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Texas football: Longhorns spring WR preview

The coaches are looking for playmakers at the position after losing the team's top two pass-catchers.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

After losing the top two leading receivers from 2014, the Texas Longhorns will have to replace 127 of 243 overall receptions in 2014, as well as 39.6% of all receiving yards, not to mention the contributions of running back Malcolm Brown and the tight ends.

The loss of breakout leading receiver John Harris on the outside and the reliable Jaxon Shipley in the slot leaves the Longhorns without Tyrone Swoopes' favorite target on deep passes in Harris and a consistent third-down option in Shipley.

So new wide receivers coach Jay Norvell is looking for at least one playmaker to emerge at the position while attempting to coach all up a host of young receivers intent on solidifying a spot on the depth chart before heralded prospects like John Burt and Ryan Newsome arrive during the summer.

How badly do the Longhorns need a big-play threat at the position? Even with the strong play of Harris, Texas managed only 14 pass plays of 30 or more yards last season, No. 92 nationally and No. 9 in the Big 12. For perspective, Kansas produced 20 such plays, exactly 30% more than Texas, even though the Jayhawks got Charlie Weis fired in late September.

Who will emerge as the starter's favorite target?

In 2014, the time that Tyrone Swoopes and former scout team wide receiver John Harris spent together during practice and after practice helped develop a remarkable chemistry that buoyed the shaky Horns passing game. As remarkable as the development of Harris was, it was somewhat easy to take for granted given all the other problems that justifiably received so much attention.

Now Swoopes or Jerrod Heard will have to establish that same rapport with a new target. Will it be senior Marcus Johnson, who was so disappointing and inconsistent even in finishing as the third-leaving receiver with 27 catches for 313 yards and one touchdown?

Strong said that Johnson got lost last season, but has all the tools to succeed, as he demonstrated during what looked to be a breakout season in 2013 that saw him reliability get open on corner routes and out and ups/wheel routes.

After failing to improve upon that production in 2014, Johnson has to recover his lost confidence and establish a rapport with whichever quarterback earns the starting job.

Anyone else achieving the feat of earning the starter's trust will have to do so with a massive leap in production -- other contenders like sophomore Dorian Leonard and Lorenzo Joe combined to catch only four passes for 43 yards in limited playing time as freshmen. Leonard was never a big-play threat coming out of high school, though Joe showed impressive overall athleticism playing quarterback as a senior. He may be the best bet of the younger receivers to provide big plays during the spring.

Is Daje Johnson the next DJ Monroe?

Remember when the speedy, underutilized Texas tease was DJ Monroe?

In the end, it was hard to blame anyone other than Monroe for the speedster's inability to consistently impact games and after grade issues and numerous suspensions, Johnson is perpetually on the program's edge while he remains a constant source of bewilderment for observers caught up on his biggest moments. There's so much potential, so much explosiveness.

And so much immaturity.

However, the suspension handed down to Johnson by head coach Charlie Strong last summer was a potential turning point for the local product -- he told Strong that he wouldn't spend any more time in his doghouse, leading Strong to say on Monday that Johnson has "come a million miles" since then.

Assuming that Johnson manages to continue his improved behavior through the spring, the next step will be having an impact on the field again -- Strong aptly pointed out that Johnson hasn't made a big play since his game-changing punt return for a touchdown against Oklahoma in 2013.

Indeed his longest play from scrimmage last year went for 30 after he produced plays of 60 or more yards in each of his first two seasons on campus.

A hamstring injury suffered upon Johnson's return against Baylor last fall slowed him down for the rest of the season, while his lack of reliability seemingly contributed to an absence from game plans when he was finally healthy. As a result, he finished with seven carries for 88 yards and five receptions for seven lost yards, a number that reflects opposing defenses aware of his positioning and how poorly the staff was able to scheme to get him the football.

Where is the playmaking?

Head coach Charlie Strong constantly talks about the need to find players who can take a hitch, a bubble screen, or a jet sweep and take it the distance. Johnson can do it. Armanti Forman can do it. Neither one touched the ball enough last season, so how much of the lack of playmaker was on the available players and how much on the staff for not utilizing what was there correctly?

Even if Johnson does manage to take care of business, if defenses aren't concerned about a deep threat down the field, Foreman needs to continue flashing the speed that helped him produce two catches for 74 yards against Oklahoma State, including a beautiful 45-yard touchdown pass from Swoopes:

Throw in the 73-yard touchdown catch against TCU on a simple screen pass he took to the sideline before outracing the Horned Frog defense to the end zone and Foreman closed out the regular season strong before failing to record a catch against the Razorbacks in the bowl game.

"The thing about him, once he gets in open, he can make people miss and outrun people," Strong said last fall. "He's still a young receiver and is still learning. He's going to develop into a really good player, but he still has a lot to learn."

It might be another year before Foreman truly puts it together. Until then, just getting him the ball in space sounds like a good recipe for success.

What happens to the players on the fringes?

Whatever happened to Jake Oliver? He redshirted and suffered a shoulder injury in the spring before he simply didn't see game action during 2014, never appearing on the depth chart or generating any buzz. It's hard to imagine that he'll receive many reps this spring and he's a strong attrition candidate unless he can somehow emerge.

The only wide receiver in the 2014 class to redshirt was local product Garrett Gray, the tall, speedy latecomer to football. A possible deep threat moving forward, Gray will have to learn the intricacies of the game as a route runner and blocker. Can he become a contributor?

With Armanti Foreman flashing against Oklahoma State and TCU with long touchdowns, junior Jacorey Warrick is in danger of getting buried on the depth chart in the slot with other options like Daje Johnson available in addition to Foreman. The Texas legacy isn't likely to bail on the program in the hopes of finding more playing time, he just needs to make some plays this spring or that playing time isn't likely to come.

Will the coaches use more of the perimeter running game?

Since Johnson gained an average of 12.8 yards every time he carried the ball and Foreman produced 41 yards on only two carries, it was hard to understand why both players weren't more heavily featured in the end around/reverse/jet sweep/push pass attack of the Horns.

Even Harris got a carry in the series against Iowa State even though he didn't have the speed to be much of a threat and ended up fumbling the ball anyway, one of two major blunders on such plays. Against Kansas State, back-up running back D'Onta Foreman was on the field on a missed exchange with Shipley that resulted in a costly turnover.

So there were some definite miscues there with the team's ball handling, but it shouldn't stop the offensive brain trust from making more extensive use of the perimeter run game to supplement the traditional running game and force defenses to play linebackers with more width.