Texas Football: What You Need to Know About Longhorns 2012 Seniors
For those that make it this far, senior year for college football players is the last hurrah for the life they have known thus far. For a lucky few, it is simply the stepping stone on the way to an NFL career. For most others, it is the last time they will ever lace up their cleats and play under the lights.
From a trip to the national championship to the school's first losing season in over a decade to a massive team overhaul, this year's group of Texas Longhorns seniors have truly seen it all. It is because of all that they have experienced that you can expect this group of guys, starters and backups alike, to be the toughest and most determined men on the field for this group as they seek to leave the program on a high note.
Read on to meet your 11 Longhorn seniors and see what to expect from them in their final year in the burnt orange.
DE Alex Okafor
Of the 11 seniors on this team, defensive end Alex Okafor seems poised to go out with the biggest bang.
After being named to last season's All-Big 12 first team with seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss, Okafor is expected to be the star of what could be the best defense in the country this season. Expectations could not be higher for Okafor, as he has been named the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and has been placed on the Walter Camp Award watch list for the best player in college football, among others.
Okafor, along with fellow sack maven Jackson Jeffcoat, is going to be an absolute terror for the Texas defense this season on his way to a first-round selection in the 2013 NFL draft. Two things working in his favor are that he plays opposite Jeffcoat, so there is no easy solution to keeping either of these guys out of the backfield. Second is that Okafor has very serviceable backups in Cedric Reed, Reggie Wilson and freshman Torshiro Davis that will allow him to stay fresh without sacrificing too much in the pass rush department.
With the defense expected to more so emphasize sacking the quarterback this season, Okafor should make good on his preseason selection for Defensive POY. If he wants to win anything like the Nagurski or Bednarik Awards, Okafor is going to have to rack up a few more TFL this season after recording a middling 14 last season. Expect him to record at least 10 sacks this season, and if he can get near the mid-20s in tackles for loss, then he could very well be the best defensive end in the country this season.
S Kenny Vaccaro
After the departures of Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, senior safety Kenny Vaccaro will be looked to this season as the on-field leader of this Texas defense.
Like Okafor, Vaccaro is a reigning All-Big 12 first teamer and is on the watch lists for some of college football's most prestigious national defensive awards, including the Thorpe Award for the best defensive back in the country. Rightly so considering in his first season as a full-time starter, the hard-hitting Vaccaro played his way to serious NFL draft consideration with 82 tackles (47 solo), eight tackles for loss and two interceptions.
This season, Vaccaro is the rock of this secondary that will be among the best in the nation thanks to star corners Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs. Diggs' and Byndom's ability to cover one-on-one will allow Vaccaro to roam a little more and make more plays in the backfield. The biggest thing for him will be to keep his emotions under control and be a vocal leader without making dumb mistakes like his personal foul last season against Mizzou.
It's difficult to project what Vaccaro will do stats-wise because he makes plays all over the field. But rest assured that he is going to have a fabulous season for the Longhorns and should be the best safety in the conference. Especially if he can leave Diggs and Byndom on an island while he wreaks havoc elsewhere.
WR Marquise Goodwin
No player for the Longhorns offense was more effective over the second half of the season than speed-demon wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. The hope is that Goodwin, after spending the summer competing in the Olympics, will be able to bring back some of that mojo for his last season in a football uniform.
After contemplating not returning to the team last season, Goodwin recommitted himself to the game of football to the tune of 33 catches for 421 yards and two touchdowns. After a slow start, the track star was able to get it done when his team needed him most with 30 catches for 383 yards and both of his touchdowns over the last seven games of the season.
This season the 'Horns are going to need Goodwin's leadership and ability to stretch the field, especially since there are very few proven pass-catchers remaining on the team. The main concern with Goodwin is the fact that he will not be able to practice with the team until early August due to his participation in this summer's Olympic Games. He has stated that he is very much committed to having a successful season, so let's just hope he does not take as long as last year to get it going.
Expect a similar production from Goodwin this season somewhere in the neighborhood of 400-450 yards receiving and a pair of touchdowns. The biggest boost he can give this team, aside from his leadership, will be in the kick return game that was so stagnant last season after Fozzy Whittaker's ACL tear. He will be an under-the-radar difference-maker for this team in 2012.
WR D.J. Monroe
After spending his first three seasons as a spread-type running back, D.J. Monroe makes the move to wide receiver for his senior season. The results could be interesting.
Monroe's move to the wide receiver position has been met with significant skepticism because he does not have good hands and is very small at 5'9" for the position. Not to mention he did not have a single catch all of last season. Despite his shortcomings, though, Monroe is incredibly fast with 4.3 speed and the ability to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.
With Monroe, fans will just have to wait and see how it goes. From the wide receiver position, his plays will be limited to screen passes and situations where he can get the ball in a soft spot in the coverage and then use his speed to do the bulk of the damage. And he will also be used on kick returns, where he has scored two touchdowns and racked up a career average of 25.1 yards/attempt.
If Monroe is ineffective playing wide receiver, it stands to reason that he will be cast in another role rather than relegated to the sideline. He is simply too dangerous for Bryan Harsin and the rest of the coaching staff to leave him unused.
TE D.J. Grant
After being by far Texas' most productive tight end last season, D.J. Grant enters his senior season with nothing but questions surrounding his role in the offense.
After his three touchdowns against UCLA tied a UT record for single-game touchdowns by a tight end, Grant seemed poised both for a breakout season and a set role as the team's top tight end until he graduated. Unfortunately, Grant peaked in that game and was unable to break 40 receiving yards for the rest of the season and will likely cede the starting tight end role to red-shirt sophomore M.J. McFarland.
Grant is a victim of the change in philosophy that has taken place at Texas in the past two seasons. He is a great receiver at the position and was brought in to catch passes more so than block. Now that the Longhorns feature a much more run-oriented offensive scheme, Grant's skills as a pass-catcher are much less essential than someone who can come in and block a defensive end.
Grant will most likely be a second-stringer this season and could be useful in the red zone because of his skill set. That is, unless his history of knee injuries comes back to plague him.
P Alex King
After using the graduate transfer rule to his advantage, punter Alex King comes in as the immediate starting punter for the Longhorns to shore up a weakness from last season.
Last season, much beloved senior kicker/punter Justin Tucker struggled mightily punting the ball, averaging only 38.6 yards per attempt and noticeably wearing down as the season dragged on. This season, Duke transfer Alex King comes in with a 41.4 average and will exclusively punt for the 2012 'Horns.
Punters may not seem like an important piece to a team, and a three yards better average may seem even less important, but do not discount the impact King could have next season. Remember how painful it was watching Tucker kick ducks to the Aggies in College Station and leave the defense with a short field? That will not happen this season with King, especially with the speed this team has on special teams. Could be the most underrated of Texas' offseason acquisitions.
FB Ryan Roberson
Unfortunately for senior fullback Ryan Roberson, his long-awaited designation as the starter is as obligatory as it gets on this Texas team.
With the capable runner Cody Johnson in the fold for his first three seasons, Roberson played a lot of special teams as he marinated in the backup fullback role for this Texas. Unfortunately for Roberson, the Longhorns have three starting-caliber running backs on the roster that will leave Roberson without much of a role, as Texas will more often lean toward having two runners in the backfield rather than a fullback.
Roberson is still an effective blocker and has good hands for a fullback, so he is not totally without use, though he will not get a chance very often.
RB Jeremy Hills
Coming off his best season in a Longhorn uniform, running back Jeremy Hills is another victim of the team's incredible depth at the position and will see limited action in his senior.
Forced into action due to injuries, Hills was solid last year for the Longhorns, running the ball 36 times for 177 yards. Hills will need the same type of scenario to arise again this season in order to see the field, as he sits behind stars Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown as well as star recruit Johnathan Gray.
Since Bergeron and Brown are not accomplished receivers, Hills could see time there, though freshman Daje Johnson is probably going to be the receiving option out of the backfield. Hills is also going to have to fight for a role on special teams due to all of the speed that was brought in in the offseason. You hope he sees the field because he is easy to root for, but Hills is probably a bench-warmer in his senior season.
OT Luke Poehlmann
The arrival of JUCO transfer Donald sealed tackle Luke Poehlmann's fate as a backup for his senior season, but Poehlmann is still an interesting member of this team.
Poehlmann is most likely going to be the first tackle off the bench should anything happen to the transfer Hawkins or Josh Cochran on the edge, but his most significant contributions could be made from a different position entirely. Last season, Poehlmann was used occasionally as a blocking tight end in rushing situations and was even given the chance to show off his hands when he reeled in a three-yard touchdown against Baylor. This leaves the door open for Poehlmann to put his considerable size (6'7", 295 lbs) to use elsewhere, as the team still has not sorted out its blocking tight ends.
If Barrett Matthews, Caleb Bluiett, Greg Daniels nor projected starter M.J. McFarland can establish themselves as solid blocking tight ends, Poehlmann could be called upon to throw some blocks from the tight end position. And his hands are good enough to pull a fast one on the defense should the opportunity present itself.
TE Barrett Matthews
Put tight end Barrett Matthews in the category of players that will lose their backup job by the time the season rolls around.
At 6'2" and 235 lbs., Matthews certainly has the size to play tight end, which is certainly a position of need for the 'Horns. However, his skill set largely limits him to a blocking tight end role, and Greg Daniels, Caleb Bluiett and M.J. McFarland are all better suited athletically for the role.
That said, expect Matthews to move to backup fullback, as there are depth concerns at the position should Ryan Roberson go down with an injury. Other than that, Matthews finds himself riding the pine for the lion's share of the season.
WR DeSean Hales
There are few things more disappointing in college football than a spring and summer all-star that cannot get it done in the fall. Wide receiver DeSean Hales falls very appropriately into that category.
A combination of a host of injuries and an incredible showing from Hales himself are needed for him to see the field this season. The starters have proven too reliable, the freshmen are too talented and the specialty guys are too set in their roles for the coaches to put any stock in Hales. It could happen, but it won't.