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Questions and Predictions as Texas Longhorns head into fall camp

There’s no shortage of storylines to follow as Texas enters fall camp

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

It’s almost over. After an excruciatingly long offseason filled with hopeful rhetoric and expectations, Longhorn football returns Saturday morning with the team’s first practice of fall camp.

Head coach Charlie Strong enters his third season with a seat hotter than asphalt on a Texas summer day, and everyone in the program knows it. The third year coach will need his team to rise to high expectations.

Strong’s bunch will not be defined until they step onto the field against Notre Dame, but a few important things will become apparent when the ‘Horns strap on the pads in the daily grind of fall camp. Here are a couple expectations and predictions I have on what we’re going to see in the opening practices.

The Freshmen Defensive Tackles

If you’re an optimist, you look at the defensive tackle situation for the Longhorns and admit there are concerns. However, if you’re a realist, the situation at defensive tackle looks like a serious problem for the Texas defense, potentially leading to a second consecutive season of hideous run defense.

Last season, the Texas defense finished below the national average in rushing defense according to Football Outsiders S&P+ rankings. With a score of 97.9, the ‘Horns finished seventh in the Big 12. If Strong expects improvement in rush defense, the interior of the defensive line will need to take a big leap.

Three defensive tackles return for the Longhorns this fall, and only two with meaningful game experience. Needless to say, a couple of freshmen defensive tackles will have playing time (and a lot of it) bestowed upon them immediately. They will need to escalate their games as soon as practices begin.

This raises the all important question—which of these young guns will do exactly that?

One of the early favorites for the position will be Jordan Elliott. People within the program feel the Army All-American has the agility and, more importantly, the size to be a helpful presence on the defensive line as a freshmen. On his film, the four star defensive tackle shows a knack for blowing back lineman with a strong punch and controlling the line of scrimmage. Elliott , standing at 319 pounds, will receive a lot of reps come Saturday.

Fellow freshman Gerlad Wilbon will also see considerable amount of time along the defensive line—particularly at the nose tackle spot. The Destrehan (La.) product carries a big frame, which makes him suitable for plugging holes at the nose spot. Wilbon’s size makes him a better fit at the position than his freshmen counterparts , meaning he will see the workload at the spot when junior Chris Nelson or Senior Paul Boyette aren’t playing.

Look out for another Louisiana defensive tackle, D’Andre Christmas, whose quick first step and big size have made him an early favorite to handle the workload too.

Because of the 2016 recruiting class, the Longhorns now have the bodies to fill out a depth chart on the defensive front, but it’s littered with unproven, young talent. Having freshmen defensive tackles who will have to play a large amount of time is a glaring issue for this team.

Defensive tackle is one of the hardest positions for a true freshman to pick up, and it’s even harder to make a substantial impact. Former Longhorn All-American Malcom Brown finished with only seventeen total tackles and seven solo tackles in his freshman season.

On Saturday, the search begins for a couple guys who will be asked to do a lot.

Could Texas pass rush actually be good?

A common criticism for the Longhorns’ defense last season was that it lacked significant pass rush in key situations. Reporters and message boards are clamoring for someone to emerge and help out. What if I told you that people’s biggest concern could emerge into one of the Longhorns’ biggest strengths.

Last season, Texas finished fifth in the NCAA with 3.08 sacks per game. Not only were the Longhorns not bad at rushing the passer, it seems they were pretty good at it. If you dive deeper into the numbers, Texas finished the 2015 season with an adjusted sack rate of 7.8% on standard downs and 11.3% on passing downs according to Football Outsiders. Those numbers put the ‘Horns at 7th and 15th in the country in their respective categories.

If you look at the numbers—they were elite.

The Longhorns return some integral pieces to their pass rush from last season, which means this defense has potential. Despite losing Indianapolis Colts’ defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, there are some new options—including the emerging Breckyn Hager and a suddenly stout Charles Omenihu. With the potential addition of stud Erick Fowler, the unit could rebound and have a great year.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas
Sophomore Charles Omenihu needs a breakout year.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Longhorns lacked a game changing playmaker last season, but they were seemingly still pretty good at applying pressure. If a playmaker comes along, the team could create serious havoc in passing situations. Who will that be for the Longhorns? Will it be Charles Omenihu or Breckyn Hager? Could it be super freshmen Erick Fowler or Andrew Fitzgerald?

It’s a young unit up front, but the raw talent and Charlie Strong’s defensive scheme could make it a solid group. Let’s see if the ‘Horns will silence their critics.

The Safeties…Who grabs on to the starting spots?

One of the strengths coming into this season appears to be the Longhorns’ defensive backs. Sophomore cornerback Davante Davis was named to the preseason All-Big 12 team, and fellow sophomore corners Holton Hill and Kris Boyd are incredibly talented players with game changing capabilities.

While the corner position looks primed for a big year, the safety situation is not all clear. For now, the safety spots are locked down by the returning starters junior Jason Hall and senior Dylan Haines. Fans, however, have criticized both players and like the idea of starting talented sophomore DeShon Elliott or super freshman Brandon Jones.

Defensive backs coach Clayton Jennings surprised reporters on Friday when he told the media that he didn’t envision either safety losing their job. Whether this ends up being true will be determined in fall camp, but it’s a telling sign that Jennings holds this confidence in the oft-criticized duo.

Haines has been a leader for the Longhorns this offseason, speaking at Big 12 Media Days and leading player workouts. The coaching staff has also expressed that he’s one of the most important players in the Texas’ back seven.

“Dylan Haines has done a tremendous job for us on defense,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford added.

Hall, on the other hand, electrified fans with an impressive freshman season, but took a negative trajectory in his sophomore season. Multiple times, the junior failed in pass coverage and misaligned on the field, something Bedford was critical of.

"He's been here for a while right now. He's been a big hitter and now it's time for him to take the next step and that next step is understanding the game” Bedford said. “He cannot rely on my man [S Dylan] Haines to getting him aligned.”

Behind the two starters sit two extremely gifted players in Jones and Elliott. While young, both are extremely talented with speed and playmaking ability that could help the Longhorns in the back end of the defense. Jennings says Haines and Hall have a firm grip on the starting roles, but watch out for the talented, competitive young players to do everything they can to take the starting spots before Notre Dame.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Day Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Tristan Nickelson

In one of the more surprising developments on Friday, offensive line coach Matt Mattox announced that Kent Perkins would slide to guard to start fall camp, moving junior Tristan Nickelson to the starting tackle spot.

The monstrous Nickelson has had a tremendous offseason, winning the heavyweight class in Texas’ offseason program “Battle for the Belts.” The League City product missed some time in spring practices and struggled during the Orange-White game, where he was suffering from injury. Because of this, he was mostly written off. But the junior seems to have revitalized his career.

The 6’9, 322 pound tackle has the physical tools to be a bonafide D1 tackle, but it’ll be interesting to see if he can hold onto the position when the pads are put on. Will he have the quickness and footwork to handle tough pass rushers—something he struggled with last season and in the spring? That’s my biggest question for Nickelson as he approaches make-or-break practices.

If he does prove to be a solid option though, it would be a massive development for the Longhorns. Putting Nickelson at tackle would not only give the Longhorns more experience on a young line, but also would allow Mattox to slide senior Kent Perkins to guard, his natural position. Playing Perkins at guard would also take pressure away from freshman Zach Shackelford—an early enrollee who started the spring game.

It’s a HUGE storyline to watch.

The Starter at QB

The notion there’s a quarterback battle going on here is pretty ridiculous. Anyone with a pair of eyes sees the noticeable difference between freshman Shane Bueche and, well, everyone else throwing a football for the University of Texas.

Buechele’s presence, command of the field, accurate arm, and much more were on display during spring practices and at the Orange-White game. It should be clear who should command Sterlin Gilbert’s offense. The Arlington Lamar product looks primed and ready to take over at the start of fall camp.

Freshman Shane Buechele throws a pass during spring practices.
Courtesy @SPORTalkTexas on Twitter

Friday, Strong said the quarterback competition is tight and a starter hasn’t emerged, but that seems like lip service at this point. Earlier this offseason at Big 12 Media Days, Strong practically listed Buechele as his starter without giving him the actual title. However, the worst kept secret in Austin may become public soon. Strong said he intends to name a starter early in camp—maybe as early as next week.

I’m interested to see if Buechele can carry his momentum from the offseason into the beginning of practices, particularly with the label of starting quarterback.

Anthony Wheeler

When you play next to superstar Malik Jefferson, it’s easy to go noticed. That seems to be the case so far for linebacker Anthony Wheeler. While there may not be as much hype, the sophomore from Skyline needs to have a big season.

Wheeler begins fall camp as the starting weak side linebacker after impressing coaches when received more playing time toward the end of last season. The former Under Armour All-American is incredibly talented with decisive strength and a solid tackling technique, but his biggest task to date will start on Saturday.

After the Texas defense was routinely gashed up the middle last season, Wheeler will be responsible for securing the interior of the Texas defense next to Jefferson. Last season, Texas linebackers look confused, misaligned, and tackled with horrendous form. If the Longhorns want to become a better defense, it starts with stopping the run, particularly at the middle linebacker spots.

Wheeler needs to come into fall camp and prove he’s ready for the task. Senior Tim Cole will be looking for a chance to grab the second linebacker spot, so Wheeler must show he understands Vance Bedford’s defense and can handle the tasks demanded in a two linebacker system.

He’s an incredible talent, but the spotlight is about to shine brightly on him. Hopefully, he rises to the occasion.

NCAA Football: Texas at Iowa State
Sophomore Anthony Wheeler will need to play well next to fellow sophomore Malik Jefferson.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

A Few Bold Predictions….

Texas beats Notre Dame, but loses to Cal on the road.

Texas offense finishes in the top 35 in S&P+ Offensive Ratings after finishing 75th in 2015.

Sophomore Charles Omenihu leads the team in sacks.

Andrew Fitzgerald finishes the year as the most productive freshmen defensive lineman.

Davante Davis earns All-American honors.

Dylan Haines starts every game for the Longhorns.

Collin Johnson finishes with more receiving yards than John Burt.

Texas running backs compile more than 2,100 yards.

The Longhorns place two players on the Freshmen All-American Team for the second consecutive year.

Charlie Strong returns next season.

Texas finishes with 9 wins following their bowl game and starts 2017 with a top 15 ranking.