Defense Flexes Its Muscle At Spring Game

How good is the 2006 Texas offense with a pair of freshman QBs pulling the trigger? We may not know until Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead face a defense other than the one wearing Burnt Orange. But if defense wins games, then the Horns are in good hands. Make that at least 11 good hands, if the Texas Spring Game at Royal-Memorial Stadium Saturday is an indication.

There were also a couple of young offensive standouts who have not taken a collegiate game-day snap but whose stars are clearly on the rise. (Hint: it wasn't the QBs.)

Of course, RS-freshman Colt McCoy and true freshman Jevan Snead both knew that they are not expected go out and single-handedly get an explosive play like Vince Young did on so many occasions. At this point, their job description was to simply manage the game and understand that they are surrounded by a stellar cast. Offensively, the stage was set for a coming out party and the most impressive pair of debutantes were RS-freshman TE Jermichael Finley and RS-sophomore FL Jordan Shipley. Finley led all receivers with 73 yards on four grabs; his 31-yard TD reception on a post pattern from Snead was the biggest scoring play from scrimmage. Finley now stands at 6-5, 242 pounds (imagine Vince Young at TE, at least in stature) and runs a 4.6. Shipley added 32 yards on three receptions, including a leaping catch and diving grab on the same series. His routes are crisp and he has a knack for making the impossible reception.

McCoy and Snead were generally poised, efficient and so darn complimentary of the other following the game that they could be each other's agent. Snead was 9-of-13 passing for 97 yards, including the TD pass to Finley and one INT courtesy of CB Ryan Palmer. (The pick came late in the scrimmage when Snead, for the first time Saturday, worked with the Ones and was facing the first team D.) McCoy was 7-of-11 passing for 75 yards, no TDs and one INT.

"I stood out there behind them so see if they could call the play in the huddle and be aggressive," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "If they were nervous, I didn't see any of that whatsoever. The great thing about both of these quarterbacks is that they've won a lot of ball games. Neither one of these guys have lost many games and they expect to win when they walk out on the field."

But if there was any clear-cut separation between the two, it wasn't evident Saturday. Snead is obviously strong-armed and is (potentially) the more explosive of the two, opening with a 15-yard run off the zone read during his first possession. He twice converted fourth-down conversions on the same drive. Then again, Snead was generally operating against the second-team defense, and the offense is about as base as it gets during the Spring Game.

McCoy's most impressive drive came during his second possession; it reached the red zone but the offense settled for a 32-yard Greg Johnson FG after the defense came up with a couple of stops: LCB Aaron Ross was credited with a TFL while SLB Robert Killebrew would later stop TE Neale Tweedie short of the first down marker following a short completion. But the offense picked up three first-downs during that drive, including Finley's 16-yard completion and Charles' 17-yard run around left end.

"We will not talk about a starter, or about a second-team quarterback, because they've got a lot of work to do," Brown said. "We're going to need both of them and that's something we'll continue to look at throughout the fall. We can continue to run the same offense and both quarterbacks are capable of doing a very good job with it... Both will play. (Offensive Coordinator) Greg (Davis) and I will have to do a super job of trying to make sure whoever is out there has the hot hand if the other one struggles a little bit. There might be some more inconsistency with young quarterbacks."

As expected, there were freshman mistakes of not always looking-off receivers and throwing into double coverage. Yet, both threw better than Vince did during the 2004 Spring Game. And, other than Young, both are the most mobile QBs to wear the Burnt Orange during Brown's nine-year tenure.

But forget about the fuzzy math used in the spring scrimmage that totaled 31 points for the offense (Orange) and 10 for the defense (White). If Texas wins 13- or all-14 games next year, it's because the 2006 Longhorns are shaping up as the best defense to wear the Burnt Orange in 25 years (and certainly the most impregnable since Brown has been here).

"That first team defense is amazing," McCoy said. "They're going to stop every team we play next year."

At least, Horn fans hope that's the case considering the first- and second-team offenses combined for 96 rushing yards on 32 attempts. (Yep, that's exactly three yards and a cloud of dust no matter what kind of math you're using.)

"We didn't have many runs in (the game plan)," Brown said. "We weren't going to show anything we didn't do last year. We don't think a lot of people are going to line up and run the ball against our defense."

RB Jamaal Charles led all ball carriers with 36 yards on nine carries, including a scrimmage-best 17 yarder. RB Henry Melton, the offensive rave of spring drills, scored on a five-yard TD run on Snead's first possession (thanks, in part, to a shortened field following DT Frank Okam's recovery of a Charles' fumble at the 28.) Melton would net just one more yard on five more carries.

"He had an outstanding spring," Brown said of Melton, "but you didn't see it much tonight probably because he had run over the (defense) all spring and they had it out for him tonight."

MLB Roddrick Muckelroy lived up to the hype he's generated, really, since last fall. The RS-freshman led all tacklers with seven, including one TFL. FS Marcus Griffin enjoyed a solid debut (three tackles, one PBU) and Brown practically named him the starter alongside his twin brother, Michael. WLB Jeremy Campbell saw limited action but he is a headknocker. He literally dislodged Finley from his helmet (who held on to the ball following what he said was his best catch of the night. Good thing his hands aren't as slippery as his helmet. "I felt like I had grease on my head," Finley said). Campbell had one tackle, one PBU and had the INT against McCoy.

The special teams highlight was Aaron Ross' 58-yard punt return for TD. (He ran the ensuing kick-off back to midfield but the play was nullified due to a block-in-the-back.) Trevor Gerland added a 52-yard punt. Neale Tweedie is the deep snapper on punts while Tully Janszen handles the responsibility on short snaps. Return man Ryan Palmer mishandled a KO late in the scrimmage.

Several prominent Horns saw little, or no, action Saturday. RB Selvin Young (all signs point to him starting next season) missed the spring game with a "slight pull", Brown reported. SE Limas Sweed was also yanked early with another pulled muscle. LCB Tarell Brown and SS Michael Griffin were held out of the game (still mending from that goal line collision against USC).

And here's why Five-Star SLB Sergio Kindle was in street clothes for Saturday's scrimmage, according to Brown: "Someone on campus advised him to drop a class (Friday) and that dropped him below 12 hours (of course work to be eligible for spring sports). It was someone who thought, since it was Spring practice, it didn't matter. This is still a game in the NCAA's mind. But he'll be fine. It's unfortunate for him but he's learned to come ask us."

The most tense moment of the evening came late in the evening when Shipley lay writhing in pain on the ground. Trainers huddled around him for several moments before he hopped up and trotted over to the huddle. Brown immediately sent him to the sideline as Ship was done for the night.

"He just got the breath knocked out of him so he's fine," Brown said. "He's looked well since the first day of spring practice. By the time I got to him, he winked and said, 'Coach, I'm fine. I'm just catching my breath.'"

Brown said he had never had a team improve as much between the spring game and August camp as did the 2005 national champs. He expects both QBs to help mirror the success of last year's voluntary summer workouts while coaches use that time to determine the offense's signature play as well as who lines up behind center when the first team takes the field against North Texas on Labor Day weekend.

For now, the 2006 Longhorns are faced with a big question mark at starting QB, but will be underscored by a big D on the other side of the ball.

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