There are only days to go until the Texas Longhorns report for fall practice, with the sound of pads popping in the Bubble starting after the initial practices go down in shells. As a result, it's time to take a look at some of the major storylines for the Longhorns that need at least some resolution before opening the season against Wyoming on September 1st.
Who will be the starting quarterback? On Friday afternoon, the answer to this question was no different than it had been essentially since the Holiday Bowl, when sophomore David Ash played the entire game. At the risk of re-hashing what happened during the spring for the millionth time, the prospective starter and Belton product protected the football in every public appearance throughout the spring, while challenger Case McCoy did not. Head coach Mack Brown declined to name a starter heading into the fall, but Ash seemed to be the starter in everything but name after taking virtually every first-team rep during spring practice and starting the spring game.
Then the news broke early Friday evening that Ash had suffered a hamstring injury in workouts. A period of about two hours followed in which visions of doom and gloom danced through this writer's head before the Texas SID decided to end the freak-out session by acknowledging the injury, noting that it was not severe, and listing Ash as day-to-day.
A period of skepticism ensued, when many fans harkened back to last fall, when the injuries to Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were treated in a similar way. Is the injury to Ash just another data point in an ongoing story regarding less than honest assessments of injuries, or did those injuries last fall simply turn out to be worse than the training staff even knew?
Either way, there's still the possibility that Ash could miss some time and fall behind McCoy in the battle for the starting job. If that happens, Texas could be in for another quarterback controversy, something that no one wants, no matter whether they're Team Ash or Team McCoy.
Will the real Slim Shady please stand up, please stand up? Oops. Sorry. Had a flashback to high school. Actually, it's the real Mike Davis that needs to step up after a massively disappointing sophomore season he attempted with his head stuck in a particular orifice. The story during the spring was that he recovered from the hip flexor that slowed him, while his roommate, the unnameable receiver who trashed DGB while the uber-blue prospect was visiting, moved on, apparently allowing Davis to come up for air again.
However, despite all the rosy stories coming out of spring, Davis failed to catch a ball in the spring game, with Case McCoy forcing two passes in his direction that resulted in interceptions. With that being said, David did show notably improved blocking effort, one of his issues in 2011, but until he shows on the field that whatever ailed his hands has been solved, glowing reports from fall practice will only have minimal value.
Will a number three receiver step up? Assuming that Davis can pull it together, the next question mark in the receiving corps is whether someone can step up behind he and sophomore Jaxon Shipley. Senior Marquise Goodwin will participate in most of fall practice after returning from long jumping in London, but he has had limited time to further develop his rapport with still-prospective starter Ash and will need time to get back into football shape.
Maybe it's John Harris, then, emerging as a big-bodied threat for the Texas quarterback. Or maybe senior DeSean Hales, finalizing translating his spring production to the fall in his quest for a coveted Gaskamp Award. Or maybe it will be one of the freshman -- Cayleb Jones, who could be a good redzone threat with his ball skills, Marcus Johnson, who is known as a hard worker and relatively advanced purveyor of his craft, or Kendall Sanders, the do-it-all star from Athens who is the rawest of the three, but has the most dynamic playmaking ability.
Who will run the Wildcat? Fozzy Whittaker was the truth as the Wildcat package triggerman, setting a high standard that the current players on campus could find hard to match. In fact, Mack Brown even mentioned the possibility of scrapping the package if the Longhorns don't find someone who can consistently run it well.
The obvious candidate is and has been Johnathan Gray. Surprisingly, the Wildcat wasn't a big part of what he did in high school, but his best traits are his vision and his patience, which both fit perfectly for a package that centers around the Power play.
The problem often become that because the running back doesn't time the play based on the mesh with the quarterback, players without that sense of time end up rushing it and failing to allow the blocks time to develop. Whittaker also showed a knack for hitting the backside of the play when the defense flowed playside and allowed a crease in the spot vacated by the pulling offensive guard.
Daje Johnson has also been mentioned as a possibility, but he would seem like a better fit as the speed sweep specialist, although he could still run the package with DJ Monroe in motion. There is an increasing sense, though, that Johnson could come in and steal some touches from senior DJ Monroe as the specialty speed back.
[Update]: Freshman quarterback Jalen Overstreet is another strong option to run the Wildcat, as his combination of speed (a fair amount) and power (quite a bit) are well-suited to the position. As noted below in the comments, he's also a threat to throw out of the formation, much in the way that David Ash was early last season in a slightly different package of plays that were nonetheless focused on his running ability in the early going.
The discussion of the Ash package brings up an interesting point -- most of the focus with a potential set of plays for Overstreet has focused on the Wildcat and that's definitely something that he could run as long as he has a sense of the timing, but he could also run a play like the inverted veer well, especially when combined with a guy like Daje Johnson.
The thought here is that Overstreet isn't going to take a redshirt, so look for Harsin to get him on the field early, in a package that may not just include the three traditional Wildcat plays -- Power, speed sweep, counter.
Keep in mind as well that Jaxon Shipley was the triggerman in a triple option package that was scrapped after his injury last season. It's another set of plays lost late in the season that may make a return.
Can Ryan Roberson emerge as Cody Johnson's heir apparent? By the end of the season, converted running back Cody Johnson was an excellent collegiate fullback, providing the Longhorns with some strong blocking efforts. With his departure, someone has to step in and fill the void. Will it be the fifth-year senior in Roberson, redshirt freshman Chet Moss, early enrollee Alex De La Torre, or even H-back Barrett Matthews, who possesses much better height for fullback than he does for tight end?
The fact that Roberson was passed by walk-on Jamison Berryhill isn't a great sign, and the Brenham product has shown so little in his career at the position that it's virtually impossible to make a projection about how well he can do there. If none of the candidates can get it done, it could make things a lot more difficult for Bryan Harsin if he has to scheme around not having a lead blocker on the jet sweeps and Power game that he loves to employ.
Is it a good idea to bubble-wrap Donald Hawkins and Josh Cochran until the Wyoming game? The answer here would seem to be yes. Unfortunately, both players need the reps in fall camp, especially Hawkins, who seemed to acclimate himself well and quickly into the program after he enrolled back in January. He played well in the spring game, but considering that he was going against walk-ons, that doesn't really say much.
Going against Jackson Jeffcoat, Alex Okafor, Reggie Wilson, and Cedric Reed, not to mention the young defensive ends, should help both Hawkins and Cochran continue to improve. The real key, though, is for both of them to make it through fall practice without any injuries, as losing one or both for any amount of time would represent extremely bad news for an offensive line that has little depth at those positions.
Maybe the bubble-wrap is a good idea...
Are Jackson Jeffcoat and Adrian Phillips fully returned from injuries? There have been some rumblings throughout the summer that Jeffcoat is a bit behind in his recovery from a torn pectoral muscle he played through in the Holiday Bowl against Cal. Phillips has reportedly been participating fully in 7-on-7 play this summer, so there is less concern with him, but putting on pads and delivering some hits is still the only way of knowing whether a player is completely back.
Who will be the starting placekicker? The Longhorns have thrown some serious numbers at the three phases of the kicking game, bringing in a walk-on kicker, a graduate transfer at punter, an Army All-American kicker, and a prospective kickoff specialist, in addition to the possibility that Penn State kicker/punter/kickoff specialist extraordinaire Anthony Fera joins the fold with a weekend visit rumored.
There's also William Russ and Ben Pruitt, neither of whom seized any of the jobs this spring, particularly, but certainly provide more options. But just having a host of players to throw at the placekicking position in hope that one sticks doesn't mean that one will, and the uncertainty there is unnerving for spoiled Texas fans who are used to every game-winning kick in the Mack Brown era going through the uprights.
Maybe Fera becomes a Longhorn. Otherwise, someone has to take a major step up.