"We've got eight great days of practice to evaluate. The last two in shoulder pads and shorts and one in pads really helped us start separating as you look at who should be playing three weeks from now."
- Mack Brown, addressing the media after the first week of practice.
Grant separates from 2009 season. Once again, the Longhorns got snakebit at a position thin in experience. Josh Marshall last fall, then Blaine Irby. Then news that Marshall won't play again and Irby must overcome nerve damage. Then DJ Grant tore several ligaments and won't play this season, facing a long, hard rehabilitation that hopefully won't be as difficult as Irby's. About Grant, suffice it to say that, though unproven, his loss is huge. With Ian Harris struggling once again with neck and shoulder issues that most likely stem from several stingers, the weight of the position will fall on several players with a ton to prove.
The first and most likely candidate is Greg Smith, known fondly in these parts as EBS -- the Extra Blocking Surface. To engage in a bit of blatant sunshine pumping, the good news is that Smith lost 50 pounds over the off-season to return to a much more tight-end like 250 pounds, give or take a few, so his agility to improve greatly this season. A former outside receiver in high school, Smith should improve his route-running and ability to create separation from linebackers as he adjusts to his lighter body.
He might even manage to stretch the seam a bit, something he worked hard on during the summer with Colt McCoy. During his interview, he talked a lot about being able to play lower and being able to return to using his agility -- the potential gains from last season could be significant. That's the sunshine pumping, remember. The reality probably falls somewhere in between outright EBS dismissal and overreactions to his weight loss -- but the fact remains that if Smith can make himself more of a receiving threat, maybe he actually can move past his time as EBS.
My personal favorite is Barrett Matthews. While Mack Brown understandably cautioned about expecting too much from freshman, there is no doubt that Matthews is physically ready to play in college, particularly as an h-back or, more likely, a fullback -- he's just a beast in the blocking game. During the open practices, many observers were also impressed with his quickness and route-running ability after coming from a run-dominated North Shore program, but not all the reports about his hands were glowing. It's less of a question of whether he will be ready by, say, the Kansas game, but more of a question about whether he could play against Oklahoma or Oklahoma State and contribute. The jury is surely still out on that one.
Another name to remember is Dan Buckner. He will have trouble making the six-man receiver rotation after more inconsistency in the first week of fall practice, but he could make an impact at the flex tight end position -- a position Brown confirmed Buckner will have a chance to play. As Brown also mentioned, Buckner has great size for the position and matches up well against linebackers, both in the blocking game and one-on-one when running routes. Injuries mean opportunities for young players and Buckner needs to grab hold of his.
Reign in the Goodwin talk? On Thursday, it seemed the entire Longhorn nation was buzzing about Wednesday's performance in the open practice, notably for his work in the punt return game, backing up Jordan Shipley. Brown spent a fair amount of his Friday presser talking about freshman hitting the wall and attempting to limit some of the runaway optimism created from the Wednesday practice.
However, Goodwin created the buzz with good reason -- it wasn't just his work in the return game, an area where he can use his incredible speed to create big plays. Nearly every observer from the practices emphasized how Goodwin didn't look like a track guy playing football -- he looked liked a football player with track speed, running solid routes and showing off excellent hands. Goodwin just might contribute sooner than expected, as DeSean Hales and DJ Monroe look far from ready; perhaps you can re-read this post and just substitute Goodwin's name for Hales.
Harris and Gilbert in close competition. Even the most deranged Longhorn fans aren't calling for the back-up quarterback with Colt McCoy more than firmly entrenched at the position. However, a hot topic for debate is whether Sherrod Harris should get a chance or if Garrett Gilbert should get some game time to develop this season. I weighed on the topic a while back and still feel the same while, but Mack Brown said the competition is still dead-even at this point. More pointedly, he said that neither one was ready to play after a week of fall practice. Certainly that is more of a condemnation of Harris, who is entering his fourth season in the program, than Gilbert, fresh onto campus. The battle for the right to back up McCoy may continue up until close to the first game less than three weeks from now.
On the punt return game. Brown said that five players are competing for time back at the punt returner position, giving the names of James Kirkendoll, Curtis Brown. A couple other candidates could be DJ Monroe and DeSean Hales, but the point is that there is competition -- certainly a perceived issue in the past. After returning a punt for a touchdown last year against Tech, Shipley is undoubtedly a great, and ultimately safe, candidate, but Goodwin and Brown probably possess more explosiveness. Of the three mentioned, Kirkendoll seems like another safe choice -- a reliable guy with sure hands, but nothing spectacular in the open field, at least so far.
X marks Shipley. A Friday revelation was his statement that Jordan Shipley is working almost exclusively at the "X" position, also known as the split end and the expected position of Malcolm Williams this season. Brown touted Shipley as a deep threat because of his speed, a believable statement more because of Shipley's quickness more than his pure, straight-line speed. I'm on record as saying the Longhorns will move Shipley around this year in an effort to create the match ups they want or run some screens from the flanker or the slot.
But where does Williams play then? The fact of the matter is that Williams is probably outside of the top three of Shipley, Collins, and Kirkendoll right now. He'll have a chance to spell Shipley there when the senior switches positions in the offense or comes out of the game. To me, another obvious spot is the flex tight end position, for the same reason Dan Buckner makes sense there -- both players are listed within five pounds of DJ Grant. Brown talked about putting the best 11 players on the field regardless of whether one of them is a tight end or not and putting Williams at the flex position gets the four best receivers on the field.
Hamstring injury for Whaley. Fans at the two open practices didn't have a chance to see a player who induces a wide spectrum of opinions from Longhorn nation -- Mack Brown's hand-picked 2009 running back Chris Whaley. On Friday, Brown gave the reason as a pulled hamstring. Coupled with concerns about his weight-related quickness, the hamstring injury puts Whaley further behind the more experience running backs. There will be enough blow-outs early in the season that Whaley should have a chance to get a few carries, but don't expect him to contribut much early.