Texas Football: Power Ranking the Longhorns' Strongest Positions
When the Texas Longhorns take the field for the 2013 season, they will look as they did a year ago.
But they figure to be drastically different.
Texas returns 17 starters (nine on offense, eight on defense), as well as a number of players who gained valuable experience otherwise.
The Longhorns were one of the youngest teams in the FBS last year, and they accordingly will field a highly-talented team where inexperience is no longer an excuse.
To make the leap back into contention for a Big 12 Championship, the Horns will have to see improvements at every position, although some are miles ahead of others.
Based on talent alone, the Longhorns arguably boast the country's top running back unit. Unfortunately, talent alone does not translate to championships.
Nevertheless, Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown, and Joe Bergeron are all FBS starting-caliber running backs. At Texas, they split carries in a way that keeps them fresh and aligned to a game plan.
Brown has suffered consistent injury problems in his two years in Austin, and Bergeron has also been no stranger to the injury report. Gray proved reliable, durable and multiple in his freshman season and as long as he can stay healthy, Texas will always be threatening in its running game.
When the trio is at full strength, if utilized in the right fashions, the three have the combination of skills to wear down the opposition systematically.
Add in Daje Johnson, who flashed his electric speed in his freshman year, and the Longhorns have all the potency in the world at running back.
Let's be frank.
Losing Alex Okafor, who delivered 4.5 sacks in an Alamo Bowl win over Oregon State, is a genuine hit to the depth and talent along Texas' defensive line.
But if Jackson Jeffcoat can successfully return from a torn pectoral for the second consecutive offseason, then the Longhorns have a great cornerstone up front.
Behind Jeffcoat are a number of bodies who have made significant contributions as a group, but not many have stood out as bona fide playmakers at their positions.
Reggie Wilson, Cedric Reed, Desmond Jackson, Chris Whaley, Malcom Brown, Ashton Dorsey and even Shiro Davis are all on the shortlist of players who have merely scratched the surface of their influence.
Fortunately for Texas, it is stacked with quality bodies primed for a breakout season.
The offensive line had experienced a slow deterioration in the past half-decade, a result of poor development and evaluation by the coaching staff and masked by the quick-armed exploits of Colt McCoy.
The line now appears to be on the up and up, anchored by veterans and followed by a litter of unproven bodies waiting to be developed.
Mason Walters, Donald Hawkins, Trey Hopkins and JUCO newcomer Desmond Harrison figure to be the headliners up front. Dom Espinosa and Sedrick Flowers are expected to bring more consistency to the table.
Depth beyond that is certainly in question, and if the injury bites on the line, a few of Texas' young guys will have to grow up more quickly than expected.
When it comes to Texas and defensive backs, it is almost customary to give the Horns the benefit of the doubt that they will not have highly serviceable athletes roaming the defensive backfield.
The Horns lose Kenny Vaccaro, but behind him are a flurry of athletes who have made contributions both large and small.
Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom immediately come to mind. Diggs could make the move to safety to free up a spot for one of Texas' talented cornerbacks hiding on the depth chart.
Behind Texas' top two is a group of players who have seen their respective snaps, but have yet to flip the switch as consistent, impact performers. Adrian Phillips, Mykkele Thompson, Josh Turner and Duke Thomas have all had the early opportunities. And if multiple guys can find the light switch, the Texas secondary could turn into a force.
Like most other positions, wide receiver lacks the kind of depth that can assure a solid performance week-in and week-out.
Outside of Mike Davis, who absolutely needed to return for his senior season, and Jaxon Shipley, the Longhorns are without a proven playmaker.
The departure of Marquise Goodwin makes room for a guy like Cayleb Jones and/or Marcus Johnson, who have flashed potential on the practice field.
The 6'4" recruit Jake Oliver could also see some playing time next season as a freshman and contribute to the WR corps' production.
But make no mistake, Davis and Shipley can hold down most of the fort by themselves, but there is little question that the receiver position needs serious help moving forward.
There is plenty that hangs in the balance for this Texas team, and much of it rides on the shoulders of its junior quarterback David Ash.
Behind him will be senior Case McCoy and one of two redshirt freshmen in either Jalen Overstreet or Connor Brewer.
McCoy and Brewer both had recent run-ins with the law, but it is Ash's show to run and his job to lose.
Ash made some strides last season, although many still question whether or not he has the mental strength to take this team to the top. The Belton product impressed in the second half of the Alamo Bowl and if the junior continues to develop his mental game, then the Texas offense should be in strong hands moving forward.
The linebacker position suffered incredibly in 2012, mostly due to inexperience, and the outlook for 2013 is bright if the pieces get put together correctly.
A long-term hip injury to Jordan Hicks left the group virtually without an anchor. Steve Edmond, Kendall Thompson, Tevin Jackson and Peter Jinkens were forced to grow up very quickly, and it wasn't until late in the season when things began to come together for the young linebackers.
With all five of the aforementioned players returning for next season, in addition to Demarco Cobbs, Texas will feature a solid amount of experience. And for a group that has not had that much chemistry early on, there is still an amount of uncertainty that circles the position.
Any casual Texas fan can point out the shortcomings at the tight end position ever since Jermichael Finley left early for the NFL. Truth be told, Texas is still without that consistent option that can add another fold to the offense.
Geoff Swaim, a JUCO transfer, may finally provide an answer, albeit short-term, and that will be determined over the course of the spring and summer.
Meanwhile, the Horns still await the emergence of M.J. McFarland in the running game and Greg Daniels in the passing game.
If Swaim can do both at a reasonable clip, he would have already surpassed what McFarland and Daniels can offer. At the end of the day, there are still a number of questions to be answered.
Place-Kicker and Punter
Anthony Fera and Nick Jordan battled it out for the starting kicking job last season, and the 2013 version appears to be of the same song, different verse variety.
Neither provided the comfort that Justin Tucker so effortlessly maintained in his career at Texas, and the pressure on the two of them will be high-strung.
Alex King did amazing in his one season as the Horns' punter, and the position looks to be in control of by William Russ this year.
Although these two positions are among the least utilized, they will be two of the most scrutinized given the amount of underperformance last season.