Back-ups take center stage

After a full 40 minutes of special teams work Thursday at DKR, the Longhorn veterans watched from the sidelines for the rest of the afternoon as the back-ups went at it in 11-on-11.

"Today, we didn't play any guys that have been starters," Mack Brown said. "We finished up with a lot of the young guys we're trying to evaluate. It goes back to trying to figure out whether a guy's going to be a second-team player when he comes back in the fall or be a third-team player. We got a lot of that work done today and we'll evaluate that again on Saturday."

The offense opened with Chance Mock under center, LT Alfio Randall, LG Trey Bates, C Will Allen, RG Lionel Garr and RT Jonathan Scott manning the OL, Anthony Johnson at tailback and, later, Will Matthews and Brock Edwards splitting time at fullback (Chad Stevens and Artie Ellis lined up at TE, together at times in two TE sets and separately when both Johnson and a fullback filled the backfield). Scott, who simply needs the game-like experience of scrimmaging, is the probable starter at right tackle in the fall while the rest of the guys figure to be back-ups. Johnson, though, continued to impress and Mock turned in a far better performance than his Tuesday two-for-seven effort. The redshirt freshman tailback showed a bit of both power and evasiveness on the first series, rushing for five yards by barreling over WLB Aurmon Satchell and then later slipping the tackle of WLB Lance McFarland on an 11-yarder up the middle. Johnson added three more runs of eight yards later in the scrimmage. Mock, on a rollout, completed his first pass of the day to Stevens for 18 yards, connected for 14-, 16- and 14-yard completions and put the ball on the money on three other throws, two that Stevens and Edwards could not corral and one that Kyle Shanahan hauled in at the back left pylon for what but for a called sack would have been a 15-yard TD toss. The sophomore QB also darted down the line of scrimmage and then upfield for 12 yards on an option keeper.

As with Mock, third-team QB Matt Nordgren worked with multiple combinations in the backfield (Brett Robin and Johnson at tailback and Matthews and Edwards at fullback) and on the offensive line. On Nordgren's first series, Roman Reeves and Terrance Young worked the left side of the offensive line, the direction that the young QB sent his first pass attempt to Matthews, who rumbled for 22 yards. That's just the type of play the coaches expect from the big and athletic sophomore fullback. Nordgren also had a pass picked by Rufus Harris, who like fellow redshirt freshman and usual safety Kendal Briles worked at corner. The INT, which came on a quick attempt near the left sideline, looked to be because of a wrong route from walk-on wideout Joseph Ashton rather than a poor throw from Nordgren. The QB threw the ball to a spot where he expected the receiver to be, but Ashton had continued on a sprint downfield. After a five-turnover scrimmage on Tuesday, the Nordgren pick was the only giveaway during the approximately 30-play scrimmage.

I asked both Brown and Carl Reese after the workout about putting Harris and Briles at corner and rotating Cedric Griffin and Michael Huff into the safety positions.

"Duane (Akina's) such a great teacher it's been really good for him to look at all of those guys at corner and safety," the head coach said. "We didn't play Nathan (Vasher) or Rod (Babers) today so it gave him a chance to look at everybody at different places, so we feel like that at least gives him a better idea of whether guys can cover man-to-man. There's more of a correlation between our corners and our nickel and dime backs than there are our safeties because they're man-to-man players in most cases. We've got to find the third corner still for next fall and we've got to find a nickel and dime back and that's what we're looking for."

"With Griffin and Huff, we were trying to give them some safety work and then really see what Briles and Harris can do at corner," the D-coordinator said. "It's about flexibility, where those guys might fit in. That experiment is really trying to get one of those young guys, Griffin or Huff, at the other safety position and give 'em a shot and get it on film."

"Ideally, one of the safeties needs to be our third corner," Reese added. "One of them has to be a cover guy, the other one can be protected some. . . . From a coaching standpoint, we would rather have the four best cover guys in the game." Right now, that would be Vasher and Babers at corner and Griffin and Huff at safety. Aside from Griffin and Huff and Scott on the OL, everybody that played today projects as a fall back-up.

Miguel McKay, Stevie Lee and Adam Doiron all took snaps at DT, but as Reese mentioned earlier this week, the coaches are hoping to elevate a true freshman into the middle this fall. If none of the true freshmen DTs steps up in August, McKay would get the start based on his spring play but would be rotated with Doiron and Lee. O.J. McClintock, Austin Sendlein, Chase Pittman and Kaelen Jakes are the four guys fighting for playing time at back-up end, with McClintock on the left side and Sendlein on the right being the current leaders. Pittman, though, turned in another solid performance, at least late in Thursday's scrimmage, getting by Trey Bates for a sack of Mock and also registering a TFL (albeit on tiny walk-on RB C.J. Martin) on the last play of the day.

The entire complement of back-up linebackers, none of which are ready for significant fall action, saw the field, including walk-on Stevie Stigall, who filled in for an injured Braden Johnson over the last week or so and looked as good as any of the scholarship 'backers. Stigall turned in a sack and a QB pressure Thursday. Other than Stigall's pass rushing and RB Anthony Johnson's steamroll of WLB Satchell, the only standout plays from a member of the LB corps came from second-team MLB Eric Hall, who forced Mock out of the pocket with pressure once and combined with Sendlein on a TFL later in the scrimmage.

Not that Thursday's action at the stadium didn't matter from a depth chart perspective for the guys above -- if a player stepped up his level of play, the coaches will surely note it and look for more, similar evidence in Saturday's Spring Game, plus several guys that played a lot of snaps Thursday (Scott, Allen, Mock, Edwards, Stevens, Tony Jeffery, Kyle Shanahan, McKay, McClintock, Sendlein, Griffin and Huff, and possibly a couple of others) will be starters or often-used back-ups in the fall -- but Reese said after the scrimmage that the staff talked earlier this week about their evaluations of "who we think is gonna help us and where we can plug in the young guys." With 14 spring practices down, the contributors are identified and the early August line-up virtually set, according to Reese. Saturday, a bunch of guys will get their final shot at joining those groups.

Spring Game notes: Brown said Saturday's scrimmage will go on rain of shine unless lightning forces the event's cancellation. Even if the team does not scrimmage, the player autograph session is still scheduled to take place, so the head coach encouraged Orangebloods to show up regardless of the weather. . . . Brown did say that all of the Horns' '02 signees but three will be in Austin with their families. "We'll (also) have a tremendous amount of young talented guys that are high school recruits for next year that'll be here with their families," he added. . . . The ones will square off against the ones for about 15 plays Saturday, Brown said. . . . [Editor's note: More notes and analysis from Thursday's scrimmage in our next report.]

For more spring football coverage, see IT's in-depth subscriber reports from the last month:

3.26 -- Big plays, turnovers dominate Tuesday scrimmage
3.26 -- Tuesday scrimmage notes and analysis
3.25 -- Reese: True freshmen to get an August shot at PT
3.25 -- Monday practice notes
3.21 -- Brown: 'We're developing more depth'
3.21 -- Thursday scrimmage notes and analysis
3.20 -- Horns hit spring's closing stretch
3.19 -- McKay spends the day with the first D
3.18 -- Return to spring practice brings OL change
3.13 -- Spring depth chart projection
3.13 -- Spring football superlatives
3.10 -- Scrimmage notes and analysis
3.07 -- Young DBs shine in Thursday scrimmage
3.06 -- Brown: 'Today was our best practice'
3.05 -- Brown: DTs 'need to be more physical'
3.05 -- Interview: Davis pleased with spring offense
3.04 -- Horns scrimmage in DKR
3.02 -- Interview: Reese talks about his D
3.01 -- Horns practice in pads
2.26 -- Horns fight the elements in second practice
2.25 -- Horns hit the field for first spring practice

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