It was a crisp, clear day for the first public look at Tom Herman’s Longhorns in the annual Orange & White Spring Game held at Darrell K. Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium. Herman came into the day expecting the defense to far outshine the offense; however, 30,000 rabid Longhorn fans saw a game that was a bit tighter than expected.
Shane Buechele had a lot to do with the success of the offense, finishing 23-39 for 369 yards 2 TDs and 1 INT. While he had plenty of time in the pocket due to a talented offensive line, his passes were crisp, powerful, and on target for most of the game. Tom Herman even noted after the game that Shane Buechele has progressed immensely when it comes to taking more of a leadership role on the team.
Shaneâ€™s performance included two wonderfully thrown balls to Collin Johnson that resulted in two spectacular catches for touchdowns.
Collin Johnson displayed what type of threat he can be in the end zone with his acrobatics and athletics, and was the leading receiver of the game with 8 receptions for 117 yards and 2 TDs. In fact, the entire receiving corp has a lot of talent, waiting to emerge. Reggie Hemphill-Mapps had his coming out party with 5 catches for 84 yards, where he demonstrated his ability to find the soft spots in defensive coverages and exploit them.
Second team WRâ€™s also shined on the field. Dorian Leonard showed that he is back after an injury riddled season last year, grabbing 4 balls for 68 yards. Lilâ€™ Jordan Humphrey had 2 catches for 54 yards including a spectacular catch over some solid coverage from Kris Boyd, and holding onto the ball with enough mind to keep a toe in bounds while taking a hit from DeShon Elliott.
The 1st team offensive line also shined through the day, making sure Shane stayed relatively untouched while making Toneil Carter (10 carries for 60 yards) and Tim Yoder (an early enrollee and walk-on) look good against much better competition. Overall, the 1st team offensive line performed well.
The 2nd team offense didnâ€™t fare as well against the 1st team defense, as should be expected.
Sam Ehlinger, an early enrollee, was scrambling for his life most the game due to very spotty play by the 2nd team offensive line. However, when Ehlinger had time to step into his throws, they were usually on target and to the right spots. Sam flashed signs that he can be a very dangerous threat at QB with his scrambling ability (further demonstrated by one heck of a toss to Lilâ€™ Jordan Humphrey).
Most came into the game really looking for improvement from last yearâ€™s defense that was 2nd worst in total defense (yard/game) and scoring defense (pts/game) in school history. Todd Orlando stood and delivered, recording 10 sacks and 12 TFLs.
As one might surmise from the 10 recorded sacks, the progress showed up front, where Malcolm Roach, Chris Nelson, and Poona Ford tore apart the guys in front of them, helped out by blitz schemes that were too complex for the offensive lines to handle on both ends. Chris Nelson especially shined, regularly blowing up the inside of the line and recording two sacks. Tom Herman even said after the game that he was â€œpleasantly surprised,â€ with how good his defensive line is and believes, â€œyou can win with those guys.â€
Second team front seven guys that really stood out were Charles Omenihu, Jordan Elliott, and Andrew Fitzgerald who together forced Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele into some tough situations including 3 sacks.
Jeffery McCulloch also seems to be really growing into the B-Backer position doing exceptionally well against Connor Williams including getting past him for a sack.
But it will be hard to get in front of Naashon Hughes who seemed to be in his element on the field.
Malik Jefferson still appears to be the freakiest athlete on the field, displaying serious speed and ability to generate power in an instant. Last year he took a step back physicality-wise, but he impressed coaches today and the rest of Spring. Malik even showed a bit of coverage skill playing outside the numbers a few times covering a moving RB or recognizing a pass over the middle and breaking it up (something he had trouble with last year).
But the real progress in the defense can be seen in the secondary, which was a sieve last season. Five pass break-ups and an interception. That type of production could not have even been thought of last season. The 1st team defensive backs played sound coverage against solid wide receivers and really displayed a better understanding of their responsibilities. With PJ Locke, Brandon Jones, DeShon Elliott, Kris Boyd, and Holton Hill, there were no palms facing the air after plays, and no streaking wide open wide receiver due to mixed up coverages. Everyone was on the same play and if the offense made a play, they earned the heck out of it.
Second team defensive backs were a little less solid. Tom Herman even stated going into the game that he was only confident in 3 corners (one of which was injured for today in Davante Davis). Eric Cuffee was picked on all game long, but it is hard to blame him being tasked with guarding Collin Johnson for the duration of the game. Other than that, Chris Brown and John Bonney did pretty well in coverage despite facing one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the league.
A unit that gave Longhorn fans headaches during the Charlie Strong tenure was special teams. Coach Herman seems to have thrown a band-aid on this one with JUCO kicker Joshua Rowland who was 3-4 from beyond 30 including getting iced and trash talked by Tom Herman mid-game. Michael Dickson still has a cannon for a leg and was regularly sending balls flying onto the 10-yard line or bouncing them forward. Texas appears to be in good hands in these departments.
The biggest question mark post-game has to do with the possible lack of depth in basically every position besides wide receiver and safety. While the Longhornsâ€™ 1â€™s looked phenomenal, their back-ups were five notches below them on a consistent basis. Todd Orlando addressed this concern after the game, â€œThereâ€™s always depth concernsâ€¦ I think all positions [have depth concerns], and itâ€™s our job as a coaching staff to continue to develop. We are recruiting for those needs as we speak. Weâ€™ve recognized some places. To me it comes down to, youâ€™re talking about your first two guys and you end up getting to number four, are you putting in a 1-AA player? Is he going to get exposed? Youâ€™d like to be at least minimum four guys at a position that you feel comfortable with and then up front you probably need 5 or 6.â€ He continued by saying, â€œEach position, I donâ€™t think, when you put the second group on the field you feel youâ€™re 1-AA. But I feel we have to stock-pile recruiting.â€ When it comes to fixing depth concerns he explain, â€œIf you miss on guys and continue to miss on guys, your starters will play all the timeâ€¦ You canâ€™t miss on people and have to improve on recruiting. Thatâ€™s how you get depth.â€
While the team is far from a finished product and there are some lingering questions, the Spring Game should make fans feel at ease with the team showing major improvement in many areas.