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Searching For Six -- The Wide Receiver Position Battle, Part I

Bobby Kennedy and Greg Davis have the unenviable task of finding trimming the 12-man receiving corps down to a six-man rotation, leaving the other six on the outside looking in for the 2009 season. With the intense competition and burgeoning skill of the young receivers and emergence of James Kirkendoll, Malcolm Williams, and Brandon Collins, the task may seem nearly impossible, but the four apparent locks will help make the decision-making easier for the coaches.

The Locks

Jordan Shipley - Did you know that his father roomed with Colt's dad in college? Or what about that little-known fact that he and Colt are roommates and close friends? What about the next generation: Colt's little brother Case and Jordan's little bro Jaxon? Did you know about them? No? Well, now you do, and knowledge is power. It's fitting to begin an analysis of Shipley with sarcastic comments, as there isn't much more to say about the finally-healthy receiver and Great White Hope.

The coaches may move Shipley around in the offense this season to get favorable match ups, much as they did with Quan Cosby in the Fiesta Bowl in an attempt to avoid Malcolm Jenkins. Since Malcolm Williams is widely expected to provide the long-lost deep threat in 2009, the least likely position for Shipley to see much time is at split end, but Shipley is capable of playing flanker and both slot positions in the offense. An analysis of Shipley is incomplete without mentioning his incredible ability to come into and out of breaks, making him one of the best receivers, if not the best, at executing double moves in college football, an ability made possible by his short strides.

Perhaps the biggest question with Shipley is how much he will return punts and kicks, which could wear him down within games and over the course of the season, a concern heightened by the nature of the offense, which demands a great sacrifice of the body on nearly every underneath pass to holes in coverage that close quickly and with violence. Clearly, his two touchdowns in the kicking game were monumental last season, coming as they did in crucial portions of the game -- after going down two scores against Oklahoma and helping to spur the comeback bid in Lubbock.

Malcolm Williams - In the NFL, three years is the conventional wisdom for how long it takes for a receiver to truly understand and excel in the professional game. That conventional wisdom isn't as prevalent in college, but it would make sense for the adjustment to a higher level of play to be relatively consistent across levels. As Williams enters his third season in the offense, he's expected to provide the big-play threat missing since Limas Sweed suffered his eventually season-ending wrist injury during fall practice in 2007. To the end of establishing that deep threat, Williams has worked hard in the off season with Colt McCoy in an attempt to establish the same connection that McCoy had with Sweed, efforts that Williams also made after the Oklahoma game that led to his impressive catch in traffic against Missouri.

The other big expectation for Williams is that he will consistently catch the football, an issue during bowl practice that kept him out of the game against Ohio State. After hard work during the spring to rectify the problem, Williams has been catching the ball much more consistently and earned the starting split end position over Dan Buckner in the process.

As coaches try to protect Jordan Shipley from injury, Williams could see time returning kicks, flashing his ability in the spring game with an electric kick return that would have gone the distance had it not been for Earl Thomas having the angle on the play.

Brandon Collins - The former basketball player has taken some time to adjust to the physical mentality of football, but most importantly, it has taken time for Collins to understand the work necessary to succeed. For Collins that means working hard to add strength to his thin frame and spending more time in the film room breaking down defenses and understanding and executing his blocking assignments.

Excellent in the screen game, Collins will be expected to build on the flashes of big-play ability shown multiple times in the season, but never more importantly than on the second-to-last play of the Fiesta Bowl, making a tough catch and returning quickly to the line of scrimmage even with an injured ankle. Of all the receivers for Texas, Collins might be the most explosive and able to make defenders miss in space, a skill that could help him see time at split end making the same short catches made in 2008 by Quan Cosby.

James Kirkendoll - The Round Rock product doesn't have the pure speed of Brandon Collins or the physically imposing stature of Malcolm Williams, but he does impress with his consistency and versatility. Known for running consistently crisp routes and understanding his assignments, Kirkendoll is a quarterback's best friend and looked to be establishing a connection with Colt McCoy over the final part of the season, most spectacularly on his tough fourth-down catch against Ohio State on the final drive, without which Quan Cosby never has the chance to end his college career with a game-winning dive into the end zone.

Kirkendoll's steady play will make it difficult to keep him off the field, potentially sending Brandon Collins to the bench in stretches. Showing off his continually-improving connection with Colt McCoy, Kirkendoll made another important fourth-down catch during the Spring Game, converting a 4th-and-17 by making a Texas defender miss in space, an ability he showed in flashes last year, but that the coaches hope he will show more consistently during his junior season.

The Where-Does-He-Fit Player

Dan Buckner - The most highly regarded of the four 2008 receivers, Buckner's biggest moment on the field in 2008 probably came against UTEP, as he failed to fight a jam at the line of scrimmage causing Colt McCoy to throw an interception in the end zone. It wasn't all negative for Buckner, as he caught a long touchdown pass in mop-up duty against Missouri, but the big-bodied receiver still needs to work on his quickness off the line of scrimmage, as explosiveness has never been his best attribute.

Stuck behind Malcolm Williams in the battle for the starting split end job, Buckner's best chance to see the field may come in the flex slot position DJ Grant was playing in the spring before his ankle injury. Buckner saw time at the position during the Spring Game and may be part of the answer as the offense searches desperately for a receiver to stretch the field from the tight end position. Much like Grant, the major question about Buckner at that position revolves around his ability to block. Much like Grant, the coaches would likely only ask Buckner to block the linebackers and safeties matched up against him in that position, rather than lining up on the line of scrimmage and having to block defensive ends. He may, however, be asked to crack block defensive ends, the task in which DJ Grant was engaged when he rolled his ankle.