BREAKDOWN: A look at the offense after the two open practices
QUARTERBACK: David Ash had two good days. He is stepping into his throws. He is commanding the offense. And he's putting the ball on the money. He threw no interceptions in the two days of scrimmage work. (None of the QBs threw a pick during the two days.)
"I like what David's done," co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said Saturday. "The biggest thing for David is having another year of experience. And for both of those guys.
"The anxiety of not knowing where to go in practice or what the drills are or where we go in the next period - that's gone. The anxiety of not knowing how to call to the play exactly in the huddle - that's gone. Now, he's able to concentrate on the details."
I asked Harsin if he's told Ash he's the guy.
"No. We've told both of those guys we want them to compete," Harsin said. "We've told them we need two quarterbacks. We've put both guys with the ones and twos."
Harsin was asked if he needed to rebuild Ash's confidence after last season.
"David's a confident guy," Harsin said. "It was just going back and getting a realistic approach to some of those scenarios and games that weren't good. What was bad about it? Well, maybe it was footwork, or mechanic or he was late. That's really what it is.
"And just going back in our film study for the spring and even in the bowl practices, it really helped us to go back and re-evaluate those games that he struggled in and figure out why and understand it. I thought in the bowl practices, I thought you could see things in his mind starting to click about, 'What's my job? What's my responsibility out there as a quarterback?'
"It started to make more sense. He started to feel more comfortable with what we were doing. That's really it. He's taken the next step in his preparation before we got into spring practice of studying the system and having a better understanding of the expectations for these plays and in these situations."
I asked Harsin if he knows how Ash is going to handle adversity in 2012 or if it's still a mystery at this point.
"There's going to be new challenges he's going to face," Harsin said. "But we've talked to him a lot about managing the game. And people think that means you're being timid. It's not that. But there are certain scenarios when we're going to be in a bad spot.
"And it's OK if we throw the ball away. It's OK if we punt in those situations. It may not be that way from everyone's perspective on the outside, but we understand what needs to be done.
"That's the maturity of a quarterback - that you could go six passing plays with six straight throwaways and it be the right decision and not trying to press that seventh throw.
"The quarterback may be feeling on that seventh throw that he may need to make something happen, then all of a sudden you press it, and it's a bad decision. David understands that we'll get him in a better play. But if the defense is doing things to us, and it's seven straight throwaways, that's OK. And I see him understanding those things."
Case McCoy took reps with the second team again and was still up and down. But he had a better practice Saturday than Friday, including a touchdown pass to Bryant Jackson on a post/deep slant in a scrimmage situation.
McCoy also had some TD passes to the likes of Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley and Marquise Goodwin in one-on-one work in the red zone.
McCoy, however, nearly threw a pick-six Saturday in scrimmage work, but LB Aaron Benson couldn't hang onto the ball.
Connor Brewer again showed some nice glimpses but is clearly struggling to grasp the speed of the college game and everything going on, which is to be expected at this point.
"When you've got a team now that's been through it all once, we don't slow down," Harsin said. "That's the thing those new guys don't get.
We're not slowing down or backing off. Everything to them is a different language at a different speed.
"Connor will give you a look that says, 'I have no idea.' And that's what we asked him to do is tell us when he doesn't know, and we'll talk him through it.
"And then he nods and goes out and executes the play. I like the way he throws. I like the way he moves.
"He's got a good feel. For example, on a couple plays, we got blitz and he may not know everything conceptually, but he knows where the hot or open guy is and gets the ball out.
"When he understands what we're doing, he's going to be all right."
RUNNING BACKS: It was hard to evaluate the running backs fully over the two open practices because the defense was not bringing players to the ground. They were operating at "thud" which is to wrap up, but not bring to the ground.
Still, between Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, I thought Joe Bergeron had the better of the two practices. It wasn't a dramatic difference. Both are incredible talents. But Bergeron is not about to surrender the starting tailback spot to Malcolm Brown, and maybe his running plays were better blocked, but Bergeron stood out to me more.
Maybe it was because Bergeron welcomed freshman LB Alex De La Torre to college football by literally running over him in a scrimmage situation. De La Torre flew backwards when they collided.
Brown looked good, but he also had a fumble on a collision with Kenny Vaccaro and Steve Edmond after catching a swing pass. (I think a lot of people might fumble when being hit by those two.)
Lots to work with here. Both are healthy, and Johnathan Gray isn't even on campus yet. You throw in D.J. Monroe, who had some really nice plays on speed sweeps in the open practices, including a touchdown in scrimmage work on Friday, and there is reason to have high hopes at RB.
Jeremy Hills also looks like a senior making his case for playing time. He had some very nice runs in scrimmage work the past two days.
Harsin said the offense has not yet worked on the Wild Formation this spring and will install that after spring break. Harsin said he has some people in mind to replace Fozzy Whittaker in the Wild Formation, but he wasn't in a hurry to divulge that information just yet.
RECEIVERS: Mike Davis looked like a different person the last two days. Everyone could see it. He was making plays and being vocal and just seemed totally engaged. Davis beat Quandre Diggs for a couple of TDs in one-on-one work.
He even came back for an underthrown pass by David Ash against Kenny Vaccaro deep down the middle of the field that resulted in a nice gain in a scrimmage situation that I just didn't see Davis do last season.
"Mike's practice habits have been very good and just his effort at practice," Harsin said. "I've been impressed with his work ethic, not just in the team periods, but in the individual periods and the extra drills we're doing and some route stuff we're doing.
"He has a great focus and energy that helps everybody in those drills. The last few practices, especially the last two, he's been exceptional going up for the ball and just being aggressive. Just showing a lot of confidence out there with what he's doing."
If there was a runner-up to Davis in the open practices in terms of consistency and play-making it was probably … wait for it … DeSean Hales. The senior WR from Klein Oak made several difficult catches, including plays against some of the starters at defensive back.
"He can help us," Harsin said of Hales. "The thing for him and a lot of guys is consistency. You see what they are able to do in practice. And you want to see it day in and day out. He, like so many of our guys, has the ability to do that. I've liked the way he's practiced and his energy. The key word is consistency."
Jaxon Shipley had two relatively quiet practices in scrimmage work, but the balls he caught included great route running.
Shipley caught a touchdown pass from Case McCoy against Carrington Byndom in one-on-one work that reminded you why Shipley is special. And Shipley is being praised for his incredible practice habits and being held up as an example to others.
Marquise Goodwin also was somewhat quiet. He made some nice catches in situational drills but didn't have any big plays in the scrimmage work.
There were some nice plays here and there from the likes of Miles Onyegbule and Bryant Jackson, but there were also some head-scratching drops by those two. No one else really stood out - good or bad.
TIGHT ENDS: D.J. Grant and Darius Terrell ran with the first team most of the two practices and didn't disappoint. Both had some nice catches in scrimmage work as well as some big blocks in the running game.
"I've been really impressed with D.J. Grant," Harsin said. "I thought in the bowl game, he took some steps in that game - in the run game and pass game and that's continued through the spring practices."
"Darius Terrell, yesterday we did some things in the run game, and he did a great job," Harsin said. "He was outstanding on the edge in doing what we asked him to do."
Barrett Matthews has really developed physically into what you would expect at tight end. He's listed at 6-2, 235, but he looks bigger than that, maybe because he's so chiseled.
His best plays the last couple days were blocking (like his pancake block of Leroy Scott on Friday).
"Barrett Matthews, we're moving him around and doing some different things with him. He's really taken on that role and is doing a nice job of studying and preparing himself," Harsin said.
The guy who may have had the play of the day on Saturday, however, was redshirt freshman M.J. McFarland (6-6, 260), who caught a pass over his shoulder in between two defenders, including safety Mykkele Thompson for a big gain in scrimmage work.
"M.J. McFarland redshirted last year and we're seeing good things from him," Harsin said. "He's done a nice job. As he repeats everything in the second half of spring, we'll see where he takes the next step offensively for us.
"But he's a big dude who's physical. He can run. He's made some catches out there. And he is into it. He enjoys practice. He enjoys preparing out there, and we really like that."
OFFENSIVE LINE: The big boys up front had a better overall day Saturday than on Friday when it seemed like O-line coach Stacy Searels was taking turns throwing his hat at most of his interior linemen.
There were some perfectly blocked runs, including a big gainer by Joe Bergeron, and the protection was better Saturday. On Friday, several of the pass plays would have resulted in sacks if the coaches allowed the QBs to be hit. It was better on Saturday.
In one-on-one work, Trey Hopkins handled Desmond Jackson, and Josh Cochran won his battle with Alex Okafor. (Although in scrimmage work, Okafor went right around Cochran for what would have been a sack.)
Thomas Ashcraft, the second-team right guard, even won his battle against DT Brandon Moore.
But Garrett Porter was whipped by Chris Whaley, and Sedrick Flowers got worked by Desmond Jackson.
Reggie Wilson also went right by Luke Poehlmann.
The first-team line in case you missed it: LT Donald Hawkins, LG Trey Hopkins, C Dominic Espinosa, RG Mason Walters, RT Josh Cochran.
Second-team line: LT Paden Kelley, LG Sedrick Flowers, C Garrett Porter, RG Thomas Ashcraft, RT Luke Poehlmann
Third-team line: LT Camrhon Hughes, LG Marcus Hutchins, C Taylor Doyle, RG Garrett Greenlea and RT Kyle Kriegel.
Everyone but Hughes struggled in one-on-one drills from the third-team unit. But coaches like the depth of the line this season, and, of course, Harsin was asked about Donald Hawkins.
"Depth is the biggest difference from last spring to this spring," Harsin said. "We've got 15 guys. And Coach Searels is rotating guys, Donald Hawkins, in particular.
"Hawkins is where everyone was at this time last year, so there's still the anxiety of, 'Where are we going? What are we doing? What's the next drill?' So there's those little things, not just the football part of it. He's getting more comfortable.
"We've put a lot of volume of offense in. The guys who have been through it, it hasn't affected them as much. But when you get to that fourth and fifth practice, and you're adding four and five plays every day, it starts to load up.
"What they don't understand is that when we get through the scrimmage, we stop adding and go back and repeat everything. So he should get much better over the second half of spring."
LEADERSHIP: When I asked Harsin if any leaders were emerging on offense, he specifically pointed to Mason Walters. Just passing that along.
OFFENSIVE MVPS FROM THE TWO DAYS: David Ash, Mike Davis, DeSean Hales