A team is only as good as its front line, a wave of experienced starters ready to supply leadership in the offseason and in the locker room, while providing the difference between winning and losing close games. But a program is only as strong as the next men up, the players who will be called upon after those front-line the year that those experienced players leave.
One-by-one, we're taking looks at each position on the Texas team, looking only at the sophomores, freshmen and committed recruits for the future. And Texas has some proven players on the special teams circuit.
The one place that Texas does seem to be pretty solid is at kicker. In Nick Jordan and Nick Rose, the Longhorns have two players who kicked extensively as freshmen, and who have the leg talent to project as excellent kickers the rest of their careers.
Jordan has a great leg, but must become a bit more consistent after making 9-of-15 field goals and 31-of-32 extra points a year ago. He has that ability — Jordan was considered a pretty clutch kicker at Coppell — though in order to do so, he'll have to hold off the hard-charging Rose.
While Jordan is the scholarship player, and Rose the walk-on, that distinction might not be readily apparent to someone attending spring practice. Rose has a fantastic kickoff leg — Texas coach Mack Brown regularly singled out Rose's ability to pin teams closer than the 25 (the new touchback distance last year). Rose had the leg to boot each kickoff out of the back of the end zone, but mostly did so only when asked, only putting 30 of his 82 kickoffs back for touchbacks.
Rose didn't attempt any field goals last year, but made more of a push this spring, when both he and Jordan took two field goals in the spring game. Jordan made both of his attempts, from 19 and 25. Rose made a 34-yarder, but missed a 42-yard attempt. The battle should continue on into the fall — with senior kicker Anthony Fera joining in — and potentially on into next year.
Ben Pruitt is another non-scholarship kicker who has a chance to compete for a job, further adding to Texas's depth there.
But while Texas has serious competition among its young kickers, the Longhorns don't have any young punters in the system. That's not altogether unusual. Texas already has one punter on scholarship in junior William Russ (two if you count Fera, who does both), meaning the Longhorns are using three scholarships at the kicker/punter positions, more than many teams.
Because of that, it should be another year or two before Texas pursues a scholarship player at the punter position.
Of course, the other parts of special teams are fielding 1) a dangerous return man and 2) capable units that can block and cover. On the latter part, Texas appears well-positioned. The Longhorns have done a great job of recruiting excellent athletes (and jumbo athletes) like Dalton Santos and the young linebacker group who thrive in those roles. That's one area where Texas's depth really helps out. While so many teams have to field a number of starters on special teams to be strong there, Texas can get by almost using special teams as an apprenticeship for younger players, allowing them to gain valuable experience.
There's a bit more question on the returner front, but not much of one. Daje Johnson was OK as a kickoff returner on his four attempts last year, though he didn't get a chance to break any, he's shown that kind of game-breaking potential in other phases. And guys like Jacorey Warrick, Chevoski Collins and Roderick Bernard could factor in as punt returners, while Antwuan Davis and Montrel Meander have outstanding pure speed for kickoff returns, as does Kendall Sanders. So there aren't really any proven returners yet, but several Longhorn players have that kind of skill set.
With the way teams recruit on special teams, it's hard to ask for more than two kickers who saw extensive experience as freshmen and the kind of coverage and return potential that the Longhorns have both with athletes on the roster and those coming in later. Texas has been pretty strong on special teams for much of Longhorn coach Mack Brown's tenure — especially at kicker — and the Longhorns have the pieces to continue to be strong there for the foreseeable future.