The Texas Longhorns are set to get started on a crucial spring practice that will help determine the program's success in the fall, with head coach Mack Brown's future closely tied to turning in a successful season to decrease pressure as his situation in Austin could increasingly be described as embattled.
Typically a time for boundless optimism about the upcoming season, there's not quite as much of that this year entering spring, but the good news is that this group of Longhorns has a lot going for it. In fact, there aren't a lot of gaping holes and there are a handful of positions that should be team strengths.
Brown has been saying since 2011 that this team is going to be good and this may be the year that his players finally back up those words he has uttered like a mantra for about 16 months or so.
Can David Ash make this his team?
The talk about a quarterback competition at Texas has died down to virtually nothing, even if the national media still likes to make ignorant jokes about Ash, apparently unaware of the fact that he turned in a season that was impressive overall and marked significant improvement from his freshman struggles.
The challenge for the now-unquestioned starter is to emerge as a true leader for his team. Taking over in that manner isn't necessarily something that comes naturally for Ash, who is more about leading by example, but there's another factor here that has gone underrated as many have questioned Ash's ability as a leader.
The leadership ability of back-up Case McCoy has been lauded by many, a natural personal trait that is closely connected to his extremely high level of self-confidence that at times verges into cockiness. McCoy isn't afraid to lead because he believes in himself, to the detriment of his self-awareness and understanding of his weaknesses.
The more self-aware Ash has never truly been able to take over the team because it's never really been his team, a fact made entirely clear by his short leash in close games.
That all changed with the Alamo Bowl victory when McCoy was unavailable and Ash had to work through his early struggles, which he was able to do successfully for the first time in his career, potentially a monumental step forward for him.
The word coming out from the program this spring is that Ash has been asked to step into a larger role as a leader and it's easy to see him being able to show some personal growth there as both he and the team accept the idea that the Longhorn offense in 2013 belongs completely and entirely to David Ash.
What happens at the safety position?
The departure of Kenny Vaccaro from the strong safety/nickel position he occupied in 2012 leaves a big hole in the Texas secondary, one that could be filled by young players like Josh Turner and Mykkele Thompson, both of whom will be juniors next season and need to both take the next step as players.
But both could also switch to cornerback, especially Turner, who was recruited at that position and has a frame better suited for it.
That leaves the rumor du jour since bowl practice -- moving Quandre Diggs to safety. The undersized cornerback has never had problems tackling and is more physical than both Turner and Thompson because he's stronger and has much more experience on defense than Thompson, who played quarterback in high school.
Diggs could fill a role similar to Vaccaro by filling in when the nickel is needed and play some deep coverage with the ability to fill the alley and make plays in run support.
It's something that the beat writers will surely be asking about when Brown addresses the media regarding the start of spring practice, so there should be some information in that direction in the next few days.
If Digs doesn't make the move, Texas will have to rely on Phillips to regain more of his 2011 form after a relatively solid finish to a disappointing year, as well as the aforementioned leaps forward from young players like Turner and Thompson, both of whom could conceivably end up at cornerback.
How physical are practices?
The consensus at this point regarding the tackling issues that plagued the Longhorns last season is that the team simply didn't have enough contact in fall camp and throughout the season. While it's understandable that Brown is trying to protect his team from injuries, the on-field results seem to indicate that Texas needs to be more aggressive in allowing full contact in practice to better prepare the players for game-time situations.
At the least, Brown should be prepared to ratchet up the level of physicality if the team struggles tackling during live scrimmage action early in spring if he doesn't want to risk injuries at the start.
What happens at the kicker position?
The trigger fingers for Texas fans hovered over the panic button from spring into summer into the fall over the replacements for Justin Tucker after William Russ and Ben Pruitt struggled so mightily in the second open practice last spring to put live balls through the uprights.
The transfer of Anthony Fera from Penn State was supposed to solve the problem, but he aggravated a groin injury sustained prior to his move and never seemed to fully recover, leaving the job to an equally-inconsistent Nick Jordan.
The competition should be open once again heading into spring practice and the hope has to be that Fera returns to his 2011 form that allowed him to be money from between 40 and 49 yards, the area in which Jordan struggled so much.
Or perhaps Jordan steps up his own game as he matures into the job.
Either way, the Longhorns have to be better at converting field goal opportunities into points next season.
Can Kendall Sanders emerge?
The losses of Marquise Goodwin and DJ Monroe will leave the Longhorns a little bit short-handed in the area of players capable of handling the perimeter run game, which could and should increase in prominence under new playcaller Major Applewhite.
The player expected to grow into that role is sophomore Kendall Sanders, who saw limited action during his freshman season, with two catches for 15 yards and no rushing attempts. Incoming wide receiver Jacorey Warrick is another possibility, but Sanders is faster on the top end and has the benefit of a year's experience in the program, while Warrick is also working to recover from a meniscus tear that obviously wasn't ideal for his developmental curve.
With the other option, fellow sophomore Daje Johnson, something of a wild card because he seems to always be in danger of doing something immature enough to hurt his standing on the team, the importance of Sanders and his development becomes that much more paramount for the Longhorns.
Who emerges among the young defensive ends?
Depth at the defensive end position should be in good shape for Texas heading into the 2013 season, even without any incoming freshmen there, as the move of redshirt freshman Caleb Bluiett back to defensive end helps the numbers.
There should be a rotation spot available behind Jackson Jeffcoat, Cedric Reed, and Reggie Wilson, the major returning contributors. In the race to slide into that fourth spot are sophomore Shiro Davis, redshirt freshman Bryce Cottrell, and Bluiett.
The leader in the clubhouse is Davis, who has unreal speed for a defensive end -- he runs like a fast linebacker -- who was the only one of the three to actually receive any playing time last year. His redshirt season wasn't exactly wasted, but given that the coaches didn't get him on the field much, it would be a shame to see another season go by without giving him a major shot at earning playing time because of his unique skillset as the fastest edge rusher Texas has right now.
How well can Diaz coach up the linebackers?
Texas fans are for the most part completely fed up with Diaz, and for good reason. Unfortunately for those who call him iaz because he can't even put the D in his own name, the third-year defensive coodinator will be back next fall.
Besides his ability to avoid big plays by altering his tactics in terms of blitzes and twisting/stunting, what will define success for Diaz in 2013 will largely hinge on how much better the linebackers can play.
Steve Edmond often looked lost and like he had never played the position before, running himself out of numerous plays and failing to display the foot speed to make up for his poor initial reactions.
Kendall Thompson looked like he had never been taught how to defeat a block and generally looked disinterested in doing so.
The two bright spots late were Peter Jinkens and Tevin Jackson, the fastest players in that group of four.
The return of Jordan Hicks should help smooth over a lot of deficiencies while the competition for the other two starting jobs heats up this spring. If Edmond and Thompson remain inconsistent, at least Jinkens and Jackson have shown some capacity for improvement and playmaking ability.
Can the offensive line take the next step?
The group will be mostly made up of seniors next season and was effective in reducing sacks and negative plays last season, if not so successful in consistently moving the line of scrimmage against the better defensive lines they faced last season.
For the 'Horns to take a leap offensively, especially in terms of forcing their will on opponents early and late in games, the group needs to make some improvements.
The new offense, which will feature a faster tempo in order to get off more plays, will also place a greater emphasis on conditioning, which falls on strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie.
Finding young players to emerge as rotation candidates is an important part of that equation, as the starting group likely won't be able to manage many more plays per game than they did last season, requiring the second team to fill in those gaps.
The loss of Luke Poehlmann means that the primary back-up at the guard and tackle positions is now gone. Adding JUCO tackle Desmond Harrison should help, but the real emergence probably needs to come from players like Sedrick Flowers and Curtis Riser, the two most likely candidates to among the young guards to push for playing time.
This spring will also be important for the development of young tackles like Camrhon Hughes, who is recovering from an ACL injury that forced a redshirt last season, and Kennedy Estelle who worked his way into the rotation while battling a shoulder injury of his own late in 2013.
So, Texas fans, what will y'all be looking for when spring practice starts on Thursday?