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Spring Practice Position Battles

In which we discuss some legitimate issues with which the coaching staff must deal.

With spring practice kicking off it's boring routine of padless drills and stretching, here are some areas I'll be watching, until I fall asleep in the bleachers anyway.

1. Safety

Since DB coach/handlebar mustache enthusiast Duane Akina arrived at Texas, we've done everything from press man coverage to the softest of soft zones. New DC/whiteboard murderer Will Muschamp's defenses have typically been patterned after his head coach's preferences, so there is no telling what we'll see. This will not stop me from positing a guess, however. I think since Akina is more comfortable teaching man techniques, and Muschamp's last two stops have had him playing a lot of aggressive matchup zone, I would venture to guess that our defense will feature the same.

What that means for the safeties is that they had better be able to cover. When you play straight man, you can dictate matchups, but when playing matchup zone, the offense can dictate, despite the name. This leads to a lot of Anthony Gonzalez vs. Michael Griffin situations.

Even in a defense that limits the effect of the safeties, you need to have a couple competent ones. Last year we had what was easily our worst pair under Mack Brown. Remember when guys like Dakari Pearson and Phillip Geiggar were backups? I do. I remember those times fondly, like the days when Charlie's Angels were hot.

Going into next season, we have absolutely nothing. Even all the bad players graduated. We're a complete blank slate, and not to put to fine a point on it, but we need a good player. My personal hope for this team is that we not give up 200 yards a game to tight ends and slot receivers. We need someone who can cover.

Luckily, we have two someones who can cover. Ben Wells was my favorite defensive recruit in 2006. He doesn't have the make up speed to be a top flight CB (of course, neither did Aaron Ross), but his Rivals video showed off his ability to strike ball carriers. Guys who can deliver force in the open field are born tacklers. He's plenty fast enough to cover enough ground for a safety, perhaps not as a Reggie Nelson type center fielder, but as a cover 2/SS type, yes. I'm eager to see what Wells has learned in his year here.

At the other spot I'm going to watch do-it-all sparkplug Earl Thomas. He does have the speed to play centerfield, and the willingness to tackle, which is probably the most important thing a defensive player can have (see: Foreman, Eric). There were rumblings during bowl practices that he was the most impressive DB on the field at times, so I expect him to nail down the FS job. Having two converted CBs that can (potentially) tackle will be a huge boon to a defense that's been missing coverage ability since Mike Huff graduated. Go back and look at the best defenses of the last 10 years, both college and pro, and you'll usually see two flexible safeties that allow defenses to adjust to anything the offense does.

At the very least, one of them needs to step up. We can get by hiding one safety on deep or underneath coverage, but having two voids to really tough to cover up, especially against the 14 spread teams we'll play next year.

2. Big play skill players

We graduated our 4 best offensives players, which on it's own is already pretty frightening. These 4 guys were also head and shoulders better than everyone else, leaving us with nobody who can make a play. We have two possession receivers, a so far mediocre distribution QB, and one RB who is good but isn't proven as the load carrier.

We are probably going to be as weak as we've been since the days of Ryan Nunez and Jeremy Jones. Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley are perfectly acceptable WR, but neither one has shown any consistent big play ability. The Shipley that came in as a freshman can be, but I don't know if his knee injury took that explosiveness away forever. I guess we'll see in a few weeks.

Until then, we need some big play option. Malcolm Williams would seem to be the logical choice, being tall, fast, and talented. The most impressive young WR we have, though, appears to be Brandon Collins. He has decent size, but more than anything he is a smooth, natural talent that near busted into the starting lineup last year. I have no idea if he can be that guy that demands double teams and beats 1 on 1 coverage like a Memphis basketball player beats his wife. He or Williams will have to prove they belong over the next three weeks.

The darkhorse at WR is Montre Webber. He's raw, but he's got the same ability to get open downfield that Limas Sweed had when he showed up. More than anything, this is the skill we need. How much has he improved in the last two years? I hope to find out.

We have an almost identical situation at RB. Vondrell McGee proved to be a valuable asset spelling Jamaal Charles, but going from 3 carries to 20 is a big jump. We probably won't learn much this spring, since any substantial running game work will be done behind closed doors, but I hope to glean something out of the the first couple days and the spring game.

Behind him, there is nothing but potential. I like Fozzy Whitaker and Jeremy Hills, but neither one has a college carry. Cody Johnson is a big mean guy, but I was pretty ambivalent about his high school film and have no idea what to expect with him. Whitaker is a potential homerun hitter, so I really want him to the the breakout player. He is the classic plant and cut guy, like a 5'9 version of Vince, with speed and toughness to match. I will watch him closely as the law allows.

The odds are high that at least one guy makes the leap and ends up a productive player next year. The only question is, can that guy beat out Chris O? I say no. Get ready for mediocre 3rd down backs, everyone. Somewhere, Brett Robin is nodding happily. This is an issue that probably won't be solved in the spring, so we'll have to wait until our first third down next year to see what happens. Knowing Greg Davis, I'm guessing we'll find out 3 plays into the year.

3. Depth at DT

I'm not as panicked as my colleagues, quite frankly. As long as Roy Miller is healthy, we'll be OK. The loss of Andre "Omar Little" Jones hurts, but we seem to pull in a tremendous DT prospect every year. We can't afford any injuries, but what we have right now is a perfectly acceptable for the goal of winning the Big 12. Thing is, after Miller graduates, the situation does become a little more dire. Right now we have Miller, Michael Wilcoxin, Ben Alexander, and Tyrell Higgins. Wilcoxin is a classic coach on the field, scrappy player who runs great routes. He should be a decent stopgap when we need one. Ben Alexander had an offer from every D-1 school in the country, and probably owns 5 cars (in yellow and purple, garnet and gold, and that ugly Tennessee orange). He's in Maddog shape, unfortunately, which to this point has been round. He always seemed OK to me, but opinions of others I respect seem to hold him in low esteem, and he has the playing time to match that assessment. I don't know. He's on my list of guys to watch. He absolutely must come through. I know nothing about Higgins, and I doubt I ever will. He's probably going to follow the Thomas Marshall career plan and become valuable upperclass depth one day. I'm guessing now is not the time for him.

It's worth mentioning that Aaron Lewis might move inside should we need him, and if he does, it's a sure sign that the other guys aren't cutting the mustard. Lewis makes plays occasionally, and famously ran down Adrian Peterson from behind, so I won't write him off. I will say that I haven't got a real great handle on his game at this point, so I'll leave that to someone else.

The wildcard in all of this is Brian Ellis. He's easily the most talented 3 tech we've had since Shaun Rodgers, but he's also going to be a perennial threat to fail out of college. When you're as talented as he is and nobody ever hears your name, that's a problem that deserves attention. I hope he's out on the field this spring, as we could really use the unexpected bump of a potential All-Big 12 player at DT. He's Tommie Harris good, except he'll actually produce in college. Cross your fingers.

4. Backup QB

We're set at QB for the next two years whether I like it or not, so there will be a noticeable lack of drama over the starting QB spot. Luckily for us internet commenters, there is no lack of drama surrounding everybody else.

Most notable, of course, is waiting to see just what our Russell Sheppard plan is. Rumors continue to float that we are waiting to see how the QB position shakes itself out of the next couple week before we commit to anything Sheppard related. Seems like we're going to put Chiles someplace else, or he'll win the backup job and Sherrod Harris will transfer. Harris doesn't really seem like a transfer candidate, though, at least not to me, so I expect him to get the job and Chiles to be moved to WR, or QB at Houston. The coaches wanted Chiles to win the job last fall, but Harris kept stepping up his game, so watching the battle between the two should be interesting.

It has added importance, too, since our starter has a bit of a tendency to wander. It's a pretty safe bet that a backup will be taking important snaps next year while Colt is trying to remember where he is.

Anybody else think there is something worth watching?