With an offensive coordinator eager to open up the spread passing game, two talented veterans at the top of the depth chart, a promising group of freshmen and sophomores, and a quarterback entering his third year as a starter, the Longhorns receiving corps looks poised for success.
Departures: DJ Monroe, Marquis Goodwin
Additions: Jake Oliver, Jacorey Warrick, Montrel Meander
Projected depth chart:
Storyline: Although the passing game took a clear step forward last year, it didn't always look in sync and the bulk of the gains were concentrated in the strong connection quarterback David Ash developed with junior Mike Davis, who led the team with 7 touchdowns and fell just 61 yards shy of a 1,000 yard season. Both Jaxon Shipley and Marquis Goodwin, meanwhile, treaded water: Shipley was often used as a decoy and finished with slight dips both in his average receiving yards per game (57, down from 61 in 2011) and yards per reception (12.5, down from 13.8), while Goodwin had 7 fewer receptions and 80 fewer yards playing in one more game, and departs for the NFL with Longhorns fans wondering just how much more offense they should have gotten from the dynamic sprinter.
Goodwin's now gone, but Texas' receiving corps this year will be anchored by the return of its two stellar upperclassmen in Shipley and Davis, and buoyed by two impressive sophomores, a promising class of freshmen, and a quarterback entering his third year as a starter. The most significant development, however, may be in the ways that the receivers are used in the offense under the direction of freshly minted offensive coordinator Major Applewhite.
While there is reason to believe that the Texas offense would have continued to develop into what Bryan Harsin ultimately wants his offensive units to be, during the developmental phase of that process during his tenure in Austin the Longhorns offense at times looked out of place in the high flying, pass happy Big 12. Setting aside any judgments as to whose approach is preferable, for better or worse the Texas offense under Applewhite is going to spread the field and pass the ball in frequency and form more closely resembling the dominant offensive approach in the Big 12 the past decade.
The success of this group of receivers will of course depend in no small part on the performance of David Ash and the offensive line, but if everything else is operating smoothly, there are good reasons to believe that this unit is poised to for a very successful season. It's probably fair to say that the ability of Applewhite to maximize the production of this group will go a long way towards defining the success (or lack thereof) of his first full season calling plays for Texas.
Battle to watch: With Shipley and Davis back, the battles to focus on with those two involve how Applewhite uses each to attack, and how successful they are challenging their counterparts in the Texas secondary. As far as depth chart battling is concerned, the players to watch are Cayleb Jones and Kendall Sanders, who won't necessarily be competing head-to-head for playing time at the same receiver position, but will be in a battle to prove themselves ready for starter-level snaps. As with all most young players with promise, the main battle will be with consistency and learning how to be a playmaker against live competition.
Sanders is the more impressive physical specimen terms of explosive athleticism, but at 6-3, 211 lbs, Jones has terrific size, enormous suction cups for hands, strong and steady fundamentals, and elite ball skills that are second to none. While he won't wow anyone with pure top-end speed, Jones' upside is that of a player like USC's Mike Williams from the mid Aughts -- great size, great hands, and great understanding of how to use his body and positioning to make plays downfield. As for Sanders, there's no ceiling based on his raw athletic ability, and his is just a race against the clock to translate it into production. And for Major Applewhite to do a better job of finding ways to do that than his predecessor did with utilizing the team's most explosive athletes.
(Note: None of the three freshmen receivers are early enrollees and won't be practicing with the team this Spring.)
Three Spring Predictions: What's the point of having a blog if not to speculate prematurely and without basis? Indeed. So let's get to it.
1. Major Applewhite will make clear his intention to elevate Jaxon Shipley's role in the offense. Shipley is consistent, dynamic, and versatile, and while Harsin ably used him to occupy defensive capital and free up Davis downfield, look for Applewhite to make a concerted effort to put the ball in Shipley's hands as often as possible. Of course, part of what makes Shipley a special talent is his ability to be valuable no matter what he's asked to do, but his ability to put pressure on a defense is a precious commodity from which Applewhite wants to extract as much value as possible.
2. Excitement about the offensive approach will make it tempting to ask whether Shipley and Davis could both be 1,000 yard receivers. Both Texas Tech (Ward and Moore) and West Virginia (Bailey and Austin) pulled off the feat in the Big 12 last year, but it's still a tall order to finish with a pair of 1,000-yard receivers on the same team. Look for the new offensive approach under Major Applewhite to elevate expectations for the passing game to a point where fans will be tempted to ask whether both Shipley and Davis might both be 1,000 yard receivers in 2013. David Ash will have a lot of say in that, but at least heading into the spring, if I were an oddsmaker I'd set the odds at 12:1. Which way are you betting? And see if your opinion has changed when Spring Football draws to a close.
3. Cayleb Jones will be the polarizing player of Texas' spring season. Prepare the dueling irrational evaluations of Cayleb Jones, whose supporters will overestimate his ability to be a primary contributor right now while his detractors will underestimate his ability with dismissive evaluations about his limited speed. Each notable catch and drop will be loudly recognized as validating one view or the other, and we will know that Spring Football has officially begun, a reminder to savor each moment -- even the irrational ones -- before we're forced to embark on the long, dry trek through the desert of summer.