What does success look like for the Longhorns in 2017?
While a battered and beleaguered fan base would do backflips for Shock The Nation 2.0, Texas doesn’t need to run the regular-season table to set up a sustained run of excellence. A nine-win regular season and top three conference finish should be plenty to sustain Tom Herman’s Texas Revolution narrative and put a Top Three national recruiting class on the table.
But if the Revolution is to be televised, who are the guys that Herman can least afford to lose?
The Longhorn Indispensability Index tells us just that. Based around a rigorous scientific process that I just made up right now, it aims to tell us precisely how boned we’d be if a particular guy either went down or proved totally incapable of stepping up. Positional importance, individual contribution to schematic success and the fall-off between a particular player and the next man up at his spot are key considerations for who makes the list and where they land.
The following results are certainly up for discussion...but that’s why God made Friday afternoons.
#10: TE Andrew Beck
Here’s the acid test for that whole “What does the team look like if you go down” deal right off the bat. Let’s be clear - Beck isn’t in the top half of the roster in terms of baseline athleticism or realized talent for his position. But as of this moment, how many guys on campus have executed a single successful arc-block kickout on an edge defender or effectively lead-blocked a weakside linebacker in a D1 game? Un solo. Syracuse grad transfer Kendall Moore just got word that he’s eligible for Fall ball, but the behind-the-scenes attestations to his skill set basically start and stop with, “He’s a mammal.” Incoming freshmen Reese Leitao and Cade Brewer shouldn’t be entirely written off for 2018, but the physical and mental demands of the position make for one of the tougher transitions from the high school ranks.
Even though Beck himself is no guarantee to bat 1.000 when it comes to hitting moving targets, he could end up as the only non-OL on campus who can credibly block in the box. Keeping 11 personnel (1 back, 1 TE, 3 WRs) and more than half the ground game playbook on the table is enough to keep Beck on this list.
#9: LB Malik Jefferson
Is the team’s freakiest athlete four spots too low on this list? Or should he be on it at all? There aren’t five guys in college football with a better physical toolkit to dominate in Todd Orlando’s Rover role - flying unblocked to clean up spilled-out runs, racing past off-balance OL on stunting blitzes and ranging far and wide in pass drops. By mid-October, Jefferson could be filling highlight tapes and shooting up draft boards as a sideline-to-sideline eraser. Or he could be watching Edwin Freeman or Gary Johnson from the sideline because his diagnostic skills and simple willingness to pop pads with pulling guards just never materialized.
Such is the Riddle of Malik.
Jefferson’s absurd upside, undeniable desire to succeed and apparent adaptation to Tom Herman’s tough-love approach have me believing for now. But until we see Malik taking the fight to squads like OU and Kansas State, we’re still taking things on faith.
#8: DE Malcolm Roach
The Swamp Thing would be higher on this list if Charles Omenihu wasn’t standing in the wings to play starter-esque snaps at either 4i spot. With that said, Roach’s skill set is unmatched among down D-linemen when it comes to letting Todd Orlando mix up his fronts. Roach should be able to hold his own in the run game with quickness and penetration at the 4i spot while his mobility keys a ton of gap-exchange blitzes. He’s ideally built to rock out as a strongside end in a four-DL alignment, and he also gives Texas the luxury of running 2-4-5 looks as a standup backer who can bring the heat and set the edge. The Longhorn D isn’t quite ready to line up in a single look and take on all comers, and nobody keys more diverse defensive responses than Roach.
#7: NB PJ Locke
Quality depth in the secondary explains why a bunch of talented dudes aren’t on this list. John Bonney’s ability to survive at either safety spot and Jason Hall’s senior in-the-box savvy are a bulwark against injury or ineffectiveness from Deshon Elliott or Brandon Jones. Reports of an under-the-radar renaissance from Davante Davis this Spring - where he apparently led the team with 13 picks - ease concerns behind Kris Boyd and Holton Hill out wide. Depth behind Locke (which is probably senior Antwaun Davis and redshirt freshman Chris Brown) isn’t disastrous, but his unique skill set and ability to meet the varied demands of the nickel role make him the team’s most irreplaceable DB.
The Big XII is a crucible for slot corners, asking them to lock down speedsters in underneath coverage, fight through flexed-out tight ends in the run game and process a steady diet of run-pass conflict in the RPO game. Locke can do it all with aplomb while also bringing some sneaky and savage blitzing to the party. The ceiling for the Longhorn secondary could be Top Ten in the nation, but they won’t get there without their top dog.
#6: DT Chris Nelson
Like Roach, Charles Omenihu keeps Nelson from landing at least two spots higher on this list. There’s only so much of The Omen to go around, though, and Texas would find itself in a world of hurt if ol’ 97 is shelved for any length of time. While he’s a bit stockier than the typical Orlando 4i prototype, he’s upped his movement skills and expanded his gas tank while remaining the team’s most physical point-of-attack defender. There are plenty of Longhorn defenders well-suited to rock out on 3rd and 7, but there’s probably not a guy who’ll have to do more consistent heavy lifting to get them there.
#5: WR Collin Johnson
You can plug in a number of quality guys at the outside receiver spots to keep this season’s offense off the floor. But Collin Johnson sets the ceiling, and no other Longhorn wideout comes close to the 6’6” sophomore’s sky-walking skill set. Johnson has the long speed and body control to haul in 50-yard sideline strikes and cash in drives with leaping end zone grabs over hapless defenders. He’s also got absolutely absurd quickness for his size, allowing him to snap off sharp slant routes and run plenty of pivots and comebacks to punish deep-bailing defenders. He’ll be the first topic of every opponent’s defensive meeting room, and the last skill guy the Longhorns want to do without.
#4: G/C Jake McMillon
Last season’s biggest O-line revelation stands ready to offer salvation if Zach Shackelford goes down at center, but losing McMillon would immediately thrust a backup-caliber player into the mix at guard and leave the Longhorns working without a net at the pivot. With right tackle already a question mark and interior depth like Patrick Hudson probably a year away, McMillon’s combo of athleticism, attitude and versatility are vital if Texas is going to establish a physical offensive identity in Tom Herman’s first season.
#3: NT Poona Ford
While Omenihu can backstop either of the 4i spots on the defensive front, the Poonatrator is the only dude with the requisite heft, quick-twitch disruption and been-there-done-that cred to credibly man the nose in Todd Orlando’s D. It’s been encouraging to see a bought-in and slimmed-down Chris Daniels, and D’Andre Christmas should enter Fall ball with a leaner physique and a clean bill of health. One or both of those guys could prove capable of playing solid rotational snaps at the nose. Until they do, though, Ford is the most irreplaceable guy in the defensive box.
#2: LT Connor Williams
Quarterback is the most important position on the field. The Longhorns are one snap away from throwing a true freshman into the fire at the most important position on the field. And Connor Williams still damn near took the top spot on this list. A physical marvel whose first job will be making sure that season-ending snap for Shane Buechele never arrives, Williams will also be the foundation of the ground game as he collapses the edge on Power plays and effortlessly stalks linebackers on the second level. As for the tackle depth behind him? The fact that Brandon Hodges would have been in contention for this list if he’d stuck around should tell you all you need to know.
Stay healthy, Connor.
#1: QB Shane Buechele
After gutting his way through an injury-plagued season as a true freshman signal caller, things haven’t gotten any easier for Shane Buechele. He’s been charged with adding good weight, learning a new playbook, winning over a demanding coaching staff and burnishing his leadership cred in the offensive huddle.
And to this point, he’s met every challenge.
You wouldn’t end up with Buechele if you drew up Tom Herman’s ideal dual-threat QB, but even if his hits need to be managed he’s capable of executing everything that’s been drawn in the playbook. The Longhorn wideouts represent this team’s most dangerous position group, and Buechele’s poise, accuracy and processing speed can unlock every area of the field for them to go out and play. Sam Ehlinger’s future is bright, but for 2017 the prospects for a well-balanced Top Thirty offense rest on Buechele’s shoulders.
That’s what science has to say about the 2017 Longhorn Indispensability Index - what do you think?