2005 Position-by-Position Preview: WR

Most of the preseason media attention has focused on the void in the Texas backfield, but the most critical area for offensive improvement in 2005 is at wide receiver. Pushing the WRs toward a championship level of play was the offensive emphasis during the second half of spring drills. It begs the question: are we there yet?

Just days before the Orange-White game last April, head coach Mack Brown was convinced the receiving corps still wasn't where it needed to be. That's why he and QB Vince Young, on separate occasions, took SE Limas Sweed aside for a little heart-to-heart. The message was simple and direct: it's time to step up.

Brown publicly praised Sweed's improvement at the end of spring drills, while another coach privately said the RS-sophomore would make a circus catch on one play and then drop a ball that him on the numbers. The Horns need Sweed to emerge as a consistent downfield threat and to use that 6-5 frame to go up and make the grab. While coaches conceded they fudged a little when listing former WR Roy Williams at 6-5, Sweed is a true 6-5 and will have a size advantage over virtually every DB he faces this season. Now, he is poised for the breakout season that many expected of him last year.

Coaches forced the issue with him during the Orange-White Game when TE David Thomas saw little action ("We already know what he can do", Brown said) while the jury is still out on Sweed, despite the fact that he started seven games in '04 (263 yards on 23 receptions). During the opening series of the spring game, three of the first six plays were throws to Sweed. He caught two of them, including 33-yarder on a streak route. He later laid out his body on a nine-yard reception to successfully complete the game's only fourth-down conversion, setting up the game's only touchdown. Following the game, Sweed said the night was indicative of his newfound focus and attitude, vowing to train hard this summer during voluntary workouts.

Backups Brian Carter (three starts in 2004) and Myron Hardy also improved this spring, Brown said, but he notes that this will be Sweed's third year in the system. It's time for him to be a playmaker.

For my money, the most wide-open battle for playing time this August is not at TB (I think the beefed-up RB Selvin Young was the heir apparent all along) but at flanker. Nate Jones is penciled in atop the depth chart, but keep your eraser handy. Jordan Shipley will push Jones for the starting job, and one UT coach said Shipley was well on his way to starting last season before he tore the ACL in his left knee.

Jones played in 11 games as a true freshman, starting five of them, but had a rather pedestrian season. He finished with 73 yards on just seven catches but has shown a knack (at least in high school) for getting separation from a DB just as the ball arrives. One would need a U-Haul, however, to tote Shipley's press clippings from his prep star days as a Burnet Bulldog. His 264 career catches for 5,424 yards is not only a state record, it also ranks No. 2 all-time nationally. So does his 73 career touchdowns.

Shipley wore a knee brace strictly as a precaution during spring drills (he told me he didn't think he needed it, that it got in the way but that he was going to do exactly as the training staff directed him). These days, the general consensus is that Shipley is nearly at full-throttle. He understands that his knee won't be fully tested until he is in full pads and then tries to "stop on a dime" and juke DBs like he did prior to the injury.

"I trust (the knee) enough to do what I'm doing on it," Shipley said. "It's just the game situation is a little bit different."

Those game situations will almost certainly involve two-time All-Stater Quan Cosby. The 2001 recruit spent the past three years in the Anaheim Angels farm system and Brown says he is just as fast as RB Ramonce Taylor. (Both have reportedly clocked at just under 4.3). Cosby completed his contractual obligations with the Angels minor league baseball organization in June and has worked out with the Horns this summer. As we reported in last week's Inside Scoop, Brown said that Cosby will "probably be able to return kicks and punts and hopefully will be a factor in the receiving corps. But that's something we won't know for two weeks, to see how fast he's come on. It's really been a benefit for him to have quit baseball and to have been there all summer."

Even though future Longhorn RB Jamaal Charles was named the Offensive MVP at Tuesday's Texas High School Coaches Association All-Star Game in San Antonio, teammate and WR Jermichael Finley put on a clinic with 100 yards on five grabs. Most of Finley's damage was down in the first half, including a 27-yard TD reception in double coverage. The former first-team 3A all-stater did not have a single drop and, at 6-5, 220 pounds, has already drawn comparisons to Randy Moss (in the best sense of the word).

Can we reasonably expect the receivers to step up and make this offense fly?

They have to, Brown said.

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