AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — For the first time since 1997, the Texas Longhorns will suit up for a game without Mack Brown on the sideline.
That Saturday is just the annual spring scrimmage hardly matters. This is Charlie Strong’s burnt orange coaching debut, the first time he will put a Texas team on the field that has trained under his leadership, practiced his playbook and begun taking on the identity of the coach hired to dig the program out of four years of mediocrity.
“We are going to allow our players to just go out and play and have a good time,” Strong said. “I always look at that game like you did all that hard work, you had 14 good practices, and now is a chance to see the fans in the stadium-I know we are going to have a good turnout.”
Fans will be watching for any sign their team is ready or not to return to the top of the Big 12. Strong had some time to enjoy the excitement over his hiring, but Saturday will be the first time Longhorns fan will start demanding results, even if it is just an intrasquad scrimmage.
Strong at least set it up for some real evaluation: the first team defense will play against the first team offense.
But Strong already has a problem at quarterback. David Ash, the starter at the beginning of 2013 until a concussion in the second game, now has a fractured bone in his left foot and will not play Saturday.
That leaves sophomore Tyrone Swoopes as the only scholarship quarterback available to run the first-team offense in the spring game. Walk-on Trey Holtz and converted tight end Miles Onyegbule, who prior to this spring hadn’t played QB since 2010, will also get snaps.
Jerrod Heard, the only quarterback Texas signed in its 2014 recruiting class, won’t be on campus until June. The Longhorns also are courting USC transfer Matt Wittek, but he hasn’t yet made a decision on his next school.
“I told Tyrone, `The key thing for you is it is all about confidence, it is all about you doing everything we ask you to do and play within yourself,'” Strong said. “Know this is your team (Saturday) and it is up to you to go lead it.'”
Here’s five things to watch at the Texas spring scrimmage:
SWOOPES: A chance to make a statement. As a freshman last season, Swoopes didn’t impress on the few occasions he took the field. His ability to run could open up the field, but Strong will want to see how well he reads the secondary and throws. Texas must have some comfort level at the position beyond Ash, who has yet to show he can return to the field without more injury problems.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The line protecting Swoopes replaces four starters. Senior center Dominic Espinosa has 39 career starts and leads a unit with big bodies but little experience. And the line has a new position coach in Joe Wickline, who could force some position changes. This is a unit that may not come together until fall.
LINEBACKER: A weak spot for the defense last season and the Longhorns have some top players who have been sidelined by injury. Senior Jordan Hicks was one of the top recruits in the country when Texas signed him out of Ohio in 2010 but hip and Achilles tendon injuries have sidelined him for most of the last two seasons and he will not play Saturday. Steve Edmond, who sustained a lacerated liver late last season, has performed well in the spring, according to Strong.
RUNNING BACK: The Longhorns were loaded at tailback until injuries (Jonathan Gray) and personal issues (Joe Bergeron) left Malcolm Brown carrying the load. Brown is a strong runner who could establish himself as a clear No. 1 at many programs. Gray missed the spring while still recovering from an Achilles tendon injury late last season. Texas said Bergeron is taking time off to address “personal” issues, but Strong suggested this week it was ordered by the coach. “He’ll return in the fall If he does what I ask him, then he has an opportunity to be back in the summer,” Strong said.
KICKING GAME: The Longhorns have to replace Anthony Fera, who handled field goals and punting last season was a finalist for the national award given to college football’s top kicker. Sophomore Nick Jordan was 9 of 15 on field goal as a freshman in 2012 when Fera struggled with injuries.