I was reviewing the spring game for an article I'm working on and started having enough impressions from the game that I decided to share my thoughts with you people on the chance that anyone is still interested in going over that game and talking player development.
After the jump we'll get down to a unit by unit organization of otherwise scattered thoughts:
Defensive Line: What I was primarily interested in here was the play of our defensive tackles, it'd be a great thing if one of these guys emerged as a dominant defensive playmaker. In fact, it's hard to point to many legendary defenses that didn't have a transcendent talent at defensive tackle. Some of the better defenses in Big 12 history: 2009 Texas, 2009 Nebraska, 2000 OU, 2002 OU, 2005 Texas, 2001 Texas, featured the likes of Tommie Harris, Lamarr Houston, Frank Okam/Rodrique Wright, Ndamukong Suh/Jared Crick, etc. 2000 OU and 2001 UT are the main outliers and they had dominant back 7's.
It's more than possible that our secondary could imitate those latter 2 and elevate the entire defense to Pantheon status but it's a lot easier if you have a defensive tackle who can't be blocked. It's extremely hard to scheme around someone who lines up within 5 yards of the ball every snap.
Alex Okafor, Jackson Jeffcoat: I think we have a pretty good idea of what we have here. Heading into the offseason, Jeffcoat needed to some work on his perimeter run defense because teams pounded his side, particularly if he was aligned to the boundary. I think he's getting there, and he ended up piling up TFL stats last year as he improved. Teams already would prefer not to run against whichever side has Okafor or Vaccaro. Cedric Reed always impresses when he's on the field, I expect him to be a multi-year starter after Oak is gone.
Brandon Moore: This is the best look I've had of Moore and what I saw was a fatter Kheeston Randall. He's immovable in the run game, until he gets tired, and he probably wears himself out with his inefficient bull-rush on passing plays. At 6'7" I'd like to see him work on getting his hands up if his initial move is stalled. Ideally we use him as a situational run-stuffer and see what a full year of conditioning and teaching does for his stamina and skill-set. Useful player but I'll be surprised if he's a dominant force in 2012.
Chris Whaley: Polar opposite to Moore, his quickness is immediately translating to pass-rush but he can be turned or down-blocked consistently in run defense. He's still basically an athlete playing tackle as his diagnosis and anchoring aren't there yet. That said, defensive tackles who are natural pass-rushers are like Mandarin-speakers in the business world. You can't have enough of them.
Again, I expect a lot of situational value but I don't think he's ready to be an every-down dominator like we're accustomed to having.
Ashton Dorsey: He's become a complete player. He gets solid push in the pass-rush, and has the speed and strength to handle either the stunting or the straight up gap-control that Diaz asks of these guys. I'm not sure if he'll be dominant but he won't be a weakness and will probably rank amongst the league's best.
Tank Jackson: I think it's most likely that if we replace the line of Roy Miller, Houston, and Randall with another dominant player in 2012 it'll be with the Tank. Tackles with short statures, quick hands, fast starts and powerful bases tend to have a lot of success, although you don't often see coaches describe their ideal DT as being sub 6'2".
What I like about Jackson is that he gets low and vertical against the run or pass and he gets there in a hurry. He's very difficult to deal with on stunts and I'm expecting a ton of TFL's where he kills a reach block on a zone run and takes the legs out from a stranded runner. Last year he could be turned on running plays where he would dive in unproductive directions but I think experience will result in more consistent positioning in run defense.
Linebackers: I'm still watching Steve Edmond to ascertain his ability to make drops or wall off the middle in pass-coverage but he looked capable enough picking up RB's out of the backfield.
Our schematic responses to Trips receivers and his blitzing prowess is going to absolve him from having to take on too much in terms of coverage responsibilities but he still needs to backpedal and show awareness and flexibility in space beyond what you would expect from a 260 pounder. His blitzing ability is particularly exciting and continues to make me wonder if he might be better served playing as a Buck.
He might not be an every-down player for us this year but he has tremendous value as a blitzer and run-stopper. He still has a ways to go in the latter department but his commitment to study means that he'll probably get it sooner than later.
Jordan Hicks needs to be at Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho's level immediately, but I still haven't seen anything to suggest that he won't be able to get there. Cobbs was born to play in this conference and may become a go-to guy for getting pressure and a problem for young defensive backs trying to get on the field in our nickel/dime packages. He has some of the same pass-rusher/coverage skills that make Corey Nelson special.
Amongst the back-ups I'm currently highest on Tevin Jackson but we could get into a little trouble if we start having injuries at linebacker. Unless Dorsey, Jeffcoat, and Tank make a leap in run defense, in which case we could be like 2009 Nebraska and just play 6 DB's on 1st down.
Defensive Backs: We already know we've got something great with Carrington Byndom, Quandre Diggs, Adrian Phillips, and Kenny Vaccaro but there's a lot of young talent on this squad that may prevent us from suffering much when those guys start leaving.
Most of them had a few rough patches but I was particularly impressed with Leroy Scott. He was absolutely fearless in run support and filled the alley against Bergeron a few times with mixed results. Scott also ran under and robbed one of Case's poorer throws for the pick in the end zone.
Josh Turner also stole Case's candy when he demolished MikeD on the attempted fade route in the end zone. Cut off his path and then high pointed the ball while MikeD reached vainly like a little brother trying to recover the remote control and restore the disney channel to the screen.
I'm not sure who the 1st safety off the bench is when we go nickel but I don't think Thompson has nailed down that role just yet. Ideally we would field an athlete at Free Safety who could turn their hips and run with a #2 receiver downfield so we could play Phillips permanently in Gideon's spot. If someone can't do that, we'll just need to pick the headiest guy we have and slide Phillips over to Field Safety when Vaccaro drops down to play nickel.
We actually will miss Gideon if we can't find someone who can make good, quick decisions in coverage. For all his faults, teams haven't really hurt us down the middle in the last several years because Gideon frequently discouraged it through good positioning and route diagnosis. Likely we'll see a big upgrade from #21 but one of the young guys will have to overcome the factors that kept Blake out there for 4 years.
Offensive Line: I didn't actually pay much attention here. Our 3rd team did a great job of pushing around the walk-ons and our 1st team feasted on Whaley-Moore-Kriegel inside. We would have learned a lot more if Diaz had turned up the juice but I'm sure they aren't going to do that in public anytime soon. Hopefully if they had it wouldn't have looked like last years' RRS.
WR/TE: Didn't pay much attention here either. Jaxon Shipley looks like a difference maker on punt returns, hopefully we can mix up the return duties between him and Diggs. You'd rather avoid injury to #8 but special teams scores could be the difference once or twice next year.
Between Goodwin and MikeD we have a couple of guys that can get deep if teams try and play man-free coverage but I'm not sure if we have anyone other than Shipley that OU or OSU would be worried about downfield. There's a place for a big guy like Cayleb Jones whenever he's ready for it.
RB: Joe Bergeron doesn't look like he's very fun to defense. If we win the edges in the running game there's going to be several instances of trucked-safeties who are trying to fill against #24. Malcolm Brown looks like he's recovered his quickness from mid-season and between the two of them we're really going to bruise and wear down opposing squads across their fronts.
For all of the fandom that Bergeron is developing on the interwebs, MBI has exceptional ability to find room and make cuts inside that result in less sexy, but extremely effective plays for our offense. I'm not willing to elevate one over the other yet, I'd give them 12 carries apiece early and see what happens.
QB: We didn't get to see too much from "Dash" but his completions to Shipley were promising. I think he tends to miss throws he can make when rolling out under pressure but that hopefully improves with time. His completion of a few fade routes should have people excited about his ability to at least get a C in QB 201 this fall.
Case McCoy actually made 2 of the best throws of the game, he also made 2 or 3 of the worst. He looked off safeties on both of his deep post completions like a savvy veteran and then threw a pick into double coverage, another into good single coverage, and a shoulda-been pick 6 to Byndom.
Some of these picks remind me of Romo, where he turns and fires away expecting to see one thing and finding something else instead. Except Romo is more accurate, has a much stronger arm, and has several other attributes Case lacks. In our current offense, there's not any need for our QB to make a lot of reads across the entire field. One-man reads are fine, if it's not there, punt and let defense do the heavy lifting or take off and run.
Despite the simplicity I've just described, I'd still rather see Brewer take a redshirt year and develop his understanding of the offense, our run-game audibles, etc. When we run the ball effectively, the QB will be able to make pre-snap reads and adjustments that lead to easy post-snap reads and throws. Be smart before the snap, Case.
Brewer's already pretty practiced and very effective making most of the throws we need to be successful with this offense, if he can get a year to adjust to the added complexity of the college game then he'll grow to be a very trustworthy back-up at worst.
David Ash is basically what Ryan Tannehilll will be his first few years in the NFL. All of the hypothetical potential is there, it just hasn't been fashioned yet and we aren't sure if the mental skill-set is absent or just still developing. I think he'll continue to improve in accuracy throwing our favored routes, whether he ever masters the game is another question. The ability to make quick reads on the field is a skill that should be valued above arm-strength but coaches always assume it can be taught despite the rising complexity of NFL passing games and growing pressure on the QB to be a mental. (You'll notice that many of the offenses in which the QB looks like a genius are noted for their simplicity).
We should have a better idea after this season of whether or not he'll ever get where we would like our QB to be but we won't see his true potential until 2013. I'd like to have a competitive and confident redshirt freshman Connor Brewer up our sleeve in the event that we don't like what we see.