As the Texas Longhorns embark upon a defining third season for head coach Charlie Strong, the quarterback position will receive a lot of the discussion. However, there are numerous players who will also have a major impact on the team's success this season -- or lack thereof -- so it seems appropriate to look at the five who stand at the top of that list.
To be clear, this is not a ranking of the best overall talent on roster or of the players that will put up the most stats. This is a ranking of players based on their overall importance to the team. Yes, production was considered. But depth and the role of the player was also factored in.
5) Sophomore wide receiver John Burt
The fifth player of the bunch is the fourth true sophomore of the group, and he plays at my favorite position in football -- wide receiver. And with a new, fast-paced offense set to deploy Week 1 against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Texas and its starting quarterback (who most of us believe will be true freshman Shane Buechele) will absolutely need a wide receiver to rely on as the go-to guy who will be in the right position on the field and make plays with the ball in his hands. And John Burt can be that guy.
Last season, we only got a small taste of Burt. As we all know, the quarterback situation wasn't ideal and the offensive scheme relied heavily on the run after the scheme and "coordinator" changed more times than a chameleon at a rave. But when we did see Burt, he was outrunning defensive backs and making big time catches and plays.
Burt is low on this list not because he lacks talent but because the wide receiver group is so deep. But Burt is the leading candidate to be the Longhorns' best play-maker on the outside, and for good reason too. After finishing last season as Texas' number one receiving option, Burt recently was also named one of college football's 16 fastest players. And if we learned anything from watching Baylor's style of offense last season, we know that fast receivers (like Corey Coleman) can thrive in this style of offense. And though Burt and Coleman aren't identical types of receivers, they both track the ball well and can fly down the field.
Note: This one was tough. The depth at wide receiver played a factor. And I thought about inserting Holton Hill here. But at the end of the day, Texas and its quarterback will need a wide receiver to rely upon. And right now, Burt is setup to be that guy.
4. Sophomore defensive end Charles Omenihu
With the fourth selection, we continue with the theme of the trenches (and of the young guns) with true sophomore Charles Omenihu. When you look at the group of defensive lineman currently enrolled, none may have a higher ceiling at this point than Omenihu.
At 6'6" and over 260 pounds, he has the size and athleticism to do it all -- he can shed blockers to attack a ball carrier, he can push around lineman to get to the quarterback, and he can chase down plays around the field. He has the potential to follow in the footsteps of previous havoc-wreaking lineman at Texas.
For the Longhorns' defense to truly be the dominant force it once was known to be (and for it to truly be what Vance Bedford envisions), there's no question the group up front has to be more effective at getting to the quarterback and blowing plays up at or behind the line of scrimmage. And if Texas is to achieve that this season, much of that success will likely have to come from Omenihu.
Quite frankly, Texas doesn't have a returning defensive lineman that really scares anyone at this point. And that's not to say other guys won't have successful seasons (Boyette, Hughes, Ford, etc.). But when the season is over, and if all goes to plan, I have a feeling we'll look back and understand how important a successful season from Omenihu was for this defense.
Note: I really thought about sliding Hughes or Boyette here. Hughes had decent production last season and could break out this season. And Boyette's impact on the field won't only be important -- his impact on the young group of freshmen defensive lineman will also be valuable. But Texas needs a strongside defensive end to play well for this defense to play well, and Omenihu has all the tools to emerge as a star defensive end and a guy this Texas defense can rely on consistently.
3) Sophomore left tackle Connor Williams
For those of you that know me, you know I value the guys in the trenches. And at number three, we have one of the key players that has the job of protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the running backs -- true sophomore Connor Williams.
As a freshman, Williams started all 12 games at left tackle for the Longhorns in 2015. And it wasn't uncommon for him to grade out as the best lineman of the bunch after each game. If that doesn't tell you how important he is to this team, then I don't know what else will.
Though Williams doesn't make the flashy plays a wide receiver or running back can make, this offense isn't the same unit when he's not on the field. The 6'6, nearly 300-pound lineman is one of the key players that sets the tone up front.
He understands his assignments, uses solid technique, and handles opposing team's pass rushers as they come off the edge. And with Texas changing schemes this season, the offense will absolutely need Williams to be a leader in the trenches.
Some of you may be surprised to see him at number 3 on my list. But remember, this isn't a ranking of the best overall talent on the Texas roster (though Williams would still be high on that list as well). Instead, this is a list of the most important players. And behind Williams, the depth at tackle for Texas (especially on the left side) isn't as strong as you'd like it to be. Maybe during the season a solid reserve tackle will emerge. But the last thing Texas needs in 2016 is for Williams to miss extended time.
Note: Even with a freshman at center, the OL should be in a better place this season. But a healthy season from Williams is a must.
2) Junior running back D'Onta Foreman
The second most important player for Texas in 2016 that isn't a quarterback is a guy that will be called upon to help the quarterback and offense march down the field. D'Onta Foreman is absolutely an important player for Texas in 2016 as he's arguably the best weapon the Longhorns have in their arsenal on offense.
After seeing limited action in 2014 as a redshirt freshman, Foreman had somewhat solid breakout season in 2015 where he played in 10 games before sitting out the last two due to a back injury. On the season, Foreman averaged 7.17 yards per carry and found the end zone 5 times while rushing for 681 yards.
Attempting just 95 carries last season, Foreman should be ready (and expected) to take on a bit bigger load this year in an offense that is designed to snap the ball at a quicker rate than what Texas saw last season. And though the depth at running back is relatively deep, Foreman's unique ability to glide through defenses and bounce off defenders gives him the opportunity to have a huge impact in the Longhorns' new offensive scheme.
Note: I will admit I was tempted to slide Foreman down a notch or two due to the depth at running back. If he goes down, Texas still has Chris Warren and company to carry the load. But Foreman has the chance to be a special player for Texas and in the Big 12 in 2016. His yards per carry is crazy high.
1) Sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson
At number one, we turn to the one player who is essentially the quarterback for the defense -- sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson. What makes Jefferson such an important and special player isn't just his crazy athleticism and early production. He's also a cerebral player who has the capacity to digest game plans and individual plays as they come. And on top of that, he possesses the type of desire and drive to improve himself and his teammates around him that coaches salivate over. Though he's entering the 2016 season as a true sophomore, he's already established himself as one of the key leaders of this defense and this Longhorns team.
As a true freshman, Jefferson played in 11 games and started nine of those. And by the time the season had ended, Jefferson had left his fingerprints all over the defense. He was second on the team in total tackles with 61 (Peter Jinkens led with 75), recorded 2.5 sacks, had 6 quarterback hits (led team), broke up 3 passes, forced a fumble, and he also scooped up a fumble and took it to the house for his first collegiate touchdown. He was active to say the least.
What also makes Jefferson so important is there really isn't another player on roster that can come in and do what he does on the field at this point. Sure, there are other linebackers on roster that Texas has (and will certainly need to play well during this season -- Anthony Wheeler, Tim Cole and Edwin Freeman are a few examples). But Jefferson is in a league of his own when it comes to the impact he can have in a game and over the course of a season.
Note: This was an easy pick. Jefferson is the soul of the defense like Jon Snow is to his army of the North..
To be honest, this list wasn't an easy one to narrow down. And I could have interchanged a few guys here and there and easily made arguments for them. So I invite you to give me your five as well. But there's no question the guys above are key players that the Longhorns need to have successful seasons for their own season to be deemed a success.