The 2016 Longhorns will only feature 25 scholarship upperclassmen (71% of the team will be freshmen or sophomores) and in a quality program, at least half of those players should be significant NFL prospects. At Texas, I can count the number of likely NFL draft picks on one hand. And I don't need all my fingers.
However, while the program's best talent is in gridiron diapers, that doesn't mean the upperclassmen won't play an important role in the success of the 2016 season. You can still be a very useful college player without a clear NFL future.
The absence of upperclassmen stepping up (and mostly stepping out of the program) has influenced Strong's 11-14 start. When a true freshman starts, unless it's some generational talent, it's a rebuke to the juniors and seniors.
What seniors and juniors on offense have to step up in 2016? You'll find the key guys on defense here.
OL - Perkins, Nickelson, Hodges
Kent Perkins is a natural guard who is likely to be pressed into action at RT. Wherever he's placed, 'solid' can't be the descriptive for the experienced senior's play. Mangling, destructive and crushing is what we need for the Power game to go. And what if we can play Perk at guard?
Junior Tristan Nickelson could solve the Perkins position switch problem, but feet and anchor have been a problem. Gilbert's offense allows down blocking and it doesn't demand dominant pass pro at RT, but allowing free shots on the QB or whiffing in the run game is a no-no. The 6-9 Nickelson is remaking his body and working hard, but I fear he won't fully mature until his mid 20s, which if you know anything about Strongman competitors with similar anthropometry to Nickelson (a shocking number are former college basketball players who put on 100 pounds late), late maturation is the rule. Don't give up on big Tristan just yet.
Junior Brandon Hodges, former JUCO savior, still has a chance to offer the OL salvation at guard. The alternative is probably a true freshman.
QB - Swoooooopes
Senior Tyrone Swoopes will contribute much in the Swoopesasaurus Tex packages, but unfortunately, Buechele's stature and age - and the injury likelihood linked to both - mean he'll likely be asked to do more than trample Big 12 safeties on 3rd and 2. Things like, win games. Or win several games. Paging Frank Reich! How he responds to that challenge is the stuff of Longhorn legend...or infamy.
TE - Bluiett, Beck, Whiteley
Senior Caleb Bluiett can offer real help as an EBS and he's athletic enough to convert short yardage situations with the occasional 57 yard TD against Baylor. His biggest contribution may be as a respected team leader who might challenge someone to a fight if they screw around too much. Every upperclassmen with a starting role has to step up in this department or we'll see Ames-style repeats. Andrew Beck won't set the edge like Caleb, but Gilbert will employ him in running sets. Not sure how Blake Whiteley fits into this offense.
RB - D'onta Foreman
As with Perkins, we need great and not solid play from Foreman. Foreman has shown an extra gear most big men lack, but consistency will be key. I've seen him pursue the big run to the detriment of the six yard run. The RB makes a lot of the protection calls in this offense and it's an underreported factor in how playing time may be split between the Longhorn big backs.
Armanti Foreman should be prime for a breakout season. His Spring game encouraged me. If he's not motivated by depth chart speculation that freshmen Duvernay and Johnson will be the best complements to John Burt, we can't help him. A freshman QB needs an upperclassmen security blanky. Be the blanky.
Then there's Jacorey Warrick, Rod Bernard, Lorenzo Joe, Dorian Leonard, Jake Oliver...hiiiiiiii! Five upperclassmen that were all recruited over in 2016. Bernard has been tried at RB. Last year, the five combined for 11 catches total. Time for a John Harris pep talk?
There's a lot of room for meaningful contribution from the program veterans on offense. If Texas wants to win 8+ games, big contributions from the QB, the OL & EBS and the Foreman brothers is pretty much mandated.