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Detailing Texas position battles after preseason camp

The coaches will finalize a depth chart at the end of the week. Here’s the status of the biggest position battles.

NCAA Football: Texas Spring Game Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason camp is over. Both scrimmages are in the books. Classes have started.

And by Saturday’s mock game featuring 50 different game situations, the Texas Longhorns will have a depth chart ahead of the looming game-week preparations for the season opener on Sept. 2 against the Rice Owls.

“To be fair to them, they need to know who’s the first unit, who’s the second unit, who is the backup in all three phases, so that if a guy goes down, if a guy’s shoe comes off, the guy’s helmet pops off, that next guy needs to know who’s going in, and so to be fair to them, we need to continue to compete, we need to continue to find the right combination of people,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Monday.

With the opener set for 2:30 p.m. Central with a forecast high temperature of 102 degrees in Austin, the staff intends to rotate players at a number of different positions in an effort to keep the team fresh for the second half.

A handful of position battles, like weak-side linebacker and field cornerback, are continuing into this week and may feature significant rotation against Rice and Wyoming. At other positions, increased depth has reduced the separation between starters and backups.

“I felt very comfortable that when we played Saturday the first portion of that scrimmage one versus twos, twos versus ones, it’s kind of hard to tell the difference — sometimes those guys are such a good rotation right now,” Sarkisian said.

“I think that we’ve got a great rotation of safety. I think we’ve got a really good rotation at corner, really at the linebacker spot as well, and on the D-line. I think receiver-wise, there’s probably a little bit of a gap between those first three wideouts and the other guys, and that’s understandable — those guys have played a lot of football. But again, different position groups are different to where I’ve got to see what this looks like for a few more days before we really nail it down.”

When Sarkisian does communicate the depth chart to his players, he expects the staff’s culture building and communication efforts to pay off.

“I think that’s why we’ve created an environment here where honesty works, being transparent works,” Sarkisian said. “I don’t think by the time we put a depth chart to the team and when we explain to them in their position meeting who’s going to go with the ones and who’s with the twos and so on and so forth, there’s not going to be a lot of surprises because we’re very up front with our players on a regular basis.”

Here’s the status of the most important position battles.

Backup quarterback

The open competition at quarterback ended after the 15 spring practices with Sarkisian naming redshirt sophomore Quinn Ewers to that role once again, leaving the positional drama surrounding redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy and freshman Arch Manning.

Murphy was clearly ahead of Manning during the spring, flashing his supreme arm talent at multiple times in the Orange-White game while Manning dealt with consistent heavy pressure behind the third-team offensive line and was left to target mostly walk-on wide receivers.

In the first scrimmage, however, Murphy threw an interception returned for a touchdown as Manning narrowed the gap in the competition with several third-down scrambles, including a long touchdown run during which Sarkisian said Manning reached 20 miles per hour.

Coming out of the second scrimmage, the key for both quarterbacks is consistency, so while the staff has incentive to keep Murphy engaged by naming him the backup to start the season, the consistency factor will determine how that ongoing competition unfolds.

Running back

One of the biggest offseason storylines for Texas surrounded whether the departures of Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson would produce a by-committee approach at running back. Junior Jonathon Brooks, now healthy after offseason surgery, looks like the starter for the season opener, but freshman CJ Baxter is improving steadily, according to senior Keilan Robinson.

With sophomore Savion Red battled a sprained shoulder, freshman Tre Wisner looking like a special teams contributor this year, and sophomore Jaydon Blue getting passed by Baxter, there’s some clear separation between the top three backs and the next three players at the position.

The looming question remains whether Baxter can take control of the position, a scenario that seems much less likely for the less-heralded but older and more experienced Brooks.

Right guard

The stock of sophomore guard DJ Campbell improved enough during preseason camp to vault Campbell ahead of sophomore Cole Hutson on the right side, a role that Hutson held last season despite playing through a torn labrum. Campbell still needs to learn how to trust his own ability and the experience of his older teammates to his right and left, but his trajectory and upside make him an appealing choice for position coach Kyle Flood as Hutson projects into a more suitable swing role as the first interior lineman off the bench.

Buck end

The departure of last year’s starter, Ovie Oghoufo, to the NCAA transfer portal left the starting role open opposite junior Barryn Sorrell, 2022’s breakout player for the Longhorns on the edge. In a competition with plenty of talent and extremely limited experience, sophomore Ethan Burke has emerged as the prospective starter with sophomore Justice Finkley backing up Sorrell at Jack end.

A summer enrollee in 2022 who starred on the lacrosse field early in high school, Burke is listed as 12 pounds heavier than his freshman season and has developed a reputation for his work ethic.

“Blue collar, man, he’s a blue-collar guy,” Sarkisian said. “I think he has great length, but at the end of the day, the guy’s a mechanic. He goes to work, he rolls his sleeves up, he doesn’t mind getting grimy. He’s always going to find an edge somewhere and he’s got good wits about him — he knows how to play the game.”

Weak-side linebacker

Replacing multi-year starter DeMarvion Overshown on the weak side is a task that may fall situationally to three different players — senior David Gbenda, junior Mo Blackwell, and freshman Anthony Hill Jr. Gbenda has the most experience playing a traditional second-level role, Blackwell’s safety background allows him to play in space, and Hill may be the team’s most natural pass rusher coming downhill.

Gbenda projects as the starter to begin the season.

“He’s very intentional with his approach to what he does,” Sarkisian said. “He’s had a really good offseason — winter, spring ball, summer. He’s such an intense human that everything he does is full speed, he goes, and sometimes we just want him to tempo it a little bit, right? But he definitely brings that level of intensity and energy to the game.”

After spending two seasons back and forth between safety and linebacker — and with his weight fluctuating in response — Blackwell is now more settled at linebacker and up to 208 pounds. The question is whether he’s grown into more than a specialty role.

“Mo, obviously very versatile guy with the safety background. He has ability to cover, I think he’s a good blitzer, he’s a violent player. When he goes, he goes, and he’s violent at the point of contact, so definitely positives there.”

Hill also projects as a specialty player early in the season in the role that Overshown played last year spinning down to the edge in pass-rushing situations.

“I think from Anthony’s perspective, what he doesn’t know he kind of makes up for with instincts,” Sarkisian said. “He definitely has good instincts for the game. He might not be right, but gets his hand on the ball. Might not be the exact rush we’re trying to get, but he finds a way to get to the quarterback.”

Sarkisian added that each player has their strengths and areas for improvement and expects all three to see the field for the Longhorns this season.

Field corner

Arguably the most competitive position battle is opposite senior Ryan Watts at field cornerback.

Sophomore Terrance Brooks surged late last season and was named by defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski as the team’s most improved player.

Junior Gavin Holmes transferred in from Wake Forest after serving as a multi-year starter for the Demon Deacons and was cited by Sarkisian for practicing well and having a strong scrimmage last week.

Freshman Malik Muhammad is quickly emerging as a playmaking force with two turnovers forced in the first scrimmage, including an interception return for a touchdown, and has impressed the coaching staff with his tackling ability.

With Brooks and Muhammad capable of playing to the field and to the boundary, Texas has improved depth and flexibility at cornerback, reducing the pressure on one player to emerge as the clearcut starter.