Before August practices even started, Texas linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary told reporters this coaching staff is willing to go all-in with freshmen.
Just by eyeballing the roster, it appears anywhere from 15 to 17 players could make their Texas debut. That includes quarterback Jerrod Heard, linebacker Malik Jefferson, offensive tackle Connor Williams and a host of receivers and defensive backs.
“We told the older guys, ‘If we’re at the midpoint of camp and you’re in a dead heat with a freshman, we’re going to play the freshman,” Jean-Mary said. “So you have to be head and shoulders above them to justify us keeping you in there along with the freshman.
“Because if you play the freshman, it’s an investment,” he added. “You’re building for the future.”
Some players are OK with knowing the ground rules. “This staff doesn’t really care about what you are. If you can play, you can play,” linebacker Peter Jinkens said.
Some can’t handle it. Redshirt freshman running back Duke Catalon didn’t like how things were looking and transferred out earlier this month. So did freshman linebacker Cecil Cherry — after only four days.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. That’s just life. So you move on,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “The guys that are here, those who stay will be champions on and off the field when all is said and done.”
It’s tempting to say that this is a young Texas team and therefore expectations should be lowered. But look back at depth charts from previous years. Youth does not spell doom and gloom.
The depth chart for the 2006 season opener was dotted with freshmen and redshirt freshmen, including future NFL players Colt McCoy, Jermichael Finley, Lamarr Houston and Sergio Kindle. To be fair, it also had plenty of veterans left over from the 2005 national championship season. That team finished 10-3.
The 2011 squad looked fairly green. Emmanuel Acho, Kenny Vaccaro and Fozzy Whittaker were still around, though. Those Horns went 8-5 and capped the year with a stirring Holiday Bowl win over California.
Youngsters have been the dominant story throughout training camp. Only this year, Texas doesn’t have proven playmakers scattered throughout the offensive and defensive starting lineups. That makes things unpredictable.
So are coaches lowering their expectations? “Nothing changes at all,” Bedford said.
Several freshman receivers could make the quickest impact. Texas is a team desperate to find new playmakers. Lengthy John Burt (6 feet 2 inches) and little Ryan Newsome (5-8) both have turned heads in August.
DeAndre McNeal is listed as a tight end, but that’s just a paper designation. McNeal could become a tight end in the mold of Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, someone who moved all over the field and became a dangerous multipurpose weapon.
Chris Warren appears to be the top freshman choice ahead of Kirk Johnson and Tristan Houston at running back. Warren should rotate in behind senior Johnathan Gray and sophomore D’Onta Foreman.
Barring the unforeseen, Jefferson should start at linebacker against Notre Dame. Keep an eye on those lining up behind him.
John Bonney, a redshirt freshman, shows terrific promise as a fifth defensive back in nickel situations. Davante Davis and Kris Boyd held their own during August camp. DeShon Elliott and Holton Hill both suffered minor injuries in camp, so it’s unclear how much work they’ve gotten leading up to the opener.
Charles Omenihu took advantage of all the injuries along the defensive line. Veterans Naashon Hughes, Hassan Ridgeway and Caleb Bluiett all missed time in August for various reasons. Omenihu was seen playing at stand-up defensive end, shifting back with the linebackers during pre-snap motion. Could that happen during the season?
Coach Charlie Strong needs several of these freshmen to make great strides this year. The future of his program depends on it.
“What I need is a guy that’s going to take a step,” Strong said. “Right now, don’t be afraid to be that guy that’s going to step out there and become someone. At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Recruiting dividendsHow Texas’ past five signing classes have ranked nationally in 247Sports’ composite ratings, along with how many players the Longhorns signed, including the number of five- and four-star recruits:
Who were Texas’ five-stars? LB Malik Jefferson in 2015, OG Darius James in 2013, RB Johnathan Gray and DT Malcom Brown in 2012, and RB Malcolm Brown and LB Steve Edmond in 2011.
Texas is no stranger to putting freshmen on the field, at least in recent years. From 2005 to
–2009, the Longhorns played 43 percent of their freshmen. From 2010 to –2014, that number grew to 53 percent.
2005: 7 of 15
2006: 9 of 24
2007: 9 of 23
2008: 9 of 19
2009: 10 of 21
2010: 12 of 24
2011: 18 of 22*
2012: 16 of 26
2013: 3 of 13
2014: 8 of 21
* Texas led the nation in freshmen who played in 2011.