Monday Thoughts, 8/15

This week's Monday Thoughts column focuses exclusively on what we learned from the first scrimmage of fall practice.

Ash lights it up

We've been saying here since this past spring that true freshman quarterback David Ash has positioned himself firmly in the race to win the Texas quarterback job.

Now, after what was described as "a very strong" initial scrimmage by the talented signal caller from Belton, it might not be too much to say that he's at or near the lead of said race. Ash earned rave reviews both for his ability to use his legs and for his accuracy. But perhaps most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over, something that couldn't be said for quarterback front-runner Garrett Gilbert, who threw two interceptions.

One of the hardest things for young quarterbacks is to learn the principles of live to fight another day, basically that it's better to check down to a minimal gain or throw the ball away, rather than try to make a low-percentage big play. But by all accounts, Ash is in front of most freshmen in that spot.

Gilbert struggled to move the offense and threw two interceptions, though only one was a poor read. On that one, Keenan Robinson made a great play that you won't often see from linebackers on Saturdays. And the other was a crazy tip play intercepted by freshman end Cedric Reed.

And Case McCoy had another solid Spring Game like performance, moving the ball some while throwing some not-so-pretty balls. Connor Wood again struggled with his consistency.

I'll say this: after one scrimmage, it's too early to anoint any of the four as starters, though if Ash hadn't already put the older players on notice, he did so with a strong first game-like situation.

Offensive line mixes and matches

One of the things offensive line coach Stacy Searels talked about in the spring was attempting to get his five best offensive linemen on the field. And reports out of fall camp have been that he's been rotating pretty much every player — Mack Brown said only center Dominic Espinosa had been practicing at one position — through the line to try and get the right fit.

It makes sense, then, that the unit Searels trotted out on Saturday represented that trend. Tray Allen was working at left tackle, and was put beside Trey Hopkins at left guard, Espinosa at center, David Snow at right guard and Mason Walters at right tackle. The group did have some trouble with first-team ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat — though a lot of teams will this season — but they were able to open up some holes for Longhorn runners in the run game.

Garrett Porter and Thomas Ashcraft also rotated in on the interior, though it's worth noting that the above lineup focuses heavily on mobility, with any of the five linemen excelling as a pulling player. There isn't a so-called "pure tackle" among the group, but that could change depending on the performance of Luke Poehlmann, who has had a nice fall camp, and Paden Kelley, who started a game a year ago. And it's worth noting that you don't have to have a pure tackle with swing types like the 6-foot-6 Walters and 6-foot-4 Allen.

Defensive tackle still a concern

With all of the positive gushings about freshman defensive tackle Desmond Jackson, everyone wanted to see him in a scrimmage situation. And the reviews were mostly positive. Jackson still lacks somewhat of the bulk to hold up at the point of attack on run plays, but he was hardly alone in that area Saturday.

In fact, none of the tackles opposite Kheeston Randall — Jackson, Ashton Dorsey or Calvin Howell, with Dorsey getting most of the snaps — did a great job against the run. And unfortunately, that also had a negative effect on the linebackers at times. Robinson and Emmanuel Acho are more chase-type linebackers, rather than players who excel at stepping up and dealing with the wash.

Jackson did provide some nice pass rush and caused a handful on long situations. But until Texas finds a player (preferably players) who can step up and close things off against the run at that spot, that position could serve as the team's weak spot. And it could lead to Texas having to make other moves, like potentially playing a run stopping linebacker like freshman Steve Edmond on early downs.

Freshman flavor

Brown was asked on National Signing Day whether any players wavered in their commitment to the Longhorns because of their poor year. He responded with a quip that went something like "no, all of them are really excited because they think they can play early."

If this fall has been an indicator of anything, it's that true freshmen will have a major role to play this season. Beyond the aforementioned Ash, Reed, Jackson and Edmond, Jaxon Shipley caught a touchdown pass in Saturday's scrimmage, Quandre Diggs worked with the ones at cornerback (getting starter-type repetitions) and Miles Onyegbule also had a great day.

One person I talked to said that Onyegbule had been one of the pleasant surprises of camp, and indicated that he would likely work his way onto the two-deep.

Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron will both have a hard time redshirting, as will tight end M.J. McFarland and cornerback Josh Turner.

So there are a number of freshmen looking to make a major impact, and this year's results will depend largely on how well those freshmen adjust.

Running back a positive

If there was one positive to take from Saturday's scrimmage offensively, it's that Texas appears to have the weapons at running back to operate Bryan Harsin's offense.

Cody Johnson did an excellent job as an H-back/fullback who could motion around and perform different roles. Fozzy Whittaker and Bergeron ran the ball well. And D.J. Monroe presents such a threat on jet sweeps that defenses have to account for his every movement.

With quarterback facing a position battle that could even rage into the season, it's important that the Longhorns find a way to run the ball effectively. And at this point, it looks like the Longhorns will be able to do that with a number of different bodies.

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