Our long national nightmare is finally over.
Football is back, baby.
The Longhorns checked into their luxurious accomodations in Jester as of yesterday afternoon, and Saturday will mark the team’s official return to the practice field. It’s no secret that this season represents a massive inflection point for the Strong era, and on a team where sixty of the eighty-five scholarship spots are held by freshmen or sophomores you’re going to be walking into camp with a whole lot more unknowns than knowns.
So what do we want to know?
Quarterback: Simply put, this is the Shane Buechele Show. Charlie’s “we don’t have a starter yet” mantra feels like lip service, but it will be interesting to see how quickly Booshell can officially put Swoopes in the rear view mirror. Even interesting-er will be how well Beauxchelles is able to execute on the days that Strong and Bedford decide to throw 31 flavors at him instead of the two-scoops-of-vanilla defensive approach we saw in the Spring Game. Rumors of the 18-Wheeler’s demise have circled since Spring ball, but hopefully we’ll get some indication that Swoopes will remain a part of the short-yardage game plan. That approach will leverage our comparative pace-driven advantage in practice snaps and force opponents to burn valuable prep time, in addition to providing a starting platform to bolt pass plays onto if Swoopes gets thrown into the full-time fire this season. We probably shouldn’t expect many details on a possible “Slash” package for Jerrod Heard to leak out from a largely locked-down set of practices, but the idea should make for some interesting rumormendo.
Running Back: Is Forewarrened* ready to roll, or can Chris Warrren at a natural 252 outperform D’Onta Foreman at a ten-pounds-too-heavy 245 and transform the backfield moniker to Warman? Which actually sounds kinda cooler? Is Kirk Johnson ready to roll and add some lightning to a Thunder and Thunder backfield, and will Texas use him as a receiving outlet in an O that hasn’t had a back catch more than eleven balls since its inception at Baylor?
*blame/credit to the boys at Inside Texas
Wide Receiver: John Burt is a sure thing for one outside spot, and it sounds like Armanti Foreman wants to hang on to his playing time after a couple of lackadaiscal tours of duty. How quickly can Collin Johnson ascend and push Foreman in a primary slot role? Can Devin Duvernay earn his way on in four wides - or even push Foreman for 3-wide snaps - or will the surprisingly versatile Lorenzo Joe make noise? DeAndre McNeal’s suspension may open up snaps for another unique but potentially odd-fit skill set guy in Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and it will be interesting to see if speedburner Davion Curtis’ experience in a similar offense can allow him to make a move up the depth chart.
Tight End: Is there any reason to consider this position as anything but Blueitt or Bust this season? Can Blueitt hang tough against guys like Omenihu and Cottrell when he’s asked to single up a DE, and can he use his solid straight-line speed to exploit the space that the 5333 can create? And can Andrew Beck turn some exemplary off-season S&C performance into the ability to hit more than 50% of his targets as a moving blocker - something he failed to do back in April?
Offensive Line: Matt Mattox’s announcement that Kent Perkins will open camp at left guard helps to answer one of the key questions along the OL, but many remain. Can Battle of the Belts winner Trent Nickelson administer enough chair shots to prevent a run-in from the tag-team freshman duo of Patrick Hudson and Denzel Okafor at right tackle? Can Zach Shackelford hold on to his starter-by-default designation at center, or will early struggles force the staff to get creative and search for another solution? And will Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe show that they’re able to take the next step from Freshman All-Americans to guys who can start to warrant All-Conference chatter?
Defensive Tackle: Both Poona Ford and Paul Boyette profile as guys better suited to shooting gaps than head-up two-gapping or standing strong against the double team. Can either of them offer better resistance against pure power football? Can Chris Nelson deliver more than three consecutive snaps before getting winded and easily driven off the ball? The biggest intrigue at this spot lies with the true freshmen - Texas is going to need about 40 good snaps a game from some combination of Jordan Elliott, DeAndre Christmas, Chris Daniels, Gerald Wilbon and
Maurice Marcell Southall if the D is going to take a significant step forward. Both the odds and the nature of modern no-huddle football suggest that we’re likelier to see one or two guys step up as key contributors than an even distribution of snaps among a lot of guys. Elliott and Christmas enter camp with the most buzz, but don’t sleep on the uniquely powerful Wilbon in a defense that’s hungry for an immovable object in the middle.
Defensive End: The first question at defensive end is whether we’ll be playing two of them in a traditional four-DL alignment - as we saw for most of the Spring Game - or whether we’ll run more of a three-DL, one-Fox alignment. As we lack both the ideal personnel at DL and Fox right now you’d hope for the former, but Strong and Bedford’s plan remains to be seen. Charles Omenihu looks to offer the most 2016 upside of anyone in the defensive end mix - can his rocked-up 270 pound frame set the edge while retaining the bend and burst that he showed off in the Spring Game? Will Naashon Hughes start to play with some more fire and ferocity and hold off sophomore Breckyn Hager (and potentially true freshman Erick Fowler,) or will an alignment with Omenihu on one end and Bryce Cottrell on the other be the only way to get Texas’ best four DL on the field at the same time? Such an approach might open up more snaps for true freshman Andrew Fitzgerald at strongside end, and he and Malcolm Roach present one more set of intriguing questions for a defensive front that’s full to bursting with them.
Linebacker: Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler are your presumptive starters in a 4-2-5, but how much will we learn about the Longhorns’ plans to #FreeMalik this season? Can Anthony Wheeler turn some encouraging Spring Game moments and plenty of added muscle into the run-stuffing presence that Texas desperately needs inside, or will he find himself getting pushed by guys like Shark McCullough, DeMarco Boyd or (gulp) Tim Cole? Guys like Edwin Freeman and Cam Townsend have serious wheels, but they’re locked into mop-up duty behind Malik as things stand now - will Strong and Bedford roll out some creative looks to get their speed on the field?
Cornerback: The Longhorns’ combination of talent and experience is as deep at corner as it is anywhere on the field. The fact that the previous statement is being driven by a trio of sophomores and a seldom-seen senior should tell you all you need to know about the unique roster that Charlie Strong is sorting through this season. Davante Davis could round into an All-Conference performer by season’s end, and Holton Hill probably has even more skill but may have some questions to answer about whether his head is in the right place. Kris Boyd is a better physical specimen than either - can he push one of his classmates aside and force his way into starter’s snaps? Can Sheroid Evans lock up the Gaskamp with a healthy senior showing? And can P.J. Locke handle the two-way rigors endemic to playing nickel back in the Big XII?
Safety: No spot on the roster exemplifies the limited experience vs high-potential, high-beta youth dilemma that has defined Charlie’s time at Texas quite like safety. It’s never fun when the biggest mismatch between talent and experience exists at the position tasked with stopping the big-shot scores that are anathema to Strong and Bedford’s defensive philosophy. Senior walk-on Dylan Haines and enigmatic junior Jason Hall will open as starters, but all eyes figure to be on sophomore DeShon Elliott and true freshman Brandon Jones as they seek to edge out their mentors and make their presence felt. Elliott profiles as a box enforcer while the sky is the limit for Jones as a do-it-all talent - but doing it all in Strong’s secondary scheme requires a degree of mental acuity that can present a tall hurdle for a guy fresh out of high school.
Well there you have it, folks. There are a lot more questions than solid answers for this team as they head into August practice, but if some of those questions have affirmative answers then this is a team with the potential to surprise - and to ensure that Charlie gets to be the one coaching them when they unleash hell on the league in 2017.
What are you looking for as Fall camp gets started? And have you gotten ahold of the ultimate companion piece for the 2016 season?