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Small Texas senior class stepping up as leaders, potentially significant contributors

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Don’t overlook the continued upside of a group that can make plays and is changing the program’s culture.

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NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

A rite of summer is always the discussion about which seniors are stepping up as leaders and with head coach Charlie Strong taking four Texas Longhorns seniors to Big 12 Media Days this week, this year is no different.

What does matter is that on a team that is features three in four players who were signed by Strong in the last three recruiting classes, survivors like right tackle Kent Perkins, tight end Caleb Bluiett, defensive tackle Paul Boyette, Jr., and safety Dylan Haines all occupy extremely important roles on the team.

“They've done a really good job and they've done a great job now of establishing the program and getting it back to where it should be,” Strong said at Media Days.

As Strong instilled his culture and brought his players into the program over his first two seasons, the biggest part of the former change was the transition from a coach-led team to a player-led team. The latter is unquestionably the ideal and the ultimate destination of so many coaching projects in every sport.

The seniors have been key in that change.

“When you talk about just our upperclassmen they're taking it over,” Strong said. “They are the ones who are saying, ‘Hey, we gotta go do this,’ instead of a coach always saying, ‘Hey, you're not working hard.’ If they see someone not working hard they're being more vocal about it and telling the young man, because now the culture has been set.”

As demonstrated by Haines calling out younger players in the media and then-freshman defensive end Charles Omenihu and wide receiver DeAndre McNeal responding publicly, there were some fractures last year, so that development mentioned by Strong may not be a small thing, offseason rhetoric caveats aside.

“Not being a family,” Bluiett said when asked about how those old issues came about. “We’re nothing like that,” Perkins agreed, acknowledging pervasive selfishness in the past.

In all, the leadership from all the seniors is improved over the last two years, according to Strong, while featuring some key players beyond the four who went to Dallas.

“It's better than it has been, and if you harp on something enough I think they get the message and they've gotten the message now because the four guys I got here, even with Tyrone,” Strong said.

“Tyrone doesn't say much but he works and he goes about it the right way.”

Last season, Swoopes found his role with the 18-Wheeler package and it sounds like Strong wants to continue using the senior in a similar fashion this season, which should only be a boon for the ‘Horns as he continues to provide the sudden exuberance and tough running that characterized his breakout role in 2015, as well as some insurance in case of freshman Shane Buechele experiencing early struggles.

“Another, Bryce Cottrell, and probably one of my best leaders on the team is Tim Cole,” Strong said. “Tim understands his role. He plays behind Malik. But guys respect Tim Cole because of how hard he works and how he carries himself.”

Cole won’t play much and will contribute solely with his citizenship and demeanor (ideally), but Cottrell, who is now the CEO of a grapefruit premium vodka brand called Noble Wolf, is still the likely starter on the strong side and has been serving in that role in the team’s last eight games.

All told in 2015, Cottrell finished third on the team with four sacks and tied for fifth with 6.5 tackles for loss. At 6’2 and 260 pounds, he doesn’t have the height and length of 270-pound sophomore Charles Omenihu, his primary competition for the starting role, but he’s a solid presence who could benefit if Strong opts for four-man defensive fronts that don’t ask him to play heads up or inside the offensive tackle.

Then there’s sixth-year senior Sheroid Evans, the oft-injured cornerback who is the official source of distressed t-shirts and denim jeans as he prepares for a life in fashion design after football.

In Dallas, Strong lauded the work ethic of Evans, saying, “There's not a harder worker on the team.”

The Texas head coach wasn’t talking about in the textiles and apparel room, either, though that’s probably also true — he was referencing the dedication that has led Evans to work his way back from consecutive torn ACLs to consistently challenge for and win the lightweight division of the summer strength and conditioning challenge, “Battle for the Belts.”

Evans is known as a player who has never been able to fulfill the incredible talent that made him a huge coup for the ‘Horns in the 2011 recruiting class (and also the last remaining member, obviously), but this could finally be the time for him to contribute.

At the least, he’ll be able to serve as another coach, all while making sure that his teammates look fresh off the field.

"The thing you like about him is that he is so good with the younger guys," Strong said this spring. "He's just trying to stand out there and coach them and make sure they're in the right spots."

Even with the discussions of those players, it hasn’t yet touched on the four Strong deemed most important to take to Dallas, with all of them set in key starting roles.

At 6’5, 320-pounder, Perkins will likely start at right tackle, but may be best suited to play inside. A bigger key may be staying healthy, as he missed the TCU and Oklahoma games last season after starting all 13 games the previous season.

In a conference where there are few returning linemen who have played at a high level, there should be more buzz for Perkins. Yet, he still hasn’t put it all together and needs to become a near All-Conference player for the ‘Horns to reach a high level of play as an offensive line.

There are simply too many other young players who will be in the rotation for it to be acceptable for Perkins to rank lower than the second-best offensive lineman on the team.

Haines, the former walk on, is much more maxed out, but he doesn’t think his lack of high-level athleticism is a reason to discount the impact of his preparation.

“People will say, ‘Oh, you were just in the right place. It’s luck,’” Haines said. “If you understood all the work that went into that interception, because I studied for two weeks and I watched that play 10 times to put myself in that position.”

Even if Haines has some limitations, he’s still a hugely valuable asset to the secondary with a chance to go over 10 career interceptions this year with only two — he’s had five and four, respectively, in his two seasons as a starter, a remarkable number given his humble origins as a recruit.

So understand the work that enabled it and have some respect for it.

Boyette, in fact, is a player who could perhaps benefit from that mentality.

At his best in 2015, he was a difference-making presence and will have to assume that primary role among the defensive tackles in 2016 with the departure of Hassan Ridgeway to the NFL.

Against Oklahoma, the 6’3, 317-pounder notched three tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and one pressure. In the finale against Baylor, a game in which Ridgeway didn’t play, Boyette set a season high and led the team with nine tackles (five solo) and two tackles for loss.

Where was that player against every other team?

In the best games of the season for the Longhorns, Boyette played with a hot motor and intensity that for some reason didn’t carry over to the other contests.

Now an established team leader who is well settled and married to former Texas basketball player Imani Boyette, it’s time for him to become a consistent presence during every game.

Fortunately, the offense can count on a steady player in Buliett.

Known as “The Weapon” in high school for his versatility, he’s unselfishly moved back and forth between tight end and defensive end multiple times in his career, finally settling in as an impactful blocker last season who was able to create some big plays in the passing game.

An admitted lover of hitting quarterbacks, Bluiett had some adjustments to make, but he did pretty well in that regard in a short period of time.

"I've always been a defensive guy,” he said last fall. “I thought I was going to miss hitting people."

Fortunately for hard-edged junior, and the Longhorns, The Weapon didn’t have to miss a beat in his final move across the line of scrimmage.

"The good thing about being a tight end, you pretty much get to hit somebody every play," Bluiett said. "You don't really have a problem. You just switch your mindset from trying to get someone to trying to save someone pretty much."

In addition to serving as a key blocker in a running game that grew over the course of the season after racking up more than 300 rushing yards against Oklahoma, especially with the 18 Wheeler package, Bluiett also provided big plays in the passing game, scoring a key touchdown against Oklahoma and quickly opening the scoring against Baylor with a 57-yard touchdown catch.

He also added receptions of 29 yards against Oklahoma State, 28 yards against Kansas State, and 30 yards against West Virginia — when Texas targeted Bluiett down the field, he was extremely successful.

The senior class doesn’t receive a lot of attention, in part because a lot of the work is behind the scenes, in studying the game, coaching the game, and providing leadership that the coaches shouldered so recently,

But those players will also make some meaningful plays in football games.

Forecast a little improvement in the final category for the four Big 12 Media Day attendees and some contributions from Evans, Cottrell, and Swoopes, and those seven seniors could boost the upside of the 2016 Texas team in a significant way that is perhaps a little bit overlooked at the moment.

At least by a lot of those outside the program.