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Texas Longhorns' 2016 class likely to produce numerous first-year contributors

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For a second straight year, freshmen could make a big-time impact for the Longhorns.

Collin Johnson (left) and Zach Shackelford
Collin Johnson (left) and Zach Shackelford
Texas athletics

If 2015's results are of any indication, seniority doesn't equate to starts and youth isn't a shackle to the bench. Under Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong, the best players will see the field; evident after nine true freshmen accrued 62 collective starts last season, while 14 saw consistent reps throughout their inaugural year in burnt orange and white.

With the sights now shifted towards the 2016 season, numerous breakouts from Strong's first full recruiting cycle -- Malik Jefferson, Patrick Vahe, Connor Williams, Holton Hill, and John Burt -- are locks to start. But with yet another top-15 freshman class set to suit up, the star-caliber talent entering Austin may provide a strikingly similar impact as last year's newcomers.

4-star WR Collin Johnson

Of the numerous true freshmen with an opportunity to start or see significant reps in 2016, arguably none enter a more ideal situation than Collin Johnson. The towering 6'6 target already possesses a skill set that's seemingly impossible to sideline, and the early enrollee's five extra months on campus should prove beneficial to the tune of a starting job outside the hashes.

Johnson joins a Texas' receiving corps seeking to replace playmakers Daje Johnson and Marcus Johnson, whose 49 collective receptions for 545 yards leave the Longhorns with only two receivers having hauled in more than 10 passes last season -- true freshman John Burt (28), and sophomore Armanti Foreman (11). Burt led the Longhorns last season with 457 yards and two touchdowns, and is a guaranteed starter outside with deep-threat prowess. Foreman, a 5'11 playmaker in space, skill set would provide more value in the slot, leaving a void outside opposite of Burt; a void that should be Johnson's to lose as early as the Orange-White game.

With the Longhorns in dire need of reliable deep threats to aid whomever the starting quarterback may be when Notre Dame comes to Austin -- likely Jerrod Heard -- a massive ball-seeking target that plucks it away before defenders can make a play proves to be a nice safety blanket. And for an offense seeking more explosive plays down the field, Johnson is a deep threat with the capability to win more jump balls than most. If Johnson doesn't start against the Fighting Irish, it would be a huge surprise.

3-star OL Zach Shackelford

With the departures of Taylor Doyle to graduation and Jake Raulerson to transfer, Texas doesn't have a center in place for 2016, but Charlie Strong may have his guy in early enrollee Zach Shackelford. Although he played tackle in high school and was recruited as a guard, the Longhorns' need for a snapper and Shackelford's bullish blocking persona may prove to be a perfect match.

At 6'3, 290 pounds, he has ideal size for the position, and placing someone as physically imposing as Shackelford alongside Connor Williams, Patrick Vahe, Kent Perkins, and, potentially, four-star tackle Jean Delance, would be a monstrous force in the trenches. While he has minimal experience at the position, switching to snapping duty is a transition Shackelford has already begun preparation for, per 247Sports.

"I just have to get used to snapping and I'll be good. I snapped a little my freshman year, but it's something I need to work on. I'll start doing it every time I can."

To earn the starting job, Shackelford will have to out-duel redshirt sophomore Terrell Cuney, but as noted, Shackelford is already on campus as an early enrollee, so the additional time under Matt Mattox's guidance should prepare him for his expected role as the starting snapper by the Spring game.

4-star S Brandon Jones

The University of Texas earned the reputation as "DBU" because of rare and special talents like Brandon Jones. The Longhorns' prized recruit, despite his true freshman status, should immediately find himself immersed in a competition for reps in the Texas secondary.

Entering spring football, Dylan Haines and Jason Hall, who have 41 starts between them, should serve as the starters, but will have their hands full fending off P.J. Locke and DeShon Elliott -- both flashed starting-caliber talent in limited opportunities as true freshmen, though injuries plagued Elliott. But regardless of what the depth chart looks like following the Orange-White game, Jones' arrival on the 40 Acres is sure to shake things up.

Texas' secondary has the potential to be really solid in 2016, but will need an athletic upgrade at safety beyond what Haines and Hall can provide. Locke and Elliot may ultimately be the upgrade the Longhorns need, but Jones' off-the-charts athleticism and instincts are simply too impressive to keep sidelined; hence, why Wescott Eberts deemed Jones a future superstar.

It wouldn't come as a surprise if Jones debuted as starter against Notre Dame, but whether his reps come as a starter or a reserve, Jones will see plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent as a true freshman.

4-star OLB Jeffrey McCulloch

Challenging Texas' front seven in 2016 will be an ill-advised decision for virtually everyone, largely due to a linebacking corps full of youthful star potential. With Dalton Santos, a senior middle linebacker, expected to return from injury as the veteran presence, Malik Jefferson locked in as the weakside outside linebacker, and Anthony Wheeler likely filling the strongside role, the second level in Austin will take a backseat to none in the Big 12. But just as impressive is the two-deep, which will likely comprise of Edwin Freeman, Breckyn Hager, and the McDonald's All-American, Jeffrey "The Shark" McCulloch.

If any of the aforementioned reserves were presented with the opportunity to start at any point in the season, a skill set that's strikingly similar to Jefferson's would indicate McCulloch is the frontrunner. The only way to appropriately describe McCulloch is best served with one word -- tenacity. The Shark is a ball-hawking, hard hitter that sees blood and attacks. But just as impressive as his physical intangibles and fear-inducing speed in pursuit is his IQ. While he could simply impose his will in most situations, McCulloch shows tremendous patience and understanding of when to attack after fending blocks off.

While he may not start immediately, if at all in 2016 outside of attrition at linebacker, it's hard to imagine that McCulloch won't be the first body rotated in. And for what it's worth -- which speaks to how special of a talent McCulloch is -- he enters Texas as ESPN's No. 26 ranked recruit; Jefferson ranked No. 31 in 2015.

4-star DT Jordan Elliott

After Hassan Ridgeway elected for forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft, Texas had serious talent and depth questions surrounding the 2016 defensive line. Strong and his staff found answers after hauling in an impressive five-man defensive tackle unit, including three pledging on National Signing Day and one the night before. But it's Jordan Elliot that serves as the headliner of the group, and a once-concerning lack of depth will provide Elliot with opportunities early and often.

Paul Boyette Jr., and Poona Ford Jr., are the apparent locks to anchor the defensive line as starters, but the depth before NSD indicated Chris Nelson and Alex Norman were the next men up. Elliott, a massive 6'4, 301-pound one-man wrecking crew has the stretch and tenacity to compete at the D-1 level from day one, and will bring immediate reserve reps with starting-quality talent. The first sign of injury attrition will plunge Elliott into the starting unit, along with the reps he'll see any time Texas goes with a five-man front in short-yardage situations.

4-star DT Chris Daniels

For the exact same reasons Elliott will find consistent reps as a true freshman, so too will Chris Daniels. At 6'4, 328 pounds, Daniels is another stout defensive presence the set to anchor Texas' defense in the trenches for the next four years, and his reputation as a violent force when engaged with tremendous physical tools will make it hard to keep Daniels off the field, even as a true freshman.

Once he's on campus this summer, Daniels' most immediate competition will be the aforementioned Elliott, as well as fellow true freshmen Marcel Southall, D'Andre Christmas-Giles, and Gerald Wilbon.  The two- and three-deep depth chart for the Texas defensive line could quite realistically be composed of nothing but true freshmen, and we can expect the reps Daniels sees next season nearly match those which Elliott will demand.

4-star OL Jean Delance

Texas' new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Matt Mattox, is tasked with replacing two starting linemen from last season, and if Shackelford assumes snapping duties as expected, the Longhorns may once again see two true freshman starting with Jean Delance at right tackle. This strategy worked out admirably for Texas last season, as Williams and Vahe earned True Freshman All-American honors. And if the expectation of Vahe rotating to left guard and Kent Perkins sliding inside to right guard comes to pass, Delance will step foot on the 40 Acres amid a two-man battle for the right tackle job with Tristan Nickelson.

Based on Delance's skill set, that's a positional battle he'll have a legitimate argument in. At 6'5, 299 pounds with great overall length, Delance has an ideal frame to add a bit of bulk over the next few seasons, but is stout enough to effectively contribute immediately. Delance is a high-level athlete with tremendous footwork in pass protection, and his quickness makes it difficult to beat him around the edge. In the running game, Delance has proven to be a powerful force with a bit of a nasty edge, finishing plays through the whistle and making sure defenders stay down.

But Delance's most obvious obstacle will be the reps he'll miss out on during the spring while Nickelson, who stepped in and performed well during three starts last season, which essentially makes the right tackle job his to lose. While it's possible Delance earns the starting job at some point in season, it will likely come by way of any sign of injury or underperformance from Nickelson.

4-star CB Eric Cuffee

If you think Strong is afraid to throw true freshmen corners on an island and allow them to develop with each passing play, look no further than Holton Hill and Davante Davis, who combined for 13 starts during their first season in Austin. While their Big 12 honorable mention efforts have essentially locked them in as starters in 2016, Texas losing Duke Thomas opens up a position battle in the nickel, one that All-American signee Eric Cuffee will have a say in. In addition to the expected starter, sophomore Kris Boyd, numerous candidates will be in the running for reps -- including John Bonney and Kevin Vaccaro.

But Cuffee's elite, D-1 ready skill set simply demands playing time. Although he's a shade under 6'0, the Waco product has a strong upper body, and paired with tremendous foot speed and quickness, natural instincts for the position, and knack for making plays and huge hits around the line of scrimmage, there's reason to believe Cuffee will see a fair share of reps as a true freshman, even if it comes as a reserve to Boyd.

4-star SDE Andrew Fitzgerald

There's an old saying -- "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."

Well, in the case of four-star strongside defensive end, Andrew Fitzgerald, he may be Texas' most talented option at strongside defensive end once he steps on campus, and with a non-stop motor, he'll quite likely be the hardest worker, as well. That's a recipe for reps, and lots of them. And the chances of getting on the field as a true freshman are elevated when Strong raves about a talent the way he did concerning Fitzgerald during his National Signing Day press conference.

"When we turned the tape on, I said, 'Oh god, I don't need to see anything else," Strong said. "'If he's going to play like that, we have to have him. I say this guy right here will be the dark horse of this class. He's a guy that goes hard all the time. He has one speed, and he's going to go hard."

Going hard once he steps on campus will likely put Fitzgerald in an immediate position to compete for reserve reps over an underperforming Quincy Vasser. And unless Bryce Cottrell can significantly elevate his contributions from last season - 27 tackles, six TFLs, and four sacks - it won't be too long into the season before Fitzgerald starts trotting out with the starting front seven.

Others to watch for:

- LB Erick Fowler

- DT D'Andre Christmas-Giles

- DT Marcel Southall

- RB Kyle Porter

- WR Reggie Hemphill-Mapps