For a second straight week, Texas Longhorns play caller Jay Norvell was adamant Tuesday that he wants to continue using more young players.
Against the Kansas Jayhawks, that was a relatively easy task, as the coaches were willing to experiment early without much concern that the Jayhawks could actually hang with the Longhorns for 60 minutes. The strategy caused some consternation during a poor second quarter, but five straight possessions in the second half ended with touchdowns and the route was on.
But what happens against a much better football team this weekend in the West Virginia Mountaineers? Boasting the No. 4 rushing defense and the No. 6 passing defense in S&P+, the Mountaineers have already been tested by an incredibly difficult schedule, thereby increasing the risk of giving young players extended action.
So let's look at which freshmen and sophomores have the best chance of playing, even though Norvell said that the flow of the game will heavily influence that decision. Keeping the ball offensively could play a big role, too, as the play caller believes that a deeper rotation to keep players more fresh is beneficial for the team.
Norvell noted that senior offensive guard Sedrick Flowers has been suffering from minor injuries this year, which could explain his poor play. Regardless of what is causing his consistent mistakes, he's the most eligible senior to get benched.
Moving junior Kent Perkins over to left guard, as the Longhorns did to start the game last weekend, completely changes the identity of the offensive line -- no longer is star freshman left tackle Connor Williams left to deal with stunts and twists and combo blocks with the weakest member of the offensive line, opening up more opportunities to run zone plays left and better deal with basic pressure packages.
Since sophomore Tristan Nickelson has been good enough in pass protection at right tackle to alleviate some concerns about the horrific passing down sack rate allowed by Texas this season, the best offensive line right now looks like Williams-Perkins-Doyle-Vahe-Nickelson with a more conservative overall rotation than the one shown against Kansas.
Keep on eye an sophomore center Jake Raulerson, as well. Norvell said that offensive line coach Joe Wickline has been impressed with his work in practice, so he's another candidate to receive more playing time moving forward. The current starter at center, senior Taylor Doyle, has been nearly as inconsistent as Flowers, witth plenty of his own inexplicable failures to make seemingly basic plays on stunts and blitzes.
At wide receiver, the player who has been notably absent in most conversations about senior leadership offensively has been Marcus Johnson. The early touchdown against Oklahoma, a big third-down catch, and better blocking made him one of the stars of that performance, but he hasn't been able to sustain it -- his blocking effort has lagged in recent weeks and he dropped two catchable passes against Kansas, one of which could have gone for a touchdown.
Though Johnson had to fight through a possible interceference call on the second opportunity, his inability to capitalize on either chance was emblematic of his overall inability to emerge as a consistent difference-maker after the two big flashes as a sophomore on long touchdown catches against Oklahoma and TCU.
An early-season high ankle sprain didn't help, but when the team talks about players who lose concentration and focus, the on-field results suggest that Johnson is a potential culprit. Dropping the would-be touchdown pass in the end zone against Iowa State to end the shutout in Ames was simply another example of Johnson failing to meet reasonable expectations. While his failure didn't determine the game, it was a moment demanding pride in not being shut out.
And the ball hit the turf, harmlessly.
There hasn't been much talk about sophomore wide receiver Armanti Foreman's practice efforts in recent weeks, so it's difficult to tell exactly where he stands in the pecking order at the moment as a potential replacment. However, a strong block down the sideline helped spring his brother's 93-yard touchdown run, after which D'Onta noted that Armanti was also on the field for his other historically-significant explosion to seal the Oklahoma game.
Armanti later capitalized by making another good ajustment to an underthrown pass in the end zone, as he did against Rice, but this time off the hand of Tyrone Swoopes. Since Johnson hasn't done much to earn playing time in recent weeks, if Foreman can at least block effectively at times and demonstrate enough of his own concentration and effort to make tough catches on a more regular basis, he may give the team its best chance of winning in earning needed developmental snaps.
Keep an eye on sophomore Lorenzoe Joe, too, as he's made the most of his opportunities in the passing game and is one of the best blockers in the wide receiving corps, along with freshman John Burt.
Players less likely to see as much playing time this week are redshirt freshman offensive lineman Elijah Rodriguez, feshman wide receiver Ryan Newsome, and freshman running back Kirk Johnson.
Is there enough from practice for the offensive coaches to believe that those players can give the team it's best chance of winning? It's a tough call and Kansas didn't provide a high level of competition, but the second wave of the youth movement can consolidate now into a full-fledged changing of the guard in the last three games or be put off, potentially until the spring.
Again, the dual challenges of becoming bowl eligibile and putting these young players in a position to succeed at the expense of the seniors who are supposed to be the team leaders is a delicate task with a team that provides constant reminders of its delicacy.
And the other overriding factor is that Norvell, quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, and offensive line coordinator Joe Wickline are either coaching for their jobs or definitely on the way out of their own accord with the latter two coaches sitting on expiring contracts and Norvell still trying to make his case to remain as the play caller.
Going with the second wave of the youth movement does carry some risk, so are those coaches willing to put their job on the line to give unproven players a chance?
At the same time, experiencing a "here we go again" moment caused in part by some of these senior players if they make mistakes early against West Virginia would probably sink all chances of becoming bowl eligibility and neccesitate the benching of the older, underperforming players. That group would probably even include Johnanthan Gray, despite the staff's stubborn reluctance to commit to the young running backs.
So there's a reasonable chance that the young players will see playng time against West Virginia due to less than favorable on-field results by the team.