas will be bringing in five new d-linemen in August. They’ll factor as well.

If Shack gets roasted does that mean he’s not ready? Or that some of the Texas DTs have made “the leap?”

4-2 Over or 3-3 Under?

Practice reports have the team playing a lot more 4-2-5 than 3-3-5, is that what we’ll see in the Spring game or will Charlie and Vance play coy? Yours truly suggested earlier this year that a 4-2 look would probably better suit the returning personnel on DL and it’ll probably be more of an Over front than the Under-based fronts that Charlie initially brought with him from Louisville.

If we see that on Saturday, it’ll be interesting to note who fits where.

Pecking order?

Save for spots where there are injuries or starters are being held out, the Spring game gives you a nice sense of what the pecking order is at different positions. In the 2008 contest, everyone said, “surely this early enrollee Blake Gideon isn’t actually going to be the starter in the fall, right?” but he was. The same thing happened in the 2014 when Haines got opportunities and made the most of them.

This game should allow us to see with our own eyes what the depth chart looks like (though there probably won’t be any surprises to the IT crowd) and who fits where. One player I’m particularly interested to see is John Bonney, who could fit in a lot of different spots in this secondary. Could he get some chances at strong safety with Haines out?

How are the youngsters looking?

It’s often worth your while to see how the 2nd and 3rd teamers do (at least the ones that are underclassmen not the walk-ons) because you can get a real sense of where they are in terms of playing good football against collegiate competition.

I remember well watching Paul Boyette and Alex Norman going up against the 1st team Texas OL as underclassmen and thinking, “okay, it’s going to be a while before we see these guys in games.” That was back in 2012. Similarly, it was obvious enough in 2015 that Malik Jefferson was going to see the field early.

Even when going up against walk-ons, the younger players on the team are being asked to execute college-level schemes and techniques against other collegiate athletes and the results can often be very telling. When you watch the QB who just finished polishing off some HS opponents break down and make mistakes in the face of college disguise and pressure, it becomes much clearer why he isn’t higher on the depth chart.

So all that makes for a lot that we could learn from this game. Keep your eyes on the right places and we just might get a decent idea of what kind of team Texas will put on the field this fall.

History major, football theorist.