Texas Football: Most Positive Signs from Spring Practice

Zach Shelton@@zachisagingerFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2014

Texas Football: Most Positive Signs from Spring Practice

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    Texas QB David Ash
    Texas QB David AshJim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

    Just over a week in, the Texas Longhorns have already seen encouraging signs from their team in spring practice.

    Even putting aside the recent commitments of tackle Toby Weathersby, hybrid defender Deshon Elliott and defensive end Charles Omenihu, the spring has treated the Longhorns well thus far.

    Charlie Strong has brought a new intensity to Texas' offseason practices and is getting a great response from his players. The veterans are stepping up and young players are coming into their own while Strong's new culture of toughness begins to take hold.

    Throw in the improving health of the team's two best offensive players, and the positive signs dominate the team's spring storylines.

The Workouts Are Intense

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    Texas head coach Charlie Strong
    Texas head coach Charlie StrongErich Schlegel/Getty Images

    Over the final years of Mack Brown's tenure, the Longhorn program garnered a reputation for being soft. Charlie Strong has promised toughness since his first day on the job, and he is making good on that pledge this spring.

    Fifth-year senior Dom Espinosa, who is on his third strength program at Texas, can attest to the intensity of the spring workouts. "It's tough. I have gone through a lot of workouts with (former strength coaches) Bennie (Wylie) and Mad Dog (Jeff Madden), but these are crazy and some good ones."

    Espinosa also added that Strong is not just some guy barking orders. "I was actually leaving my house one morning to come to workouts and [Strong] was running down the road I live off of," said the team's starting center.

    Texas needed an identity change. Through his actions both in and out of practice, the program's new coach is doing everything he can to institute one.

David Ash Is Back on the Field

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    Texas QB David Ash
    Texas QB David AshJim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

    Just four months since his junior year was declared over due to lingering concussion-like symptoms, quarterback David Ash is back on the field for Texas.

    The senior was only visible to media for 30 minutes in last week's practice, but ESPN's Max Olson came away impressed by what he saw in that limited time period. In Tuesday's press conference, Strong stated that the coaches are throwing a lot at Ash, indicating that the plan is to get him ready for the season opener.

    Ash won't take a hit until the 2014 campaign begins, so he and the 'Horns remain somewhat in the dark. Still, having a veteran presence on the practice field provides stability to the entire offense as it learns a new system.

Shiro Davis Preparing for Featured Role

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    Texas DE Cedric Reed
    Texas DE Cedric ReedEvan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    Other than All-Big 12er Cedric Reed, no Longhorn defensive end has recorded more than one career sack. For Reed to excel, he needs one of these guys to step up and draw attention from his side of the formation.

    Currently, the player most likely to fill that void is junior Shiro Davis. The 6'3" bookend has bulked up to 258 pounds, and he has received early praise from the coaching staff for his effort so far this spring.

    Davis has yet to fulfill his 4-star potential, but he is a prime breakout candidate this season. No longer buried behind elite pass-rushers, he should earn starter's snaps and see plenty of one-on-one matchups while Reed commands most of the attention.

    Playing opposite All-American Jackson Jeffcoat, Reed piled up 10 sacks in his breakout junior year. If Davis continues to excel, he can pull off the same feat in support of Texas' all-conference stalwart.

Johnathan Gray Is Looking Healthy

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    Texas RB Johnathan Gray
    Texas RB Johnathan GrayMatthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    Four months since his season ended with a ruptured Achilles, we finally have some news on Johnathan Gray's progress. Sort of.

    Though he has been declared out for spring ball, two separate reporters took notice to significant progress in Gray's recovery. William Wilkerson and Kevin Flaherty, both of Longhorn Digest, each commented on the junior's health and rate of improvement.

    We're still months away from Gray being back to full strength, but this is great news for Texas' running game. When they're both healthy, he and Malcolm Brown form one of the best speed-size combinations in the country, most notably when they dismantled Oklahoma with 243 yards on 52 carries.

    Let's hope his recovery continues to be a speedy one.

Playmakers Emerging at Receiver

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    Texas WR Marcus Johnson
    Texas WR Marcus JohnsonTim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Another spot where Texas needs a playmaker to step up is at wide receiver. Through the first week of practice, more than one pass-catcher has answered the bell.

    First the Austin-American Statesman's Cedric Golden took note of junior Marcus Johnson's consistent hands. Then Charlie Strong pointed out Kendall Sanders, Daje Johnson and Jacorey Warrick.

    Of this group, Marcus Johnson is the most likely to slide into Mike Davis' role at the "X" receiver spot. At 6'1", he is the tallest of this group and has the deep speed (he averaged 15.9 yards per catch) to be a consistent downfield threat.

    Sanders and Daje Johnson have also shown off the ability to make plays. Though he struggled without David Ash in the lineup, Sanders is a rangy athlete that can high-point the ball and break past the defense for deep strikes. Johnson struggles with his hands but has amassed over 1,300 all-purpose yards in 23 career games.

    And if neither of these two works out, Warrick also has the ability to become a reliable target for this offense. In all, the 'Horns are in good shape on the outside.

Young Defenders Look Ready to Contribute

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    Joining the aforementioned receivers on Charlie Strong's good side is linebacker Deoundrei Davis, as well as corners Antwuan Davis and Bryson Echols.

    After spending his redshirt season nursing a torn Achilles, Deoundrei Davis has put on 13 pounds and has a great chance to break into the two-deep. With that size at 6'3", he brings the type of athleticism and ferocity that can make him an good, if not great, Big 12 linebacker for the next four years.

    As for Antwuan Davis and Echols, each will slide into a role so long as they earn it. The 'Horns need a third corner to play alongside Quandre Diggs and Duke Thomas, not to mention some depth should injury occur. Davis brings size and track speed, so be sure to monitor his improvement.

    Because of injuries, graduation and players being kicked off the team, the younger Longhorn defenders have to grow up faster than originally expected. Fortunately, they have done that.

Guards of the Future Coming Up Quickly

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    Texas OG Rami Hammad
    Texas OG Rami HammadCourtesy of 247Sports

    With probable starting tackle Kent Perkins succumbing to a knee injury, it's been mostly bad news for Joe Wickline's offensive front. On the bright side, both Rami Hammad and Darius James are panning out as expected.

    Hammad continues to look like a great pickup for Texas' 2013 class, working with the first-teamers at right guard. So long as he can hold off Curtis Riser for this spot, this is a four-year starter with NFL upside under Wickline.

    Also a redshirt freshman, James is also trending upward after arriving at 311 pounds, down from 320 last year. He is yet to work with the starters, but the former 5-star recruit has special talent and may end up sliding over to tackle if Perkins' injury turns out to be severe.