Oh what a difference a year makes.
The position with the biggest question mark heading into last season is now the most settled position on the team with Colt McCoy firmly taking the reigns of what is shaping up to be an explosive offense. The question now has to do with how prepared his true freshman backup is. If McCoy falls pray to injury, as he did in 2006, he'll be replaced by the very inexperienced John Chiles. Chiles has shown remarkable skill as a runner, but still has a lot more kinks to work out in the passing game. When Chiles steps in to relieve McCoy on Saturday (and hopefully it'll be because McCoy is voluntarily leaving the field and still upright), the offense will rely much more on the Zone Read and one-read sprint-outs to take advantage of Chiles' impressive speed.
Behind Chiles is Sherrod Harris, who lost out in the race for the backup job. Of course, it wasn't entirely due to performance. Coaches consistently insisted that the backup battle was neck-and-neck all the way through spring and summer and, indeed, each was getting equal reps. But Harris sprained his MCL in August camp, opening the door for Chiles to take his opportunity. True freshman G.J. Kinne will redshirt in 2007, according to Mack Brown, assuming there's not a rash of injuries.
It's put up or shut up time for the Texas running game. The players and coaches defend it, but last season's running game was largely seen as the liability in the Texas offense. This season, more than finding a reliable fullback, more than a successful passing game and perhaps even more than improvement in offensive line play, the most important element in an improved Texas rushing attack is Jamaal Charles returning to the dominance he showed flashes of in 2005.
Charles led the team with 831 rushing yards on 156 totes last season, but saw his average ypg dip from 7.4 to 5.3. There were times last season when coaches privately questioned Charles' physical toughness and ball security, but that seems like ancient history these days when Charles is touted as The Man in the Longhorn backfield.
Backing up Charles will be Chris Ogbonnaya. The tough runner has played seemingly every position under the sun and has been raising eyebrows since his solid showing last spring. Ogbonnaya beat out redshirt freshman Vondrell McGee for the backup job, but the diminutive McGee should still figure into the rushing offense.
At fullback, walk-on Luke Tiemann is penciled in as the starter over redshirt freshman Antwan Cobb, but Texas will primarily employ a three-wide, one-back set. The fullback who may be most important to the Texas offense isn't even listed as a fullback. It's defensive tackle Derek Lokey. The mauler at DT was incredibly effective at moving the pile last season and the Horns' running game suffered noticeably when he was injured. This year, Lokey will return to his role as goal line fullback.
Well, at least it was the deepest unit on the team. Injuries to four, that's right, count 'em, four Texas wide receivers raises a lot of concern for the Longhorn wide receiving corps.
Senior Limas Sweed, who tied the Texas single-season receiving touchdowns record last year with 12, is the main target, but is listed as "probable" for the opener against Arkansas State. Sweed insists, however, that he will be ready to go and that reports about the severity of his sprained wrist have been highly exaggerated.
Senior Billy Pittman is another matter. After injuring his shoulder while falling down in practice, Pittman is out for the opener and perhaps more (although his arm is finally out of the sling, which bodes well). In addition, redshirt freshman Phillip Payne has also not been cleared to play because of a leg injury. Junior Jordan Shipley is "doubtful," but will suit up and see limited action, primarily as the team's holder.
But where each falls, another talented receiver takes his place.
Quan Cosby, who started last season and caught 45 passes for 525 yards (second on the team in each), steps in as the starter at split end and senior Nate Jones, who had 13 catches for 153 yards last year, gets the start at flanker. The receivers the Texas coaches have been talking the most about, though, are the three true freshmen, James Kirkendoll, Brandon Collins and Malcolm Williams. Expect all three to suit up and play in 2007.
Jermichael Finley accounted for 372 yards on 31 grabs during his redshirt-freshman campaign. However, he became more of the go-to guy during the latter part of the season as more than half of his catches (16) came during the final four ball games. 2007 looks to be a breakout year for the sophomore because the chiseled athletic freak has developed into one of McCoy's favorite targets.
After Finley, though, it gets a little dicey. Peter Ullman is Finley's backup, but Ullman is known much more for his blocking than his pass-catching. Josh Marshall moved from WR to TE and has no experience as a tight end, so he's got the exact opposite problem. A candidate to eventually take the No. 2 TE spot is Blaine Irby. The true freshman has been compared favorably to former Longhorn tight end David Thomas and may figure into the rotation this season.
Dallas Griffin, Sr.
Tony Hills, Sr.
Cedric Dockery, Jr.
Chris Hall, Soph.
Charlie Tanner, Soph.
Adam Ulatoski, Soph.
Buck Burnette, RS-Fr.
Britt Mitchell, RS-Fr.
Steve Moore, RS-Fr.
Greg Smith, RS-Fr.
Tray Allen, Fr.
Kyle Hix, Fr.
Michael Huey, Fr.
Aundre McGaskey, Fr.
Matt Nader, Fr.
Offensive line is another position where starters looking very promising with very little experience in the backups. The Longhorns return both of their starting tackles in Tony Hills and Adam Ulatoski, but they will each be backed up by true freshmen Tray Allen and Kyle Hix, respectively. Mack Brown traditionally doesn't play true freshman O-linemen, but he'll play at least two, and probably three, this season.
The interior of the line is a different story from the exterior. Lots of depth, but few proven commodities. Cedric Dockery was the starter at right guard last season until he tore his ACL against Oklahoma, but he's only listed as a co-starter with sophomore Chris Hall, who shot up the depth chart after a breakout performance in August camp. Hall could also end up starting over center Dallas Griffin, who will make his starting debut after four years on campus. Further depth at guard and center will be provided this year primarily by tight end, then tackle, then finally guard Britt Mitchell, center Buck Burnette, guard Steve Moore and true freshman guard Michael Huey.
Great teams have great lines. It's tough win without one and the offensive line will once again be a huge key for Texas because McCoy must remain healthy and the running game must move the ball.
With the the health of the four different Texas receivers in question, it puts the title of "deepest unit on the team" with the defensive line. It seems a little odd to say, given that Texas lost both starting defensive ends to the NFL, but with the experience and talent that starters Aaron Lewis and Brian Orakpo bring, combined with the depth at the position, DE will be a strength for the Horns. Orakpo and Lewis, despite not being the starters last season, combined for 7.5 sacks in 2006 and should put up many more this year.
Lamarr Houston and Eddie Jones bring great potential as the primary back-ups, each coming very highly touted out of high school and Houston contributing significantly as a true freshman on both special teams and as a backup defensive end.
The D-line will need to get to the quarterback in 2007, especially to help the young secondary mature.
This is where the real meat on the roster is, and I don't just mean in weight. With three very, very experienced seniors, including preseason All-American Frank Okam, and proven junior co-starter Roy Miller as the top four DTs, the middle of the Texas defensive line will be hard move in 2007. These guys were one of the main reasons for Texas' success defending the run last year and the Texas D will look to have the same success this year (except this time also stopping the pass).
Jumping into the fray and providing depth will be sophomore Ben Alexander, redshirt freshman Brian Ellis (a massive swing DT/DE) and true freshmen Tyrell Higgins and Michael Wilcoxon.
There's plenty to be confident about the defensive line, but the linebackers are still a "we'll see" to most Texas fans. What was supposed to be the rock of the defense in 2006, instead looked at times to be a group of individually talented players that weren't in sync all season and were heading in every direction exempt to the ball.
New Co-DC and linebackers coach Larry Mac Duff aims to change that and he's got an experienced group of players to do it with. Robert Killebrew as the SAM (strongside) and Rashad Bobino as the MIKE (middle) 'backer are settled, but the WILL (weakside) position isn't. Senior Scott Derry will get the initial nod on the weakside, but he's also listed as a co-starter with sophomore Roddrick Muckelroy, who started last season until nerve damage in one of his fingers sidelined him for the year. But it may not matter that much, as Texas coaches have openly discussed platooning two units of linebackers and having groups of three switch out frequently during the game.
A player that will be missing from group No. 2 for the first three games is Sergio Kindle. Kindle and defensive end Henry Melton were suspended after DWI arrests. Redshirt freshman Dustin Earnest beat out true freshman Keenan Robinson to take Kindle's place in the second unit at SAM. Jared Norton is the backup at middle linebacker.
And now we come to the most questioned position on the team: cornerback.
But the corners know that they're being questioned and are taking it a challenge to show that they're up to snuff. Statistically, they can't be worse than last year's pass defense (3,071 passing yards, 99th nationally, worst in school history) and they'll get a boost with Co-DC Duane Akina's attacking scheme, but Texas head coach Mack Brown admitted that the Horns may have to use more man than zone initially to help the young guys along. Once they're good and ready, though, expect a huge mix of mans, zones and blitzes to confuse opposing QBs.
The main man at corner is senior Brandon Foster. The speedster (he claims to be the second fastest player on the team behind All-American sprinter Jamaal Charles) is ready to step into the limelight after years of waiting behind a cavalcade of talented corners. Alongside Foster will be junior Ryan Palmer and sophomore Deon Beasley, who each contributed significantly last season and redshirt freshman Chykie Brown, a talented lockdown corner who could be Texas' breakout player.
The depth chart is also littered with true freshmen CBs. Expect Curtis Brown, Earl Thomas and Ben Wells to each get into the mix.
Safety is definitely heavy on experience...perhaps a little too heavy. There are six safeties on the roster, but four of them are seniors, which doesn't bode well for 2008.
As for this season, Texas should be well taken care of by returning senior starter Marcus Griffin, who is backed up at free safety by senior co-starter Drew Kelson, and senior Erick Jackson, a head-knocking strong safety who will be backed up by sophomore Ishie Oduegwu. Senior Tyrell Gatewood is a swing safety and will provide depth at both positions and at wide receiver, where he has been working due to the tentative health of Texas' top wideouts.
The Longhorns look to be solid at safety for now, anyway, but expect a very different story next year.
Kicker is settled, punter is not. Previously a walk-on, junior kicker Ryan Bailey was awarded a scholarship last week and is Texas' starting kicker. Bailey's first collegiate kick was the game-winner against Nebraska last season and went on to make each of his six attempts, including a 48-yarder in the Alamo Bowl against Iowa. Sophomore Hunter Lawrence, possessing the strongest leg on the team, will handle kick-offs, which has become an even more important aspect of the game now that kick-offs have been moved back to the 30, allowing for more returns.
Punter, however, is listed on the Texas depth chart as a three-way battle between Trevor Gerland, Justin Moore and Bailey. Bailey is a long shot because Brown likes to avoid having a player handle both kicking and punting duties, but according to coaches, Gerland and the walk-on Moore are still neck-and-neck.
It may be settled this week against Arkansas State.
...assuming Texas ever punts in the game.
[Inside Texas lead writer Bill Frisbie also contributed to this article]