Believe it or not, spring practice gets under way this Friday afternoon. The Longhorns have tentatively scheduled workouts for 3:45 p.m., and that practice (along with Saturday's 12:45 workout) will be open to the public. With workouts set to begin, what are the big questions heading into the spring?
Defensive Line The interior of the line should be all set, with Frank Okam, Roy Miller, and Derek Lokey all returning. The 'Horns did lose both starting ends (Robison and Crowder) to graduation, however, and will be asking their backups to step up their play this year. Brian Orakpo is certain to be slotted into the right end spot, but there's some question as to who will get the most looks on the left side. Aaron Lewis is one guy who gave Texas some good series last season, but my feeling is that he's going to get caught from behind by one of the young guys like Lamarr Houston, Eddie Jones, or Brian Ellis. And, of course, we'll have to watch to see what big Henry Melton can do at his new position. I'm skeptical, but the spring workouts will be interesting to watch.
The other question is what to do on the interior of the line in 2008. Obviously, '07 stud Andre Jones is expected to develop into a starter there, but there's not a ton of depth in the program at the position right now. Okam and Lokey will graduate this year, leaving Miller, Jones, and some project prospects. It makes you wonder whether the coaches intend to see if some of the bigger defensive ends can be shifted to the middle. Something to keep an eye on, anyway.
Secondary Texas loses both starting corners (Ross and Brown) to graduation, which means an infusion of young talent will be competing for their spots. You can bet Chykie Brown and Deon Beasley will get long looks for starting jobs, but don't count out BON early-season whipping boy Ryan Palmer, either. He actually contributed to the '06 team down the stretch, and it's conceivable he could earn a starting job at one of the corners. A lot of great cornerback play is experience, and Palmer's got more than both Beasley and Brown.
Of course, there are some kids in the '07 class who could play their way into immediate roles. Ben Wells and Curtis Brown are both on campus, possess unbelievable athleticism, and can't be overlooked as potential starters. I'll be very curious to see how they start off in spring workouts.
At safety, it's likely that Marcus Griffin will replace his brother as a starter, though count me among the skeptical who wonder whether he's earned a spot at the top of the depth chart. It looks as though Drew Kelson will switch back to safety, a move I'm eager to see. Kelson's a playmaker who the coaches havne't done a great job utilizing thus far in his career; here's to hoping he gets his fair due this time around. Elsewhere, I've got a huge crush on sophomore Robert Joseph, and want him to earn a starting slot. He battled injuries as a true freshman last year, but if he's healthy, he's my guy to watch. Among the new guys, Christian Scott will get to compete for playing time, and my gut feeling is they'll pull his redshirt, as Texas loses three senior safeties to graduation this year. Scott will almost assuredly be in the mix for a starting job next season.
Linebackers As a unit, the group can only improve from last year's dismal showing, but the million dollar question is who the three starters will be. You have to imagine Sergio Kindle will be given every opportunity to win a starting spot on the outside, while Rashad Bobino is the most likely starter in the middle. What I want to know is whether Roddrick Muckelroy's hand is healed, because he needs to be on the field if he's good to go. I haven't seen any injury updates on the nerve damage he was dealing with, so I've no clue what to expect.
Scott Derry certainly stepped up in a big way last year, but with his physical limitations, you can't exactly lock him in as a starter again this year, especially in light of Larry MacDuff's comments that he'd prefer a young stud talent with upside over a proven solid commodity with experience, but limited playmaking ability. Then there's Robert Killebrew, who had a suspect year as a starter last season and can't be said to have a firm grip on the starting job. It's impossible to say how this is going to shake out, but you can be sure the coaches will use this spring to find out as much as they can.
Offensive Line Along with the secondary, this will be the group the Longhorn coaches watch carefully for players who look like they could earn starting duties. The Longhorns lost three seniors (Studdard, Blalock, and Sendlein) to graduation, and have to be worried about Cedric Dockery making it back from his knee injury. As solid as Dockery is, there's no telling with guys that big whether they'll be able to get all the way back.
Presumably, Texas will stick with the same two tackles from last year - Tony Hills and Adam Ulatoski. Neither had a great 2006 season, though, so I think it probably a mistake to ink their names into the starting lineup. More like pencil. The real competition will be on the interior, though, where Texas will sort through a heap of big guys to fill the center and two guard spots.
Charlie Tanner and Chris Hall are both in line to move into starting roles, but they'll have some serious competition from some younger guys. True freshman Michael Huey is already on campus and has the size and talent to push Hall and Tanner. The big name in the '07 class was Tray Allen, of course, but he's not yet on campus. Huey, meanwhile, is already enrolled at Texas and may play himself into a starting role sooner rather than later.
At center, Texas will likely tinker with both Buck Burnette and Dallas Griffin, but I know the coaching staff would prefer the redshirt freshman Burnette win the job, allowing them to use Griffin as a floating reserve along the line.
Last, at tackle, both Hills and Ulatoski had better prove themselves prepped for big seasons, as the gigantic J'Marcus Webb should be ready to take a big step forward from his freshman season. It's hard to imagine the coaches pulled his redshirt without them envisioning him playing a role on this year's team.
Wide Receiver This is the one position where there's just not much to look for. There are some young talents like Montre Webber and Philip Payne who will be counted on to develop this year, but the group in front of them is set, with Limas Sweed, Quan Cosby, Jordan Shipley, and Billy Pittman all returning.
At tight end, the opportunity is there for Jermichael Finley to break out in a big way, and I expect he will. There's no competition for the starting spot.
Running Back Selvin Young moves on to professional football, which bumps up Jamaal Charles to official starter. The question is who becomes his complementary partner? The Texas coaches tried in vain to get Henry Melton to become the Thunder to Charles' Lightning, but it wasn't to be. Now we'll have to watch closely to see whether Texas looks to go with two quick guys in Charles and Vondrell McGee or whether true freshman Cody Johnson gets an extended look to be the big bruising tailback that Texas wants. Johnson's not yet on campus, so we won't know until this fall whether he can contribute right away, but how McGee works out this spring will likely determine how close a look Johnson gets for immediate playing time.
Quarterback Colt McCoy is certainly your starting quarterback, and will continue to be until he's hurt, but there's going to be a lot of attention paid to his backup this year. Sherrod Harris has quietly become a fan favorite of many Longhorn diehards, revered for his athleticism, intelligence, and poise. There's no question, though, that the road to replacing McCoy is a steep, uphill battle Hariis has little chance of winning. Still, it's no secret that a lot of folks worry about McCoy's ability to make it through a 12 game season without injury, so don't expect the coaches to take Harris' development lightly. He'll be getting a lot of important work this spring.
We haven't mentioned John Chiles yet, who hopes to play quarterback for the 'Horns at some point. By all accounts, he's a long way from being ready for that gig, but expect the coaches to give him some looks at the position this spring, while they work on ways to get the football in his hands in other ways. It's not inconceivable that Chiles is brought in as a red zone QB weapon at some point this year.