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Texas Game Week: Five Things to Watch Against Rice

Horns_bullet_mediumThe beginning of the Garrett Gilbert era. Since the national championship game, there have only been brief viewings of Gilbert by the Longhorn faithful -- the spring open practices, the spring game, and the fall open practices, as well as this author spotting Gilbert at the 7-on-7 state championships watching his younger brother play and tossing the ball around with a friend.

In each of those appearances, Gilbert looked like a poised, confident quarterback capable of driving passes downfield and fitting them into tight windows. Though he didn't spin the ball overly well in the spring game and at times in the national championship game, he did show the ability to put the ball where he wanted it and that is ultimately more important than what is otherwise something of an aesthetic concern if the ball gets to the receiver in stride.

Watch Gilbert's completion percentage and where on the field he completes passes. The sophomore quarterback loves to throw the deep ball, something noticeable even in high school and Texas is placing an increased emphasis on a vertical passing game keyed by play-action passes.

And Mack Brown commented several times in the last couple weeks about working with Gilbert to go to his check-down receivers instead of forcing throws, though there haven't been any concerns about interceptions, at least publicly.

Fortunately for Texas receivers, if Gilbert does check down to them in the flat, they won't have to worry about Kenny Vaccaro closing in on them with evil intentions. Tre' Newton still has some cobwebs from that one.

There were also rumblings about his growing leadership -- celebrating with his teammates at an open practice in the spring after making several incredible throws, including a back-shoulder pass down the sideline to a well-covered Malcolm Williams and a popular story this fall about standing up to Aaron Williams when the junior cornerback was sending some smack in Gilbert's direction. How vocal will be on Saturday against Rice if things don't go well early? Will his teammates visibly rally around him? Will he offensive linemen actually pick him up if he gets knocked down, as last season's group rarely did with Colt McCoy?

Or will he transition as seamlessly into the role of program savior as he has always seemed likely to do? After all, Gilbert has spent most of his life preparing to be the starting quarterback at the University of Texas.

Horns_bullet_mediumWill Cody Johnson seize the day? It feels like a nearly over-analyzed subject already only five days from the release of the depth chart. Cody Johnson worked hard to reduce his body fat. Cody Johnson started paying attention during meetings. Cody Johnson wanted to finally maximize his remarkable combination of size and speed, instead of settling for being a short-yardage, situational tailback. All that is well known at this point.

The question on Saturday is what he does with that opportunity. It's probably safe to say that he will make some sharp cuts and truck a couple of defenders. The real questions lay in the other parts of his game. Will the coaches even ask him to split out as a receiver? Can he be an effective outlet over the middle? Are his hands as good as the coaches have said they are? Will he be able to properly read blitzes and put himself in the right position to stop incoming defenders?

Horns_bullet_mediumWhat impact will the H-back position have? Relatedly, who will spend more time at H-back, EBS or Barrett Matthews? It's a new position for the offense this season and a key to sparking the running game. How often will the Longhorns employ both the H-back and tight end? How will EBS/Matthews perform as lead blockers? Will either one be able to split out effectively and create mismatches against linebackers?

The answer is still probably no for EBS, but the coaches are counting on Matthews to provide something of a vertical threat down the seam, even though he sometimes fights the football and doesn't have the best hands on the team. Playing in a run-oriented offense that limited his chances in the passing game probably didn't help Matthews, either.

The X-factor in all of this is former running back Chris Whaley, moved to the position near the start of fall practice and now the back-up H-back. Will he see the field on Saturday there? How well does he understand the position, the routes, and any blitz adjustments that he may have to make?

Horns_bullet_mediumHow will the special teams units perform? Last season was marked by special teams/defensive touchdowns and the hope is that the combination of dynamic return men, strong punt blocking unit, and big leg of John Gold will help Texas maintain that major advantage in the third phase of the game.

DJ Monroe and Marquise Goodwin will handle kickoffs, keeping teams from being able to punt away from Monroe, though the blocking might not be as dominant without Malcolm Williams leading the way and the new rules keeping players farther apart in the wedge may make things more difficult as well. However, it's hard to imagine a faster or more athletic pair back to receive kicks anywhere. Can Monroe make this the second year in a row with a touchdown return in the opener?

On punts, Curtis Brown and Aaron Williams will attempt to replace the production of Jordan Shipley, who returned two punts for touchdowns last season. Brown will likely take the first punt of the season, but Williams could end up back there for several punts if Brown's nagging ankle injury isn't fully healed. Brown may have the advantage in acceleration and change of direction ability after a distinguished career on special teams in high school. Williams has the advantage in size and strength and is a srong candidate to break a couple tackles on a long return this season.

The major question mark is at placekicker, where Justin Tucker takes over for Hunter Lawrence, one of the true stars last season for Texas after making the difference in games against Oklahoma and Nebraska. All reports from fall practice have been positive for Tucker and his high school stats are solid, but how will he perform when the bright lights come on? After missing a kick?

Tucker will also handle kickoff duties again this year and showed off a stronger leg in open practices, perhaps spurred by the need to hold off freshman Will Russ, who was much less impressive in his own attempts. John Gold, newly a scholarship player for his senior season, has a fantastic, perhaps NFL-caliber leg, and will handle traditional-style punting duties this season, with Tucker providing any rugby punts the coaches might desire.

Look for the Posse, the punt-blocking unit, to make an appearance, if not against Rice, then some time early in the season with a big-time block. After a relatively quiet sophomore season, will Aaron Williams step into the spotlight on the Posse with another game-changing play?

Horns_bullet_mediumHow will the young defensive tackles perform? Kheeston Randall is as much of a known quantity as anyone on the team, despite his less-than-spectacular numbers from last season (fewer than 30 tackles). However, as has been much discussed around these parts, after Randall, everything is a question mark.

Tyrell Higgins drew praise from the coaches this week and regained his scholarship through his dedication on the practice field and in the weight room, but has taken only a handful of game reps so far in his career.

Calvin Howell has been slowed by inconsistency and concussions and has seen only a handful of snaps as well.

Ashton Dorsey is a true freshman attempting to hold the point of attack against two offensive linemen in the middle, where things move more quickly than they do anywhere else on the field.

Alex Okafor is a former defensive end not used to spending time inside.

After all the questions and the hand-wringing about the ability of the position to keep the Longhorns strong in the middle of the line, the Rice game will finally provide some answers, definitive though they will not be.