The Longhorns aren’t back in pads just yet, but as of today they’re back in action.
This season brings a sense of quivery anticipation probably not equaled since Colt McCoy was under center. If July excitement from Longhorn Nation is to translate into November elation, though, this year’s squad has some significant questions to answer - answers that we’ll keep a keen eye on over the next few weeks.
Here are five of the most compelling storylines that figure to play out over the course of camp.
Serving Youth At Safety
Todd Orlando’s scheme demands a ton of its safeties, and demands are mental as well as physical. The Longhorns are tee’d up with a pair of youngsters (relative to their total college snaps played, at least) in DeShon Elliott and Brandon Jones who should have no trouble with the physical component. Both guys have the range to patrol center field, the muscle to punish people over the middle and the feet to at least survive in one on one coverage. A dynamic duo who can handle quarters coverage, disguise who might be dropping down and who’s rolling to center field pre-snap and lock up interior receivers behind P.J. Locke blitzes can key a ton of opponent-frustrating, pre-snap read-busting options for Orlando. The more experienced veterans behind them - jack-of-all-trades John Bonney and box enforcer Jason Hall - could be more limiting if they’re playing heavy snaps.
Per the inside scoop at Inside Texas, Elliott and Jones ran with the 1’s on Day One just as they did in the Spring Game. If their respective light bulbs stay on throughout Fall camp, the Longhorns secondary could start a quintet of future NFL draft picks for the first time since the ‘05 glory days of Ced Griffin, Tarrell Brown, Aaron Ross, Michael Huff and Michael Griffin.
The Shape of the Run Game
We may not get a bunch of detailed X-and-O leakage over the next 30 days as Herman figures to run a pretty tight ship, but some tidbits that could inform what we’ll see this fall may include:
- The key run schemes complementing our foundational components like Inside Zone and Power
- Which runners seem to be thriving in which roles
- Our respective uses of Buechele and Ehlinger in the ground game (with black-jersey caveats, of course)
- How frequently and effectively we attach a run-pass option component to our core runs
- Our preferred formations between the 20’s as well as for red zone and short yardage work
Not including “which damn back(s) will carry the ball the most” may seem like burying the lede for this topic. Unfortunately, sustained health from our top two RB options is one area where I’m not beer-bonging the Burnt Orange Kool-Aid at this stage. Health questions for Chris Warren and Kirk Johnson may be answered in the negative over the next few weeks, but I’ll exhale on their late-November availability in...late November.
Of course, the shape of the run game will depend on...
The Search For Starters: Right Tackle and Tight End
Provided Zack Shackelford’s ankle feels cooperative this season...hang on a sec.
* Bloodies knuckles knocking on a piece of wood *
Ok, sorry about that. If The Hate Shack gets some love from his ligaments this season, right tackle and tight end feel like the only two spots on the starting roster where Texas could struggle to find a guy who can express league-average physical ability. Tackle looks like a battle between senior Tristan Nickelson (who has the frame but may lack the feet and functional coordination) and sophomore* Denzel Okafor (who’s athletic as all get-out but wants for seasoning). My early guess is that Nickelson holds the job through camp but cedes it some time around the OU game to Okafor, with the ability to keep DE’s from teeing off on Shane Buechele as the deciding factor.
At tight end you’ve got a holdover in Andrew Beck alongside new faces in Syracuse grad transfer Kendall Moore and true freshmen Reese Leitao and Cade Brewer. If Beck can stay healthy while upping his batting average when it comes to hitting moving targets, he’s likely to earn the bulk of the snaps this Fall. If he falters, things get a bit cloudy
Everyone outside of OU would swap their front-line D-line starters for the trio of Malcolm Roach, Chris Nelson and the Poonatrator in a New York minute. The demands on big men facing up-tempo attacks over the course of 80+ offensive snaps are cruel and relentless, though, so no position on the field requires more functional depth to avoid a sharp fall-off in production. Charles Omenihu should be ready for 40-50 snaps per game of super-sub duty across both 4i spots at a newly rocked-up 270, but beyond that things get hazy in a hurry.
Can a slimmed-down Gerald Wilbon offer some movement skills while retaining his ability to drop anchor?
Can D’Andre Christmas translate his own summer fitness gains and a clean bill of health into the consistent disruption he showed on his high school tape?
Can Andrew Fitzgerald show improved off-the-ball quickness and functional power?
Can Chris Daniels’ tremendous transformation (340+ to right around 300 as of late July) turn around a trajectory that was headed in the wrong direction throughout his redshirt season?
Texas needs at least one of those guys to answer his question in the affirmative in order to feel good about hanging with the Big XII’s top offenses for four quarters - and the more yeses, the better.
While right tackle and tight end search for league-average athletes, linebacker is awash in junior and senior athleticism that would be the envy of the conference - or just about anyone in the nation - if any of them had shown the slightest inkling of putting it all together. Fall camp could be as much about finding fit as testing instincts and physicality, and Todd Orlando’s ability to mix and match his way to a functional Rover, Mac and B-Backer feels like the biggest open question when it comes to determining this team’s floor and ceiling.
What are you looking to learn about the Longhorns’ fortunes as Fall Camp gets underway? And have you done your offseason homework with the best Longhorn preview on the market by your side?
*Courtesy of about ten snaps in 2016 - aaaauuuugggghhh.