Longhorns Looking for Depth

On April Fool's Day, you have to take anything somebody says with a grain of salt. And the same can be said for spring games, notoriously vanilla affairs that give limited action to star players in an attempt to make sure they don't get injured.

So perusing the stat sheet from the 2012 Texas Spring Football Orange-White game — A 35-28 win by "Texas" over "Horns" — isn't much help. Texas tailback Joe Bergeron ran four times. Malcolm Brown had two carries, and a "lost shoe" kept him from potentially getting a couple more. Mike Davis had no catches. Kenny Vaccaro had one tackle. The starters barely played in the second half.

None of those are likely scenarios for the fall. But here's what we do know, based on a combination of Sunday's results, a smattering of press conferences and two other open practices: Texas is trying to get deeper.

"We got as many people in there as possible," said tight end D.J. Grant of the offensive game-plan. "We were rotating a lot of guys and getting everybody reps to see what we have and to improve and get used to game-like situations."

Sure, every team would love to have depth. But the Longhorns aren't so much focused on, say, finding a starting safety, or penciling in a player at linebacker, as they are at building a legitimate two-deep at every position. That includes at quarterback, where the Longhorn coaches begin answers to starting quarterback questions with "both guys."

"Both guys, for what we ask them to do, I thought, did a tremendous job," said offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. "David [Ash] has continued to impress and improve. And I thought Case [McCoy] really came on in the second half of spring. So both those guys did a nice job."

Ash was 5-for-6 for 83 yards, throwing for a touchdown and rushing for another. McCoy was 9-of-15 for 139 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

So why the increased emphasis on "finding two"? That answer could probably be traced all the way back to 2006, when Texas entered its game against Kansas State with a sparkling 9-1 record and an outside shot at the BCS National Championship Game. Colt McCoy was injured in that contest, and the Longhorns dropped two close ones to end the season. A Colt injury was even more devastating at the 2010 title game, when Texas lost a close game to Alabama after he was knocked out with a shoulder injury early.

And then, there was last year, when Texas started the year 6-2, only to go 1-3 in its final four regular season games after losing four of its top offensive playmakers: running backs Brown, Bergeron and Fozzy Whittaker and wide receiver Jaxon Shipley.

It could certainly be argued that Mack Brown has simply had some bad luck. But Brown parroted 100 times this spring that Texas is trying to get to a spot where one player's injury, or bad performance for that matter, won't cost the Longhorns a national championship. Texas wants to take luck out of the equation, a reason why the Longhorns have also pushed so hard to eliminate their own turnovers while creating more for the opposition.

Is Texas back to competing for national championships? Probably not quite yet. The Longhorns are getting better, with an offense packed with running backs, rising wide receivers like Davis, Shipley and speedster Marquise Goodwin, and an offensive line that has 63 combined starts among its projected five starters.

"We're going to be really good with the running game," Mack Brown said. "And if [defenses] are going to stop it, they're going to have to put some extra folks up there, and it's going to leave some people open."

The defense returns seven starters from a top-notch unit a year ago, and has potential All-Big 12 candidates at nearly every level in defensive ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, Jordan Hicks at linebacker, Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs at cornerback and Vaccaro at safety.

But the Longhorns are still relatively young. Just two starters on the defense are seniors. The only projected senior starters on offense are at one wide receiver spot, fullback and tight end. And much of the talent on roster has yet to mature. Vaccaro said the defense needed to improve on developing "more leaders on both sides of the ball."

"We need more guys to step up and take control and just play with confidence," Vaccaro said. "We have a whole lot of talent."

That isn't disputed. The Longhorns have landed a top-three recruiting class according to Scout.com in each of the past three years, the first time that feat has been accomplished by any school (Scout.com's rankings go back to the 2002 recruiting class). Some of those players are attending proms and still in high school, and will report in the fall. But still others — like emerging linebackers Steve Edmond and Demarco Cobbs — are just starting to break into the starting lineup.

While the Longhorns might be loaded up front defensively, they'll have to shuffle some young players to fill three openings in the back seven. And that isn't as easy as just flinging five-star prospects into gaps.

"I think as a defense the tip of the spear is up front, but what gets you beat the quickest is in the back," said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. "We have a lot of guys that stand up for us, the back seven, that are still very young.

"There can be the assumption of potential that they can just take the place of the guys that we lost," Diaz said. "The nature of the position they play, and this goes for linebackers as well, you don't have to be wrong very many times to get you beaten. So I think that's still our test … can these guys step up to their role where down-after-down they handle their business?"

That's what the spring is for: answering questions. And the Texas coaches and players have been quick to point out that they have far more answers than they did a year ago, with a new staff and arguably an even younger team. Last spring, defensive tackle and cornerback were considered weaknesses. This year, they're considered team strengths.

In fact, defensive tackle may be the best example of the Longhorns meeting their goal. Texas has four ready-to-roll players there, led by three players who played extensively last year in Ashton Dorsey, Desmond Jackson and Chris Whaley, and rounded out by JUCO early enrollee Brandon Moore. Most teams would love to have two really good tackles. But that's not the goal at Texas.

"In this league we will never survive with 11 players if our second 11 doesn't continue to come on," Diaz said.

That's why, when Diaz was asked after the game where the defense stands, his first response was "well, we're not two-deep."

The fact that the Longhorns are focused on that second line implies two things. First, it shows that Texas has rebuilt the program to the point that there aren't many holes remaining in the starting lineup. And second, Texas is focused on the big picture: getting back to contending for titles.

"Depth, competitive depth and toughness have been the words that we've really used all spring," Brown said. "We're really, really trying to gain depth and send that message to the players. It's not just about stars. It's not just about who started."


TEXAS — D.J. Monroe 60 run (Ben Pruitt kick), 12:26 1Q

TEXAS — Jaxon Shipley 10 pass from David Ash (Pruitt kick), 10:23 1Q

TEXAS — Joe Bergeron 2 run (Pruitt kick), 14:45 2Q

TEXAS — D.J. Grant 54 pass from Shipley (Pruitt kick), 5:55 2Q

HORNS — Mykkele Thompson 99 kickoff return (Pruitt kick), 3:30 2Q

HORNS — DeSean Hales 36 pass from Case McCoy (Pruitt kick), 0:14 2Q

HORNS — Cade McCrary 3 pass from Connor Brewer (Pruitt kick), 9:54 3Q

TEXAS — Ash 1 run (Pruitt kick), 6:38 3Q

HORNS — Heath Hohmann 1 run (Pruitt kick), 0:49 4Q

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