Practice has begun. The season opener is on the horizon. Football is back.
To preview Texas’ impending season, we’re spending part of August by asking 20 burning questions in 20 days.
No. 16: What position unit on this team is the biggest worry spot?
Let’s look at where the Longhorns are at, roster-wise. Note: Projected starters, for some spots, are just that — projections, especially on the offensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
QUARTERBACKS (3) — For starters: David Ash. Others: Tyrone Swoopes, Jerrod Heard.
QB breakdown: If Ash stays healthy, Texas has a shot. If he goes down, there goes the season. The real competition is at backup.
RUNNING BACKS (4) — For starters: Malcolm Brown. Others: Johnathan Gray, Donald Catalon, D’Onta Foreman.
RB breakdown: Brown gets stronger as the game goes on. Gray’s a workhorse too, but he’s coming off an Achilles injury. Catalon and Foreman bring solid credentials.
RECEIVERS (10) — For starters: Jaxon Shipley, Marcus Johnson, Daje Johnson. Others: Jacorey Warrick, Jake Oliver, Roderick Bernard, Armanti Foreman, Garrett Gray, Lorenzo Joe, Dorian Leonard.
WR breakdown: On the surface, it first appeared critical depth was lost once Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander were dismissed. But the top two playmakers — Shipley and the enigmatic Daje Johnson — are still here, and Marcus Johnson could be a sleeper pick for breakout performer of the year. Keep an eye on Joe, a superb athlete with QB smarts.
TIGHT ENDS (5) — For starters: Geoff Swaim. Others: Greg Daniels, John Harris, M.J. McFarland, Blake Whiteley.
TE breakdown: Of the four returning TEs, Daniels was the only one who caught any passes in the second half of any game last season. That’s exactly how many passes he caught all season, too. Same for Swaim.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (13) — For starters: C Dominic Espinosa, LT Desmond Harrison, RT Kennedy Estelle, LG Sedrick Flowers, RG Kent Perkins. Others: Camrhon Hughes, Curtis Riser, Rami Hammad, Darius James, Jake Raulerson, Alex Anderson, Terrell Cuney, Elijah Rodriguez.
OL breakdown: New OL coach Joe Wickline loves mixing and matching his lineup, and doesn’t want anyone pigeonholed into one particular spot. Espinosa’s entrenched at center, but the starting tackle jobs won’t be automatically given to Harrison and Estelle. This unit may be in flux early as Wickline tinkers.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (11) — For starters: DE Cedric Reed, DE Shiro Davis, DT Malcom Brown, DT Desmond Jackson. Others: Caleb Bluiett, Hassan Ridgeway, Bryce Cottrell, Derek Roberson, Poona Ford, Jake McMillon, Chris Nelson.
DL breakdown: As the season begins, this group’s the strength of the defense. Reed came back for his senior year to put up monster numbers after getting 10 sacks last year. Brown and Jackson are an awesome 1-2 punch in the middle. Those three can give Davis and Bluiett time to develop as the other end.
LINEBACKERS (11) — For starters: OLB Steve Edmond, ILB Dalton Santos, OLB Jordan Hicks. Others: Peter Jinkens, Demarco Cobbs, Tevin Jackson, Timothy Cole, Andrew Beck, Naashon Hughes, Deoundrei Davis, Cameron Hampton.
LB breakdown: Throughout Strong’s spring bus tour, he constantly said linebacker was a position that needed more depth. Edmond, Santos and Jinkens are all workmanlike players. None of them leave you breathless. Yes, Hicks is back from injury, but his durability’s a big question mark.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (14) — For starters: CB Quandre Diggs, CB Duke Thomas, FS Mykkele Thompson, SS Adrian Colbert. Others: Josh Turner, Sheroid Evans, Bryson Echols, Kevin Vaccaro, Antwuan Davis, Jermaine Roberts, Erik Huhn, Edwin Freeman, John Bonney, Jason Hall.
DB breakdown: It’s time to see whether DBU is still alive or not, especially with the departure of assistant coach Duane Akina (Stanford). Diggs isn’t coming off the field, and probably neither is Thompson. UT’s pass defense ranked a mediocre fifth in the Big 12 last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS (6) — For starters: K Nick Jordan, P William Russ. Others: K Nick Rose, P Mitchell Becker, DS Nate Boyer, DS Kyle Ashby.
Special teams breakdown: Say what you want about Mack Brown, but he always found a pretty solid kicker. Unfortunately, no All-American like Anthony Fera is going to fall into the Longhorns’ lap this year. Rose handled kickoffs last year, but the coverage units weren’t anything special. Daje Johnson, Jaxon Shipley and Quandre Diggs all returned punts in 2013.
So, Texas’ biggest worry spot?
For some reason, I feel queasy about the linebackers. Maybe it’s because I listed to coach Charlie Strong talk about the lack of depth at that position throughout his spring bus tour. And let’s be honest, this was a position group that was unbelievably beat up by the end of the 2013 season.
Let’s go down the roster. Dalton Santos played all 13 games last season and had 10 tackles for loss. Steve Edmond played well, but finished the year injured with a lacerated liver. (Just seeing those words on the screen still make me squirm.) Jordan Hicks (Achilles) got hurt. Demarco Cobbs (knee) and Tevin Jackson (knee) were hurt.
Peter Jinkens and Timothy Cole both got more playing time than the previous coaching staff probably wanted, but that works to the new staff’s advantage.
Strong is preaching toughness. The Longhorns will never return to championship form without a tough, hard-nosed defense. In most defensive fronts, linebackers set the physical tone. When this group starts rattling heads, then I’ll believe Texas’ defense is on the right path.
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