It’s almost that time of year, folks. We’ve made it through the long, hot days of summer and made it to where the pads and helmets are coming back on and real football is about to be played. As a player I always had a love/hate relationship with fall camp because the days were long and you eventually get tired of seeing the faces of the coaches, but you knew once it was over that game week preparations would be easy in comparison. On top of that you finally got to look forward to the traveling and being able to beat up on someone else in a different color jersey on Saturdays.
For Texas fans this is their first fall camp of the Tom Herman era, so everyone is excited and anxious to see how the product that gets put on the field by the first year head coach and his staff. The excitement is understandable considering Herman was the most sought after coach on the market last winter and he is already seeing a considerable amount of success on the recruiting trail this cycle. The overwhelming opinion is that Herman and his staff will get Texas back on the right track after the program continued to trend in the wrong direction under Charlie Strong the past few years.
Herman and his staff come in with several key pieces to the puzzle already, but there are still several spots on the roster and storylines I will be keeping my eye throughout camp, as the staff tries to find their best 22 for the season opener.
Here are some of the position battles I am going to be watching as camp kicks off and we hit home stretch into the season.
Right Side of the Offensive Line
Right tackle has been a glaring hole for some time now, and it didn’t help that Brandon Hodges opted to play his final year of eligibility elsewhere. From all accounts Tristen Nickelson has worked his butt off this offseason and will get the first crack at tackle, but his foot speed in pass protection continues to be worrisome. If Nickelson isn’t capable then sophomore Denzel Okafor will be next in line for snaps and he’s the guy of the two who has the most upside. I hate that Okafor wasn’t afforded more snaps last year since his redshirt was burned, but here we are.
As far as right guard is concerned I’m expecting one of Jake McMillon or Zach Shackelford to man that starting spot depending on how the center battle turns out. McMillon has proven to be more than capable at either spot, so that gives Derek Warehime a little bit of flexibility in that regard. Shackelford’s healthy is obviously a concern as well, so cross your fingers and pray for a clean bill of health.
With D’Onta Foreman now cashing NFL paychecks, it is time for Texas to find a new feature back. The offense leaned heavily on the legs of Foreman last fall and I’ve expressed my concerns previously that I’m not sure Texas has a back capable of sufficiently filling the void that Foreman left. I’m sure people will point to some of the guys currently on campus, but I’m still waiting to be fully sold. Chris Warren has battled injuries each year he’s been on campus, Kyle Porter was okay last year, but didn’t overwhelm by any means, and Kirk Johnson can’t seem to stay healthy, which is unfortunate because he has talent.
Freshman running back Toneil Carter enrolled early and has a chance to get carries this year, but I wasn’t as impressed as others in regards to his performance in the spring game. Texas has another freshman in Daniel Young who could possibly factor in here, but we will have to see how quickly he hits the ground running when the pads come on. I would love to see someone separate themselves here, but right now this has a running back by committee feel to it. I hope I’m wrong I’m wrong because this will be a key way of taking the pressure off the arm of Shane Buechele.
This position has been a bit of a hot topic this summer thanks to depth issues and the off the field issues that surrounded freshman tight end Reese Leitao. Leitao’s incident has been well documented so I won’t even get into that at this time. Along with Leitao and Cade Brewer, Texas recently added Syracuse graduate transfer Kendall Moore to the roster giving them three new additions this offseason to go along with senior Andrew Beck. Texas still isn’t where it wants to be from a depth or talent standpoint, but it should be able to be three deep and that’s something they can work with for now. I expect Brewer to have to redshirt so he can fill out some, but I expect Leitao to see the field some after his early season suspension is served. Getting any kind of production out of this group will be a drastic improvement over what the previous offensive staff was doing last year.
Texas suffered a couple of attrition casualties along the defensive line, so obviously this is a positon to watch closely. Depth is the main area of concern here and will continue to be until the defensive staff is able to find a group of guys that can spell their starters from time to time without their being a drastic drop off in production. Guys like Poona Ford, Chris Nelson, and Malcolm Roach are going to be important for Texas this fall, but they aren’t going to be capable of taking every defensive snap from week to week. Some underclassmen are going to have to step up here and they may have to get thrown into the fire early on in the year so they can get their feet wet.
Linebackers: Some guys in this group are taking on new roles and positions this year and you got new arrivals like Gary Johnson who coaches have been raving about who could make an impact. As a group these guys logged a lot of snaps over the past couple of years and need to take the next step for the defense to truly be successful.
Secondary: There is no way of sugarcoating how bad this unit was as a whole last year. They are as talented as any position group on the roster, but opposing wide receivers were breaking in line to get their chance to go after these guys in 2016. They can’t possibly be worse than they were last year and by all accounts guys are becoming more confident and feel like the coaching of Craig Naivar and Jason Washington is having a true impact. If the light comes on for guys this group could quickly become a strength for the team.