Monday morning practice notes and analysis

Notes and analysis from the Horns' Monday morning practice:

One of the ways you can tell that preseason two-a-days are in the final stretch is that the first-team offense is squaring off more-and-more against the first-team defense. And with coaches feeling more at ease with the talent that is emerging on the second-team units, added attention was paid to special team squads during Monday morning workouts at Frank Denius Field.

RDE Kalen Thornton participated in non-contact drills as he continues to rehab from knee surgery, but true freshman Bryan Pickryl (see below) started with the first-team. (Head coach Mack Brown said Thursday that Austin Sendlein would start at RDE if the season opener against North Texas were tomorrow). Sendlein, who missed Saturday's scrimmage because of tightness in his back, saw his fair share of snaps, but the 1999 Arizona Defensive Player of the Year and honorable mention All-USA Today selection is hard pressed to keep the taller, faster Pickryl off the field.

Senior Chad Stevens appears to have nailed down the TE spot, a position that was suddenly thinned in the early going with Stevens' leg injury and Bo Scaife’s season-ending surgery. With Brock Edwards limited because of a quad pull, converted DE O.J. McClintock continues to work as second-team TE as he tries to bring his blocking ability up to par with his pass catching. Coaches have always said that a defensive back must have short memories; the same may also be said of tight ends.

"I’m just taking it one day at a time," McClintock said. "It’s been a long time since I’ve played offense, and I’ve got to keep my mind straight that this is a lot different from playing defense. I know I can play at tight end, if I don’t think too much about messing up on a running assignment. I know I can block, but it’s also a matter of knowing where I’m supposed to go on every play."

Freshman David Thomas, whom Brown said is the only TE who comes close to matching Scaife’s speed, made two nifty grabs in the early going, including a wide-open reception over the middle as the offense worked out of four- and five-man spreads.

Now that drills are increasingly pitting the first-team O and D against the other, one of the things money can’t buy is the invaluable experience of defensive backs like Nathan Vasher and Rod Babers going up against receivers like Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas -- and vice-versa. With apologies to Oklahoma, it simply means that the best competition they’ll face all year is at practice.

"It’s really a win-win situation for both groups," defensive backs coach Duane Akina said. And despite the fierce battle not only for starting positions but also against the opposing unit, Akina adds that "the players have learned to work really well together."

With the season opener set for several NCAA colleges this weekend, there were not only spirals but an added sense of urgency in the air at Monday’s session.

The final scrimmage open to the public is set for 6 p.m., Wednesday at Royal-Memorial Stadium. Because practices will be closed starting Aug. 26, the last chance to see the ‘Horns this preseason is Thursday. A 10:45 a.m. practiced is slated for Denius Field, Aug. 22, while Brown conducts the annual Women’s Clinic at Royal-Memorial that evening at 6:30 p.m.

DE PICKRYL CONTINUES TO IMPRESS

Brown said RDE Thornton will regain his starting spot when he’s fully recovered from knee surgery. Thornton led the team last season with 20 QB pressures and was an Honorable Mention All-Big 12 selection. Thornton said he’s ahead of schedule in his rehab work, but look for Pickryl to play early and often in the Aug. 31 season-opener against North Texas. Pickryl could get the nod as LDE Cory Redding’s counterpart if Thornton is less than 100 percent.

"Pickryl likes to play football and he likes to practice," defensive coordinator Carl Reese said (a more telling statement that one might think since one of the constant constructive criticisms that coaches have had of players this preseason is guarding against complacency and resting on laurels). "He needs some maturity since he is a freshman and he came to us with high school size and strength. (NOTE: Reese is talking about a kid who stands 6-5 and weighs in at 210-plus). But he’s always chasing the ball, and he’s got a winning effort. We like what we’ve seen from him so far."

A 2001 Parade All-America DE selection at Jenks High in Oklahoma, Pickryl graduated early so he could participate in spring drills (although a shoulder injury sidelined him during spring ball, who can blame the kid for wanting to get the hell out of Oklahoma as fast as he could).

WEALTH OF DB DEPTH = EXTRA NICKELS

True to form, Texas DB’s worked out of a nickel package early in Monday’s session. It’s a look that coaches have said will become more familiar this season.

It has to do with the overall philosophy of getting more speed on the field, relative inexperience at linebacker, and a wealth of depth in the defensive backfield.

"There was a time when we wouldn’t think about using the nickel as much because of the margin for error," Akina said. "It’s too early to make decisions about the depth chart, but we’ve got six or seven guys that can step in and we wouldn’t have any fall off. With our team speed, we can be a lot more flexible with this group."

Team speed also makes players and coaches look smarter, Akina laughed, implying that speed can help compensate for a blown assignment or coverage call.

The secondary is the only place where, from day one, coaches have talked about depth with any level of consistency and comfort.

"We’re two-deep at all DB positions in body count but not necessarily in numbers," said Reese, who started FS Kendal Briles and SS Michael Huff in the early going Monday. FS Dakarai Pearson, who started 10 games in 1999 and two contests as a nickel back last season, also saw action with the first-team. As the Horns entered the final week of two-a-days, Reese said there is still "no separation" between Briles and Pearson.

"I thought going in to the preseason that Doc (Pearson) was going to be the guy because of his experience," Reese said. "But Briles has been making plays and he brings a lot of the mental things to the game. He’s a coach’s son, so that makes him real smart."

Briles’ father is an assistant coach at Texas Tech. The fact that Briles was a two-time all-state quarterback (who also happened to play safety) at Lubbock Wolfforth Frenship gives Briles the added mental advantage, Reese said. Last week, Akina said the mental aspect of knowing whom to cover and where to be on the field will determine which of the equally talented DBs get the starting assignments Aug. 31.

INJURY REPORT

Freshman DT Larry Dibbles wore a green jersey and saw limited time in non-contact drills with an undisclosed injury. DE Thornton, still wearing the green jersey, also participated in non-contact drills for the second time this season.


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