Spring Wrap-Up: Does Young Have The Gun?

Saturday's Orange-White Game at DKR capped the most intense, hard-hitting, back-to-basics, blue-collar spring season of the <B>Mack Brown </B>era. At least that's the seventh-year Texas head coach's perception since we saw so little of it. But whatever happened behind closed doors, the operative question for 2004 is not whether the new receivers can catch but if QB <B>Vince Young </B>can throw.

Specifically, can Young complete with relative accuracy the underneath routes to running backs, fullbacks and tight ends that (we are told) were featured during these past four weeks of spring football? And can Young toss the deep ball with appreciable zip so that receivers and D-backs don't appear as if they are converging to field a punt?

We know what Young can do with his feet. That, combined with RB Cedric Benson's relentless, man-on-a-mission style of carrying the rock that we have seen as of late, indicates that Texas possesses the offensive firepower to win nine or ten games in 2004. (There are at least that many teams on the slate that Texas can just flat run over.) Of course, nobody is talking about winning nine or ten games but rather 12 or 13. (After all, are there parts of San Diego that are left to see?)

The question remains: will Young's passing game complement his rushing prowess and thus allow Texas to perform offensively at a championship level?

Based on Young's limited appearance during the Spring Jamboree (4-of-9 passing for 28 yards, five carries for 27 yards), the showing did little to put Orangebloods at ease.

Young, apparently, is feeling quite comfortable with the offense. I had a chance to talk privately with UT's starting QB following the Jamboree, and he believes his passing is the most improved aspect of his game and that it has to do with the comfort level he now has following one season and two spring trainings under his belt.

"I've been throwing the ball real well," Young said. "It's just from relaxing more. I knew I could always throw the ball, but it's more from sitting back there, going through my progressions and reading the field and taking what they give me."

Those who have seen Young may find it hard to believe that he could ever suffer from a case of the nerves. You probably saw him doing jumping-jacks ten yards out on the field to entice the crowd Saturday, just as he literally danced on the sideline just before kickoff at Oklahoma State last November ("I'd never seen anything like that," Brown commented). Yet you also saw him become flustered in the fourth quarter of the Texas Tech game following an up-and-down passing night and after the league's worst defense figured out a way to shut down the Zone Read. (The Holiday Bowl is a different story. Save for one play, Texas completely abandoned the league's best running game for the entire fourth quarter.)

Brown barely turned the pages of the playbook Saturday since there were (potentially) so many Sooners watching the Fox Sports Southwest replays. No coach is going to reach deep into his playbook in the spring game anyway (or even against the directional schools during the pre-conference slate). The thing Horn fans were looking at was Young's throwing motion, accuracy and decision-making. His first (and only) attempt to go deep (to WR Limas Sweed) was a moonball that gave defenders ample opportunity to converge and knock the ball away. Later, Young threw into triple coverage (you've seen his ear-level shotput throwing motion) as safety Marcus Griffin came away with the INT. However, the play was discounted due to Brown's inadvertent whistle.

But Young is convinced he has made real progress this spring and that whatever freshman jitters he may have had last season, it's all in the rear-view mirror now.

"If you had seen me last year when I first came out there, I was calling the plays in and I was stumbling with the words," Young said. "But this year, I'm more relaxed. The words are just coming out, the signals and stuff like that. I see myself a little ahead this year with the experience that I've had."

Young may indeed be more relaxed, but that comfort level has not translated into a championship-level passing game. Not yet, at least. The good news is that Young is determined, hard-working and, of course, ridiculously talented. He'll still throw as well, if not better, than the majority of the QBs that Texas will face next season. But can he improve enough under Greg Davis to consistently perform at a championship level? Fact remains, he's not the best thrower on the team. He might not even be the second best. Last season, Texas at least had a receiving threat in Roy, B.J. and Sloan. This season, in the absence of a proven receiving threat, Texas must at least have a legitimate passing threat by the time it hits the road for Arkansas in mid-September.

I am typically not a proponent of rotating quarterbacks but the gut-level feeling is that unless Young shows marked improvement in August, Chance Mock needs to get at least one-third of the snaps next season (and not just during a scripted "every third series" scenario). Defenses assume that if Mock is in the game on specific series, then Texas will specifically emphasize the passing game. The offense becomes one-dimensional and predictable. The defense will pin its ears back and you've got the second half of the Holiday Bowl all over again.

The offensive line is better than it was at this time last year, Brown said. Meanwhile, Benson is running like the Cedric we always hoped he would become when Texas recruited him as the bluest of chips. Hiccup-quick (when healthy) Selvin Young has recovered from the groin injury suffered against Rice and perfectly complements Benson's slashing, bruising style. RS-freshman Erik Hardeman (with his low center of gravity and remarkable balance) is a headache-in-shoulder pads, plus he is a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield. Whereas the running game was a question mark entering the 2003 season, it remains an exclamation mark heading into the Sept. 4 home opener against North Texas.

Texas should roll against the pesky, defensive-minded Mean Green. But the road trip to Fayette-Nam the following weekend against the Razorbacks (who hate Longhorns like Longhorns hate Sooners) will be a barometer for the rest of the season. The conclusion here remains: Texas is loaded but it all comes down to Young's gun.

TOMORROW: AN OVERVIEW OF THE LONGHORN DEFENSE


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