Scrimmage Was 'Separation Day' For Horns

For the first time in coach Mack Brown's seven-year tenure, Saturday's scrimmage at DKR featured 100 plays of full-speed tackling. It was a chance for younger talent to step up, he said. More important, coaches wanted to see how players responded to certain game-day situations that have cost Texas wins in the past.

The event was billed as the annual Fan Appreciation Day but, for many Longhorn underclassmen, the first scrimmage of the 2004 season was a chance to prove their dependability to coaches and separate themselves from teammates in the battle for key backup roles.

"Today was a separation day," Brown said, "and next Wednesday (scrimmage) is a separation day. We've told (players) that. We don't get pre-season games. If we did, we'd know a lot more about our team. But these have to be our pre-season games for evaluation. That's why we played 100 plays. We made them play every kick-off at full speed, cover every punt full speed, and we're just pressing them harder."

The biggest off-season emphasis has been improved defensive play. On Saturday, the first- and second-team Ds kept the offense out of the end zone on each of the first six possessions. In fact, the defense forced a Selvin Young fumble at the goal line on the seventh offensive series but Young fell on the ball for the first TD of the scrimmage.

"We moved the ball pretty well but we've got to do better when we get into the red zone," QB Vince Young said.

Make no mistake, this is QB Vince Young's team and he knows it. And that should be one of the biggest differences in his performance this season. Just before kick-off, Young strolled out of the tunnel and wildly exhorted the sleepy crowd (still filtering in at 7:55 a.m.) by eliciting cheers (it looked more like a series of jumping jacks) before his team took the field.

The offense opened with its bread and butter play (zone read) as Young tucked the ball and kept for 25 yards around left end. RB Cedric Benson then picked up a couple. Lining up in the shotgun, Young handed off to Benson who darted for about 15. On first-and-10 from the 23, Benson followed Jonathan Scott's clearing block for 15. But, in what would be the pattern for much of the morning, the defense stiffened inside the red zone. Young's misdirection pass play fell incomplete while Benson lost two on the next attempt. Young dropped back on third-and-12 but RDE Brian Robison (on a loop blitz) flushed the QB out of the pocket, forcing Young to scamper for six yards. The offense settled for Dusty Mangum's 21-yard FG.

"I think I did a pretty good job but I think I could do better in getting the team pumped up and getting the ball into the end zone," said Young, who finished 6-of-8 passing for 107 yards, including 1 TD. "Three (points) is good, but seven is better."

After picking up 28 yards on five carries, RB Cedric Benson picked up his Gatorade and took in the rest of the scrimmage from the sideline to give younger players some reps. RS-freshman RB Erik Hardeman, who reported just last Tuesday, led all ballcarriers with 60 yards on 10 totes.

"Erik's really talented," Brown said. "He came in late so he's still working on his condition, but we'll just have to see (during film sessions) if he did well without the ball. He's young and inexperienced and a lot of times we'll see a flash. He wasn't in there all the time against the (number) one defense, either."

Hardeman was in the backfield with the second team O on it opening possession with QB Matt Nordgren behind center. (NOTE: Brown told me that Selvin Young is not only still Benson's primary backup but is virtually a co-starter. Now, I ain't buying the "co-starter" talk but it shows how high coaches are on Selvin these days. Mock did not suit up because his ankle was sore following Friday's rehab. He did act as an on-the-field coach at times for the back-up QBs, particularly Eric Foreman. Mock is expected to be 100 percent by the home opener in two weeks and could have played Saturday if it were an actual game.) The opening drive for the second team O ended with SS Michael Griffin picking off a Nordgren wounded-duck and returning it eight yards to midfield. Nordgren was 5-of-10 for 33 yards.

While presumably most Orangebloods last season saw Young's first-team status as inevitable, Brown said Saturday that "this time last year, we didn't know if he was going to play in a game except in a mop-up role."

"He's doing a lot better job with his reads," Brown said. "He's managing the huddle better because of his confidence but he's throwing the ball to the right places with a lot of zip. Last year, in a lot of cases, he wasn't sure where to throw it so he lobbed it."

There was just one lob from Young during Saturday's scrimmage but, if it produces the same results, Longhorn fans will be glad to live with it. Operating against the second team D on his final series of the scrimmage, Young tossed up a floater that TE David Thomas pulled down at the goal line sandwiched between two defenders for the score. It capped a crisp, four-play 65-yard drive that sparked the crowd after things got a little shoddy with Nordgren and Foreman behind center. Things got started with SE Limas Sweed's 9-yard gain on an end-round (coaches really worked this play early last week). Selvin Young's 11-yard run, followed by a 17-yard completion to TE Bo Scaife curling in from right flat, set up the TD pass.

Vince finished the day with 37 yards on five carries (we can live with 7.4 ypc; his 7.2 ypc led the nation in 2003). Selvin added 31 yards and one TD on four totes, but his TD almost went by the wayside. Foreman fumbled in each of his first two series (recovering one) but ended the morning on a positive note when he carried it over from the one on fourth-and-goal. Foreman hooked-up twice with SE Tyrell Gatewood, who led all receivers with 48 yards on three receptions.

The fans remaining late in the scrimmage likely saw a, shall we say, animated Mack Brown after Young recovered his own fumble in the end zone and then, moments later, sophomore LG Kasey Studdard was whistled for an unsportsmanlike penalty. That's because a focus in Saturday's scrimmage was not schemes (per se) but rather the kind of "critical situations" that have lost games for the Horns in the past. That goal line fumble represented precisely such a situation on both sides of the ball, and the head coach let his team know it.

"We've got to do a better job in critical situations," Brown said, "because during the two or three games that we've lost, when we lost them, we were in a position where one damn play might key two or three others. In that one situation, we had a possible touchdown taken away because of a strip. It was a great play by the defense on the goal line but the offense can't leave the ball on the ground. Then the ball is on the ground in the end zone and the defense doesn't get on it, so they lose an opportunity for a critical play. The offense does get on it, so they overcome a turnover, and then it sounded as if a defensive player must have smacked somebody which (the officials) didn't catch and then they caught Kasey Studdard hitting back. And that's a 15-yard penalty and you lose the field position on the kickoff."

The coaches appear to be looking under every rock to see where the breakdowns have been during those two or three losses in each of the past few seasons. Another of those areas is special teams, Brown insists. That's why he said earlier this week that special teams would be an emphasis in Saturday's scrimmage. True to form, Texas opened the annual Fan Appreciation Day with four kick-offs and returns (two apiece for the first- and second-teams).

"The thing we did get answered is that the kicking game is better," Brown said. "We're excited about the time and the progress that we've put into our kicking game."

Brown wants his special teams loaded with top talent. As such, look for more first-teamers on the respective units this reason (rather than backups who are simply looking for playing time). The first-team punt return unit registered a block (sophomore Tarell Brown) as well as a 73-yard return for TD (Selvin Young). Meanwhile, WLB linebacker Derrick Johnson blocked David Pino's 33-yard FG attempt while P Richmond McGee (one punt) and P Greg Johnson (two punts) both averaged 43 yards per boot.

The Horns are off Sunday, their first off day since camp started August 10, but will return to Denius for a Monday morning workout.

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