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12 Texas players that could elevate the Longhorns from a good team to a great team

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Texas Spring Game Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We are four days away from Texas football — isn’t that exciting?

And while we know the 2019 Texas Longhorns have some great players already — Sam Ehlinger, Collin Johnson, Caden Sterns, etc. — below are some guys that don’t have to be All-Americans for Texas to succeed.

Marginal improvements across the board could be the difference between a gratifying bowl game and a meaningful one.

Good to Great

If these three guys can elevate themselves into all-conference type players, Texas could be in for a very special season.

Malcolm Roach — Defensive End — Senior

Texas fans are very familiar with Roach — a fourth-year defensive lineman and team captain who is one of the last remaining players from the Charlie Strong era.

There are a few reasons Texas needs a stellar senior season from Roach. The first-team defensive end is one of the most experienced players on a defensive unit that is replacing eight starters.

Roach, who started the first three games of the 2018 season before missing the next five with a broken foot, has experience at the B-backer position as well as defensive end. He finished 2018 with 24 tackles, but looks to significantly improve on that number if he can remain healthy throughout the season.

Motivation shouldn’t be an issue. Roach, a Baton Rouge, LA. native, gets a shot against LSU on Sept. 7. in Austin.

Back in 2016, the Tigers didn’t even offer him.

Zach Shackelford — Center — Senior

Shackelford — another 2019 Texas team captain — is also looking to finish his career in Austin on a high note.

The fourth-year offensive lineman has played in 40 games in his career — starting 27 of them. Another Strong holdover, Shackelford is a preseason All-Big 12 selection for 2019 and considered by many to be one of the top centers in the country.

While he could already be considered in the ‘great’ category as a first team AP All-Big 12 selection in 2018, Shackelford really has a chance to elevate himself nationally this season.

He’s another Herb Hand project that — I anticipate — will end successfully.

Devin Duvernay — Wide Receiver — Senior

A speedster out of Sachse, Tex., Duvernay is another senior who Texas fans know very well.

The fourth-year wide receiver — who says he is the Big 12’s fastest player — has yet to have the breakout season that many fans believe he is capable of producing. Duvernay ranked third on the team in 2018 with 41 receptions — averaging a little more than 13 yards per catch.

Much of his success will also be determined by quarterback play — can Sam Ehlinger improve on his deep ball and allow Duvernay to be the explosive play-maker that Texas has been “lacking” offensively?

Duvernay should slide into the No. 2. WR spot behind Collin Johnson nicely — however he isn’t built like the player he’s replacing. At 5-foot-11, 210 pounds and with elite speed, Duvernay looks quite different from former Texas standout Lil’Jordan Humphrey.

In a league that prides itself on playing fast, Duvernay elevating his play will be a critical piece in 2019 success.

Reliable to Good

Reliability is key — and these three guys were certainly reliable last season.

This season — filling in for guys who have left for bigger and better opportunities — it’s time for them to take the next step.

Ta’Quon Graham — Defensive End — Junior

It’s a big year for the Temple, Tex. product.

After two seasons behind veteran guys like Charles Omenihu and Chris Nelson, Texas is relying on Graham to step up in 2019 and put an end to the questions about the defense’s inexperience.

At 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, Graham certainly looks the part — even if the numbers haven’t shown it yet. Coming off a season with just 12 tackles, the defensive staff haven’t exactly hidden their expectations for Graham — with defensive coordinator Todd Orlando saying he expects Graham to become a “dynamic playmaker” this season.

And with only one returning starter on the defensive line, Graham will be expected to become a guy Texas coaches shouldn’t have to worry about — and fast.

Joseph Ossai — Linebacker — Sophomore

Texas coaches probably wish they had more time to develop Ossai into the linebacker they expect him to be. Unfortunately, they don’t.

The true sophomore out of Conroe Oak Ridge High is currently listed as the starting B-Backer for the Longhorns going into the Louisiana Tech game. Not that he is totally void of experience — the true freshman led Texas with eight tackles in a win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

Of all the young linebackers on the roster, Texas coaches appear to be most confident with Ossai — a good sign that he has the opportunity to really grow into himself as a player this season.

With an essentially brand-new linebackers corp, he will have to get over any growing pains really fast.

Cade Brewer — Tight End — Junior

Brewer played in all 14 games as a sophomore in 2018 — but primarily on special teams and with the luxury of All-Big 12 selection Andrew Beck in front of him.

Without Beck, Brewer has to be that guy — and we know Herman loves to use his tight ends. Coming off a season with only two catches for 19 yards, Brewer will probably see one of the biggest workload increases of any returning Texas player.

Brewer had a more active freshman season two years ago — catching nine passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns — before tearing his ACL in November of 2017.

Staying healthy will be key in becoming a consistent target for Ehlinger — and perhaps the reason he is listed in this section instead of the below one is just because of what we’ve been able to see from him in camp while healthy and playing as the No. 1 TE in Herman’s system.

The Lake Travis High product has a lot of potential.

Questionable to Reliable

You could probably place the entire CB unit in this category. However, for the sake of time, below are three guys who have immense potential but need to be more consistent this season to get the targets off their backs.

Kobe Boyce — Cornerback — Sophomore (RS)

Perhaps the biggest surprise on the depth chart for me, personally, was seeing Boyce listed as a starter against Louisiana Tech over Anthony Cook.

Not because Boyce doesn’t have talent — the Corinth, Tex. native was an All-American at Lake Dallas High — but because of the inconsistencies we’ve seen during his two years in Austin.

Entering his third year and without Kris Boyd and Davante Davis locking down the starting spots, Boyce has a chance to claim the starting position in a league that doesn’t take too kindly to CBs who aren’t ready for prime-time. With two starts in his career, Boyce has played in only six games — accounting for 10 tackles and a pass break up.

However, as Herman said at his Monday presser, only CB Jalen Green has really earned the right to call himself a starter. If Boyce flashes the same inconsistency we saw last season against Oklahoma State, it could be a quick hook.

Ryan Bujcevski — Punter — Sophomore

I never thought i would have to write about the growth of a punter — nor did I ever anticipate being able to tell the difference between one punter and another. Then Michael Dickson spoiled me.

Bujcevski — Dickson’s cousin who is also from Australia — is in the tough position of following a legend — the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a Heisman trophy candidate punter. While average punt distance should be taken with a grain of salt because of all the different factors at play, Bujcevski was about 10 yards behind Dickson’s 2017 numbers last season.

However, it is his uptick in ‘consistency’ that earned some praise from Herman on Monday.

If some of that Dickson magic can somehow rub off on Bujcevksi’s leg, Texas should field its best special teams unit in a decade.

Anthony Cook — Cornerback — Sophomore

One of the highest rated defensive backs in the 2018 class, Cook — a second-year defensive back out of Houston Lamar High — is currently listed as a second-team CB behind Green and Boyce.

Though part of the reason could be his first half suspension because of a targeting penalty he received in the Sugar Bowl — a ridiculous rule — there have been reports that Cook had been struggling a bit in fall camp.

Cook played in all 14 games last season and started against Oklahoma State. He finished with 18 tackles, a sack and a pass breakup.

This was probably one of the bigger surprises to me on the depth chart — as I thought this season would be a breakout year for Cook and Green at corner.

I expect the CB position to be pretty fluid in 2019. I won’t be surprised if Cook earns a starting role sooner rather than later.

Mystery Guys

The sky is the limit for these three guys. We just don’t know much about them yet.

Keondre Coburn — Defensive Tackle — Freshman (RS)

It can really be a big year for defensive tackle Keondre Coburn.

After playing in just three games in 2018 to maintain his redshirt, Coburn will be a player that Orlando relies on heavily this season. While it is never ideal to have to depend on a freshman, Coburn — a defining staple of that 2018 recruiting class — has been receiving heavy praise from Orlando and his teammates this off-season.

Physically gifted, the 6-foot-2, 340 pound former Under Armour All-American certainly looks the part. And if that isn’t enough, he was a disrupting force the talented Georgia offensive line in the Sugar Bowl this past Jan. — one of his three games last season — earning a lot of post-game praise about his future.

If he can bring some stability to the Texas defensive line, it could be a special season.

Malcolm Epps — Wide Receiver — Freshman (RS)

A lot of hype this off-season about wide receiver Malcolm Epps.

At 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, the converted tight end seems like a solid replacement for Lil’Jordan Humphrey from a size perspective in 2019 — even though he doesn’t play the slot. The redshirt freshman has only played in two games in his career — catching one pass for 18 yards.

Epps is currently listed as the back up X-WR behind Collin Johnson. With an abundance of talent at the WR position, it’ll be exciting to see the strides Epps has taken since his freshman year and how much we will be able to see from him early in the season. As the tallest wide receiver on the roster, it’ll be hard to leave him off the field.

With his size, the sky really is the limit.

Jordan Whittington — Running back — Freshman

While the wide receivers room is filled to the brim with talent, the running backs room is essentially vacant.

With injuries to Kirk Johnson and Daniel Young, the name of the game for these guys is no longer “How good can you be this year?” and instead “Is it weird if we ask our running backs to slide?”

That being said, there has been a lot of internal praise for incoming true freshman Jordan Whittington. The five-star ATH out of Cuero has never played running back — which, to me, is cause for concern — but if you watch any of his high school tape you can be sure he is a danger with the ball.

In fact, here, enjoy Whittington’s five touchdowns from the 4A DII state championship game last December. Maybe it’ll put your mind at ease. Don’t think about the fact that true freshman quarterback Roschon Johnson is taking emergency reps at running back. Just forget that and watch these highlights.

Again, color me skeptical of all the praise he is getting at running back due to his lack of experience at both the position and in college football in general.

But can he potentially be a difference maker with a little experience under his belt? I certainly hope so.