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Texas football: The youth movement starts now

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If the Longhorns can follow the same script as the Cardinals in 2011, some struggles in 2015 could pay off big in 2016 and 2017.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Scan the first Texas Longhorns depth chart of the 2015 season and one thing becomes apparent -- the burnt orange faithful clamoring for the youth movement many anticipated since National Signing Day back in February won't have to wait until after the conference season for that movement to begin.

No, the Texas youth movement will officially begin against Notre Dame this Saturday when six freshmen or redshirt freshmen take the field in South Bend with their respective starting units, not to mention Australian Michael Dickson, who will receive the first live game action of his fledgling football career as the starting punter.

Despite all the accolades and high recruiting rankings for many of the incoming freshmen from the 2015 class, as a group they didn't come in with a sense entitlement or the attitude that they deserved starting spots because of their previous accomplishments.

You know what, they've earned that right," Strong said on Monday. "They've worked hard, so we feel like we've coached them well enough, so it's just go play and go compete and go play hard."

Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford may not like it, but the early start for the youth movement will surely pay dividends down the line, just as it eventually did for Louisville with the 2011 class. Like the 2015 group at Texas, the 2011 cycle produced the first full class for Strong and though the team struggled to a 7-6 record that year, the emergence of future stars like quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and wide receiver Davante Parker heralded a brighter future for the Cardinals. In all, six true freshmen earned starting roles by the regular season finale against South Florida.

Sure enough, the experience gained that year proved invaluable over the next two seasons as Louisville ran roughshod over its competition, winning 23 of 26 games, dominating Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, and narrowly missing an undefeated season in 2013 due to a last-second loss to Central Florida.

So Strong is following a familiar blueprint here as the enters his second season as the Texas head coach by rewarding younger players who are more hungry than the upperclassmen they're seeking to replace.

"In the middle of camp if you're in a dead heat with a freshman, we're going to play the freshman," linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said at the start of fall camp. "You have to be head and shoulders above them to justify us keeping you in there. If you play a freshman, it's an investment. You're building something for the future."

Indeed, with the release of the season's first depth chart, the coaching staff indicated a strong commitment to doing just that. Here's a look at each freshman starter for Horns:

Wide receiver John Burt

An accomplished high school track athlete and the nation's No. 14 wide receiver, Burt raced past older players like sophomore Dorian Leonard and Lorenzo Joe to quickly earn a starting role. At one point, it looked like Burt was headed to Auburn after decommitting from Texas, but the hire of Jay Norvell as wide receivers coach and some positive recruiting developments were enough to get him back in the mold.

Explosive and increasingly refined as a route runner, the Florida product has earned a reputation for having some of the team's most reliable hands, as well as the ability to get open deep or take a short pass and turn it into a big gain. Strong thinks that he needs to get stronger to maximize his full potential, but the fact that he's the starter makes it clear that he's already well on his way to that point.

Offensive tackle Connor Williams

After starting at right tackle during the Orange-White game as an early enrollee, Williams moved to the left side during fall camp, displacing senior Marcus Hutchins, who started every game there in 2014. Williams played tight end in high school and has the necessary mobility to man the position for the next four years, combining his athleticism with a tireless work ethic and ideal attitude. If everything goes to plan, Williams could become four-year mainstay at the most important position on the offensive line.

Offensive guard Patrick Vahe

Between snaps and during breaks in practice, one might see the first Pacific islander to play college football at Texas with a big grin on his smile, handing out high fives to all of his teammates. Between snaps, it's a different story, as Vahe honed his run-blocking skills in the ground-and-pound Euless Trinity offense in high school. Like Wiliams, he's exceptional on the move and takes pride in helping his team establish a physical identity.

Even though he didn't arrive until June and was the lone holdover from Mack Brown's last attempted offensive line class, Vahe quickly earned the trust of offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline, who is widely known as a demanding, unforgiving taskmaster. So just know that it wasn't Vahe's big smile that won over the noted curmudgeon.

Middle linebacker Malik Jefferson

To call Jefferson the most important recruit to commit to the Longhorns in years was hardly hyperbole when he pledged in the middle of December and the strong finish to the 2015 class he helped orchestrate only further confirmed those superlatives. Forced inside due to the spring injury to senior Dalton Santos, Jefferson took control of the position by beating out junior Tim Cole after flashing his playmaking ability in the Orange-White game with a tackle for loss and forced fumble.

Making the transition from an outside edge rusher to a stopper in the middle won't be quick and painless for Jefferson, but he has all the tools to make it work and will have a chance to learn on the fly against the Notre Dame power-spread attack on Saturday.

Outside linebacker Edwin Freeman

Recruited as a safety, Freeman quickly grew into the position he played over his last two high school seasons at Arlington Bowie and didn't face much competition to earn the starting role at weakside linebacker -- due to numerous linebackers graduating last season and some attrition since 2014, he only had to beat out true freshman Anthony Wheeler for that job. Still blessed with the speed of a safety, Freeman showed remarkable instincts and physicality navigating through traffic in high school.

Once Big 12 play starts, he'll likely be the linebacker who comes off the field in order to play nickel, but it's possible that he could see the first action of his college career against Notre Dame on the weak side.

Cornerback John Bonney

The critical piece of the 2014 recruiting class in the secondary for Texas nearly flipped to Baylor on National Signing Day, but stuck with his pledge to the Horns. Considered the No. 19 safety nationally by the 247Sports Composite rankings, Bonney came in with the versatility to play multiple positions after spending a significant amount of time at cornerback at Houston Lamar. With five interceptions as a junior and eight passes defensed as a senior, he consistently found himself around the football.

He played well at the nickel during the spring, with several big hits that showcased his physicality in beating blocks and finishing plays by driving through tackles. But with the move of senior cornerback Duke Thomas into that spot for the opener, Bonney is likely to start at the boundary spot, perhaps the least demanding of the three positions.

Punter Michael Dickson

Forgive Dickson if he experiences some nerves heading into the Notre Dame game -- he's never kicked a football in a competitive setting before. Born in Sydney, Dickson was an accomplished Australian Rules Football player growing up before joining Prokick Australia, an academy focused on producing collegiate punters from Australian Rules Football backgrounds.

Leg strength isn't in question for Dickson, who can boom it with the best of them and even has the ability to kick rugby-style. However, he was notably inconsistent during the start of fall camp, so don't be surprised if he follows up a 55-yard bomb with a 17-yard shank at some point in the season.