1) Injured/unavailable players create some opportunities. At the end of this past spring, Duke Thomas was playing wide receiver. But this fall, he's been the Longhorns' starting cornerback opposite Carrington Byndom in the Longhorns' base defense, thanks to the absence of Quandre Diggs. And while Diggs is expected back next week, it's hard to see a scenario in which Thomas doesn't play a whole bunch this season. Interestingly enough, the absence of Diggs has also caused a bit of an interesting shift in the Longhorns' nickel package, with Adrian Phillips moving up to the nickel spot and Byndom dropping back to safety (he's replaced at corner by Sheroid Evans). That move paid off in practice yesterday when tight end M.J. McFarland caught a pass over the middle, only to get cracked by Byndom. McFarland kept his feet, but was unable to keep the ball, and the defense pounced on the fumble. Elsewhere, on the offensive line, Desmond Harrison was in street clothes and Kent Perkins continued to do separate work while his banged-up shoulder heals. Harrison's absence has allowed the first-teamers to continue to work together, while Kennedy Estelle has really made the most of his increased reps at left tackle (he'll usually play on the right on the second team). And of course, the fact that Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley continue to sit out only helps players like Kendall Sanders, Marcus Johnson, Bryant Jackson and Daje Johnson get extra reps as well.
2) Some players who had rough 2012s have set themselves up for big years this year, especially defensively. The three biggest names here seem to be Steve Edmond, Mykkele Thompson and Adrian Phillips, and while Byndom didn't have a bad year last year, if Thursday was any indication, he's starting to take a step forward, especially as a cover guy. That's the danger of pegging anyone as this or that so early into camp … there are certain players, especially veterans, who seem to get better every day. Edmond has been a revelation. He took a picture of himself on Instagram shortly before camp started, showing his weight at 247 pounds, probably 20-25 pounds down from what he played at last year. And it has shown. Not only is Edmond significantly more explosive and is showing better sideline-to-sideline range, but he's still making the impact plays between the tackles that he's always been expected to make. Thompson looks like a totally different player. His size and range is a major asset on the back line … he's one of the few (only?) defensive backs who has consistently shown the ability to cover Daje Johnson out of the slot, and he's paired that with increased physicality. He put a big hit on Joe Bergeron Thursday. And Phillips has done a better job both in coverage and in being a more physical tackler. This is the Adrian Phillips we all expected to see last year when he was thought to be the perfect complement to Kenny Vaccaro on the back line.
3) David Ash continues to look wonderfully sharp. It shouldn't be a surprise … most teams with a returning starting quarterback who was a top-25 passer in passing efficiency as a sophomore would expect their quarterback to be pretty good. But Ash has been outstanding this fall despite not having his top two receivers to work with. It hasn't mattered much, with him doing a better job of anticipating and "throwing guys open", while putting his strong, accurate arm on full display. And don't be surprised if he shows more impact as a runner, either. On one play in Thursday's practice, the pass rush came too far upfield, and Ash took off. It was the right decision, and had Ash been going full speed, he might have split the secondary and run for a long touchdown. But perhaps the most important thing is that Ash has been impressive at organizing and running the offense at a quick tempo. His leadership has been excellent so far.