The next big step towards Longhorn football season takes place this weekend. On Saturday, fans can finally catch a glimpse of the future of Charlie Strong’s Longhorns at the annual Orange-White Scrimmage, kicking off at 1 pm. Here’s a brief rundown of what to keep an eye on when the “Stronghorns” take the field.
Swoopes leads the way
Finally, we'll see extensive playing time from sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. In 2013, his main job was to help run the clock out, but now we'll watch Swoopes’ arm at work, since likely starter David Ash is out due to a foot injury.
We already know that Swoopes is a big, physical runner, and Strong been happy with his passing during spring practice. Don’t expect for him to do anything too fancy, considering that quarterback coach and assistant head coach for offense, Shawn Watson, described the game plan for Saturday as “vanilla.” Even a simplistic performance, won’t stop hardcore fans from proclaiming that Swoopes will make Strong forget his old Louisville quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater.
A thinner running back corps
While quarterback play was a thorn in the side of Mack Brown’s final seasons as head coach, Texas still had a surprisingly robust group of running backs to pick up the slack. Saturday’s scrimmage, however, will show a running back corps with less depth.
From last year’s three-headed hydra of Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Jonathan Gray, only Brown touch the ball this year. Gray is still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon from last season, and bruiser Bergeron is taking time off to focus on personal issues that Strong asked him to work on. If the quarterback position struggles and Bergeron and Gray are unable to fully contribute, it’ll be a long season for Brown once again.
A look at Strong’s defense
Despite his focus on the skill positions on offense, it’s important to remember that Strong is a defensive coach who needs to rebuild the Longhorn defense after whatever it was Manny Diaz did during his tenure.
Strong, teaming up with defensive coordinator and secondary coach Vance Bedford, is still in the early stages of developing the “identity” of the defense. In Thursday’s press conference, Bedford suggested that the focus on Saturday and the upcoming season is less on surprising teams with unexpected looks (we’re looking at you again, Diaz) and more on fundamentals. “If we execute well on defense, we tackle well on defense, we run up to the ball, then we have a chance to be pretty decent.”
Coaching presence on the sidelines
The scrimmage could be somewhat boring in terms of X’s and O’s, but one thing that will keep you invested is what happens on the sidelines — and which coach will be the team’s sideline firebrand.
Fans will no longer see Mack frantically clapping and yelling during a game, and former defensive backs coach Duane Akina has taken his screaming talents to Stanford. Strong is known for trying to light a fire under his players in both practice and game time, but the true dark horse for the team's new sideline hype man is defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn. But why would it matter to have coaches who fire up their team?
Players playing with intensity
Charlie Strong was brought in to win more games, and a big component of reaching that goal is changing the attitude of the program. Fans have criticized teams from the past several seasons over lax attitudes and feelings of entitlement. Now we'll see if the players are taking Strong’s no-nonsense attitude to heart.
If you want a peek at how the intensity is starting to change for players after just one offseason under Strong, Burnt Orange Nation provides a side-by-side comparison of circle drills under Mack Brown from last year versus circle drills from earlier this month. The quickest takeaway is that players feed off of the coaches’ passion; don't expect this new brand of Longhorn to treat Saturday's scrimmage like a lazy holiday weekend.