After months and months of pouring over countless offseason reports of how Mack Brown and Texas would deal with the stunning epiphany that we can't just sleepwalk to 10-win seasons and BCS berths every single year, gameweek has finally arrived like a breath of fresh air after spending the day in an Oklahoma trailer with two siblings/cousins who haven't bathed since Barry Switzer was roaming the sidelines.
As a little appetizer to the outstanding content you'll see from my colleagues throughout the rest of the week leading up to gameday, I'm going to be taking a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each position group, as well as ranking them based on how I expect them to perform in the upcoming season.
Let's get to it, after the jump!
The Breakdown: Unilaterally thought of as the strongest and deepest position on the team, as well as being the most experienced. Depending upon whom you ask, Keenan Robinson, Emmanuel Acho, or Jordan Hicks are the best LB at the position. Meaning, basically (read: hopefully), that we're loaded.
Robinson could be iffy as a run-stuffing MLB, but when it comes to theoretical pass coverage, this group is second to none in the country. Theoretical in the sense that I'm covering my ass in case something like last year's debacle happens again. Acho is a big time playmaker and Hicks is the most talented and well-rounded of the three, so we've got all the bases covered except a guy who will thump up the middle.
If needed, that service will be provided by talented (but over-indulgent at the buffet line) true frosh Steve Edmond. Switching over from safety is chicken-legged sophomore Demarco Cobbs, the best blitzing LB on the team. Further depth will be provided by rapidly improving RS frosh Aaron Benson and mean SOB true freshman Tevin Jackson, who finally made it through the NCAA Clearinghouse (otherwise known as, "How to F*** Up a Kid's Life in Three Easy Steps"). There couldn't be less concern for LB at Texas going forward. We truly are loaded with young talent right now.
You guys saw the strengths and weaknesses of these cats last year and how they eventually broke down with the weight of trying to carry the offense week in and week out. If that doesn't happen this year, the LBs should have a huge year and all three starters will challenge for all-conference recognition. Our LBs should excel against conference foes like Baylor, Mizzou, and OU that love to go sideline-to-sideline with their offenses and struggle against teams like Kansas State, Texas A&M, and
Nebraska that favor a more physical brand of downfield running.
Expected Level of Play: 9/10
2. Defensive Line
The Breakdown: Many of you are probably wondering how the DL is so high despite the frequently bemoaned lack of a second DT next to mainstay Kheeston Randall. While that is indeed a legitimate worry, recent reports have been glowing for Calvin Howell; he seems to have definitively captured the position. We're left hoping Howell's talent prevails and his concussion issues remain dormant. Randall is a do-it-all DT who can play the nose at times or be more of a backfield disruptor, but he's not the kind of guy that will be able to tear a defense apart when the DT next to him is basically being ignored like last season.
DT depth is gradually being added by sophomore Ashton Dorsey, gap-attacking true freshman Desmond Jackson, and converted DE Greg Daniels.
Aside from increased confidence in the DTs, the Horns boast possibly the best DE combination in the country in Alex Okafor, who many have called the off-season MVP on defense for the Horns, and uber-talented technician Jackson Jeffcoat. Okafor is a run-stuffing DE with freaky arm length and fantastic strength (after playing DT last year) who has improved his pass-rushing abilities over the offseason. Jeffcoat is a pass-rushing wunderkind who was limited last year due to nagging injuries and never got to make the kind of impact he expected out of camp. If neither is first team all-conference, we're in deep shit. Expect both to challenge for that honor.
Reggie Wilson is the third guy in a deep rotation, but while he is a good pass-rusher, he still needs to add strength. Chris Whaley was finally moved to DE where he has impressed with his strength about two years after seemingly every UT fan called for it to happen. Anybody else think it's sad that a RB-convert has no strength issues but needs to improve burst while an actual DE recruit needs to add strength? Mind-boggling eval, IMO. The Whale will also spend some time at DT. I wouldn't be surprised if Mack Brown already told Stacy Searels to pencil in Whaley as the starting LT next season. True frosh Cedric Reed has impressed in the offseason and evoked images of a young Okafor. He'll battle Whaley for the fourth DE spot all year long.
We're absolutely locked in with pass-rushing talent right now, so expect to be getting pressure on the QB all year long. But it's fair to say we'll probably still struggle with the power running game up the middle unless Howell is a revelation or Diaz finds a way to hide our interior with middle blitzes.
Expected Level of Play: 8/10
3. Running Back/Fullback
The Breakdown: A few weeks ago, this would have been WR. But with the not-so-glowing reports of inconsistency and drops from receivers lately, I've bumped the running backs up to the top spot due to rave reviews out of camp for the three-headed monster of Fozzy Whittaker, Joe Bergeron, and Malcolm Brown.
Whittaker is the guy that's talked about as taking the reigns of the RB position ever year in the offseason, before sustaining some form of nagging injury that he just can't seem to get over. Even more so than in previous years, though, Fozzy has been drawing huge praise as the top offensive performer of camp as well as one of the foremost leaders of the team. He's absolutely ripped now, which hopefully will help combat his propensity for injury.
Brown was the most heralded running back recruit in the country, but Bergeron came in and quickly asserted himself as the surprise of summer camp after Dominic Espinosa. Coaches call him the most complete back on the team, as he can block, catch, run with power, and is capable of playing RB, FB, and H-Back. Don't kid yourselves, though, Brown is still the most talented runner on the team and will be expected to be the future bell cow for the Horns for years to come.
Speed demon D.J. Monroe, assuming he's finally learned the playbook, should excel in Bryan Harsin's imaginative offense that finds new holes for oddly-shaped pegs instead of trying to jam them into poorly-conceived, generic presets. Same goes for RB/WR Desean Hales, who will play a role similar to Monroe. Depth will come from talented and fast slasher Jeremy Hills and grinder Traylon Shead.
Cody Johnson is finally at the fullback position he should have been moved to three years ago if we had any other competent running backs on the team that could stay healthy. Bergeron should play there a bit too when we want to get feisty with the ingenuity.
Expected Level of Play: 6.5/10
4. Wide Receiver/Tight End
The Breakdown: Bobby Kennedy's receivers last year and the prior few years (other than Jordan Shipley) permeated arrogance and complacency. Combined with a general dearth of talent or playmaking ability and you get a WR crew that Lake Travis might not start all of. Fortunately, Darrell Wyatt doesn't take shit from anybody, and he has a lot more talent to work with than Kennedy did in the past few years (which I attribute a lot to some lazy evals by BK himself).
True freshman Jaxon Shipley was the talk of the camp all summer long and he will be a star sooner than later. Great hands, crisp routes, and a big time work ethic make Lil Ship the expected savior of a receiving corps plagued by drops and ambivalence last season. Speaking of drops, fellow starter Mike Davis was expected to be the top offensive threat for the Horns this year, but he's displayed a stunning propensity for stone hands in the last couple weeks of practice. While I love Mike's route-running ability and "gamer" attitude, I was never sold on his hands like many others were, so this doesn't particularly surprise me.
Young guns Darius White and John Harris are fighting for the final starting WR spot at the X. White is the show-stopping talent in the Roy Williams mold who hasn't put it together QUITE yet, while Harris looks like a rich man's John Chiles with more post-catch ability.
True freshman Miles Onyegbule will fight for time at the fifth WR spot, where he could provide a big possession target. If Miles is anywhere remotely as good as people have claimed he is in workouts, I'll be the first in line to the "Crow Stand" for a big ole portion.
Overall, this is an exceedingly more talented group than we saw all of last year, but while it's reasonable to expect a glut of huge plays downfield and glitzy jukes in the screen game and over the middle, also expect to again see a high amount of drops due to the general inexperience of the group and Garrett Gilbert's mindboggling inability to throw a traditionally catchable football. I swear, that guy would be the best dodgeball player in history. Nobody else can throw that hard at somebody's knees.
When it comes to TE...well, who really knows? I can guarantee you it will, by necessity, be better than last year because Harsin actually incorporates offensive schemes deemed logical by sane human beings. He also loves utilizing TEs of all sorts, which Texas does have. What we DON'T have is a single tight end that can do it all, which is almost impossible to comprehend considering we have like half the TEs in the conference.
Dominique Jones and Barrett Matthews will be your blockers, with the former primarily lining up on the line and the latter frequently motioning from the backfield. In a pretty big upset, Jones was named the starter at TE.
Much more excitingly, D.J. Grant and Blaine Irby have overcome brutal injuries to give us a pair of honest-to-goodness receiving threats at the TE spot. Grant is expected to provide the biggest impact overall, while Irby will provide the necessary "Sydmill Harris speaks six languages," "Brad Buckman's father played golf with Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw," and, of course, "Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley are roommates" anecdote for television broadcasters throughout the season with his resurgence after not being expected to be able to walk correctly. In all seriousness, anybody who doesn't shed a tear when Irby makes his first catch against Rice this weekend is a sociopath. I'm only half-kidding...
Expected Level of Play: 6/10
5. Offensive Line
The Breakdown: If you haven't checked out burnt in ny's excellent post on the OL, please don't do so now because it will only make whatever I try to tell you sound mundane, ill-informed, and excessively amateurish. In fact, that's the effect of all his stuff. So only read it at my peril!
So, Texas hasn't had even relatively competent OL play since 2006, after which we brought in a bunch of nice-guy wussies who wouldn't help their QB up after a sack if their lives depended on it. But...they all got great grades and smiled beautifully in pictures. Luckily, Stacy Searels seems to have injected some pride and ass-holery into our OL that, in combination with Harsinwhite's new dedication to the running game and a couple shiny new toys at RB, should allow us to produce a power running attack that will take pressure off of whomever ends up at QB throughout the course of the season.
The starting OL from left to right is Tray Allen, David Snow, Dominic Espinosa, Mason Walters, and Trey Hopkins. Yes, we are actually starting three guards and two centers, all of whom are likely better at run blocking, ergo my expectation for a strong rushing attack. Conversely, I'm not expecting too much out of this group in obvious passing downs other than QB pressures and sacks, which is why Harsin and The Major will be dialing up numerous screens, double screens, flare passes, delay draws, etc., on third down this season.
Hopkins has been praised all off-season as the best offensive lineman on the team, while Walters has been credited with both solid play and having stepped up as a leader of the offense. "Espy" is the surprise of the offseason, having usurped the starting center role in his first year of play. Allen gets his last chance to prove the recruiting hype at the all-important LT spot, which couldn't worry me more in passing situations, while Snow is athletic and generally solid against DTs not named Suh and McCoy.
Big boy Thomas Ashcraft is another road grader off the bench who doesn't move particularly well. Young and talented Paden Kelley would be the starting LT if he didn't spend more time in the dog house than Mike Vick. Ba da, ching! Garrett Porter hasn't quite put it together yet, but he'll back up the guard and center spots. After that top eight, I don't expect to see anybody getting much run (or, in this case, block) outside of garbage time, assuming we have any of that this season.
Expected Level of Play: 6/10
6. Defensive Back
The Breakdown: Even Roman Polanski thinks our defensive backs are young this season. Our top corner back is a true freshman we almost didn't offer. If that tells you nothing about some of our recruiting evaluations in the past few years, you probably think Alex de la Torre is the second coming of Tommy Nobis. If you're nodding your head right now, I'm talking to you and you need to read some more of GoBR's recruiting wisdom on the double.
Quandre Diggs is the true freshman I'm referring to, and he's a natural cover guy who also enjoys getting physical in the run game. That's fortunate because while Carrington Byndom, who will start opposite him, is a good cover corner as well, we'll try to keep him as far away from the LOS as possible.
In Kenny Vaccaro and Adrian Phillips, we have two guys that can play CB, both safety spots, and the nickel, and have been cross-training as such all offseason. Vaccaro will start at safety with Phillips backing up every DB spot on the field. My understanding is Vaccaro slides over to the slot when we go nickel with Phillips moving to his safety spot, which makes him a de facto starter with the amount of five-DB looks teams are forced to play in the pass-happy Big 12 (-2/-3).
Both Vaccaro and Phillips are good athletes who will stick their noses in the running game. Kenny-V in particular will look to detonate opposing players with regularity. Still, both guys are still relatively inexperienced and unproven at this point.
Blake Gideon mans the free safety spot because he's a strong safety who can't tackle or blitz with efficacy. He's been here for four years now, and I still haven't been able to nail down a specific football skill that he possesses, though Mack Brown and Blake's fans tell me he's a great leader. I'd personally rather have a good football player as my last line of defense in an aggressive, gambling scheme like Diaz employs, but at this point it's fait accompli and I accepted that a long time ago.
If Blake can improve his coverage abilities this year, it would really help the confidence of our young guys on the edges to know they have help over the top if they get burned. And believe me, in this league against guys like Broyles, Blackmon, Fuller, Wright, and Moe, they will get burned with regularity.
A.J. White is probably the next corner off the bench and true frosh Josh Turner should get some burn as well. Nolan Brewster is the fourth safety and should get time as a backup as well as in the dime package.
I expect a season from this group very similar to what we saw in 2008. We're long on talent and potential, with the added bonus of likely the best pass rush in the league. But we're short on experience and, aside from QB, this is the last place (not to mention conference) you want to be short.
Expected Level of Play: 4.5/10
The Breakdown: The conspiracy theory that Mack, et al., manipulated the practices and second scrimmage so that Garrett Gilbert would look like the best QB on the team is already going around, and I, for one, would not be remotely surprised if that were the case. Mack is terrified of a mass exodus by the QBs if he named Ash the starter, despite him likely being the guy that gives us the best chance to win right now with his combination of arm strength, accuracy, and ability to make off-schedule plays with his legs.
Mack didn't show much confidence in Gilbert in his press conference today, basically saying he won the job due to having played in more games and not because he actually outplayed anybody in camp or became a better leader or really anything remotely positive at all. Greaaaaaatttt...
Gilbert will start, McCoy is his depth chart backup, and Ash is the guy everybody wants to see on the field. Ash will likely be the guy if Gilbert sustains a multi-game injury or just flat-out sucks. Case will be the guy if Gilbert is out for a single game with a tweak or something and mop-up duty. Wood is expected to transfer, and he appears to be on a visit to CU as I type.
What I'm most psyched about is the fact that Ash supposedly has his own package of plays, which should get him on the field reasonably early in the Rice game this weekend—I hope.
With Gilbert as the starter, I'm expecting to see very much of a caretaker role until he solidifies himself as the starter in the team's eyes. I believe we'll lean on the running game, the machinations of Harsin, and the defense to win games in the first third of the season before we start to give the QB more free reign over the offense. Make no mistake, though, the lack of ability for the OL to pass block could and should hamper Gilbert's (and others') progression and consistency in the passing game. After last year, though, how much worse could it really be?
Expected Level of Play: 4/10
And there it is, BONizens. Three things you really don't want to have at the bottom of your position rankings in the Big 12—QB, DBs, and OL. Ouch. It's obviously all speculation for now, but how would you guys rank the units?
4 more days until you get to breathe again!