One month to kickoff, and though we'll of course set aside a day to talk about "My Guys" -- those players we're betting on to break out and have big seasons -- let's first spend a few minutes talking about things as we know them. Below, my take on the five most important players to this year's offense, which is as difficult a unit to project as any since this site launched over five years ago. I'm guessing we'll all agree on the top spot, but I'm curious to hear your thoughts on who you see as critical beyond QB1.
(1) QB Garrett Gilbert - No need to get cute: Gilbert's the most important offensive player on the team. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. The rest of the offense could be butter and if Gilbert's a mess, the offense will be hamstrung. We don't have a Ricky Williams around which to build an offensive attack, and even if the running game is something fun to watch -- needless to say, a big if -- this offense is going to struggle to punch in sixes if Gilbert's not at least respectable. Obviously, the hopes are much higher, but there's no need to sugarcoat the situation. Gilbert needs to be solid, at a minimum, and no player is more important to the offense as a whole, given everything we know.
(2) G Tray Allen - Okay, now you can get cute. Or at least I'm going to, by suggesting that Tray Allen may be as important as anyone on the offensive roster. Part hunch, part observation, and part bias based on my growing up a Steelers fan watching Alan Faneca, but given what our staff seems committed to trying to accomplish on offense this year, this offense could use a healthy, productive, well-used Tray Allen at left guard as much as anything else we might prescribe. Allen has the size and strength to be effective straightaway, but he also flashed some eyebrow-raising athleticism last year, in ways that suggest he can be pulled and deployed much like the Steelers used to do with the All-Pro Faneca.
Allen missed the latter part of spring workouts with an ankle injury, but appears on track for fall camp, and the big question right now along with his health is whether the coaches intend to deploy him at left or right guard. In theory, it doesn't matter too much, but I'd prefer to see the stronger, less agile Huey on the right, with Allen on the left, where his athleticism is likely better to be put to good use. Yes, you can easily argue I'm overselling his importance, but to the extent that one envisions our staff's strategy of offensive attack as I do, a good argument can be made for Allen as a critical component to this offense executing a running game off of which a passing game can be built.
(3) WR Marquise Goodwin - John Chiles is getting all the rave summer reviews, and don't kid yourself: I'll take it. But I'm from Missouri on Chiles as a go-to receiver, and think at this point any superlatives he earns are house money. Even if your pants are tingling about what you've read about Chiles this summer, let me remind you just how wide is the gap he must close by pointing you back to last year's Red River Shootout, and the substitution of Goodwin for Chiles. Without the true freshman's ability to separate, Texas loses that game.
Or to think about it another way: if Chiles and Malcolm Williams are badasses this fall, Texas is all but assured to field a superior offense -- plenty good enough to outscore the minuscule allowances of this Texas defense. But if we're planning for worst case scenarios, that probably includes assuming Chiles is similarly limited to last year and Williams fails to put it all together. And in that case, we really need to be looking for a realistic option to give Texas' passing offense a consistent threat. For my money, Goodwin is the player to watch.
During Gilbert's mop-up duties during last year's regular season, he seemed to have developed a nice rapport with Goodwin and understood his ability and potential. Whether that means anything heading into this year, who knows. But we barely got by with Shipley-but-no-Cosby last year, and we won't have either of those receivers this fall. Someone needs to step up, and my focus will be on #84. He's an elite athlete, obviously, but he's not masquerading as a football player. The kid's a genuine gamer. We've just scratched the surface of what he's capable of.
(4) OL Thomas Ashcraft & Mason Walters - As of today, Texas appears set on starting, left to right: Kyle Hix, Michael Huey, David Snow, Tray Allen, and Britt Mitchell. I've already spoken to my preference for switching Huey and Allen, but either way, it's highly likely -- tempting to say certain -- that those five won't tell the whole story this fall. At a minimum, it's likely that at least one of them will get injured for at least a short while. Moreover, it's hardly a stretch to wonder whether at least one of them will prove less than acceptable from a performance standpoint. Frame it however you want: Texas is going to call on other offensive linemen to deliver important minutes this fall.
Well, what are our options?
Steve Moore is an acceptable gap-filler upperclassman who won't embarrass himself against terrible competition but is -- at best -- an unknown against top flight opponents, and a likely liability. He'll do in a pinch, but if it's quality we're searching for, as opposed to a warm body, Moore ain't it. (As most of you probably do as well, I subscribe to the philosophy that a player who isn't in the rotation by his junior year is highly unlikely to show something special as a senior. Yes, this perhaps makes a Tray Allen breakout year wishful thinking.) Freshmen Espinosa and Hopkins are nice to have around for an emergency, but let's not confuse that for depth you want to be counting upon. Third-year sophomore Luke Poehlmann sports a dew I fully respect, but the dude still can't put on any weight; he's a fourth-quarter guy -- as a player when we're winning, and a cheerleader when the contest is tight.
Really, it comes down to Porter, Ashcraft, and Walters, and my sense is that Porter has potential to be a contributor at tackle next year and beyond, but if we're talking about real quality, in real minutes, this year, the focus is on Walters and Ashcraft. Mason Walters is the name you know, and if he's healthy (he missed this spring injured once again) I'll be glad to see what he's able to give us out there, and I like his versatility. It could prove a very valuable asset, given the overall picture along the line.
But the guy I'm most intrigued by is Thomas Ashcraft, and I'll be watching him closely in the second halves against Rice and Wyoming. I love how he's developing, and though I want to see how he moves his feet against live competition, I think he may be ready now. Keep an eye on these two; assuming they're healthy, one or both is likely to play an important role on this year's line.
(5) RB Tre' Newton - When I get to my annual "My Guys" column later in August, I'll tell you why I'm (still) excited about Fozzy Whittaker (dooming him to fail, of course), but while we're dabbling in realism I'm not so blinded as to overlook the importance of Tre' Newton, who even in the envisioned Fozzy administration would be a critical third down back. In reality, in terms of what's been proven on the field, he's the most dependable and versatile back that we have and whether his role is complementary or featured, he will have an important role to play as long as he's healthy, making him the easy choice on this Most Important list.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that we really don't have any idea what to expect of this Texas offense this year, and while I won't call anyone crazy for envisioning something explosive, if they're not equally open to the possibility that things will be ugly, they're just cheerleading. As with Goodwin, this list is about identifying the guys that the Texas offense will need if things are an uphill battle, and Newton was the best tailback at making chicken fried steak out of lemons in 2009. If yards are difficult to come by against quality defenses this fall, Newton's a proven commodity in terms of making the most out of a bad situation, whether that's grasping for yards, staying in to pass block, or swinging out into the flat as a receiver. And if things are going well, he's a smart, consistent, technically sound player a la Chris Ogbonnaya who we'll be counting on in third down situations.
And I'll leave it at that for now, opening the floor to y'all. Who are you eyeballing as the most important pieces to the offensive puzzle this fall? Save your "he's not necessarily most important but I lurve him" rankings for the annual "My Guys" column. Feel free to get cute and make the case for someone unexpected, but today we're really taking a cold and calculated look at who we think the offense most needs to succeed.