With winter workouts in the rearview, it’s that time of year where the weather warms back up and the helmets and shoulder pads get dusted off for spring practice. Spring training is the appetizer for the main course, which will come this fall. It is just enough to give the fans and coaches an idea of what the team will look like when the season kicks of in September.
As usual, we are all curious to see which upperclassmen are going to step and take ownership of leadership roles, who is going to lay claim to starting spots, and how the latest crop of freshmen are adapting to their new lives as collegiate athletes.
For the players this is an opportunity to knock the rust off, establish chemistry with the new arrivals, and get a chance to compete before hitting the lull of the hot summer months. Who is going to make a positive impression on the staff and who is going to squander it? We will find out the answers in time.
As always there are always storylines aplenty and plenty of things to discuss this time of year and in this article the HornSports staff pick out the storylines they will be watching this closest this spring.
1. The Quarterback battle
This will probably be the most frequently discussed storyline — and it should be — considering it’s the most important position on the entire team. Shane Buechele is entering his third year in Austin and he is set to do battle with sophomore signal caller Sam Ehlinger this spring. Most will probably peg Ehlinger to be the man heading into the 2018 season, but I expect reps to be divided pretty evenly this spring and for there to be a lot of coach speak that doesn’t tip the coaches hand unless someone is head and shoulders above the other. Either Ehlinger or Buechele will have to be much better in 2018 if this team wants to have a chance at taking the next step forward, but that will also be dependent on the improvement of the next group on my list.
2. The Offensive Line’s first spring under Herb Hand
If you’re a Texas offensive linemen that’s been on campus for four years, then you’ve had four different offensive line coaches in charge during your time in Austin. That’s far from ideal and it’s time for Texas to start establishing some continuity at a position that stresses it. It’s hard to build up chemistry and continuity when you are hearing so many different voices and having to adapt to different coaching styles that probably stress different ideals. While the Texas offensive line was far from great and it will have to cope with losing Connor Williams to the NFL, it returns a lot of experience from last year and will inject Calvin Anderson at left tackle when he arrives this summer.
I think it will be tough for this unit to go backwards considering they had so many injuries and guys playing out of position, but this will be a learning experience for them and their new coach this spring and I’m anxious to see how it plays out.
3. The Linebacker spot aside Gary Johnson
With Malik Jefferson declaring early for the NFL Draft, Gary Johnson is likely to slide over into his voided Rover position, but the dilemma is who will lineup next him. Anthony Wheeler is likely to get first crack at first team reps, but he gave way to Johnson last year as Todd Orlando opted to get more speed and athleticism on the field. Linebacker is arguably the thinnest position group on the roster right now and is probably going to take some creativity on Orlando’s part to make some things work, which may include cross training some guys at inside linebacker.
1. Who will be the guy at Running Back?
One of the most important positions needing to be ironed out this spring is running back. After the Texas Bowl, Daniel Young certainly made his case for starting spring ball as the No. 1 back — which is likely going to be the case. Young continues to be the steal of Herman’s transition class. However, plenty of other backs will compete with Young. After several rumors this offseason about a transfer, Toneil Carter is back with the team and more dedicated to his craft than ever. Next up is freshman RB and two-time state champion Keaontay Ingram. In the TXHSFB playoffs this past season, Ingram made it crystal clear that he was the best back in the state. Although he won’t be in Austin until summer workouts begin, Texas is getting an absolute workhorse in the Carthage product. If I were a betting man, I would place my money on Ingram being the starter by the season opener. He is your ideal 3-down back and has all the tools to be a star. One more player that cannot be forgotten is junior Kirk Johnson. Johnson has endured a multitude of injuries in his time at Texas, and is currently battling through another this offseason. All one can hope is that Johnson can finally have a healthy season and show out in response to all the work put in to get back on the field. Stan Drayton is certainly not complaining about the depth of his position room.
2. Who will emerge at outside receiver?
The tempting choice here is of course Collin Johnson. Johnson did not have a great year as a sophomore, and frequently found himself on the sidelines. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Johnson was not performing up to par at practice — which couldn’t fly since Tom Herman was still trying to instill a new mentality and culture. This season, however, Herman must find a way to utilize Johnson. The USC game indicated how dangerous he can be when utilized properly. Although I do think Johnson has a breakout year, I believe Lil’Jordan Humphrey has an even better one. Humphrey is arguably the best athlete on the team, and can fit pretty much anywhere in Herman’s offensive scheme. Humphrey is another player that was underutilized as a sophomore. There are so many ways to get the ball into Humphrey’s hands — and he is a threat in any of those situations. He’s got soft hands to go along with speed and a 6’4 frame. If Johnson and Humphrey are used properly in 2018, the Longhorns offense can add an entire new dimension.
P.S. My sleeper pick here is freshman Brennan Eagles. He’s got the size and ability to be a major deep threat. If he sees the field, don’t be surprised to see him make some flashy plays.
3. Who will be Gary Johnson’s partner in crime?
As Daniel stated, Gary Johnson will likely move to rover in the absence of Malik Jefferson. His speed and athleticism make that fit a match made in heaven. But with the move of Johnson, a hole needs to be filled — especially when it comes to plugging up the middle and stopping the run. Although the likely candidate is Anthony Wheeler, I really think Ayodele Adeoye could step up as the man down the stretch. Adeoye is not as athletic as Wheeler, but he has the potential to be much more physical. As an ILB in high school, Adeoye lived to hit the gaps and stop the run. This is primarily what Gary Johnson did next to Malik Jefferson last season. Wheeler did step up big time in the absence of Jefferson at the Texas Bowl. Regardless, Todd Orlando has some options to work with. Choosing the right fit is going to be critical in determining if the Texas defense can repeat the success it had last season.
1. Who is going to step up at slot receiver?
In a relatively quiet offseason, one of the biggest storylines was the transfer of redshirt freshman Reggie Hemphill Mapps. Mapps caught 32 passes for 328 yards in 2017 was poised to play a huge role in the offense in 2018. The coaching staff is going to be need to figure quickly who the go-to receiver will be in the slot, because the position is vital in the type of offense the Longhorn’s want to run. In the 2018 recruiting class, Josh Moore is the most likely candidate to contribute out of the slot, but he not likely to be a major contributor his freshman season.
This leaves the coaching staff having to work with current guys on the roster. Senior Jerrod Heard fits the mold of a slot receiver and possesses the athleticism to succeed at the position, but he will need to continue improving his route running. Sophomore Davion Curtis has not play meaningful snaps yet in his career, but has elite speed and displayed good hands coming out of high school. Perhaps the most intriguing option is Lil’ Jordan Humphrey. The 6’5 wideout is one of the most athletic players on the entire roster, and moving him to the slot would help the coaching staff get all their best receivers on the field at the same time.
2. Nickel and the corner spot opposite of Kris Boyd
During the bowl game, PJ Locke was moved from Nickelback to safety, where he filled the void left by Deshon Elliott. Locke is likely to stay at safety for his senior season. Senior Antwuan Davis filled in at Nickel against Mizzou, but much of spring practice will be spent trying to find someone to take over one of the most demanding positions in the Todd Orlando defense. Sophomore Josh Thompson will probably get the first crack at filling the role, and the Nacogdoches native was a key special teams member in 2017 and saw limited time on defense. Another possible option could be senior John Bonney, who has played all over the secondary in his first 3 years on the 40 acres.
Devante Davis took over the corner position opposite of Kris Boyd following Holton Hill’s suspension during the 2017 season. Davis seemed to improve as the year went along, but will be pushed this spring by redshirt freshman Kobe Boyce and early enrollee Anthony Cook. Smart money would be on Davis being the starter opposite of Boyd against Maryland in the season opener, but it never hurts to have a little depth and competition throughout the spring and summer.
3. The Tight Ends
Tom Herman has made it clear from the moment he stepped on campus that the offense he wants to run requires good TE play. Andrew Beck missing the entire 2017 was a loss overlooked by many, but Beck was undoubtedly the best blocking TE and would have helped a struggling offense line open holes in the running game. The good news is Beck is healthy and ready to contribute, but the Longhorn’s still need a 2nd option to emerge at the position.
I am still of the belief that sophomore Cade Brewer is the long-term answer at TE, but Brewer will miss all of spring practice as he continues to recover from a torn ACL suffered during practice during the end of last season. Brewer’s injury means redshirt freshmen Reese Leitao and Max Cummins will get plenty of opportunities to show they are ready to be contributors. Cummins is making the transition to the offensive side of the ball after beginning his career as a defensive lineman, so it will be interesting to see how big of a learning curve there is for him, because the physical traits are there.
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