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Texas Longhorns Orange - White Spring Game Review

Saturday's zero sum game may have added up to a new face at quarterback for the Longhorns.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Run Game - Offense

The first play of the game was a good news/bad news kind of deal.  The bad news was that we saw the first team OL lined up against a walkon DT tandem of Alex Mercado and Patrick Ojeaga - despite the chatter about 1's v 1's heading into this scrimmage, we never got to see the first team OL and first team DL square off.  The good news was that it only took one look at #61 Mercado to realize that Steve Patterson's draconian restrictions on walk-on meals have apparently been lifted.

And then some.

That first play turned out to be a 30-yard Power romp by D'Onta Foreman which set up one of the Spring Game's major themes - neither the 238-pound Foreman nor the 250-pound (!?!?!?) Warren were going to be denied when running against the two's.  The pair gave a first- and second-act beating to The Expendables that would have made Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mel Gibson proud, combining for 174 yards and two TDs on 16 carries.  Both backs picked up right where they left off last season, busting through first (and often second and third) contact and mustering mad MPH for men of their BMI.  Warren owned the highlight-reel run of the day on a Zone Read when freshman LB DeMarco Boyd got caught in the wash and John Bonney got caught making a business decision in the open field.  Rod Bernard added some nifty lightning to the Thunder & Mjolnir Combo, and with Kirk Johnson set to return in August this backfield is more than capable of carrying the offense if they get reasonable room to roam.

Can a front five who'll line up against Notre Dame with six combined years of D1 playing time give them that room?

The starting OL has to be graded on a substantial curve given the way that the staff apportioned the competition, but there's reason for at least guarded optimism heading into the summer.  The line's three returning starters all turned in solid showings, though you'd like to see a little more weight on Connor Williams by the fall and Patrick Vahe uncharacteristically missed his target on a pull or two.

Vahe did less pulling than usual in this one since Texas was very even-handed in the Power game with new left guard Brandon Hodges frequently on the move.  He didn't lay any Haka-inducing licks and even got stalemated once or twice, but he's got feet like Baryshnikov compared to Sed Flowers and if he improves his punch at the point of attack it will be nice way to take advantage of drive blocks from Vahe and Perkins on the right side.

Last but not least, true freshman center Zach Shackelford did everything you could reasonably ask of a guy who should be prepping for Prom right now.  He wasn't exactly facing Andrew Billings against the twos and wasn't blasting people off the ball one-on-one, but he routinely kept his guy out of the play and there were no young Dom Espinosa/Jake Raulerson roller skate moments on display.  While Mike Mattox will be getting on him and the rest of the OL about their pre-snap shenanigans, the botch rate wasn't outrageous for wet Spring football over 110 (!) first-half snaps.

The Longhorns look like they may have a functional starting five, but I'm not so sure about a sixth.  Converted DT Jake McMillon might have had the best overall showing on the second-team line, and backup tackles Tristan Nickelson and Elijah Rodriguez didn't do enough in the ground game to make up for some hide-your-eyes moments in pass pro.  Pray for healthy starters this season, and don't be surprised if we burn at least one shirt on the incoming OL class.

Finally, there were some interesting moments from both QBs in the ground game.  Interesting was the only PG word I used to describe Shane Buechele's frequent keeps on the Read Option, and I shot straight into Tourette's territory when Kevin Vaccaro gave him the business two seconds after the whistle.  Boo looked shifty and decisive as a runner and would have tacked 15 more yards onto his rushing total if not for some quick whistles, but the last thing we needed today was to see his 185-pound form crumpled on the turf while Duke from Rocky shouted, "This was supposed to be an exhibition!"*

Swoopes showed his ability to run tough on the Power Read...and also demonstrated the fact that said 185-pound freshman likely offers a better option on keeps outside the tackles.  At the 7:20 mark of the first quarter, Swoopes kept on a Slice Zone read and got fetched immediately by Quincy Vasser, who fought off a block on the play and still lassoed him for a loss.  He had a second-half give to Tristian Houston with an unblocked Charles Omenihu cheating waaaaay inside - whether Swoopes is incorrectly reading that as a give or correctly realizing that he can't make the corner on a cheating DE, it makes for a painfully limited Read Option constraint going wide.

Running Game - Defense

The Longhorns' likely Starting Six box defenders (Paul Boyette, Poona Ford, Charles Omenihu, Naashon Hughes, Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler) only played together for a few series, but they turned in an agreeable performance against an overmatched second-string OL.  Occasionally disruptive and consistently gritty, the starting defensive front stood their ground against drive blocks and gave their linebackers clean reads and good lanes to attack the ballcarrier.

Paul Boyette neatly disrupted a Power play to start the 2nd quarter, and did a nice job standing strong against the double team to tee things up for Wheeler at the 5:15 mark.  Poona Ford did good work in using his simian arm span to protect his 5'11" frame, and Charles Omenihu showed plenty of promise as an edge-setting strongside end while most of Naashon Hughes' moments came in pursuit.

The burgeoning "Free Malik" movement has been casting about desperately for a competent Mike to do some dirty work between the tackles, and sophomore Anthony Wheeler offered some hope in that regard.  He met Swoopes with authority on a first-half Power Read and turned in another sure tackle against Tristian Houston as the lone 'backer in the box.  He looks to have added some good weight in the offseason and while he may not be too much better than his front allows him to be against the run, his instincts and aggression were a nice starting point.

Malik might not have logged 20 snaps in this one, but brought smiles when he stood up a pulling guard in the first half had a moment in the second half that will hopefully typify his 2016 campaign.  Split out on the inside receiver on trips and poised to kill the quick game, Malik flew inside on the draw play and lambasted a hapless Travis Haffley to force a punt.  Hopefully Mercado left at least a little soft-serve ice cream in the walk-on dining area, because poor Haffley deserves some after that lick.

Amongst the second-stringers, Breckyn Hager showed some nastiness on the edge as a Fox player and did a much better job on contain than he managed during his late-season snaps as a freshman.  Quincy Vasser combined with DeMarco Boyd to completely lose contain on Rod Bernard's 30-yard scamper late in the second quarter, but earned full marks for hustle as he chased the play and ended up scooping the fumble that followed a DeShon Elliott detonation.

DeMarco Boyd had an up-and-down day as the backup Mike, but showed enough lateral quickness to make you think he can hang at linebacker in the Big XII.  His most impressive play was employing that quickness to beat a block and haul down Rod Bernard on an outside run, and he also lived up to his feisty rep with a nice read and attack to drop D'Onta for a short gain.  He missed a tackle on Warren's long TD, but in fairness had to work through a walk-on DT getting deposited in his lap.

Tim Cole actually had a good day in the phone booth, laying some good licks on interior runs while backup Will linebacker Cam Townsend turned in the top solo tackle on Foreman when he stuck him on a 3rd and long draw.

At safety, DeShon Elliott showed shades of a box enforcer's mentality when he took on an OL to turn a play back inside.  He also  and laid a wicked lick on Rod Bernard to force a fumble.  Bernard was set up on a silver platter, but that's still the kind of applied violence you want to see from your safeties...unless it's directed at your own 185-pound QB in a black jersey.  The coaches apparently laid into Vaccaro for that misdeed, but he should also garner some praise in the film room for a terrific downhill tackle that kept Rod Bernard from getting loose outside.

Passing Game - Offense

If Tyrone Swoopes is starting games or even getting significant snaps between the 20's next season, the biggest reason for increased optimism is that he threw a much better percentage of catchable balls downfield than we've seen from him to date in a live fire(ish) environment.  Despite an ability to rocket some pro-caliber throws on deep in-breaking routes, Ty has traditionally had a hell of a time judging distance on straight go routes and fades and has airmailed many a would-be TD.  He was more on the money on Saturday, starting with a perfect fade route that ricocheted off John Burt's facemask.

His next drive featured a pretty seam throw to DeAndre McNeal where he beat tight coverage from Antwaun Davis to drop the ball right in the basket.  Unfortunately Finessin' was having an Ineptin' day with the mitts and a ball that should have been hauled in for a TD (and that actually hit the ground) got ruled as an INT as Davis rolled up with it.  His best throw of the day actually did get hauled in, as he stepped up to avoid pressure and lofted one that Jacorey Warrick ran under in 11-on-11 action against P.J. Locke (which might have been Locke's only bad moment of the day.)

I'm inclined to give Swoopes the benefit of the doubt on the pair of 50/50 balls that he threw on deep shots to Lorenzo Joe and Collin Johnson, mainly because I spent the Spring chiseling a stone tablet that reads:

Thou shalt not overthrow 1 or 85 in single coverage.

When you've got a playmaker with a height advantage, I'm all for missing short rather than long when the safety isn't in position to get involved at the catch point.  The downside of that philosophy reared its head when his throw to Johnson got deflected into John Bonney's waiting arms, but I'm sticking to my guns here.  Of course, you'd rather just spare yourself the trouble by throwing a perfectly placed deep ball, firing Ol' Smokey and striking up the band.

In other words, you'd rather throw the deep ball like Shane Buechele.

Buechele's downfield passing dropped jaws, toasted some quality DBs and threw up double rods to the BC commentariat by serving as a billboard for the greatness of Arlington, Texas.

The fun began on his first drive with a subtle pump fake that froze Davante Davis and freed up Dorian Leonard for a nicely lofted sideline ball.  Buechele then missed a deep shot to John Burt when Burt got bodied by the corner and stumbled on the route, but the throw bounced directly off the front pylon.  Since the pylon was pretty much Buechele's aiming point on that route from that distance, that toss brought a smile despite the lack of result.  Boo followed up with a similar throw down the other sideline that would have hit the left pylon if it hadn't been hauled in for a picturesque TD by Armanti Foreman despite Holton HIll's breath on the back of his neck.  He later made up for his miss to Burt with a pair of on-the-dot lobs down the right sideline, with the last one covering 65 yards to notch the game's final score and send the long-suffering Longhorn faithful into a state of Booamania over his 299-yard, 2TD line in one (admittedly fast-paced) half of football.

Can you imagine the hype machine if he'd gone for 400 and three TDs?  It's easy if you try - because he wasn't that far off.

You can lay the loss of at least 80 yards passing at the feet of his receivers.  Quite literally in this case, as Collin Johnson, Armanti Foreman and Armanti Foreman Again plucked on-the-money sideline throws but didn't manage to mind their footwork along the boundary.  DeAndre McNeal had a ball skip off his hands after Buechele channeled fellow Arlington quarterbacking legend Tony Romo with a spin-move escape in the pocket and found him up the left sideline, and Johnson failed to finish an ESPN Top Ten play in the end zone that was delivered after a similar Houdini act.

To put it briefly (ha!), while Swoopes had some nice moments on the deep ball, Buechele was simply outstanding.  And in the short and intermediate game, it wasn't even close.

Swoopes did look to be processing things faster than he has in the past, and he managed to hit a few hitches while connecting on several of the quick ins and slants that were sorely absent from the offense last season.  He also got let down by a couple of drops in the short game.  Swoopes didn't deliver a single out-breaking route with anticipation, though, and DBs got their hands on at least two when he threw after the receiver's break.  There were a couple of hide-your-eyes flashbacks to seasons past as Tyrone missed three yards high and behind a slanting Jacorey Warrick while also launching a wide-open quick out throw into Section 113.

Buechele's biggest advantage over Swoopes on the shorter stuff was his ability to anticipate and deliver accurate and zippy throws on outs, where he picked up a pair of third down conversions and had another throw skip off Warrick's hands.  He delivered slants and in-breaking stuff in spots that gave his receivers the chance to run after the catch, and put a trio of hitch/stick routes right on the money (with the second hitting the ground after hitting Andrew Beck between the 4 and the 7.)  Buechele even impressed with his mature decisions to throw the ball to a coach when he was flushed outside the pocket with no other options.  Not every young quarterback has Heard that it's legal to just dump the ball and fight another day, so it's good to see the freshman up to speed in that department.

Right now it appears that Buechele is well ahead of Swoopes in the ability to execute a reasonably diverse passing game, and that gap figures to get wider rather than narrower before September rolls around.

As to the guys they'll be throwing to, Saturday showcased a bevy of impressive athletes who haven't gotten to log much time in a functioning pass offense.

John Burt and Armanti Foreman dominated the stat sheet with a combined 187 receiving yards and a pair of TDs, with the aforementioned betrayals of hand and foot keeping them from even bigger days.  Burt looked like a guy who'd spent the Spring running track, but at least he looked like a guy who'd been medaling in his events - dude's got a motor and should thrive in a system that gets downfield early and often.  Foreman may be ready to shrug off a forgettable sophomore campaign, though he (and just about everyone else who saw action, really) need some more instruction from Charlie Williams on how to maintain their position on fades without getting muscled into the sideline on every route.

If you'd told me before the game that Texas would total 370 yards passing on the day, I'd have bet money on Collin Johnson accounting for about a third of that total.  While an end zone drop and some lazy footwork kept him from out of the Sunday headlines, there's a reason that he grabbed more Vines than Tarzan over the course of Spring ball:

I reckon 85 should be just fine as a single-him-at-your-peril weapon come Fall ball.

Jacorey Warrick pinged on the Gaskamp radar after nabbing a nice deep throw and showing some post-catch elusiveness.  DeAndre McNeal would have done better not to slather his hands in Crisco before the scrimmage, but he showed some solid seam-stretching ability for a guy north of 220 pounds.  Dorian Leonard and Lorenzo Joe both had some nice moments - possibly because McNeal stole Leonard's Crisco during pre-game warmups - and if they make strides during Summer 7's Texas could be looking at a by-God legitimate depth chart at the position.

The tight ends were on a milk carton during the aerial portion of Saturday's proceedings, and here's hoping that Major Tennison takes the glass half full view of that development.

The pass protection from the starting OL was solid aside from a Breckyn Hager hustle sack that split Kent Perkins and Andrew Beck, though the same level-of-competition and vanilla defensive scheme caveats from the ground game apply here.  Neither Tristan Nickelson nor Elijah Rodriguez did much to fill anyone with confidence that tackle will be in good hands if Williams or Perkins goes down - stay healthy, boys.

Passing Game - Defense

Charles Omenihu was probably the day's defensive standout, giving Tristan Nickelson and Elijah Rodriguez a game's worth of abuse in a half of football and bagging a brace of sacks.  There's nowhere to go but up when it comes to strong-side pass rush production following last season, so it's great to see the big man demonstrating some good bend and burst at 6'5" and 260+ pounds.  If he had a partner in crime on the day it was sophomore linebacker Breckyn Hager, who looks to be settling nicely into the Fox role and who dumped Swoopes to notch the D's third sack on the day.  Naashon Hughes got good pressure to force another Romoesque escape from by Buechele, but was otherwise kind of quiet.  Quincy Vasser managed a couple of pressures as well as a nice deflection against Buechele, though he could get lost in the shuffle once Bryce Cottrell is back in action and freshman Erick Fowler jumps in the mix at Fox.

If you were hoping to see a little more pressure from Paul Boyette and Poona Ford against the backup weren't alone.

The Longhorns' speedy linebackers didn't get to apply much pass rush heat on a day dedicated to vanilla D, but Anthony Wheeler and Malik Jefferson in particular looked far more active and aware in their drops than they did last season.

Holton Hill and Davante Davis each gave up some production on the outside - Hill in particular had to be steaming after Armanti Foreman's front-pylon TD - but they're the least part of your worries on this defense.  Hill had a couple of terrific break-ups on throws to Collin Johnson and Dorian Leonard, and Davis was a sure tackler on plenty of quick stuff.  Kris Boyd probably had the best day of any outside corner, and he's going to force both of last year's freshman phenoms to bust their asses if they want to keep him at #2 on the depth chart.

P.J. Locke looks to have locked up starting nickel duties, and other than one toasting at the hands of Jacorey Warrick he was in tight coverage every time he got tested up the seam.  Antwaun Davis isn't ready to go quietly into that good night, sticking tight to McNeal in the slot on multiple occasions.  His interception may not have stood up to heavy scrutiny on review, but it was a game effort nonetheless.

Sheroid Evans got cooked by Dorian Leonard on an early pump fake, but was stride for stride with John Burt later in the first and managed to muscle him out of bounds.  It was a win some, lose some day for Evans as he spent most of the day tangling with Burt - he gave up another fade late in the first but had the sophomore smothered the next time Buechele tried to hit him up the sideline.  Burt had the last laugh, though, when Evans got caught peeking in the backfield and got roasted on Buechele's final deep strike of the day.  Evans' wheels appear to be in good working order, but it's clear that he needs more healthy reps to stay in phase with his receiver and out of Chykieville.

The safeties were somewhat marginalized by a passing game that featured plenty of on-time strikes to the sideline, but DeSean Elliott had a nice moment jumping an out route from Warrick while backup John Bonney got to haul in Swoopes' second INT following a deflection by Holton Hill.

Special Teams

With no kickoffs, no punt rush and instructions to fair catch every punt, all eyes were on the field goal game to see if Texas could conjure a reliable kicker from its bevy of walk-ons.

10,000 signatures on the post-game petition for a fifth year of eligibility for Nick Rose should probably be taken as a sign that those eyes didn't like what they saw.

The Bottom Line

Grand proclamations about the state of...well, anything tend to be folly when they're based solely on a zero-sum scrimmage where neither side of the ball is laying all its cards on the table.  Heading into a season that will represent the inflection point of Charlie Strong's Texas career, though, Saturday served to cast the inflection point for the Longhorn offense into sharp relief.

With Tyrone Swoopes at the head of the Longhorn offense, you're banking on him serving as a between-the-tackles bludgeon and hoping that incremental improvements in processing speed and deep ball delivery will be enough to force defenses to play the run with a modicum of honesty.  With Shane Buechele under center, you're praying for health but looking at the realistic prospect of starting to test the defense at all three levels and begin the progress towards the kind of all-out attack that Sterlin Gilbert was brought in to deliver.

While neither guy represents guaranteed success in the Fall, Shane Buechele showed the promise of a realistic bridge to this offense's future.

And for Charlie Strong, the future is now.

*RIP, Tony Burton