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These Texas freshmen are standing out with redshirt decisions looming

The bye week afforded the coaches a chance to look at some young players and then provide some updates on how they are developing.

NCAA Football: Texas at Rice Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After five games, the Texas Longhorns coaches have more clarity about which players are likely to redshirt and which players are going to continue to play from the 2019 recruiting class.

Ranked No. 3 nationally and first in the Big 12, the group hasn’t produced as many early contributors as recent seasons, but several players have made an impact and the bye week afforded a chance for some of those freshmen to shine as the coaches held back more experienced players to ensure their maximum health moving forward.

For the players who have already played in four games, the choice for the coaches moving forward is whether it makes sense to appear in a fifth game and lose a season of eligibility.

So far, five players have appeared in all five games — running back Roschon Johnson, wide receiver Jake Smith, defensive end T’Vondre Sweat, defensive back Chris Adimora, and safety Tyler Owens.

Linebacker David Gbenda (three games) is now on track to redshirt, based on the comments from defensive coordinator Todd Orlando on Wednesday, while wide receiver Marcus Washington and tight end Jared Wiley have also appeared in four games. Expect Wiley to continue playing, as he’s a protector for sophomore kicker Cameron Dicker and even saw action at tight end against West Virginia while the outcome was still in question. So did Washington, who had a 14-yard catch on third down.

Other than running back Jordan Whittington, who could return for the Oklahoma game, the other signees not mentioned are likely to redshirt barring any further injuries or development.

Despite moving to running back from linebacker and then moving back as health improved following the Rice game, Gbenda was the first player mentioned by head coach Tom Herman last Monday when asked about the development of players in the class.

“I’m going to leave guys out, I’m sure, but I’ve been impressed with the way that David Gbenda runs and hits,” Herman said.

Two days later, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando concurred.

“David’s a guy that’s really, really fast, and his best years are to come,” Orlando said.

At 6’0, Gbenda is undersized, but his sideline-to-sideline range and striking ability were the determining factors in finishing the 2019 cycle as a consensus four-star prospect, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, and a slot as the No. 11 inside linebacker nationally.

Interestingly enough, the development of junior college transfer Juwan Mitchell has moved Gbenda to the Rover position, but there’s no doubt that the coaches like him. The question now is whether it’s worth burning a redshirt year for a few snaps on special teams.

“With David, we initially played him,” Orlando said. “We got into a game where we kicked the ball off like seven times, and literally covered one of them. It’s like, we’re playing this guy seven plays, and we only cover one kick, or we’ve got him on our kickoff return team, and they kick the ball out of the end zone every time. We actually put him on the field 13 times, and he literally played one play. We tried to get smart and say, ‘Okay, listen, are we going to be able to get 150 reps, or 200 reps, for these guys by the time we get to December?’ If not, then let’s save this kid’s year.

So it sounds like Gbenda is on the track and given the current outlook for the linebacker position, preserving that year of eligibility makes sense from a long-term perspective. He did not play on special teams against West Virginia.

Along the defensive line, the most intriguing talent headed for a redshirt season is the raw Louisiana prospect Myron Warren, whose senior film was an outright revelation when it finally became public. Ultimately, he finished with 30 tackles for loss and 14 sacks as a senior. Competition caveats apply for a high school with just over 300 students, but there are ways in which even those caveats can’t make the film lie.

After arriving this summer, Warren was the second player mentioned by Herman on Monday.

“Myron Warren has a good future here,” he said.

Orlando is impressed with his natural strength, technical skills, and ability to hold gaps for Texas, the primary responsibility for his defensive ends. With the luxury of some depth at the position, the Horns can afford to let him develop and add some weight to a frame that has room for growth at his current listing of 270 pounds.

One player that Herman didn’t mention on Monday was cornerback Kenyatta Watson II, who is listed on the depth chart and could see playing time in the coming weeks due to injuries — Herman didn’t want to say definitely that he will play, but that’s the expectation. Watson received praise upon his arrival as one of the most prepared cornerbacks Herman has ever coached.

Since then, there’s been an adjustment period with the start of preseason camp. On Thursday, Herman cited the speed of the game as the biggest area of adjustment for the former top-150 prospect, but that’s not the only aspect of Watson’s game that has room for growth.

“The physical expectation of that position — there’s a lot of high schools that say, ‘Go follow this guy for four quarters and we’ll give you your pizza post game,” Herman continued. “Around here, you’ve got to support the run game, you’ve gotta go up and make tackles, you’ve got to be really physical. Not that he can’t or won’t, it’s just that doing that play after play after play is certainly a bit of an adjustment for him.”

Watson saw action against the Mountaineers and recorded a tackle.

The rest of the players praised by Herman were on offense.

Tyler Johnson has improved a ton from this spring,” Herman said. “The two young tight ends are going to be really good for us. Kennedy Lewis has had a good couple of weeks, even on the scout team, and I know I’m leaving guys out but those are the ones that jump into my head.”

Johnson should compete for playing time next season, as should Lewis, who flashed in extremely limited action against Rice with a 37-yard catch and run. Lewis has only appeared in two games so far and is likely headed for a redshirt season since he’s behind Washington in the rotation at outside receiver.

For Wiley, the biggest challenges are catching up on reps at the position after playing a lot of quarterback in high school, as well as maintaining his unique movement ability since his 6’7 frame could eventually hold significantly more weight. Physics will eventually play a role there.

With Liebrock, it’s about developing the functional strength necessary to hold up as a blocker, because his route-running skills and hands are high level for a tight end.

“I really like that young group,” Beck said. “I think they came in as very talented. Obviously, when you get into the season and you’re prepping and you’re getting your first- and second-string guys ready for a ballgame, sometimes that gets overlooked, but I know we’ve been repping those guys some in the bye week and, even on Sundays, getting them a little scrimmage time. So I think those guys have done a great job — I like both those tight ends and Tyler’s gotten tremendously better.”

Expect a similar trajectory for a handful of other players in the class, especially during the offseason for the players who arrived in the summer.

“There’s a handful of other guys that need reps, but the talent is there,” Orlando said. “When Yancy [McKnight] gets another year with them, and when we get a spring football with them, we expect those guys to be major contributors for us.”