On Monday, Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong shared the top three priorities that he and his staff will attempt to address during the spring. In an upset, the quarterback position finished third on the list, behind the defensive line and wide receivers.
1. Defensive line
Flash back to last fall and the Texas defensive line was supposed to be a team strength, with around a dozen players capable of contributing, according to Strong. With all that depth, it looked like the Longhorns would have a chance to consistently control the line of scrimmage and get after the quarterback.
Things didn't exactly work out like that -- with Hassan Ridgeway banged up entering the season, Texas often operated with two undersized defensive tackles starting in Desmond Jackson and Poona Ford and struggled to stop the run. Ultimately, the pass rush produced 37 sacks, but the defensive line itself struggled to pressure the quarterback, as linebacker Peter Jinkens ended up leading the team with 6.5 and 10 total came from the linebackers.
Now Ridgeway, Jackson, and Shiro Davis are gone, leaving little proven experience at the defensive tackle spot and putting tremendous pressure on the returning players to step into much larger roles.
"When we talk about upgrading the position we have to start with the defensive front," Strong said. "I think that's the key position there because when you look at it you're talking about [Paul] Boyette [Jr.], you're talking about Poona [Ford], you're talking about Chris Nelson and you're talking about Quincy Vasser. We have to get ourselves a good defensive front. And then if you look at us last season people were able to run the ball and throw the ball with ease on us because you have to control the line of scrimmage there."
Ford's weight is up to help him anchor, Boyette has already shown some leadership skills and flashes of high-level production, but Nelson and Vasser are certainly two players who have to emerge. Vasser in particular is interesting because he looked like an instant-impact guy out of junior college, but played sparingly and produced only seven tackles and no disruptive stats.
A better bet to make a leap is senior Bryce Cottrell, who is now up to 266 pounds and put up solid numbers as a junior with 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacks after flashing during last year's Orange-White game. If he holds down the strongside position, there aren't any guarantees that sophomore Charles Omenihu will move to that side at 262 pounds.
"It depends, because we play so much odd and we move guys around so much that wherever he can help us is where we're going to place him," Strong said.
2. Wide receiver
"The next need would be at the wide receiver position," Strong said. "We need a playmaker there. We're talking about spreading this thing out, now whose hands are we going to get the ball in? You have some guys there. You talk about Armanti Foreman, you talk about Petey [Jacorey Warrick], you talk about guys like [DeAndre] McNeal, [Ryan] Newsome, guys that can step up, and John Burt is in track right now. You have the freshman in there with Collin [Johnson], but you need guys to step up at that position."
Burt is definitely the only proven returning playmaker at the position, but his focus on track this spring -- he finished 6th in the hurdles at the Big 12 Indoor Track and Field championships -- will only take away from his focus on football during a critical period in his development. While working to maximize his speed should end up being a positive as a football player, it's likely limited his ability to add muscle mass, as he's up only four pounds from last season.
His most likely companion in the starting lineup is Johnson, who managed to fulfill some significant pre-spring hype by impressing onlookers at the first open practice with his physical presence and ability to use the threat of his deep speed and pure size to create space underneath.
Newsome also drew some favorable reviews, while McNeal looked like he's regained his high school explosiveness after losing nearly 10 pounds since his freshman season. As for Warrick, he remains something of an enigma -- he was impressive last season during the spring, then disappeared during the fall, catching only six passes.
Then there's Foreman, who has underachieves significantly compared to his twin brother D'Onta, even though he was by far the more highly-recruited prospect out of high school. Can new wide receivers coach Charlie Williams coax the work ethic out of Armanti that has made D'Onta so successful? With both now at the halfway mark of their respective careers, it's not exactly now or never, but it is time.
The good news for the Longhorns is that there is plenty of talent at the wide receiver position, it just has to start producing at a more consistent level.
Strong may list the quarterback position third, but it will continue to be the primary focus for Texas fans and observers around college football because no other position will have a greater impact on the upside of the 2016 team. And even for the Longhorns head coach, there are more questions than answers right now.
"And then we talk about the quarterback position because the team's going to go as the quarterback goes and we just have to make sure of that," Strong said. "We have the numbers there, and it's about who is really going to step up and be that guy, because the numbers are there. Now it's about, who is that guy? Can it be Swoopes? Can it be Heard, who is it going to be? Can it be Buechele? Will he be the guy? But who is that guy there at that position?"
Through the first practice, the somewhat surprising answer was that it could be Swoopes. After excelling in the 18 Wheeler package and showing the same old inconsistencies as a passer against Baylor and in other opportunities last season, it seemed as it Swoopes might be content to stick in that role.
But that may not be the case and he's currently operating with the first team and using his experience to pick up new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's offense more quickly than the younger quarterbacks, reportedly looking more decisive than Heard on Monday.
As for the redshirt sophomore, he's bulked up by nearly 10 pounds, mostly in the upper body, but still looked slow with his processing speed. As Heard becomes more familiar with the offense, that could change. However, the problem is that quarterbacks typically have that ability or do not have that ability and there's increasing evidence that Heard does not.
Strong is on record saying that he doesn't mind starting a true freshman quarterback, affording Buechele the opportunity to compete. What's intriguing about Buechele is that he came to campus as much of a finished product as any passer since Connor Brewer in 2012. Now the hope is that his upside is much higher than that of Brewer.
In any case, those pressing questions need answers.