Spring Answered All Questions... Except One

For Mack Brown's Longhorns, this summer's cliffhanger remains the identity of the clear-cut successor to Vince Young at QB. There is also some question if the starting QB, whoever he is, can consistently spring the running game. But there is no questioning what will be the strength of the 2006 Longhorns.

This season's Texas defense can be just as game-turning dominant as was its offensive counterpart in 2005. Brown has never fielded a faster unit with better depth than this year's D. The good news for Horn fans is that the crew is hungry and carries a Bevo-sized chip on its shoulder pads even after a 13-0, national championship campaign. The D-line, for example, knows it was inconsistent in stopping the run last year (the 209 net rushing yards were forgivable against USC, but 277 against Texas A&M, 250 against Oklahoma State, 205 against Texas Tech?). The D-backs know they didn't force enough turnovers. The linebackers know they were perceived as the weakest link on the 2005 title team. Collectively, they know they are a year older, wiser and are reaping the benefits of a second year under Co-Coordinator Gene Chizik's system after playing for three coordinators in three successive seasons. This time last year, Chizik was still learning names while installing his base. Now, it's a matter of fine-tuning and building on what's already been taught, said outside linebacker Robert Killebrew.

"It all has to do with the smaller things and finer things of the game, Killebrew told Inside Texas. "There's more of an emphasis than on just getting the basic concept."

It's now become instinctual, Killebrew added. The defense understands it will be expected to carry the team until the offense gets settled behind center. And the quarterback situation, coaches say, may not be settled until after the September 2 home opener. It's one thing to get thudded at practice; it's another to have a blitzing Ohio State linebacker taking dead aim at your jersey. In other words, the final reckoning may be the North Texas game when coaches can determine how each QB manages the huddle under live conditions.

No one expects the 2006 offense to be as explosive as last year's record-setters. The current crew remains a "work-in-progress" until coaches determine the featured play, Brown said. Before that happens, coaches must decide on the QB and determine what he does best. RS-freshman Colt McCoy and true freshman Jevan Snead were almost mirror images of the other during Saturday's unveiling. Snead was 9-of-13 passing for 97 yards, including one TD and one INT. (Brown said the INT should have been blown dead as a sack but he was slow on the whistle.) Snead orchestrated the only two TD drives of the evening. But McCoy (operating primarily against the first-team D) showed he could move the ball. The offense registered three first downs on his second series Saturday before the defense stiffened, forcing a 32-yard Greg Johnson FG. McCoy was 7-of-11 passing for 75 yards, no TDs and one INT.

"I'm glad that (decision) is not on my shoulders," said FL Jordan Shipley. "They both looked good to me."

Neither will be mistaken for the type of dual-threat QB that Texas has enjoyed since mid-2003. Both have strong arms, but neither completed a deep ball Saturday.

"Arm strength is overrated," Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis said. "We're more interested in accuracy."

Both McCoy and Snead are more mobile than any quarterback that Brown has had at Texas not named Vince Young. Yet, it remains to be seen if either emerge as a viable enough running threat to keep defenses from keying on the RBs. Snead stepped-off 15 yards on the zone read during his first carry last Saturday but the ground game produced just 96 yards on 32 attempts. Chances are, the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust said more about the Texas defense than a rushing attack that never got untracked.

"The first-team defense is amazing," McCoy said. "They're going to be so good next year."

At the same time, the backfield was shorthanded. RB Selvin Young has to prove he can remain healthy, coaches have said, but the senior sat out of Saturday's scrimmage with a pulled muscle. RB Jamaal Charles has to prove he can secure the ball, coaches have said, but the sophomore fumbled on the opening series. RB Henry Melton, who got rave reviews through the spring, scored on a five-yard run following Charles' fumble but was held to five yards on five carries the rest of the evening. RB Ramonce Taylor was "excused" from spring drills in early March to get his academic affairs in order. Chris Ogbonnaya worked at both TB/FB but it looks like Marcus Myers has impressed enough at FB to earn the starting nod.

Other than QB, the only spot on the offense that remains unsettled (at least in terms of the two-deep chart) is at RG. Cedric Dockery should open with the Ones this September, although All-American RT Justin Blalock will occasionally play on the inside.

RS-freshman Jermichael Finley is the next big thing (literally) at TE. The 6-5, 242-pounder expects to add about 15-20 more pounds and provide the flexibility that David Thomas gave the team the past few years. Finley played WR (and hoops) at Diboll, so he's got great hands and enough speed (4.6) to stretch the field. The main thing he needs to add to his game, coaches say, is to become a better blocker.

Shipley will drop very few balls that at least graze the tips of his Velcro fingers. He notched 32 yards on three grabs and added six more on a reverse during his first live football since his senior season at Burnet High in fall, 2003. The main thing he needs to do is not walk under any ladders and look both ways before crossing the street.

Shipley and Finley add depth and speed to a seasoned group of receivers and that, of course, should alleviate much of the pressure on the young QBs. Yet, Snead and McCoy already attest to the security blanket they have in Texas' defensive front. Frank Okam slid from NT to DT this spring and, reportedly, was a beast. He started all 13 games last season as a sophomore on the way to second-team All-Big 12 honors. There is tremendous depth at DE. Brian Robison (AP Honorable Mention All-Big 12) and Tim Crowder (First Team All-Big 12) return, but explosive backup Brian Orakpo (2005 Big 12 Freshman of the Year) has had a phenomenal spring, coaches say, and will push for playing time. (Five-Star DE recruit Eddie Jones arrives in June.)

The D-line is also reaping the benefits of infusion from younger talent, Brown said.

"Roy Miller (DT) and Derek Lokey (NT) have stepped right in," Brown noted. "The young guys have helped out with the loss of Rod Wright and Larry Dibbles."

There is a definite upgrade at linebacker as Killebrew, Drew Kelson and Rashad Bobino are the current starters. Killebrew told me just before the Spring Game that he was now playing SAM and that Kelson was working at WILL. Most of you know that Chizik crosstrains his linebackers and it's clear that both will continue to play on the outside.

Heading into the fall, the most hotly contested defensive battle is at MIKE. That's where Muckelroy (6-2, 230) will be pushing Rashad Bobino (5-11, 230), who started all 13 games at WILL last season. Muckelroy led all tacklers Saturday with seven. Then again, no opponent wants to see the likes of headknocking WLB Jeremy Campbell across the LOS. Then again, backup SLB Sergio Kindle could start for most D-I teams today.

The one defensive concern this spring had to do with lack of depth in the secondary, due to injuries. Erick Jackson missed the entire spring (hamstring) while LCB Tarell Brown (hand) was held out of contact. SS Michael Griffin also saw limited action (neck) and did not play Saturday. The group will heal by August, but it kept Chizik and DB coach Duane Akina from cross-training at the level they wanted in order to solidify the rotation.

"Marcus Griffin would be the first guy to step up and play in the secondary (inheriting his brother's former spot at FS) if we were to play tomorrow," Brown said. "It was a disappointing spring with the health of our secondary."

Tarell Brown and Aaron Ross would hold down the corners, while both Brandon Foster and Ryan Palmer should be able to step onto the field without there being significant drop-off in the coverage.

If spring football told us anything, it is this: Texas can lose an All-American on its defensive front plus a Thorpe Award winner in the secondary and still field what is shaping up as the nastiest, stingiest defense of not only Brown's tenure but also the best to wear the Burnt Orange since 1983 D. (That's when Jerry Gray, Tony DeGrate and gang basically carried the Horns to an 11-0 regular season and needed just one measly touchdown from its offense in the Cotton Bowl to win the national title.)

For now, put an 'exclamation point' by the defense but leave a 'question mark' at quarterback.

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