Will Texas be able to run the ball?
Most people would probably think that the first question would be about the quarterback. But barring a surprise, I fully expect Garrett Gilbert to be the starter on opening day. And while Gilbert had his faults a year ago, you at least know what you're getting with him: a quarterback who can do some nice things when he's supported by his teammates. And that's where this question comes in.
We showed last year that, when put into positive situations (ie. second- and third-and-short), Gilbert tended to play more positively. And not surprisingly, when he struggled, it was often when he was asked to do too much. That's why the running game, with some combination of Cody Johnson, Fozzy Whittaker, D.J. Monroe and true freshman Malcolm Brown, needs to be able to supply a form of safety blanket. Simply put: if Gilbert is throwing the ball 40 times per game, and if he's put in a lot of long situations, he's not going to perform as well.
With a number of returnees on the offensive line, the positive momentum shown by Johnson at the end of the season, and Whittaker's big spring, it isn't unreasonable to think that Texas will be able to run the ball at a more effective rate this season. But the key could be Brown, who will be the most complete back on the roster from the day he straps on pads.
Run the ball, protect it and Gilbert can be an effective Big 12 quarterback. If not, don't be surprised if the Longhorns are looking to another signal caller sooner rather than later.
What's the role of D.J. Monroe?
Monroe is far-and-away one of the Big 12's most fascinating players. He's seemingly too small to be an every-down back, and according to last year's coaches, he couldn't pass block or catch the ball effectively enough to be a third-down back.
But with Marquise Goodwin running track this year, Monroe could be the Big 12's fastest player with the ball under his arm, a dynamic runner capable of taking it to the house on every touch. It says something that he was able to average what he did on his touches last year despite everybody in the stadium knowing that when he entered the game, he was going to carry the ball.
And it says even more that at seemingly every high school stop he made, offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin talked up Monroe as a weapon he's excited to utilize. With Monroe's unique talent base, and Harsin's high level of creativity, it will be interesting to see just how the Longhorns use him in the fall. He's an explosive player capable of racking up yardage in big chunks, just the kind of big-play weapon Texas needs.
Which of the new players will help out at cornerback?
The situation at cornerback was so desperate in the spring that the Texas staff moved both Adrian Phillips and Bryant Jackson from safety to provide depth. Phillips moved straight into the starting lineup, while true freshman Quandre Diggs was the team's No. 3 corner by the end of the spring.
It's likely that at least one more of the freshmen will be counted on to supply key depth. On National Signing Day, Texas coach Mack Brown said that three of the four newcomers in the fall would start off at corner in Sheroid Evans, Leroy Scott and Josh Turner. Evans seems to be a natural safety, but the depth issues are such that one of those three could play a role this year. Scott is a swing player: he could play either corner or safety, and has the power in his hands to shock receivers at the point of attack. Turner is a slender cover corner with the athleticism to cover receivers right now, but he needs to bulk up.
There's potential with this group, but with a starting lineup of Phillips and fellow sophomore Carrington Byndom, and possibly two freshmen after that, Texas will need the young players to develop quickly.
Who's the defensive tackle next to Kheeston Randall?
Alex Okafor's move out to end is a double positive, as he wasn't big enough to hold up against the run a year ago, and he appeared to take well to his new role at defensive end. However, his absence means that somebody needs to step up opposite Randall, the most active defensive tackle in the league.
In the spring, that guy was Calvin Howell, who appeared to make a major improvement from his redshirt freshman year. But two guys can not a defensive tackle group make. At least two players from the young group of Ashton Dorsey, Greg Daniels, Taylor Bible, De'Aires Cotton and Desmond Jackson will need to solidify the two-deep. Daniels and Dorsey appear to be the most likely candidates. Daniels is a former defensive end who brings quickness and athleticism to the position. But Dorsey was the only one of a stacked freshman class last year to play. He's more of a squat, nose type.
Jackson's the one to watch because of his ability to jump the snap and cause havoc in the backfield. If he's ready to go, it would go a long way toward helping the Longhorns field a dominant defensive line, especially with what appears to be a very good defensive end group.
What did the Longhorns learn from last season?
As poor as last season was, it's worth noting that the Longhorns weren't far from having a decent — though not typically good — year. They were in games against Oklahoma, Iowa State, Baylor and Texas A&M, and with another play or two, could have won all four.
But Texas finished minus-12 in turnover margin — 116th in the country — and seemed to implode in their most important moments. Even a blowout loss to UCLA could have been a win had the Longhorns reigned in their mistakes. The Longhorns showed an inability to deal with adversity as well, which wasn't a huge surprise for a program that hadn't really dealt with a lot of it in the recent past.
That was last year. Now it's important to find out what the Longhorns learned. Will they be better in those tough situations this year? Will the leadership be better because the players will have a chance to point at last year as an example of what happens when everybody doesn't hold up their end? Will it lead to a more humble, workmanlike attitude for a program that everyone involved called a bit arrogant at times last year?
All of those are questions that will see answers on the field. If Texas can grow from last year's experiences, it could be the gas that propels a young team to better-than-expected results.