Spring Game Hints At Wide Open O, Better Pass Rush

Here's what we can conclude based on the annual Orange-White Game at DKR Saturday: Vince Young is indeed a more polished passer in an offense that promises to be more wide-open, the D-Line will do a better job at pressuring the QB, the WRs showed flashes of competency but we're probably looking at tailback-by-committee when practice resumes next August.

For the record, the final tally (using the new scoring system that awarded bonus points for offensive productivity and defensive stands) was Orange 24 - White 21. The one hour scrimmage, representing the conclusion of spring drills at the Forty Acres, saw nearly 60 snaps in front of what head coach Mack Brown (generously) estimated as a crowd of 40,000.

More important, there were key areas of emphasis that needed to be addressed this spring and put on display Saturday night. There's no doubt that the zone read will remain the bread-and-butter play as Young runs the inside zone as if he invented it. (Back-up QB Matt Nordgren ran some zone read, picking up 34 yards around left end on his fourth play from scrimmage. Coaches believe Nordgren, while certainly no Vince Young, at least has the speed to run the same offense when he is on the field.) For now, the Longhorn offense will be built around the fastest RB that Brown has ever had and the best running QB he'll ever recruit. It's clear, however, that coaches wanted to force the issue early with SE Limas Sweed.

Three of the first six plays from scrimmage were tosses to the 6-4 wideout who (according to reports) had a knack this spring for making a circus catch one play and then dropping the ball the next. VY opened the evening from the 18 with a pinpoint completion to Sweed in triple coverage. Four plays later, Young connected with Sweed again, this time for 33 yards on a streak route, setting up a first down at the White 25 yard line.

"The cornerback was playing on the inside and the streak route was called," Sweed said. "I just ran. I had the mindset that if he throws it my way, I'm gonna catch it. (Young) threw it up, and I just focused on the ball and caught it."

That's when the defense stiffened (and if you're more concerned about the pass rush than the wideouts, you'll be encouraged here by the play of the front four to keep VY and company out of the end zone). The D-line hurried Young into an incompletion (intended for Sweed) before future star RDT Frank Okam threw RB Chris Ogbonnaya for a three-yard loss. LDE Tim Crowder immediately followed with a six-yard QB sack. (VY later said officials blew the whistles too quickly and that he was determined to find secondary receivers rather than tucking and running.) The defense was credited with three points after blocking David Pino's 51-yard FG attempt.

Sweed made "a tremendous amount of progress" during the last three days of spring ball, Brown said. I asked both Brown and Sweed to elaborate on what it was that led coaches to believe they had seen improvement in his game.

Said Brown: "I think competition. Tyrell Gatewood and Myron Hardy have been after his job. And Vince has been such a great leader. He's told those young receivers that we're depending on them, that they're accountable to this team to step up because we have to have the complement of receivers that we didn't have last year to be able to compete. We're pleased that (Sweed) made that step coming out of tonight. The progress he's made the last three days should give him great confidence."

Sweed points to a sit-down, heart-to-heart that he had with Brown late last week.

"He said we need the split end to be able to make deep plays. A couple of days ago in practice, (Young) threw me four deep balls and I caught all of them. Some of them were like, 50-yard passes, 40-yard passes, 65-yard passes. I came into this scrimmage with the mindset that, whenever they throw the deep ball, I'm gonna go get it no matter what."

FL Jordan Shipley was held out of the spring game and will return next fall as Texas' leading deep ball threat. The two other flankers, Nate Jones and Billy Pittman made some nice grabs Saturday to keep drives alive. Young's second possession began at the 40 following Myron Hardy's 35-yard KO return. Young quickly found TE David Thomas for 22 yards (an acrobatic catch, dragging his left foot inbounds). He then went deep to Sweed by walk-on corner Karim Meijer made a great play on the ball and was credited with the PBU. On 3rd-and-seven from the 35, Jones got just enough separation from RCB Brandon Foster along the left sideline to come down with the 12-yard grab. But on 3rd-and-goal from the eight, Young's toss to Sweed fell incomplete and the Orange settled for a 25-yard Greg Johnson FG.

Except for his 89-yard KO return for TD (against back-ups) to launch the scrimmage, RB Ramonce Taylor submitted a nondescript night relative to the burst he has shown during spring drills. His longest run from scrimmage was all of five yards, but he has impressed coaches enough this past month to where he will be in the mix next fall when Selvin Young regains his eligibility and reports with the four other RBs that Texas inked this year. Still, it shapes up as the type of tailback-by-committee that Orangebloods have not seen since Brown inherited the program eight years ago.

"You hope that you can get at least two backs and get it to them 15-to-20 times a game and keep them fresh," Brown said, "but we'll have more backs-by-committee next year than we've had the last four years. We did it at North Carolina but we haven't done it here. When you have Ricky (Williams) and Cedric (Benson), they just took over. Even though Ramonce is slight (5-11, 197) and we didn't see him (Saturday) like we've seen him this spring with the explosive plays, I think he's really good. He's been tough. I'm glad to see him get hit tonight. He took care of the ball and he didn't slow down."

Brown echoed a thought I have mentioned all spring, and that is RT is more likely to emerge as an all-purpose back than the featured back: "I'm not sure that Ramonce can't be a 25-touch (per game) guy. But he will not be the Cedric Benson, off tackle, 25 (carries) per game."

RT said he is approaching the fall, however, as if he is going to be the featured back.

"I have to approach it like that," he said. "I have to have that mindset when I step out on the field."

MLB Aaron Harris picked off a batted Matt Nordgren pass on the fourth series at the Orange 32-yard line. Okam set the tone on the second play following the change of possession, lassoing RB Michael Houston for a one-yard loss. The seven-play drive resulted in a 45-yard David Pino FG. The White (defense) was credited with four points for holding the offense to just three points following the 'Sudden Change' in field possession.

Harris sat out most of the rest of the evening when he got a little banged up. It allowed back-up Rashad Bobino to log extra snaps against the first-team O and give fans a glimpse of things to come from the 5-11 230-pounder (who is built like a fire hydrant in shoulder pads).

"Bobino showed up a whole lot and he's continued to do that," Brown said. "He's a guy that we feel we have to look very closely at playing a lot next fall. There were times when he was in the backfield. Every time we scrimmage, he shows up as much anybody out there."

The pass rush will be better in no small part because Texas now boasts the kind of speed at DE that it did not have last season when designated starter Mike Williams sat out 2004 for academic reasons. The combination of Williams and understudy RS-freshman Brian Orakpo should not only improve on Texas' paltry sack total from last season (22) but also allow some innovation on the defensive front with all four DEs on the field at the same time.

"We can see a possibility, on some third down and long, or second and long against passing teams, where we might have those two guys at end and Brian Robison and Tim Crowder at tackle to get more of pass rush," Brown said. "That could be the best pass rush we've had since we've been here. I think Brian can be a force as well as Mike. Brian Orakpo and Mike Williams put pressure on the quarterback against the first offensive line and those were areas of concern for us where we feel we've made some progress."

Young engineered a 16-play, 64-yard TD drive in his final possession, capped by a pitch to Ogbonnaya who carried it across from four yards out. Facing 3rd-and-12 from the 37, Pittman came up with a clutch 14-yard grab to keep the drive alive. Then, on 4th-and-seven from the 20, Young hooked up with Sweed one last time as the SE made a diving 8-yard reception at the 12. Those two catches, Young said, were indicative of the kind of progress he has seen in the WRs this spring. As for his own improvement, Young believes he will carry into the fall a kind of improved presence in both the huddle and in the pocket that was not as evident during an otherwise remarkable 2004 season.

"Right now, I'm feeling real good in the pocket delivering the ball down field and getting the plays in," Young said. "I know what I struggled with was, getting the plays in, getting the delay of game but I'm doing a great job overall being the quarterback and knowing what the coaches want me to do on certain downs. I know my first, second and third receivers."

Now, the Horns will catch some R&R following what Brown said was the toughest spring session during his tenure. Many, if not most, of the first-team players will hang around campus for voluntary workouts during these next four months in which the Horns should be a consensus Top Five pick in nearly all pre-season polls.

"The message that we want to send is that we want to go back to the Rose Bowl and we want to win," Brown said. "This team hasn't won a game yet. We want them to start out where last year's group left off."

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