Last week, my Fab Five: Favorite 'Horns list included my current favorite players. The list that follows looks at five players who could have break-out season and help Texas finish the season in Pasadena once again.
Aaron Williams, sophomore cornerback: Forced to choose a favorite cornerback between Chykie Brown and Aaron Williams, I'd have to think seriously, perhaps surprising given that the larger Brown made the list as one of my favorite players. In fact, Williams lands on this list mostly because the McNeil product had many fewer reps last season than Brown.
Though Williams delivered two extremely memorable moments in 2008 his tackle of Josh Smith on the kick-off against Colorado and his return for a touchdown against Arkansas, the first moment greatly illustrates one of Williams' exceptional skills -- his excellent form tackling, breaking down, getting low, wrapping up, and driving the opponent to the ground. It's a thing of technical beauty.
Williams' second great skill is perhaps even more important in terms of it's ability to change games -- being able to block punts. During block-less 2007, the Longhorns dearly missed the exceptional punt-blocking skills of Michael Griffin, the most prolific punt-blocker in Texas history with eight. Last season, however, the true freshman ably began to fill Griffin's empty shoes by blocking two punts against UTEP as Duane Akina returned to his previous role as defensive backs coach. Once again, it became popular to win a spot on the "posse," the members of the punt-block unit with Williams leading the way.
The ability to play man-to-man defense on the outside with the cornerbacks frees up an additional defender for Muschamp to strategically deploy in other areas like rushing the passer and Williams be be a major part of any success the Longhorns achieve for Muschamp in that area. Combined with Chykie Brown on the other side of the field, the starting duo at cornerback should be as fast and physical as anybody in the country. After stopping and considering that Williams is stronger and possibly faster after a year of maturation and work in the weight room and it quickly becomes clear that the potential for AJ is off the charts.
Malcolm Williams, sophomore wide receiver. The other Williams, if you can even call Malcolm that, possesses a similarly impressive physique to his defensive namesake, the type of freakish athletic ability on the outside that makes Greg Davis' offense difficult to stop. During the comeback against Texas Tech, Williams scored on a simple slant, one of the base plays of the Texas passing offense that simply adjusted to the defense to take the easy play. However, for a physical beast like Malcolm Williams, that simple five-yard gain has the ability to turn into a long, game-changing touchdown.
Later in the game, when the Longhorns desperately needed a big play, Williams took another read play and, with the benefit of Greg Davis's outstanding playcalling, turned his curl into a curl-and-go that, 91 yards later, had the 'Horns firmly back in the game. All due respect to Quan Cobsy, it's been two seasons since the Longhorns have had the pure split end to demand double teams and stretch the field vertically. As phenomenal as Cobsy was at getting open and using his incredible hand-eye coordination to catch the ball, he just wasn't the vertical threat that Malcolm Williams has the potential to become.
If Williams can do that and force a safety over the top, the rest of the offense will open up, particularly for Jordan Shipley on the other side of the field. If Shipley forces bracket coverage, then Williams will have plent of opportunities in the passing game, allowing Greg Davis and Colt McCoy to relentlessly exploit whichever concession the defense must make.
As with many young players, the key with Williams is consistency. Late last season and early in spring practice, the concern was with his hands and consistently being able to catch the ball. Recall that he dropped a pass early in the Texas Tech on a pretty easy play. Word is that Williams worked hard on his hands during the off season and improved to the point that drops became much less of a concern. However, the new concern relates to consistency as well, this time with his ability to focus and run consistently disciplined routes, even when he knows that McCoy is looking to the other side of the field. In other words, not take plays off.
A physical freak the likes of which Texas hasn't seen at the receiver position since Limas Sweed was healthy in 2006, most of the hopes of a downfield passing game rest on the strong shoulders of Malcolm Williams. As Geoff Ketchum noted ($), if the Longhorns can get him the ball on the run this year rather than standing still, Wililams has the capability to produce the same type of big plays that helped Texas take the lead late in the game against Tech. Look for Williams to get the ball on a variety of slants, crossing routes, posts, and go routes.
Kheeston Randall, sophomore defensive tackle: A break-out season for Randall will almost be a necessity for the 'Horns to reach Pasadena. While Muschamp will certainly take pressure off of the defensive tackles by experimenting with a three-man line, a variety of run blitzes, stunts and twists, the two most important games of the season -- against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma -- will come against teams that feature strong running games with multiple talented running backs. In those games the Longhorns will need at least two or three defensive tackles to hold the middle of the line.
For Randall, there aren't any concerns about a lack of a talent. The issue is technique, most significantly playing with lower pad level. At 6-5, that isn't always the easiest thing to do. Though 6-1 defensive tackles like Roy Miller must answer concerns about their size in the NFL, in college those defensive tackles are aided by their lower center of gravity -- it's easier to get proper leverage at that size.
Now in his second year in the program, Randall could be a force inside if he can stay low and use proper hand placement. Coming out of high school, his quickness and explosiveness were a major question mark (along keeping his pads low), so Randall may end up playing less three-technique and more at the nose tackle spot if he can hold his ground against double teams, freeing up Lamarr Houston to go one-on-one and use his quickness.
In that sense, much like the necessity for Randall to play well, everything is completely a projection at this point with him. He's listed at close to 290 pounds now, so bulk shouldn't be an issue and the early part of the season will provide Randall with a great deal of quality experience as Will Muschamp keeps his schemes pretty vanilla against inferior opponents.
Christian Scott, sophomore safety: Much like Randall, the projection of Scott as a break-out player is based on talent and projection (tremendous upside potential, perhaps?). More so than Randall, however, Scott actually showed some flashes last season, brief as they may have been. The most immediate flash was his stint replacing Blake Gideon against Kansas after Angus Quigley absolutely leveled the starting safety, leaving him prone on the field after some vicious whiplash.
After the training staff finally helped remove Gideon from the field of play, Scott quickly found himself in the same position as his fallen teammate -- one-on-one against Quigley. Illustrating the gap in size, athleticism and pure strength between the two Longhorn safeties, Scott made the play, standing up the eventual linebacker and forcing a fumble that the Longhorns eventually recovered.
The ability to create turnovers is the major point of emphasis for the secondary this season and even though Scott dropped a pretty easy interception later in the game on a duck launched by Todd Reesing (one of many on the day), Gideon didn't have any interceptions last season and only forced one fumble in much more extensive action than Scott. Both Scott and Gideon should see the field at the same time this season in the nickel package, with Scott providing a degree of size and physicality that Gideon can't match.
They key for Scott is almost completely mental. If physical skills were all that mattered last season, Scott would have played in front of Gideon. However, Muschamp did not trust him to know the scheme and help direct Earl Thomas, who often didn't know where he was supposed to be on the field. Most observers expect both Thomas and Gideon to understand their assignments, so they might be able to direct Scott even if he hasn't made the requisite mental steps forward.
Earl Thomas, sophomore safety. In many way, Earl Thomas' performance against Oklahoma in his first Red River Rivalry game represented his freshman season -- the promise, his near interception on the first drive, and actual playmaking ability, aptly demonstrated by his two interceptions. However, the major problem for Thomas a freshman was that those two rare interceptions of Sam Bradford constituted his only two interceptions on the season, as his promise often overshadowed his ability to intercept passes.
The near-misses stem from the massive adjustment entailed between his redshirt freshman season and his first year as a starter with a new defensive coordinator. To that end, Blake Gideon spent much of the season directing Thomas to his position on the field and reminding him of his assignment in that alignment. No more -- as a sophomore often lined up against the slot receiver in the base nickel package Will Muschamp plans to employ this season, Thomas will be the director of the secondary, instead of the directed. Expect that leap in knowledge to parallel a leap in plays made on the field -- some of those 11 passes defensed last year will turn into interceptions this season.
In the spring game, Thomas jumped a route on Colt McCoy for a rare interception of the Texas starting quarterback that he took to the house. With his new deployment in the defense, Thomas will have even more opportunities to jump routes and that should lead to a subsequent increase in interceptions that will greatly help the explosiveness of the offense.
While the lack of ability to consistently force turnovers looms as the main criticism of Thomas, he was extremely effective as a tackler, finishing second on the team with 70 tackles. Showing his speed, Thomas saved several touchdowns during the season by running down opponents from behind, a talent that will continue to help him save scoring opportunities for opponents. He also did well forcing fumbles, with four on the season, good enough to tie Brian Orakpo for the team lead in that category -- a skill he must transfer into this season as the Longhorns endeavor to create more turnovers.
Who are your break-out 'Horns?