While the Texas Longhorns attracted national attention by vaulting up the class rankings with a huge close on National Signing Day, four early enrollees were already on campus going through an early-morning workout with the team.
Shane Buechele, a four-star dual-threat quarterback, and Collin Johnson, a four-star receiver, look to get acclimated in an offensive system anticipating a significant uptick in tempo and explosiveness with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. Zach Shackelford, a three-star offensive lineman and flip from the Kansas State Wildcats, on the other hand, will aid in the trenches with some much-needed depth, potentially battling for the starting position at center.
And despite being recruited as a three-star linebacker out of Gilmer, Demarco Boyd may bypass a surplus of linebacker depth and assume a role in Texas' backfield as a fullback, where he excelled as a senior.
Although the early enrollees aren’t expected to step on campus and miraculously correct the numerous areas needing improvement heading into head coach Charlie Strong’s third season at the helm, their presence alone should have a noteworthy impact on the collective product we see in the spring game, and ultimately, the 2016 Longhorns.
Shane Buechele: 4-star dual-threat QB
Iron sharpens iron, and in regards to the current quarterback landscape in Austin, a half-year long competition for the reins to Gilbert’s offense should provide the edge Texas’ offense desperately seeks entering 2016. Buechele, an Arlington Lamar product, has often been viewed as a late bloomer physically, but he possesses a tremendous understanding of how to mentally orchestrate an offense, with a strong grasp of reads and a calm demeanor. Although Buechele’s high school stats may not be the most eye-opening, completing 138-of-213 passes for 2,043 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior, it was his intangibles that made Buechele the nation’s No. 2 dual-threat quarterback.
But pre-snap recognition, calm progression through reads, and having the accuracy and escape ability to transform broken plays into scoring opportunities in high school doesn’t always translate so seamlessly to Big 12 football, where starting quarterbacks are now required to facilitate some of the most potent offenses in the nation to remain competitive.
That may be a task Buechele is ultimately up for, but to reach that point, he’ll have to survive a positional battle including the likely starter, redshirt sophomore Jerrod Heard, senior Tyrone Swoopes and the tremendous success Texas found running the "18-Wheeler" package, redshirt freshman Kai Locksley, and redshirt freshman Matthew Merrick. While this may collectively be an impressive and deep pool of potential and schematic fits, Buechele will have to work his way up from the bottom.
Great visit this morning before I head down for good! pic.twitter.com/isFjuipcYU— Shane Buechele (@BGShaneBuechele) January 14, 2016
Outside of coming in and completely exceeding expectations while Heard and Swoopes fail to take control and lead Gilbert's spread offense, it’s quite unlikely that we'll see Buechele take a snap in 2016. But Buechele wasn’t an Elite 11 finalist and near Finals MVP for nothing, and his presence alone should be enough to force Heard and Swoopes to avoid offseason complacency. As with last season, Texas’ quarterback race will likely last up until just weeks before the season debut, and depending on how well he operates in his available reps throughout the spring, Buechele could make a jump to third string before it’s all said and done.
But the truth remains that Buechele has some significant and necessary physical development ahead of him, and with Heard and Swoopes both seen as more productive dual-threat quarterbacks, Buechele’s first semester and first season on campus may be much more about individual improvement and pushing those ahead of him to excel.
Getting a degree is what excited Buechele about playing for Strong:
Collin Johnson: 4-star WR
For Texas to find success in Gilbert's version of the "veer and shoot", Heard or whomever the starting quarterback may be when Notre Dame comes to Austin September 3, quite simply needs to have reliable options outside. This wasn’t quite the case last season -- true freshman John Burt headlined the receiving corps with only 28 receptions and a team-high 457 yards, the lowest leading receiving effort since Tony Jeffery’s 437 in 2004. At least two receivers have topped Burt’s efforts every season in that same time period.
And now, in turning the focus to 2016, Texas will need to find answers after losing Daje Johnson and Marcus Johnson. The former caught a team-high 37 passes and the absence of both leaves Burt and Armanti Foreman as the only Longhorn receivers with at least 10 receptions last season.
This is why having Collin Johnson, a four-star California product and the brother of freshman running back Kirk Johnson on campus early becomes so significant.
The initial eye test suggests Johnson is a playmaker in waiting. With a 6'6, 200-pound frame, he’s a massive target, and his tremendous possession instincts and ability to go snag the ball at its highest point provide plenty of optimism for Johnson’s future in burnt orange.
While he can use some coaching in route running and minor mechanics, the areas he excels in as a potential deep threat should prove beneficial for Texas in multiple facets over the next handful of months. He's also a willing and effective blocker after spending most of his sophomore season working in that role to help his brother turn short gains into long runs.
In addition to finding comfort with the coaching staff and some rhythm and chemistry with a small army of quarterbacks, Johnson being available will allow Texas to experiment with two youthful deep threats and Foreman in the slot.
Between Johnson's go-to-guy skillset, red-zone prowess, and the extra five months Johnson will have to get situated within the offense, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t emerge as a starting receiver against Notre Dame, alongside Burt.
For everyone asking me pic.twitter.com/Qxn4c12UX7— Collin Johnson (@Call_In_Johnson) September 21, 2015
Demarco Boyd: 3-star ILB//RB
Demarco Boyd has been a Longhorn for just shy of a year now, as he committed to Texas at the same time as his older brother; freshman cornerback Kris Boyd. In a matter of days, he'll be suiting in burnt orange, but with a linebacking corps chock full with quality talent, headlined by Dalton Santos and Malik Jefferson, Texas will have a multitude of options, including Anthony Wheeler, Timothy Cole, and potentially, four-star Houston-area linebackers Dontavious Jackson and Jeffrey McCulloch. The sheer depth and talent level ahead suggests it's unlikely we see Boyd assume much, if any time in Texas' front seven as a freshmen, but his value out of the backfield may be his ticket to playing time in 2016.
If Boyd were to make the transition to Texas' backfield, he'd be entering yet another situation with an abundance of talent, which signals that he likely wouldn't see too much action carrying the ball. But at 6'0, 221 and having proven his value as a strong, physical runner at Gilmer, he could see time as a lead blocker in power situations, and being on the field could provide some versatility for Gilbert's offense with a back that rushed for 681 yards and 19 touchdowns and led Gilmer in all-purpose yards (1,152).
The loss of fullback Alex De La Torre means that the Longhorns are in the market for a fullback and Boyd's proven ability as a defensive end and linebacker in college could help him translate quickly to that role.
Zach Shackelford: 3-star OG/OL
After nearly six months as a Kansas State Wildcat, Strong and newly-acquired offensive line coach/running game coordinator, Matt Mattox, were able to flip the in-state offensive line product just in time for Shackelford to join the Longhorns as an early enrollee.
Luckily for Shackelford, his last-second change of heart and desire to remain close to home for his collegiate career may result in an opportunity to compete for immediate playing time, as Texas lost senior center Taylor Doyle to graduation, while the expected 2016 snapper, Jake Raulerson, moved on as a graduate transfer.
For Shackelford, this means a wide open competition to assume said duties, and Texas' run-heavy offense should make for an easy transition for Shackelford's overpowering and bullish run-blocking persona. Having the additional five months on campus will only establish comfort and development for Shackelford in what will almost assuredly be a transition to center.