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Texas Longhorns Football: Spring Ball Storyline - Offense

Five things to watch for as the Sterlin Gilbert Era kicks off in Austin.

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Today is a good day, as a bleak winter of sixty- and seventy-degree days finally gives way to the celebration of hope and renewal that is Spring Football.  We've got a look at the five biggest storylines for the Longhorns on the offensive side of the ball, but first we thought we'd let Friend of the Carnival Jerry Reed set the stage:

Football's back in town, load it up and truck it,

We gonna do what they say can't be done.

We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there,

Got to sort it out and and watch ol' D'Onta run.

Ol' Swoopes knows how to run, but he's got a scattergun

And Heard, he'll tend to miss some throws as well.

Can Locksley learn to spin it?  Can Merrick really win it?

Or do we ditch 'em all and pray for ol' Buechele?

Football's back in town, can we spread it out and chuck it,

Or pound it with big backs until we're done?

We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there,

Got to sort it out and and watch Chris Warren run

La Hermandad is out there, hot on Charlie's trail

They've got fingers crossed this thing will fail.

Fifteen practices ain't a lot, but that's all that we've got

To install this thing so our houses aren't for sale.

Football's back in town, load it up and truck it,

We gonna do what they say can't be done.

We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there,

But football's back and hot damn, ain't that fun?

Thank you, Jerry!  Always nice to have you stop by.

And now, let's take a look at what the Longhorns' revamped offensive staff will be working to sort out this Spring.

#1 - Who Be the QB?

No reason to bury the lede here.  The quarterback competition overshadows every other element of Spring Ball and will be the primary determinant of this team's floor - and ceiling - in the Fall.

Tyrone Swoopes figures to get the first starter's snap of the Spring based on simple seniority as well as the tantalizing prospect of sixty-yard rockets rifled by a guy with a legit NFL arm.  Turning a courtesy starter's designation into a legitimate hold on the job will depend less on those sixty-yard rockets and more on the six inches between his ears.  I don't envy Gilbert's evaluative task here.  Even if Swoopes demonstrates a command of the playbook and solid post-snap decision making, he's got a demonstrated history of straight-up vapor lock under live fire.  Can you afford to be seduced by pretty throws in practice and then spend six months with the prospect of a psychologically crushing Notre Dame redux - against Notre Dame, no less - hanging over the program like the Sword of Damocles?

It's an unnerving proposition.

Swoopes likely has a guaranteed role choo choo-ing up hard red zone yards in the 18-Wheeler package, but that may be the extent of his role coming out of the Spring.

When is last season's returning snaps leader and single game total yardage record-holder not easily pegged as the comfortable favorite to secure the starter's role?  When he brings as many square-peg elements the new offense's QB-shaped hole as Jerrod Heard.  Heard's dynamism with the ball in his hands is undeniable, and he could manage the kind of RGIII Read Option impression that could supercharge the Longhorn rushing attack.  But his frame raises some significant durability questions if he's to be a major ground game feature, and he offers even fewer definitive answers in the passing game.  No stranger to vapor lock himself, Heard has thusfar demonstrated next to none of the quick post-snap decision making that makes an RPO-heavy offense click.  And while he throws a solid enough deep ball to keep the vertical elements of the offense threatening despite so-so arm strength, his fundamental inaccuracy on cake-and-candy wide receiver screens could be an instant disqualifier if he hasn't made major offseason strides there.  You'd also like to have heard a lot more tales of his take-no-prisoners, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic than we've heard thusfar.  Experience and athleticism may give Heard a leg up in this competition, but legs along won't get the job done.

It's possible that Kai of Locksley robs the other four contenders of the starting role and gives to poor Longhorn fans the best two-way play at the position that we've seen since #12...or even #10.  But like any good Robin Hood story, this one's built more on conjecture and fancy than solid fact.  Locksley is a toolsy dude whose coaching pedigree and passing camp performances could mean that he's more of an immediately functional passer than his run-first, run-second high school offense would suggest.  Imagining that his repeatable accuracy, command of the offense and post-snap decision making up to snuff requires...well, plenty of imagination as opposed to anything we've seen on the field as yet, though offseason reports do suggest that he's been busting his ass to improve in all areas.

Gilbert and company have every incentive to give Kai a fair shot at the starter's role this Spring, but how much time do you give a guy if he looks like he's behind the curve in some crucial areas when you're divvying reps five ways?  And how quickly does the tie go against the guy who could potentially offer second-day NFL draft potential as a wideout?

While Matthew Merrick tends to be the forgotten man in this QB carousel, a look at his his Senior HUDL highlights shows a guy who could potentially be more than a Joseph Merrick-style sideshow.  He's got the arm to serve as a functional field-stretcher and the legs to at least offer a keep-them-honest threat on the occasional Read Option keeper.  He doesn't have a cannon in the Bryce Petty mold, but is he physically capable of making all the throws that Dane Evans made this past season at Tulsa?  Probably.

The biggest red flag for Merrick - aside from youth and lack of experience in the system, of course - is the unsightly total of 29 interceptions that he amassed across his junior and senior seasons at Cistercian.  Right now, there's no good reason to assume that Gilbert won't have a high degree of autonomy in driving all aspects of the QB competition.  If one out of every ten of Merrick's scrimmage throws are touching a defender's hands, though, it's easy to imagine Charlie exercising a hard veto.

Finally, Shane Buechele arrived on campus this Spring to no small acclaim.  Some of that is due to the Backup Quarterback Multiplier Effect (if the backup QB is the most popular guy on campus, how much more popular must the FIFTH QB be?) and some is due to adoration for his father, former Rangers shortstop Steve Buechele (Arlington for life, yo!).  Typically you'd stop well short of tasking a true freshman with anything more than eating, lifting and learning for a couple of seasons.  But these are atypical times, and the fact that Buechele probably walked onto the Forty as the program's most functionally accurate passer could carry some real weight for an offense that will break down in a hurry if receivers have to break out Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics to haul in simple screens and stop routes.

Unfortunately, Buechele will probably break in a hurry if he can't carry some real weight by the Fall - his current build makes Jerrod Heard look like Cam Newton.  He'll benefit from his first spring/summer with a full weightlifting regimen (he'd been a baseballer as well throughout high school) and his experience with similar offensive concepts should serve him well.  But even if he adds good weight, the weight of an entire program is a lot to put on a true freshman's shoulders.

Ideally you'd see a clear leader emerge from this gallimaufry by the end of Spring Ball to allow one guy to alpha dog it during summer 7 on 7's and maximize his August camp reps.  But shortening this list to one in just fifteen practices could be a tall order.

#2 - How Soon Is Now, and How Spread Is Spread?

The greatest trick Art Briles ever pulled...well, OK, the GREATEST trick Art Briles ever pulled was convincing Title IX lawyers everywhere that he doesn't exist.  The SECOND-greatest trick he ever pulled was fusing the horizontal and vertical stretch of the old Air Raid offense with a punishing Power-focused ground game.  The model of a three- and four-wideout attack that exploits every inch of the field gave plenty of cachet to the Sterlin Gilbert hire, but even during Briles' tenure at Baylor that hasn't been the universal approach.

Particularly during Robert Griffin III's first season, Baylor ran a lot more two-tight end sets and leaned on the ground n' pound as RGIII got his feet wet in the passing game.  Texas may be forced into a similar approach depending on how quickly one or more of the signal-callers can start to click with an expanded aerial playbook.  Senior TE Caleb Blueitt will probably be in on the majority of the Longhorns' offensive packages regardless, as Gilbert and Mattox made plenty of use of a sixth blocker aligned at TE/H-back/F-back spots at Tulsa.  But whether the offense is better off fighting in a phone booth with Andrew Beck or even true frosh fullback (?) DeMarco Boyd as the fifth skill position player or spreading the D with three- and four-wideout looks may not be all that clean cut heading into Texas' first practice.

#3 - What Will We Decide Out Wide?

Even though Texas can line up a legitimate four-deep across three wide receiver spots before the 2016 wideout class are all on campus, right now they're looking at precisely one sure thing - sophomore stud John Burt.  Burt figures to lock down one outside spot and play 80+% of the Longhorns' offensive snaps

Outside of Burt, junior Armanti Foreman returns the best mix of quicks and experience in the wideout corps.  Reportedly re-energized by the new offense following a wildly frustrating sophomore campaign, Foreman has enough speed to hold up on the outside and figures to open camp as the starting Z receiver in two-wide sets.  His overall toolkit might be best suited to serve as a field-stretching slot, though, and how much time he logs there could depend on the learning curves of the next two guys on the list.

Collin Johnson combines 77 inches of height with a likely 37-inch vertical leap and balletic body control in the air - that's a combination that can instantly make opposing DC's think twice about leaving him singled up down the sideline.  His aerial skills can raise this offense's ceiling, and he'll get to work against a pair of athletic 6'2" corners who won't make anything easy.  If he's winning his share against Hill and Davis this Spring, it's a good sign that he could share a starting role sooner rather than later once Fall rolls around.

DeAndre McNeal brings a very intriguing mix of size, speed and fluidity to the table, but he had trouble finessin' his way onto the field (or possibly out of the doghouse) in 2015.  He's listed at 6'2, 227 in the Longhorns' just-released Spring Roster, a weight that makes you think he'll spend more time flexed out from the formation than trying to kick out defensive ends as an H-back.  He's got a very interesting skill set that doesn't exactly match with the speed-burning slot types that Briles has favored in Waco, but there's plenty of enticing mismatch potential if Gilbert deploys him creatively.

Lorenzo Joe has a chance to build on some promising flashes from 2015, Dorian Leonard needs to up his consistency and catch rate if he wants to force his way onto the field, and both Jacorey Warrick and Ryan Newsome will push for slot reps if they can pose a danger to the D with the ball in their hands.

#4 - Defining the Line

Your probable starting five for the first snaps of camp:

LT - Connor Williams (SO), Buck Major (FR-R)

LG - Brandon Hodges (JR), Garrett Thomas (FR-R)

C - Zach Shackelford (FR), Terrell Cuney (SO)

RG - Patrick Vahe (SO), Elijah Rodriguez (SO), Alex Anderson (SO)

RT - Kent Perkins (SR), Tristan Nickelson (JR)

That's just about the bare minimum of returning snaps and athletic talent that you can roll out on your OL and expect above-average performance, but the makeup of this bunch could see plenty of shake-up prior to Notre Dame.

Williams and Vahe are your rocks, and locks to lock down their respective positions unless Vahe gets tabbed for emergency duty at center.  Given Gilbert and Mattox's public predilection towards Power as the foundation of the O, though, you'd certainly like to keep Vahe where he's comfortable dropping the hammer on pulls.

Kent Perkins probably sports something close to All-Conference athletic potential at guard, and as a tackle...he's got pretty good feet for a guard.  He'll give up some penetration in the run and pass game, but he could form a punishing right-side tandem with Vahe that could really play up if the staff pulls Williams as often as they got Tulsa's LT on the move last season.

You're probably looking at your most athletic starting five if reshirt frosh Buck Major proves himself ready for prime time on the right side, but he entered the program extremely raw and may be best suited for one more season of technique work.

JUCO transfer Brandon Hodges spent most of last season in Wickline's doghouse, but it seems more and more like you could end up there for failing a Full Metal Jacket quote-off as for any legitimate football reasons.  Hodges could be in the mix at right guard and center if he takes to Matt Mattox's teachings.

The other real wild card in the mix is early freshman enrollee Zach Shackelford.  While he lacks the athletic ceiling of some of his 2016 OL classmates, he may be the best suited of the bunch to step in and play right away.  There could be some daylight between "best suited" and "actually ready," though, particularly when you're factoring a position switch into the mix (Shack played tackle during most of his senior season.)  While he may already be better in a phone booth than Taylor Doyle was last season (and could hardly be worse at picking up T-E stunts into the A gap), everything from technique to line calls to 80-snap conditioning could prove to be substantial hurdles for the true freshman.

Elijah Rodriguez logged a decent number of snaps at guard without embarrassing himself last season, and he's likely to serve as no worse than the sixth man on the OL.  He'll figure to push Hodges at guard out of the gate and could find himself in the mix at center depending on how well Shackelford can settle in.

Tristan Nickelson is another guy who could potentially allow Perkins to kick inside if he can continue to refine his kick-slide and up his physicality - 6'9" is a lot of man to get around if he's playing with a purpose.  Cuney, Thomas and Anderson should probably approach Spring ball with an aim not to get lapped on the depth chart when the rest of the 2016 OL class arrives in August.

Finally, Spring ball represents our first up close and personal look at new OL coach Matt Mattox as an instructor.  Gilbert pounded the table for Mattox due to his importance in implementing a smooth offensive install in a time-crunched situation, but it's easy to forget that Double M has some big instructional shoes to fill.  Despite a poor overall staff fit and various personality foibles, Joe Wickline's chops as a pure instructor and technician were beyond dispute and he whipped up a fairly edible chicken salad from last season's dubious depth chart.  Texas needs a lot of young guys to continue along some fairly steep individual growth curves if this OL can hope to serve as a true team strength.  The onus will be on Mattox to prove that he can pick up where Wickline left off.

#5 - We Talkin' Bout PRACTICE

If some degree of drama at every position save running back and tight end wasn't enough intrigue for you, the particulars of this offensive install are going to mean no less than a full-fledged revolution in the way that Charlie's bunch takes care of business on the practice field.

The simple structure of practice - everything from selecting drills to maximizing reps to balancing the tension between a tempo- and rep-heavy offensive install with a more deliberate and instruction-focused approach to defense - figures to undergo a major overhaul as Spring Ball gets underway.  A staff that's still in getting-to-know-you mode will be doing plenty of collective learning (and un-learning) in addition to teaching, and their ability to nail that balancing act will play a big role the Horns' offensive success.

What storylines are you looking at as Spring Ball gets underway?