CHIP DIP #1 ... Before we get to my - position by position - preview of spring football, which starts on Tuesday, a few general thoughts on Tom Herman, the new coaching staff and player buy-in up to this point.
I think Herman has done a great job of leveraging his position as the new coach to get as much as he can get done in terms of short-range improvements to facilities (locker room, weight room, Moncrief first-floor graphics, etc) and imaging (hiring graphics designer Matt Lange from Alabama and bypassing Chris Plonsky's cumbersome/inconsistent approval for recruiting imaging).
His getting Bill Belichick to speak to Texas' high school coaches' clinic April 7-8 as well as the hiring of Bob Shipley as director of high school relations (while also having Hardee McCrary still in the athletic department as well) were clear signals to the Texas High School Coaches Association that Herman values their relationship very much.
Now, comes the part that matters most. Getting the physical and mental buy-in that has occurred in winter conditioning to show up with the pads on.
The three most important positions in this coaching staff's eyes are: quarterback, middle/inside linebacker and field safety.
I think Breckyn Hager and Jeffrey McCulloch will get serious looks at middle/inside linebacker, because they are vocal and physical.
At field safety, my early favorite is P.J. Locke III, because he's vocal and physical.
Now, at quarterback ...
CHIP DIP #2 ... QUARTERBACK
Shane Buechele has already put numbers in the books - 21 TDs, 11 INTs while completing 60.4 percent of his passes in going 5-7 as the starter in his true freshman season.
Buechele has the experience of winning a big-atmosphere game like Notre Dame. He's shown poise beyond his years. He's tough - playing with injured ribs after the Cal game and with a sprained thumb down the stretch of last season. Now, he has to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff.
Thanks to a tweet by Dylan Haines, we know early enrollee freshman QB Sam Ehlinger is certainly an alpha male. He's bigger physically (6-2, 220) than Buechele (6-1, 195) and now has to show his success at Westlake - leading his team to a 6A state title game two years ago and to a comeback win over Katy last season - can translate to Texas.
BOTTOM LINE: Ehlinger has the ability to push Buechele in every way, which benefits both men, the offense and the entire team.
It's Buechele's starting job to lose. But Ehlinger is coming for it.
Let's see if Matthew Merrick can convince the coaches he's the No. 3 QB. Otherwise, Jerrod Heard would like be the emergency No. 3
PLAYER TO WATCH: Ehlinger. He's a quick study who played for a demanding, top-notch offensive minded coach at Westlake in Todd Dodge. No matter where he stands coming out of the spring, he'll never stop pushing to become the starter. That's just what the position needs - great, healthy competition between two guys capable of leading their team to victories.
CHIP DIP #3 ... RUNNING BACK
In talking to Chris Warren Jr., the Pro Bowl RB father of Chris Warren III, he said his son has drawn inspiration from D'Onta Foreman's 2,000-yard rushing season in 2016.
By all accounts, Warren III has been locked in during winter conditioning and plans to have a big year.
BOTTOM LINE: Warren appears to have a lock on the between-the-tackles running with Kyle Porter and Daniel Young backing him up.
The real question is if Kirk Johnson can stay healthy and hold off early enrollee freshman Toneil Carter as the change of pace back capable of catching balls out of the backfield?
PLAYER TO WATCH: Kirk Johnson. Y'all know I've been a big Kirko Grinds guy, and I'm not giving up on him yet. I think he's one of the surprise players on offense this season.
CHIP DIP #4 ... TIGHT END
Peyton Aucoin - are you ready for your closeup?
BOTTOM LINE: With Andrew Beck out for the spring with a broken foot and Cade Brewer not arriving until June (and Reese Leitao possibly not arriving at all), the focus will be on the redshirt freshman from Louisiana, who has the measurables (6-4, 250) and high school film that shows he's an eager and willing blocker.
Now, we have to see if Aucoin (No. 88) has the hands to be a receiving threat. If Garrett Gray ever wanted an opportunity, here it is. Walk-on Chris Fehr (No. 89), who is 6-3, 240, will get some work in spring ball as well.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Who else? Aucoin.
CHIP DIP #5 ... RECEIVER
I've reported extensively in HD ONLY about how Armanti Foreman, Devin Duvernay, Jerrod Heard and John Burt - perhaps UT's four fastest wideouts on the team - were told to get into the best shape of their lives and this coaching staff would work to get the ball in their hands any way imaginable (short throws, long throws, handoffs, speed sweeps, you name it).
Now, we'll see who took their coaches seriously. From what I've heard, they have.
So has 6-5 receiver Collin Johnson, one of the hardest workers on the team. Collin should pick up where he left off at the end of last season and continue to be the mismatch/playmaker he showed he can be.
BOTTOM LINE: Even with Jake Oliver moving on from football, this is probably the deepest and most talented position on the team when you also consider Dorian Leonard, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Davion Curtis and Reggie Hemphill.
Tom Herman has never had this much receiver talent to work with - at any point in his coaching career as a head coach or assistant.
PLAYER TO WATCH: John Burt. I hear Burt was slow to buy in to the arrival of Herman, who then asked him not to run track this spring, so he could focus on football. Is Burt ready to shed the struggles of last season or still trying to get his mind right?
CHIP DIP #6 ... OFFENSIVE LINE
We know what All-American LT Connor Williams can do. And we know what C Zach Shackelford, OG/C Jake McMillon as well as RTs Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nickelson can do as well.
BOTTOM LINE: Where the intrigue begins is how the young guys on the line - guys like OG Patrick Hudson and OTs Denzel Okafor and Jean Delance - compete with veteran guys trying to reclaim a starting spot (OG Patrick Vahe) or hold onto a starting spot (RTs Hodges and Nickelson). I keep hearing this group is ready to put the pads on. Let's see.
This position should be a strength this season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: The Patricks - as in Vahe and Hudson. With OG Kent Perkins gone, if Patrick Vahe doesn't come out on fire to get back the starting OG job he lost to Jake McMillon last season, he could be passed up by Patrick Hudson, who I think coaches are very intrigued by as a possible LG complement next to Connor Williams.
CHIP DIP #7 ... DEFENSIVE END
The guys who figure to be battling for starting jobs are sophomore-to-be Malcolm Roach, senior-to-be Naashon Hughes and junior-to-be Charles Omenihu (6-6, 254). Andrew Fitzgerald (6-5, 252) is coming out of a redshirt at DE and could be a wildcard.
Another guy to keep an eye on is D'Andre Christmas (6-2, 292), who could be a guy capable of playing both DE in the 3-4 as well as the 3-technique DT in the 4-3.
BOTTOM LINE: Roach, who started five games last season and finished with three sacks and eight TFLs, figures to be making the move from OLB to DE, because he's approaching 270 pounds. He's done everything right since Herman took over - once he learned to sit up a little more straight in team meetings.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Naashon Hughes. At nearly 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds and an arm-length likely in the 30-inch range, Hughes has Pro Day All-American written all over him. But the production (24 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks in 2016) just hasn't been there.
Could Hughes have the same kind of senior year for Texas that Tyus Bowser had for Houston as a senior last season? Bowser was a guy who lacked production and then erupted with 12.5 sacks as a senior and is now seen as a top 100 pick in this year's NFL Draft.
CHIP DIP #8 ... DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Senior-to-be Poona Ford has experience and finished fourth on the team in tackles last season. But he's also 5-foot-11, 303 pounds and hasn't shown he can collapse the pocket and get to the quarterback (he had zero sacks in 2016).
Chris Nelson has experience as well - but also may lack the length/strength to be as disruptive as Todd Orlando wants. (Nelson had just 1.5 sacks last season.)
Based on Orlando's comments, so far, it sounds like he wants more "length" at DT, and that would be good news for sophomore-to-be Jordan Elliott (6-4, 318) as well as Gerald Wilbon (6-2, 329), Chris Daniels (6-2, 335) and D'Andre Christmas (6-2, 292). Although Orlando said he'd like to see some of his big fellas trimmed up. So expect to see the weights for Wilbon and Daniels to drop.
BOTTOM LINE: I'm hearing there could be some unexpected attrition in this group, which is not good. The length Orlando is looking for is unproven. This group needs to have a big spring.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jordan Elliott. I'm hearing Elliott's workouts and lower hip flexibility has some of the staff making comparisons to Houston freshman Ed Oliver. NOT in pads. Just in winter conditioning and ability to get low, contort his body and maintain leverage, speed and upfield progress.
Now, let's see if Elliott can still draw those comparisons AFTER spring football.
CHIP DIP #9 ... LINEBACKER
I think this is the best position battle of the spring.
Orlando said arguably the two most important positions on his defense are the middle/inside linebacker and the field safety - because they have to set the tone vocally and, most importantly, physically.
Orlando said "two to three guys" would get a look at middle/inside linebacker and then all but confirmed two of those will be Breckyn Hager and Jeffrey McCulloch.
BOTTOM LINE: Hager showed he's a more-than-capable DE/OLB last season, and he showed he's all about production. With only five starts, Hager finished second on the team in tackles and first in sacks (6.0) and TFLs (13.5). His father - Britt Hager - was an animal, All-American middle linebacker who still ranks as UT's all-time leading tackler (499, 1985-88).
McCulloch showed he'd play physical last season - sometimes too physical with a couple ill-timed personal fouls. Nonetheless, Anthony Wheeler will have plenty of competition, because Erick Fowler (6-1, 240) could end up getting a look at inside LB as well.
Malik Jefferson will be making the move to weak side linebacker, arguably the glamor position of Orlando's defense. But there are no assurances Jefferson will win the job.
Orlando said he has made it very clear to Jefferson - in a constructive way - that he has to get back to being the savage hitter he showed he could be in his very first college game at Notre Dame in 2015, when he knifed through the line to crush ball carriers in the backfield.
When asked about expectations for Jefferson, Orlando said, "We'll see. It will be about my relationship with him and how he affects the rest of the unit."
Jefferson figures to get competition at WLB from Ed Freeman and JUCO transfer Gary Johnson (when Johnson arrives in June).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Hager. He's a vocal, emotional playmaker, which fits what coaches want at the middle LB position. But if someone else proves they can handle the middle/inside, does the coaching staff keep Hager as an OLB, because of his pass-rushing success last season?
CHIP DIP #10 ... SAFETY
P.J. Locke III's name was the first name out of safeties coach Craig Naivar's mouth when asked about leaders in his group. Locke's been a workout warrior in winter conditioning and has provided the vocal leadership coaches are looking for.
BOTTOM LINE: After Locke, I'm hearing it's DeShon Elliott, Jason Hall and then Brandon Jones. I've heard Jones was a little slow to warm up to the "culture shock" of Tom Herman's basic training approach to winter conditioning.
Keep an eye on Chris Brown in the spring as well coming out of a redshirt. Guy loves to strike and takes angles that remind me of Kenny Vaccaro.
PLAYER TO WATCH: P.J. Locke. When Orlando says middle/inside linebacker and field safety are the two most important positions in his defense, and it sounds like Locke is going to get the first look at field safety, that's reason enough.
CHIP DIP #11 ... CORNERBACK
This should be a great position battle this spring.
BOTTOM LINE: I'm hearing John Bonney, who came on at the end of last season, has had a really good winter but needs to become more vocal.
Sounds like Holton Hill and Davante Davis definitely needed to get used to the culture shock of Herman's winter conditioning. But I'm hearing both have come around.
Kris Boyd fits the description of the vocal, physical, nasty hitter the coaches are looking for at CB. The question for Boyd is seemingly always about if he's meeting the demands off the field.
Eric Cuffee is coming out of a redshirt. I haven't heard his name much, so he may need to make a strong impression in pads.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Hill and D Davis. They have too much talent not to get back to the promise they showed as freshmen - two seasons ago.
CHIP DIP #12 ... SPECIALISTS
Look for special teams to be a big priority for Tom Herman and special teams coach Craig Naivar in terms of how Texas sets up its returns, etc.
BOTTOM LINE: Ray Guy Award finalist punter Michael Dickson is nursing a hamstring injury, and will definitely start off spring ball in rehab.
Early enrollee JUCO K Joshua Rowland will get to show what he can do this spring.
There are lots of options in the return game, but the focus is likely to be on speed, meaning Devin Duvernay, Armanti Foreman, Chris Brown, Kris Boyd, etc.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Rowland. He was Tom Herman's first commit at Texas and needs to be part of the solution - not part of the problem as kicker has been for UT the past few seasons.
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