April 19th was a beautiful afternoon – the sun was high and so were spirits as thousands flocked into DKR Memorial Stadium to watch the Orange and White Spring Game. With the trainer’s table already on a wait list, avoiding more trouble with the injury bug was the number one concern of the day. This mission was boosted by precautions taken throughout the day: the kicking game ended with fair catches and little contact down the field; quarterbacks had the ‘quick whistle rule’; and all defensive linemen were in knee braces.

The game was listed on paper as ‘1’s vs 2’s’ but given the depth and rotation at defensive line, a first and second string is not clearly set. The result was that the Longhorns showed four and five man defensive fronts all afternoon – which isn’t really surprising considering the differences in depth with linebackers and defensive line. The Longhorn defense didn’t show anything spectacular but they did successfully run a few blitzes and stunts. Additionally, the defense attacked the offense rather than merely reacting to them.

Since the defensive group beat their offensive teammates consistently, it left a lot of fans unsure about the offense. Keep in mind that practicing against one of the best defensive lines in the BIG12 every day should result in outstanding preparation for actual game situations.

The first thing noticeable about the offensive line was that it featured a group of familiar players in unfamiliar places. Desmond Harrison was at left tackle, Kennedy Estelle was back at right tackle, and Taylor Doyle was up with the first string playing guard. Depth is a serious concern at the offensive line and there was a collective sigh of relief when the game ended without injury.

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Focus on the OL
Coaches purposefully limited the offense to a handful of plays, but used a variety of formations. The offensive line found the most success when running gap blocked plays. Gap blocked plays describe run plays in which offensive lineman are responsible for gaps and not players (powers, sweeps, traps, and counters). Conversely, the line struggled with zone blocked plays that were called (reads, dives, and, stretches). Realistically, the “patch-work gang” had an overall unimpressive afternoon.

For offensive lines, especially ones with new coaches, communication is essential. The offensive line didn’t seem to identify any blitzes in the run or pass game, leading to a majority of the negative plays. The first string didn’t have issues with technique or strength, but execution was a problem throughout the afternoon. When the second unit was on the field, the DL got consistent pressure in the passing game; there were fumbled center quarterback exchanges; and, a general lack of communication.

Desmond Harrison normally finds his place at right tackle but due to the injuries within the unit he played on the left side. To illustrate why that’s significant and why most lineman find more difficulty with the left tackle position, try signing a check with your left hand. Harrison was not a disappointment by any means, but it was clear that he will be more comfortable on the right. His kick-slide was executed well, his hands stayed inside, and he timed his punch well; however, he was too slow off the snap. The timing and the explosiveness of a kick-slide are skills that have to be mastered with repetition and given Harrison’s limited reps it’s not surprising to see issues with his timing.

Dominic Espinosa played well but continues to struggle with one on one run blocking situations against nose guards. Espinosa’s ability to get to the second level is still an extremely precious commodity to have in a center and continues to make him valuable.

Kennedy Estelle had a really solid afternoon, showing not only excellent footwork and quickness in his pass protection but also solid and explosive run blocking. His double teams and quickness to the second level were both critical to the success experienced in the run game.

Focus on the DL
Saturday’s scrimmage validated what most fans thought before the game – defensive line is, by far, the best position group on that side of the ball and perhaps on the whole team. This year’s d-line has a great collection of size, speed, strength, and most importantly, depth. The Longhorns will have the great advantage of being able to roll fresh players in and out to keep pressure on offensive lines.

The rotation works to two different advantages, the first, and most obvious, being that your players aren’t in the whole game and don’t get as tired. The second benefit is that a consistent rotation allows for differences in the way various individuals play. When an offensive lineman pass blocks the same person thirty times, he gets accustomed to the pass rush moves that opponent uses. However, when the defense substitutes different defensive linemen throughout a game, the offense has to account for new players.

Caleb Bluiett is entering his third season at Texas and is a text book defensive end. Bluiett has had an interesting career at Texas, moving from defense to offense and back again. After Saturday’s performance, Bluiett clearly needs to stay on defense. At 6’3” and 264 pounds, he has a prototypical defensive end’s build. Also possessing good athleticism, his speed and strength allow him to play both the run and pass very well. Bluiett had success rushing the passer because of his quickness off the ball and nice rip move. With great body control, Bluiett is able to turn the corner on the pass protection, and triggered the ‘quick whistle’ on the quarterbacks all afternoon.

But the most impressive performance of the day was from the sophomore defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway. Ridgeway set-up camp in the offensive backfield and constantly disrupted the flow of the offense. He played most of the day from the ‘three tech’ position (defensive tackle over the guard, not the center) and used bull rushes, swat and swim moves, spins, and pure speed to win battles. With his motor revving high, the official sacks listed in the game were maybe only half the sacks that actually occurred. He was so disruptive that the coaches might have gotten in his ear...later in the game, it seemed that Ridgeway started to throttle down after he beat offensive lineman on the pass rush, allowing Swoopes time to throw. (If you can’t throw the ball, how do you evaluate wide receivers and defensive backs?)

Overall the offensive and defensive line play had “room for improvement” (as Coach Strong put it), however in a spring game it’s not unusual for the defense to ‘win’. It’s even less surprising to see the defense ‘win’ after a coaching change like the Longhorns just experienced. The first and second string defensive lines showed not only solid execution but great athleticism which no doubt lead to the defensive ‘win’.

The offensive line’s problems, essentially, came from a lack of communication and conservative play-calling. This offseason is going to be critical for the offensive line to become more comfortable with each meeting they have so they can improve communications, responsibilities, and recognitions. With that benefit, I expect fewer missed blitzes and less assignment mix-ups.
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