The new-look Texas Longhorns staff will finally hit the field on Monday as the 'Horns hold the first of 14 practices leading up to the Orange-White game on April 16. With a new offensive coordinator and four other assistants joining Charlie Strong and the core of his defensive staff, the coaches will have to continue developing a rapport with each other and their players as they work to install Sterlin Gilbert's version of Art Briles' veer-and-shoot offense.
Including that installation, here are the five major storylines facing Texas during a critical spring that will launch the Longhorns into a 2016 season that could make or break Strong in Austin.
Since serving as the head coach at San Angelo Lakeview from 2008 to 2010, Gilbert has only spent two consecutive years in the same place once -- as the offensive coordinator for Dino Babers at Eastern Illinois from 2012-2013 before following Babers to Bowling Green. So he has plenty of experience quickly installing his offense with offensive line coach/run game coordinator Matt Mattox, who has been with Gilbert at each of his last three stops.
As the two attempt to adjust the offense to fit the available personnel, the biggest challenge may be finding a way to showcase the talents of junior running back D'Onta Foreman and sophomore running back Chris Warren within the confines of Gilbert's preferred base offense. Both are at their best when working on the outside with Warren especially effective from the Pistol, but Mattox is on record as wanting to make Power the base run in the offense. Inside zone is typically also a staple, especially for Briles at Baylor.
Last season, right guard Patrick Vahe was impressive pulling on Power, but left guard Sedrick Flowers was not. Will his replacement be more capable in that area so that Gilbert and Mattox can run the play in both directions?
For the players, the biggest challenge will be the pace, especially for the offensive and defensive linemen, who have been focusing on conditioning drills during the offseason -- Gilbert's offense in practice will move with the same high tempo as it will in games. Beyond improving conditioning, the players should also benefit from getting more reps in practice.
The search for a quarterback continues
Just when the 'Horns looked to have some continuity at quarterback after years in the wilderness, the head injuries to David Ash eventually forced his retirement in 2014. During the last three years, it's been a revolving door of Case McCoy, Tyrone Swoopes, and now Jerrod Heard attempting to lead Texas offenses, with little sustained success from any of them.
Now Swoopes enters his final season after serving as a short-yardage specialist in the 18 Wheeler package, Heard attempts to build on an uneven freshman season, and a handful of young unknowns battle for positioning.
What happens with Swoopes will be interesting to watch -- did his role as a bludgeon increase his confidence enough to allow him a shot at the starting role? Will Gilbert consider using him in the 18 Wheeler package once again this season and potentially disrupt his high-tempo offense in doing so?
Since redshirt freshmen Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick are both considered raw prospects and Swoopes and Heard have both battled issues with accuracy and consistency, there's no real sure thing here for Gilbert to rely upon -- early enrollee Shane Buechele may be the most capable of putting the ball where he wants it to go with some regularity, but he's also generously listed at 6'1 and just finished high school weeks ago.
So the challenge facing Gilbert is significant and features high stakes -- if he can't find one capable of producing at an adequate level, he and Strong may not get another opportunity in Austin to get things right.
Other positional battles loom large
There weren't a ton of senior starters for the Longhorns last season, but there are a handful of positions that are open for competition this spring -- one starting position and one pseudo starting position at wide receiver, two along the offensive line, one at defensive tackle, one at defensive end, one at linebacker, and the nickel corner position. Technically, running back is also open, but junior D'Onta Foreman and sophomore Chris Warren have already positioned themselves as co-starters there -- it's not exactly an open competition at this point.
Junior wide receiver Armanti Foreman faces a critical spring as he battles for one of those spots, while early enrollee Collin Johnson could also position himself to join sophomore John Burt in the starting lineup. Meanwhile, sophomore Ryan Newsome will try to replace Daje Johnson as the slot speedster after limited playing time last season.
Mattox will attempt to find replacements at left guard and center, with early enrollee Zach Shackelford one of the contenders for the latter role despite his youth because prospective starter Jake Raulerson will transfer to UCLA following his graduation this spring. At left guard, the situation is a bit more cloudy, but junior college transfer Brandon Hodges could slot into that spot after his redshirt freshman season.
At defensive tackle, inexperienced players like sophomores Chris Nelson and Jake McMillon will have to secure rotation spots before the freshmen arrive during the summer, while a beefed-up Bryce Cottrell hopes to hold down the strongside defensive end position with former Fox end Charles Omenihu likely providing him some competition.
Replacing Peter Jinkens at weakside linebacker will likely fall to a number of young players like sophomores Anthony Wheeler and Breckyn Hager, but it's possible that Malik Jefferson could move outside with Dalton Santos back for a final season in his return from the ankle injury that cost him the 2015 season.
In the nickel, the loss of Duke Thomas could loom large, with sophomores Kris Boyd and PJ Locke likely battling fellow sophomore John Bonney, who performed well in the role last spring before moving outside to the boundary, where he struggled for most of the year.
Rise of the sophomores
After numerous freshmen contributed last season, it's time for the 2015 class to continue ascending. There's a dearth of seniors once again as a result of the attrition in the small 2013 class, so young players like Malik Jefferson and Connor Williams and Vahe will have to emerge as vocal leaders for this team, but also continue improving -- playing at the same level as last year won't be enough, as Jefferson needs to emerge as one of the best linebackers in the conference and Williams and Vahe must play with a greater level of consistency and avoid the nagging injuries that led to that inconsistent play last season.
Throw in guys like cornerbacks Holton Hill and Davante Davis, safety DeShon Elliott, and Warren and there are plenty of candidates to make that leap.
Calling all kickers
Former place kicker Nick Rose hardly endeared himself to fans with his questionable hairstyle and inconsistency despite a strong leg, but it's certainly possible for the narrative of his career to get rewritten in a much more positive manner. , In fact, no players currently on campus have attempted a kick in college with the departure of former US Army All-American Nick Jordan, who elected to give up his final season of eligibility.
As a result, the next kicker for the Longhorns will come from a group of walk ons that includes redshirt freshman Jon Coppen and sophomore Evan Moore. Coppen was a preferred walk on and late addition to the 2015 class out of Nolan Catholic in Fort Worth who was previously committed to Wyoming, Incarnate Word, and Rice before joining the Texas class. As a senior in high school, he made 8-of-10 field goals with a long of 45 yards. Moore has better size at 6'3 and made 7-of-8 field goals in 2013, including a 53-yard attempt. At this point, he's probably the favorite, but don't be surprised if the 'Horns continue to evaluate other options during the spring and summer.