Re-shuffling the offensive line
The unit with likely the most progress to make over the prior year is Joe Wickline's offensive line. Suspensions destroyed the entirety of the offensive line depth chart in 2014, and Wickline was left scrapping together a unit all season long. The 2015 recruiting class featured six offensive line signees, including two JUCO transfers, showing just how much help the line needed. And the class paid immediate dividends. Connor Williams, an early enrollee out of Coppell, came on strong in the spring to lock down a tackle position.
Mid-way through pre-season camp, fellow freshman Patrick Vahe, the mauling guard prospect out of Euless Trinity, made his move into the starting lineup. Feeling Vahe was one of the best five linemen on the roster, Wickline moved starting right guard Kent Perkins to right tackle. A risky move, considering Perkins struggled to stay in front of pass rushers on the outside a season ago.
A week in, the starting line-up of LT Williams - LG Sedrick Flowers - C Taylor Doyle - RG Vahe - RT Perkins leaves a lot to be desired. For a great breakdown of the line's struggles, check out former Texas center Chris Hall's notes and clips from the game. Hall will be contributing at Inside Texas this year, and is a great Twitter follow.
Going off of Hall's notes, there are some options available for the offensive line. Doyle, the fifth-year senior that moved to center in 2014, played reasonably well and is unlikely to be replaced by the sophomore Jake Raulerson. If Doyle continues to struggle moving his feet and communicating with the guards, Raulerson may get his shot.
Perkins, likely the best lineman on the roster, is miscast at tackle. He belongs at guard, and gives Texas the ability to get movement in the run game behind the powerful lineman. Facing the choice between moving Flowers or Vahe out of the lineup, I would lean Flowers. The fifth-year senior Flowers has shown little improvement over the course of his career, and constantly fails to pick up opposing defenders coming through the A-gap. In 2015, youth is being served, and Vahe will be given the chance to learn on the job.
With an opening at tackle, Wickline has little in the way of options. In the 2015 class, tackle prospects Tristan Nickelson and Buck Major are probable redshirt candidates, and Brandon Hodges is likely to stick at guard. The only plausible option is re-inserting Marcus Hutchins at one of the tackle spots.
The next step is sorting out the offensive line mix. Do you move Perkins back to his former RG position? Does that slide Vahe to LG? The biggest consideration is not sticking two true freshman on the same side of the line. Mixing youth and experience will go a long way in building a line that can help itself out of trouble. Pairing Williams and Perkins on one side with Hutchins and Vahe on the other will likely be the way to go.
If you ask me, a line of LT Williams - LG Perkins - C Doyle - RG Vahe - RT Hutchins makes the most sense in the short term.
Sorting out the secondary
In the spring, redshirt freshman John Bonney came on strong as the candidate to take over the nickel position in Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford's defense. Bonney's length and physicality inside made him a good candidate for the position, and apparently his coverage ability came along enough to get him on the field.
But in the week before the opener, the depth chart (and Vance Bedford's press conference) unveiled Duke Thomas as the starting nickel corner with Bonney manning an outside spot. The move didn't make much sense on the surface, as the smaller Thomas could have some trouble mixing things up inside.
And sure enough, the alignment was met with mixed results. Bonney, while solid in coverage, gave up generous cushions that led to some easy completions underneath. Thomas, while plenty willing to get inside in run support, was still hooked relatively easily by Notre Dame's veteran blockers. Flipping the corners back to their more natural positions may provide a net benefit without actually changing personnel.
One of the more unfortunate camp injuries to strike the Longhorns in 2015 was the foot injury in the open practice suffered by freshman safety DeShon Elliott. A large and rangy safety, Elliott may represent the future of the strong safety position for Texas. A season ago, it was former walk-on Dylan Haines taking over the position. Despite being a little light in run support, Haines played well in 2014, showcasing decent athleticism and knowledge of the defense in pass coverage.
With Elliott out, junior Kevin Vaccaro is listed as the back-up to Haines, despite never seriously contending to play outside of special teams. With Haines having the worst game of his career against Notre Dame, Bedford had no options available. If Elliott is going to be out a significant amount of time, and requires a redshirt, then Kris Boyd to strong safety may be a chance to kill two birds with one stone.
Boyd, the true freshman out of Gilmer, made a name for himself immediately on special teams:
If you want to say Boyd should get more chances on defense, I won't argue with you. With cornerback being a potential logjam, safety presents the opportunity for early playing time. While not a full-time solution right now, getting Boyd's athleticism and tenacity on the back end of the defense quickly so he could acclimate to the position may pay dividends this season.
The quarterback quandary
The Texas quarterback position is a conversation that has gone on for years. And given the struggles of the offensive lines, and the poor results from Shawn Watson's first stint as a spread playcaller at Texas, it's impossible to say whether one quarterback or the other is truly better. But quarterback remains a position that has to improve, and here are the considerations the offensive brain trust will have to sort through:
- If Tyrone Swoopes' abilities as a passer were the deciding factor in giving him the nod, he needs to be sharper in the passing game than he displayed in South Bend. Too many easy throws were airmailed over receivers' heads or fired off without any necessary touch.
- If Swoopes wasn't sharp because of the struggles of the offensive line, does the staff expect that protection to dramatically improve any time soon in a way that should acommodate Swoopes' improvement?
- The responses to 1 and 2 may help make the case for giving Jerrod Heard the lion's share of quaterback snaps. If the passing game is dysfunctional, then playing the quarterback that adds a dimension to the run game may be the offensive line's best chance at success.
- With the heavy front-loading of the Texas schedule, going with the veteran quarterback early on made the most sense to start. Taking a long look at Swoopes, then re-assessing things at midseason, made sense. If the staff feels Heard is the answer, does that happen now, where he may be thrown into the fire before he's ready? Or do you let him simmer and get him ready for a potential second half surge?