Texas Loaded At DB; D.J. Heads Hard-Hitting LBs

Texas donned pads for the last time Tuesday prior to the annual Spring Game, giving head coach <b>Mack Brown</b> a chance to survey his troops. While questions will remain at WR until September's home-opener, there is no question that the Horns are deeper in the secondary than they have been in nearly a decade while senior Derrick Johnson will command what promises to be the fiercest group of linebackers during Brown's tenure.

First, the linebackers. Go ahead and mark down in indelible ink the starting trio that (baring injury) many of us have been salivating to see since mid-2003. That would be hard-hitting Aaron Harris at MLB, Golden Glove boxer (with the attitude to back it) Garnet Smith at SLB, and your future Butkus Award winner at WLB.

Smith impressed greatly last spring, instinctively embodying the type of aggressive attitude that coaches were trying to instill in other players, and earned the starting nod at MLB. Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending ankle injury before halftime in the very first game against New Mexico State. He received a medical redshirt last December and has three remaining years of eligibility. Harris started six of the last eight games of 2003 at MLB (the exception was against Texas Tech and the Holiday Bowl when Texas opened in the nickel package) and registered 60 tackles -- including six TFL and 3.5 QB sacks -- in 13 games. He won team awards last December for tenacity and as the unit's most improved player.

No joke: Smith and Harris will guard the goal line like Smith & Wesson. And Johnson ain't half-bad either.

D.J., of course, was a Butkus Award Finalist in 2003 (the year where you had to go to OU before you were taken seriously for an award) and now has had "by far his best spring" at Texas, Brown said. When I later asked Brown to elaborate, he spoke in terms of Johnson's emergent leadership.

"Derrick has shown tremendous leadership and he has led with his work ethic," Brown said. "We've hit so much more this spring, and he's been in on every snap. We've never pulled him. He and (SS) Phillip Geiggar are our two leaders on defense."

Johnson has also benefited from Co-Defensive Coordinator/LB Coach Greg Robinson's counsel in terms of elevating his play, particularly in fighting off blocks. Johnson's preference has been to play the WILL position, allowing him to freelance and chase down ball carriers with his amazing closing speed. He won't have the luxury week in and week out in the League. Robinson has told Johnson, 'If you want to be a top linebacker in the NFL, here's what you gotta do. Otherwise, the other NFL guys will eat you up."

RS-freshman Scott Derry has so impressed that he is now listed at backing Harris at MIKE. Look for RS-freshman Robert Killebrew to emerge this year and a likely candidate to try and fill Johnson's cleats at WILL in 2005. Brown singled out junior SLB Aurmon Satchell for his improvement this spring (Brown almost has to make this comment since sophomore Eric Foreman is taking snaps as fourth-team QB) but you probably won't see Satchell in consecutive series this fall unless the game is out of hand.

Meanwhile, Texas is so loaded in the secondary that Brown is convinced there are at least seven DBs (Geiggar, junior CB/S Michael Huff, junior CB Cedric Griffin, sophomore CB Aaron Ross, sophomore CB Tarell Brown, RS-freshman CB Brandon Foster, sophomore S Michael Griffin) can each take significant game day snaps without resulting in a drop-off in production.

"We can throw anybody out there from this group and they can all play," Brown said. "So we're going to turn them loose and let them play. We haven't had this much depth in the secondary since we've been here."

Huff is being cross-trained at both CB and safety while coaches consider Ross and Brown co-starters at the corner. (We'll see who's first on the field Saturday night). For now, Brown continues to tout this year's bunch as a no-name squad (in terms of star quality) but rather a team with a hard-nosed, blue collar work ethic.

"What's been fun about this spring is we don't have any stars," Brown said. "We're not talking about (naming) starters. It's all about playing and getting better. It's been about the 'team' all spring."

Ross and T. Brown will likely be returning kickoffs this fall while RB Selvin Young will handle punt return duties. Senior walk-on Richmond McGee still holds down the starting job as punter instead of All-American transfer and scholarship athlete Greg Johnson. Dusty Mangum and David Pino are in a virtual dead heat for FG duties.

The Horns will return to Denius for their final practice of the spring on Thursday.

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