The new-look Texas Longhorns took to the practice fields on Thursday for the first time on since overhauling the majority of the football program's coaching staff, kicking off a spring season that holds as much mystery and excitement as any spring since Mack Brown arrived in Austin.
Some quick hitter notes …
Sophomore cornerback Eryon Barnett will miss the spring and the entire 2011 season after injuring his right knee during off-season workouts. The injury will require surgery.
Barnett has had a history of injuries throughout his career. He played in seven games as a redshirt freshman last year but missed time due to an injury to the same knee. Barnett appeared in two games at defensive back and on special teams in 2009 before missing the remainder of the season due to a shoulder injury. He received a redshirt for that year. As a senior at Euless Trinity, Barnett missed the second half of the 2008 season with a knee injury.
His absence is another hit at a position in which Texas was already dangerously thin. Carrington Byndom, A.J. White and true freshman Quandre Diggs are the only true corners on the roster this spring, and Mack Brown said the coaches will explore all options.
"We're thin at corner anyway. We've just got to look at all the guys and everybody has a fresh start," Brown said. "We may look at some safeties at corner and vice versa. Everything is wide open today and that's part of the excitement."
Wide receivers D.J. Monroe and Marquise Goodwin were not at Thursday's practice, with both speedsters preparing to run in this weekend's Big 12 Indoor Championships.
"After that, D.J. will come back to football," Brown said. "He will spend just about all of spring practice with us because he didn't want to miss it and he'll still be involved with track.
"Marquise last year really didn't get involved with football at all in the spring. He'll be in the nationals, I'm sure, but he's going to try to spend some time with (wide receivers coach) Darrell Wyatt and get around the meetings and be around football practice as much as he can."
Fellow wide receiver Malcolm Williams is dealing with what Brown described as "personal issues" and did not participate in Thursday's practice. He spent the early portion of the workout beside Wyatt, helping coach up some of the Horns' younger pass catchers.
Brown said Williams will be at the practices and is "a vital member of this team, a great leader with our receivers." Williams will be limited in the work he does in the first part of spring, but the staff is hoping he'll work his way back into the mix.
The tight end position got some long-anticipated good news with the return of Blaine Irby, who has been cleared to practice and was on the field on Thursday.
"He's ready to go ahead full speed. We will work him back in. It's been three years since he played, but he wants to play, his parents want him to play and the doctors have released him 100 percent," Brown said. "We need his leadership, his toughness. Who knows what level of ability he'll bring back, but I've been watching him run for over a year. We held him out last year because I just didn't feel good about it even though he probably could have participated."
Irby will be a senior in 2011 and if things go well, he'll apply for a sixth year of eligibility, similar to what Texas did with Jordan Shipley.
Speaking of Shipleys, 2011 UT signee Jaxon Shipley, who graduated in December and will enroll at Texas in June, was on the sidelines for Thursday's practice.
Starting linebacker Keenan Robinson spent the early portion of the practice jogging from sideline to sideline under the watchful eye of Bennie Wylie. The injury to Robinson was not disclosed but he was moving around well enough that it does not appear to be something that will severely limit his practice time this spring barring a setback.
Just how closely was Wylie watching Robinson? This will surprise no one, but Wylie was running alongside Robinson every single time he crossed the field.
Texas had a meeting on Wednesday with the entire football support staff (trainers, academic personnel, equipment managers, direct of football operations, etc) in which offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz described their coaching philosophies.
The team followed that session up with a meeting among the coaches and players. Harsin stood up in front of the team, addressed the defense and told those players what he's planning to do on offense. Diaz then spoke, addressing the offensive players and explaining his defensive plans.
"It was the most enthusiastic team meeting I think we've had in the 13 years we've been here," Brown said. "Our theme has been brick to brick with our foundation. We're starting over in every phase. The players understand that and the coaches understand it.
"They both said, the most important thing for the offense is to score more points than the other team. If we don't, we've failed. Manny Diaz said, 'We held Auburn to 17 points last year, we only scored 14. That's the defense's fault, because we had to hold Auburn to 13 for it to be successful.' That was a very, very important part of it."
One of the hot topics this spring is the open depth chart ("clean slate" has been used to describe the entire team's depth chart standing), particularly at quarterback. Brown said all four quarterbacks will take first-team reps, but don't look for a depth chart in the coming days.
The coaches will wait until spring break before making any official decisions on personnel. They'll use that week to pour over film, go through each player and the hope is to have a depth chart for the second part of the spring season.
"We won't have a depth chart for a while. We'll have to have a pecking order because somebody has to line up with the first team every snap," Brown said. "So guys that have been out here more than others, guys that have worked the hardest in the off-season program, will get the earliest snaps."
One other issue that will not be resolved for a while is potential position changes. Brown said the coaches will "look at a lot of guys in different positions" but they feel it's too early to discuss any possible moves."
Perhaps the most interesting positional story from Thursday practice was one that did not happen. There's been talk that sophomore running back Chris Whaley will move to defensive end, but he wore an orange jersey on Monday with the rest of the offensive players and went through RB drills.
Whaley's listed on the updated roster at 6-3 and 250 pounds.
As for the quarterback position, which will undoubtedly be the most frequently discussed position on the team this spring, Brown said he's not worried about how last year's starter, Garrett Gilbert, handles the microscope.
"I think everybody responds to competition in a different way, but I think Garrett will step up and respond in a positive way," Brown said.
Texas has a lot of information to cram in over the course of the spring, but Mack Brown said the team has had a bit of a head start that should help ease the transition. The current coaches have been the running off-season workout program with Bennie Wylie since signing day, giving them a chance to do some hands-off evaluations.
"The coaches have already had a lot of good work on the turf with the players and pushed them," Brown said. "We had the best day in off-season that I've ever seen to close it last Tuesday. We're much further along than people would think."
As for as Mack's goals for this spring?
"We have no expectations except to get better, brick by brick."