My how fast time has flown. Texas football is already here again...ok, spring practice is here, but with the beginning of workouts come questions that must be answered by the players at all positions. The end of the 2007, a dominating victory over Arizona State, left Texas fans with hope, but also a lot of questions of their own.
Spring practice for the Texas Longhorns begins on Friday with at 3:45 p.m. workout and will continue on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. Both practices will be open to the public and will be Longhorn fans' only chance to catch this team before the Spring Scrimmage on March 29th.
With spring football gearing up, Inside Texas addresses the top questions facing each position.
What role will John Chiles have in the Texas offense?
If the Holiday Bowl is any indication, Chiles will have a big role in the Texas offense. Chiles is a dynamic player who can give the Longhorns a lot of options at the position, but make no mistake, this is Colt McCoy's team. McCoy has established himself as a definitive leader for the Horns and will continue in that role. There is no quarterback controversy as McCoy will maintain his hold as the team's starter, but expect to see more of Chiles in roles other than just "back-up."
With the departure of Jamaal Charles, will Texas be able to put together an elite-level, a Texas-level, running game?
Yes, if Vondrell McGee is ready. McGee showed flashes of brilliance in his redshirt freshman season and has been thrown into the spotlight now that Charles is headed for the NFL. Chris Ogbonnaya is a senior, but he'll likely maintain his role as a third-down back for the Longhorns. There are some talented younger players like Cody Johnson or Foswhitt Whitaker who will get a shot, but for Texas it's probably going to be McGee or bust on the running game in terms of reaching elite status.
The top question at full back is...Does Texas even have a fullback?
Texas has made little use of the I-formation ever since Ahmard Hall graduated and became the starting fullback for the Tennessee Titans. Over the past two seasons, the most consistent fullback that the Longhorns have made use of has been defensive tackle Derek Lokey, who now too has completed his eligibility at Texas. The Longhorns must find an effective fullback to return to an offense with a more straight-ahead attack. The most likely candidate is Antwan Cobb, who was lost for the 2007 season almost immediately after winning the job, but don't count out halfback Cody Johnson, who has the power to become a quality fullback as well. Senior Luke Tiemann has the most experience at the position, but give the edge to Cobb in the battle to bring the position back to prominence...or at least as much prominence as a fullback can have, anyway.
Can Texas replace the production of all the departed senior receivers?
Limas Sweed, Billy Pittman and Nate Jones are gone, but a big corps of receivers are waiting in the wings. Much of the talent is unproven, but the potential replacements are numerous, including five true freshmen who will battle for playing time. Seniors Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley (Ship is technically a senior, but he could get an additional year if he applies for a medical redshirt) will take the starting flanker and sub-B positions, but Texas must address the starting split end position, which Sweed vacates. Look for big wideouts Montre Webber, Phillip Payne, Malcolm Williams and true freshman Dan Buckner to be locked in a battle for the final starting spot.
Will Texas find a big-play tight end?
Jermichael Finley is a big loss for the Texas offense and the Horns will look to replace at least part of Finley's productivity. Senior Peter Ullman will be on the field in two-tight sets, but the big man is regarded primarily as an effective blocker. Sophomore Blaine Irby is candidate No. 1 for taking over the big-play TE role, but keep and eye on Josh Marshall, a converted wide receiver who can also stretch the field.
Can Texas form a singular, solid offensive line?
Injuries devastated the Texas O-line last season and a lack of depth behind the starters led to three true freshman playing on the offensive line, a position Texas head coach Mack Brown does not prefer to play freshmen at. But for all of the depth problems the injuries caused, perhaps the greatest issue was inconsistency born from a constantly changing unit. The best example of this was Chris Hall, who literally played on all five positions on the offensive line last season. The line will be much more settled in 2008 and all of the linemen who played in the 2007 Holiday Bowl victory are back. Expect a much more experienced, and consistent, offensive line this coming season.
Are the Texas DEs going to have the breakout season Texas fans have been waiting for?
Defensive end was a position Longhorn fans were expecting big things from in 2007, with good reason. The talent was there, but injuries to both starters hampered performance. With Aaron Lewis and Brian Orakpo back as seniors, and healthy, the defensive ends should be one of the strongest positions on the team...in theory, anyway.
The easy answer is very experienced senior DT Roy Miller, but in a 4-3 scheme one needs another DT to step into the starting line-up. The safest bet is junior Ben Alexander, but keep and eye out for sophomore Brian Ellis, who, because of the lack of depth at the position, could go from a player who never had his name called in 2007 to a starter in 2008. The younger players typically play a role at DT, but the performances of Michael Wilcoxon, Jarvis Humphrey and Kheeston Randall could be very, very big this season.
Under the guidance of Will Muschamp, can the linebackers once again become a dominant force for the Texas defense?
Muschamp will definitely have the talent to work with. Texas fans have been salivating over the prospects of Sergio Kindle, Roddrick Muckelroy and Jared Norton all starting on the same field and 2008 is when that will likely happen. Senior Rashad Bobino will play a big role, but he was unseeded as starting middle linebacker in the Holiday Bowl by the younger Norton and expect that to remain true this season. Muschamp brings a fiery demeanor and swarming scheme that fits well with the speedy linebackers Texas has to offer him and the prospects for a more effective LB corps are positive, but we'll have to see how the new coach interacts with and uses his players to see if he's going to get the job done or is just more talk.
Are the corners up to the task of bringing the Texas defensive backfield back on track?
When ranked so near the bottom of the nation in pass defense, it's hard to go anywhere but up. But regardless of the situation with the national rankings, the Texas defensive backfield must improve for the Longhorns to be successful and that starts with the one-on-one match-ups at corner. Texas brought in a high-profile class of corners in 2007, but most of those freshmen had little opportunity to make their mark last season. While Ryan Palmer and Deon Beasley are the likely starters, look for Chykie Brown, Curtis Brown and Earl Thomas to play bigger roles. Also, don't count out true freshmen D.J. Monroe and Aaron Williams, who are two exceptionally fast freshmen Mack Brown brought in for 2008.
Who are the safeties for this team?
With seemingly all of the safeties from last year's team gone, the options seem to be limited. The most proven player is junior Ishie Oduegwu, so he's a shoe-in for one of the starting jobs, but much will depend on the development of redshirt freshman Christian Scott. Scott was highly-touted coming out of high school, but don't count out converted corner Ben Wells, who could steal the spot from Scott. Brown also mentioned in his signing day press conference that, due to lack of depth at the position, both true freshmen Nolan Brewster and Blake Gideon will get a shot. For now, the second starting spot at safety is nearly a toss-up.
Will Justin Tucker beat out any of the veterans as a true freshman?
Starting kicker and punter is pretty solidly set with senior Ryan Bailey and Justin Moore, but the strong-legged Tucker could have kick-off specialist Hunter Lawrence looking in his rear-view mirror. Tucker's power on kick-off is what he was most known for at Westlake and he'll be right in the thick of the competition as true freshman. It may not just be kick-off duties that he takes, though. If he's got the ability, he can steal kicker or punter as well, but he may be a bit off from developing the accuracy to catch his compatriots. Tucker will be in the mix, though, at each position.