Practice has begun for the Texas Longhorns in the most crucial spring of Mack Brown's tenure as head coach. Though the 'Horns return all but two starters from their 2012 squad, there is plenty of potential for some movement at the top of depth chart before summer hits.
No formal declarations or warnings have been made, but the writing is on the wall for Mack Brown and his staff. This 2013 season is their last chance to take this immensely talented team back to winning 10-plus games per season. Otherwise, big changes will be on the way.
In returning to the spread and bringing up some of the most talented sophomores in the country, these 'Horns have the look of a team that can get their coach off the hot seat. Even without a majority of the 2013 recruiting class on campus expect plenty of competition, especially along the offensive front, as this team works to get over the hump. Whether that happens will take months to come to fruition, but it all starts in the spring.
Here is your position-by-position spring practice preview for the 2013 edition of the Texas Longhorns.
Ash will be the starter in 2013 with redshirt freshman Jalen Overstreet hot on his heels.
Rejoice Longhorn fans! For the first time in three seasons, your team does not have a quarterback controversy. Or does it?
After leading the charge in Texas' come-from-behind Alamo Bowl victory, rising junior David Ash is your starting quarterback both for the spring and the foreseeable future. In his first game running Major Applewhite's offense, Ash showed tremendous poise and revisited his roots as a runner in producing three total touchdowns. He also returns as the most experienced quarterback in the Big 12, which is as strange to write as it is to read.
What will change at the quarterback position is who backs up Ash, who missed a game-and-a-half last season. Senior Case McCoy has likely taken his last snap in the burnt orange following a lackluster season and a violation of team rules that got him sent home for the Alamo Bowl.
With McCoy out the picture, redshirt freshman Jalen Overstreet is the favorite to be Ash's backup if not something more. Overstreet has the best arm on the roster and, with 4.5 speed, is a great fit for Applewhite's attack. He also won over his teammates in offering to burn his redshirt to relieve Ash in the Alamo Bowl had he gone down with injury.
Right behind Overstreet will be fellow redshirt freshman Connor Brewer, who was recruited by the departed Bryan Harsin to run more of a pro-style attack. While he has a very technical knowledge of the position, he is just not the fit that are Ash and Overstreet.
Rounding out the position is 2013 recruit Tyrone Swoopes, who is destined to spend a year on the sideline in a redshirt. He has upped his weight to 250 pounds and is working to correct the issues that saw him drop off the recruiting map, but he is still a ways away from making a difference for this program.
Unless Overstreet makes a furious charge, David Ash is the starter this spring and beyond.
After leading the team in rushing his freshman year, Johnathan Gray comes into this spring as the Longhorns' starter at tailback. With the assistance of a spread attack, he could arrive on the national scene in a big way.
Thanks to his speed and top-end quickness, Gray is a prototypical runner for the space the spread will create for him. He also has good hands, making him a weapon in the screen game along with a flair for the big moment.
But the highly-touted sophomore will share carries with junior Malcolm Brown at around a 60-40 split. Brown has the team's best size-speed combination with the ability to steamroll defensive backs once he gets to the edge. If he can stay healthy, he is too talented to keep on the sideline.
The other ball-carriers that will get some touches this spring are Daje Johnson and Joe Bergeron. Bergeron does not have the skillset to be an every-down in the spread but he is a great blocker and goalline back, which he proved by scoring 16 touchdowns in 2012. On the other hand, Johnson is one of the dozen fastest players in the country and will be the team's speed back while also taking snaps as a slot receiver.
Keep an eye on Gray and Johnson. Both have the skills to excel in Applewhite's offense and at least one of them figures to have a monster sophomore campaign.
In a spread offense, Shipley is going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Thanks to Mike Davis' decision to return for his senior season, the Longhorns return their top two receivers for the second year in a row. But replacing their departed No. 3 wideout could prove a major challenge.
With the 'Horns moving to an offense that will employ more four- and five-receiver sets, wideouts Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley will be able to feast on a lot of single coverage. This is especially true for Shipley, whose hands and route-running ability are tops on the team as well as some of the best in the country.
Replacing Marquis Goodwin in the slot is a different story as only he, Davis and Shipley recorded more than 10 catches last season. Sophomore Cayleb Jones is a favorite given his 6'3" frame and prowess as a route-runner, but he has nothing close to Goodwin's speed. Should the 'Horns elect to go with more speed here, Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson both run a 4.4 40 and have good size, but neither have logged significant time.
Texas also has junior Bryant Jackson, who made some tough catches in 2012, but the most likely scenario is that Jones and Sanders will man the Nos. 3 and 4 receiver spots. And if speedster Daje Johnson becomes a reliable route-runner and improves his hands, he trumps all given his big-play ability.
Sophomore M.J. McFarland
Given a more wide-open offense, the coaching staff would love for a tight end to finally emerge as a reliable receiver. M.J. McFarland looks ready to answer the bell.
At 6'6" and over 240 lbs with good speed, McFarland is an ideal fit for Texas' tight end position. The only reason fans have not seen more of him is that he could never quite get his blocking down. But now that blocking has become a secondary task for him, McFarland seems likely to put a strangehold on the position this spring.
Behind McFarland are blocking tight ends Geoff Swaim, a JUCO transfer, and Greg Daniels. Daniels will see a significant drop in his playing time in 2013 unless he can significantly improve as a receiver. The same goes for Swaim, though he does possess big hands and decent route-running ability. He just does not have speed like McFarland.
Rounding out the position are converted wideouts Miles Onyegbule and John Harris, who are both tremendous athletes. Onyegbule made the switch a season ago and has the speed to challenge McFarland, but needs to show up on the field. As for Harris, you never know what you are going to get because he never seems to stay healthy.
McFarland is the guy, and he will make it official this spring.
Ash could have some new faces blocking for him by the end of the spring.
The spot where fans could see the most change is along the offensive line, where new recruits and a new scheme could shake up one of the most experienced lines in the country.
The 'Horns return all five starters from last year's group that allowed only 16 sacks, but changes are likely. The 'Horns brought in JUCO transfer Desmond Harrison to presumably play left tackle, though he will not arrive on campus until the summer. Harrison's impending arrival likely means that center Dom Espinosa is done as the team's first-string center, with either Trey Hopkins or Mason Walters taking snaps there this spring.
Given the up-tempo attack, it will be very important for the 'Horns to go two-deep up front. Sophomores Curtis Riser, Sedrick Flowers, Kennedy Estelle and Camrhon Hughes are all game-ready, with the first three getting playing time as freshmen. Hughes probably would have gotten some as well had he not blown out his ACL playing pickup basketball last summer.
All of the aforementioned backups are going to have freshmen on their heels this summer, so they need to take advantage of the extra time. They are already going to have to fight off early-enrollee Jake Raulerson, who is going to push them every single day while he fights for Espinosa's duties at center.
The coaches have made it clear that the best players will play regardless of experience, so all of the big uglies need to turn in big springs.
Malcolm Brown is going to be a force in his sophomore campaign.
Despite losing Brandon Moore to the NFL draft, the Longhorns have impressive depth at the defensive tackle position with a budding superstar leading the charge.
After showing flashes of pure dominance in his freshman campaign, Malcom Brown is ready to become Texas' next great defensive tackle starting this spring. At 6'4" and 315 pounds the former top recruit is a space-eater with the ability to burst in the backfield and blow up plays. In fact, Big 12 guru David Ubben believes Moore left because he knew there was no way he would beat out Brown.
Brown's spot is all but locked up, but the one opposite him figures to be a revolving door. Senior Ashton Dorsey has the most experience, Desmond Jackson is the strongest and Chris Whaley is the most athletic. It all depends on who the coaches prefer or whoever takes the position by the reins this spring.
Hassan Ridgeway, Paul Boyette and Alex Norman will also see some action this spring, but there is too much experience ahead of them to have a significant impact this season.
Wilson is the favorite to take Alex Okafor's spot on the right side.
After losing stalwart Alex Okafor to the NFL, Texas has a serious hole to fill at defensive end. Luckily for the coaches, there are plenty of candidates to choose from.
Jackson Jeffcoat will be the starter on the weakside in 2013, but his history of injuries will probably keep him on the sidelines for most of the spring. That will give the coaches plenty of time to choose between Cedric Reed and Reggie Wilson, who were both very good in replacing Jeffcoat last season. Reed is the favorite given his athleticism, but Wilson will certainly get his chances.
Another player who could challenge for significant playing time is sophomore Shiro Davis, who is easily the fastest end on the team. He was ineffective last year given his opportunities, but he could develop into a solid situational pass-rusher. Should he add 20-30 pounds in Bennie Wylie's strength program this spring, he could challenge for a starting spot.
Texas also has sophomores Caleb Bluiett and Bryce Cottrell in waiting, but they are at least a year away from seeing the field.
Jinkens' athleticism is a major asset for the Texas front seven.
After a disastrous 2012, all eyes will be on the linebackers when this season kicks off, especially since defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is also their position coach.
At linebacker, there are Peter Jinkens and Jordan Hicks then everyone else. Hicks was the leader of the defense before he went down with a hip injury, after which that entire side of the ball seemed to crumble. Jinkens, on the other hand, took his late-season opportunities to emerge as one of the team's most consistent defensive players, highlighted by an interception in the Alamo Bowl. After a full spring, he figures to fully blossom his sophomore season.
With Jinkens and Hicks manning the outside, there will be a battle for the middle linebacker spot between Dalton Santos and Steve Edmond. Edmond played the position last season with mixed results as he struggled with the instinctual aspect of the position. Santos, meanwhile, lacks sideline-to-sideline speed and will have to rely heavily on his instincts to beat out Edmond.
If Hicks or Jinkens could learn to play in the middle, that would be a great opportunity for either Kendall Thompson or Tevin Jackson to jump into the starting lineup. Both juniors had a strong finish to the season and would upgrade the position.
As for the backups, Demarco Cobbs is out for the spring with a knee injury. That leaves Aaron Benson and Tim Cole to battle it out with early-enrollee Deoundrei Davis for a reserve spot.
What position will Quandre Diggs play in 2013?
After a more than disappointing 2012 performance, the Duane Akina's secondary needs to bounce back in a big way this season. With very little depth, that means a productive spring is a must.
Carrington Byndom will be back starting at corner and that is about all that is for certain. Quandre Diggs would be a shoo-in at corner, but the coaches are exploring moving him to safety given his talents as a ball hawk and big hitter. Given what we have seen from sophomore corner Duke Thomas, that may not be such a bad idea. Behind Byndom and Thomas will be Bryson Echols and Leroy Scott, who need to absorb as much as they can as quickly as they can.
Even if Diggs converts, there are a lot of questions about the safety position. Adrian Phillips simply could not wrap up last season, and he needs to fix that issue this spring or else. Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner will also fight for time, but give Turner the edge unless Thompson proves he can handle the run.
Texas also needs to figure out what to do with Sheroid Evans and Adrian Colbert. Evans is among the fastest players on the team but needs to develop his skills. The same goes for Colbert, who has the size to be an enforcer over the middle, and both project out as safeties.
Another area where Texas struggled in 2012 is basically everywhere on special teams. The only bright spot on that side of the ball was punter Alex King, who graduated after playing only one year.
The main battle on special teams will be between Nick Jordan and Anthony Fera for placekicking duties. Neither was very effective last season, making only 9-of-15 attempts and hitting only once from beyond 40 yards. Fera will likely assume King's punting duties, so it would be nice to see Jordan take control of kicking field goals.
There is also some uncertainty in the return game, especially on kickoffs now that Marquise Goodwin and D.J. Monroe are out of the picture. Daje Johnson is the favorite since he is such a tough runner but Kendall Sanders, Sheroid Evans and Duke Thomas will all get their chances. As for punt returns, expect Jaxon Shipley to take over for Quandre Diggs since the 'Horns can ill afford to lose Diggs in the secondary.
Texas played six games that were decided by seven points or less last season, losing two of them. Improvement on special teams could mean the difference in winning or losing those games, and the 'Horns need to get this area ironed out this spring.