The pandemic has upended college athletics across the nation, forced major conferences to cancel fall sports and prompted university presidents to weigh the ethics of sending 18- to 22-year-old athletes into competition.
The athletes themselves? They just want to play.
The Big 12 marches on, and so will Texas athletics. The Longhorns are scheduled to play 10 football games this season and conference-only schedules in soccer and most likely volleyball, too.
Nothing about this fall will be normal. Fan attendance will be limited to 25% capacity at Royal-Memorial Stadium. Everyone will be required to wear a mask. The diehards will be stunned when they see some athletes leave the field early before the playing of “The Eyes of Texas.”
Still, even in most turbulent times, Texas expects to win. That’s what each UT sports team expects of itself, anyway. And with that, here’s our fourth annual Texas Ten, a look at 10 Longhorns athletes to watch during this 2020-21 athletic year. We’ll revisit how they did later.
Football: Bijan Robinson
Mesquite Poteet linebacker Malik Jefferson was the most-hyped recruit UT signed on Charlie Strong’s watch. Robinson earns that distinction thus far for Tom Herman. The running back from Tucson, Ariz., was a high school All-American and two-time state player of the year. He also set a new state rushing record with 7,036 yards. The five-star prospect was the No. 1-ranked running back recruit in the country, according to 247Sports’ composite ratings.
He’s not likely to be the opening-game starter against UTEP. He may not even be second in the rotation. All freshmen must earn their spot through practice, and in Herman’s world, everyone must protect the football at all costs.
Other recent freshmen have come in with great fanfare. Injuries slowed Jordan Whittington. Jake Smith had to wait his turn. But Robinson is someone that fans will get to know soon. He’s simply too electric.
Volleyball: Skylar Fields
Every ounce of Fields’ 6-2 frame is filled with athleticism. The Houston-area product jumped 10 feet, 8 inches and became the nation’s No. 1 volleyball recruit. Last season as a freshman at UT, Fields averaged 2.51 kills per set in all 27 matches and had 90 blocks.
Now a sophomore, she’s a preseason All-Big 12 pick along with juniors Brionne Butler and Logan Eggleston. Those three give the Horns a rather imposing front line attack.
This season, Texas will play its home matches at the Erwin Center, a 15,000-seat venue that will allow for plenty of social distancing. Fields, though, will be right on top of whoever stands on the other side of the net.
Women’s diving: Bridget O’Neil
The UT women’s swimming team is reloading this year after losing three-time Big 12 swimmer of the year Claire Adams and the league’s diver of the year, Alison Gibson. Enter O’Neil, who finished second in the state 1-meter diving championship this past February for Southlake Carroll.
O’Neil began diving at age 6 and worked up to a point where she was training four hours a day, six days a week. She was a two-time member of the World Junior Championships team and won bronze at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Argentina.
Men’s basketball: Greg Brown III
Anyone with a casual interest in local high school hoops probably knows about Brown, the phenom from Vandegrift. The 6-8 wunderkind is most likely to be UT’s next one-and-done basketball standout. He averaged 26 points and 13.2 rebounds as a senior with TV cameras always there to catch every eye-popping dunk.
“It’s a short adjust for all freshmen, certainly all one-and-done freshmen, but with him, that time has been even more condensed,” UT coach Shaka Smart said. Brown was able to finally start working out with Longhorns teammates in July. He’s more of an outside player than UT’s previous one-and-done big men. A stud, nevertheless.
Women’s basketball: Celeste Taylor
There should be a radically new look with the Texas women’s basketball team this season under new coach Vic Schaefer. He preaches defense, defense, defense. To do that, you need tenacious guard play. Taylor has all the talent to take another step toward becoming the Big 12’s best.
Last season, Taylor was honored three times as the league’s freshman of the week. She averaged 9.3 points and 4.8 rebounds playing expansive minutes. She led the Horns with 31 made 3-pointers. Schaefer will take defense first, but he likes to light up the scoreboard, too.
Rowing: Kate Knifton
Rowing doesn’t get much fanfare around these parts, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed at UT. This one-time club program is becoming a national power. Knifton, a member of the 2017 and 2018 U.S. rowing junior national teams, is right in the middle of it all.
As a freshman, the McCallum product helped Texas win the Big 12 title and finish as the national runner-up at the NCAA championships. UT was less than a second behind Washington. It takes all eight rowers in this true team sport for any boat to be successful. Knifton just wants to make sure the Horns are more successful than most.
Men’s golf: Cole Hammer
Last October, an article appeared on the PGA Tour’s website titled, “When will it be Hammer’s time to turn pro?” No pressure or anything. Hammer committed to UT as an eighth grader and never looked back.
The Longhorns’ golf teams were just getting going this past spring when the season was canceled. Hammer played in five events in UT’s No. 1 spot and was averaging 71.4 per round. He’s had plenty of time to practice, sharpen his game and watch other Texas exes advance on the Tour. Scottie Scheffler just shot a 59 at The Northern Trust and tied for fourth at the PGA Championship before that, for example.
Hammer will get his Tour card someday. For now, coach John Fields would be delighted with birdies and eagles for the Horns.
Men’s track and field: Leo Neugebauer
When you think of world-class athletes, most teenagers don’t spring to mind. Neugebauer was the world’s top-ranked decathlete under 20 years old in 2019. And his burnt orange debut was sensational.
Neugebauer, from Leinfeldene-Echterdingen, Germany, competed in the 60 meters, 60-meter hurdles, 1,600-meter relay and pole vault at the Tiger Paw Invitational in Clemson, S.C. Then he racked up 5,848 points — the fifth-highest total in school history — in a first-place finish at the Big 12 indoor championships.
Once things return to normal and fans can once attend pack the stands, it’ll be worth getting to Mike A. Myers Stadium to see him with your own eyes.
Softball: Janae Jefferson
Softball’s mass popularity is driven by who’s on the mound. There’s no shame in that, either. But it takes offense to win games. Jefferson led the Longhorns in batting average (.408) and hits (80) in 2019. She went 6-for-10 during the NCAA Super Regional and hit .365 overall during the NCAAs.
Jefferson was all over the radar heading going into the 2020 season. She was one of the top 50 players nationally on the USA Softball national collegiate player of the year watch list. She had 41 hits in 74 at-bats before the season was stopped; that’s a staggering .554 average.
It’s still unclear if Jefferson will be classified as a junior or a senior in 2021 since the NCAA is protecting the eligibility for those who lost a year to the pandemic. All that matters is she’ll be back next spring.
Baseball: Ty Madden
Madden was just getting going in the spring when everything stopped. Named UT’s Saturday starter, the right-handed pitcher was in a pivotal role. He had a stellar 1.80 ERA through 25 innings and had struck out 26 along the way. Madden threw a complete game and allowed only two hits to Boise State. He also went six scoreless innings against Rice.
Texas is searching for a new Friday starter since right-hander Bryce Elder was drafted. It’ll be interesting to see how coach David Pierce builds the rotation once the season begins.
Madden is already a known commodity to major league scouts. He was drafted in the 34th round by the Kansas City Royals out of high school. Chances are, he’ll go much higher the next time around.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.