Texas Football: Position-by-Position Fall Practice Preview
College football is on our doorstep.
With the days dwindling until the Texas Longhorns report for fall camp on Aug. 4, the flavors in the air are becoming more real as the 'Horns gear up for a critical 2013 season.
After fielding one of the youngest teams in the FBS a season ago, Texas returns 19 starters to become one of the most experienced programs a year later.
So while a number of teams, especially in the Big 12, will face extensive position battles as they search for new and able starters, the Longhorns appear to be on the shorter end of the stick in that regard. Nevertheless, Texas will be in need of quality depth as it aims to bring a conference title to Austin for the first time since 2009.
As the few, key position battles play out, perhaps Texas will be able to uncover more of its two-deep as the season opener looms.
Here is everything you need to know about the Longhorns as they approach fall camp.
Projected starter: David Ash
Projected backups: Case McCoy, Tyrone Swoopes
There is little mystery here, which is actually something new for Texas quarterbacks in recent memory.
For the first time in Ash's career, he enters the season as the undisputed No. 1 option under center, which serves as a reminder of just how far Ash has come since getting thrown into the fire as a true freshman after things went south in a hurry during Garrett Gilbert's career in Austin.
Ash goes into his junior season during a huge crossroads kind of year for the Texas program.
All signs are pointing to a special season, but much of that will come off the shoulders of Ash and his development in co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite's offense, a fresh take on what the Longhorns had been executing under Bryan Harsin.
The surrounding talent is there—a veteran offensive line, a trio of quality running backs and a wide receiver duo whose skills complement each other near-perfectly.
Behind Ash, however, is where the picture gets fuzzy.
Swoopes, a true freshman who earned the No. 3 slot after a strong impression during the spring after enrolling early, is definitely nipping at the heels of the senior McCoy.
Texas may run into a tough decision should Ash suffer from an injury. A short-term fix should have McCoy enter the fold, but the long-term plan has to be Swoopes.
Projected starter: Johnathan Gray
Projected backups: Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, Daje Johnson
Gray might be the figurehead starter, but there is no reason to believe that Brown and Bergeron will not get theirs this season.
Brown, who missed five games last season, could be the key to the running kingdom for Texas.
The talented trio, when fully healthy, has been pinned as one of the most talented corps in the country, and 2013 is the season where the production has to meet that talent.
Gray shined as a true freshman after replacing Brown as the starter, but let us not forget about Brown's diverse skill set as a feature back.
While on the subject of not forgetting, Bergeron's violent style melds perfectly with the more shifty efforts of his backfield teammates, and the combination of skills makes the Texas running game a fantastic asset for its offense.
Throw in Daje Johnson—who aims to take over D.J. Monroe's duties full time—and the Longhorns have the speed, power, quickness and diversity to do serious damage on the ground.
Projected starters: Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley, Kendall Sanders
Projected backups: Bryant Jackson, John Harris, Cayleb Jones, Marcus Johnson
Limited depth at wide receiver has been a recurring issue for the Texas offense, even dating back to the days when Colt McCoy ruled the school.
Unfortunately for David Ash, that trend continues on in 2013 where only Davis and Shipley offer up the kind of consistency and playmaking abilities that can issue confidence to the rest of the offense.
Behind them, however, the concern runs deep.
Sanders, along with Jones, is set to miss the season opener due to suspension. Jones, in fact, has not been with the team since being dismissed for summer workouts. He will rejoin the squad when everyone reports for fall camp on Aug. 4.
Sanders has impressed since his run-in with the law early in the offseason, and—after a few weeks of disapproval—he has quickly recharged his own hype with strong spring and summer efforts, which has resulted in his projection as the No. 3 option at wideout.
Texas has eight, yeah eight, receivers behind the top three in the depth chart.
Upperclassmen Bryant Jackson, John Harris and Miles Onyegbule have been quiet over the course of their careers in Austin and could potentially be leapfrogged by talented youngsters like Marcus Johnson and the controversial Jones.
The freshmen—Jake Oliver, Montrel Meander and Jacorey Warrick—are on the outside looking in, but with the type of production Texas has been getting from guys not named Davis or Shipley, there are opportunities to jump up the depth chart.
Projected starter: M.J. McFarland OR Geoff Swaim
Projected backups: Geoff Swaim OR M.J. McFarland, Greg Daniels, John Harris
Same song, different verse.
Texas has been aching for a pulse at tight end since Jermichael Finley left early back in 2007.
With three options on the roster—none of which has given much reason to exude confidence—any sort of emergence this season will be a highly welcomed one.
McFarland has the body and athleticism to work fluently in the offense, but his poorly regarded blocking skills, coupled with a recent knee injury, have kept him grounded.
Swaim, a junior college transfer, has only begun to make noise, but the jury is still out on him.
Daniels, meanwhile, appears to be the top blocking tight end on the roster. The junior did pick up a highlight-reel play when he hauled in a 47-yard pass out of the Wishbone, honoring the late Darrell K Royal, to open the Iowa State game last season.
Harris could get looks off the edge as a flex option, but that scenario may be heavily impacted by what sort of contributions Texas gets from its higher-ups at the position.
Projected starters (L to R): Desmond Harrison, Trey Hopkins, Dom Espinosa, Mason Walters, Donald Hawkins
Projected backups: Josh Cochran, Sedrick Flowers, Garrett Porter, Kennedy Estelle
For the first time in what seems like decades, the Longhorns may actually have a strength in their offensive line.
The recent incomer in Harrison may hold the key to that projection, however. If the junior college transfer can come in and immediately claim a starting position at left tackle, the options are abundant.
Hopkins, recently selected as a preseason All-Big 12 member (the only Texas OL given that honor), may end up being the best lineman Texas will field this year.
Espinosa is moving into his third year as a starter, and though the knock on him has been his physicality—something that will have to improve this season—his technique and effort have hardly been in question.
Walters is the vocal leader up front, but he has not exactly morphed into that mauler that everyone is pinning him out to be. In his final season in Austin, is this the year he turns it on?
With Harrison's arrival, Hawkins may likely get pushed to the opposite end of the line at right tackle, where he played successfully at the junior college level before he came to Texas last season.
Hawkins' move to the right places Cochran into a reserve role, a move that could actually turn into a redshirt year if his fractured leg does not come along. Cochran already missed spring workouts, so adding another year to his career in Austin could be a great, long-term option.
Elsewhere, Flowers, Porter and Estelle have each shown limited promise in even more limited time (perhaps Porter least of the three), but the coaching staff has to feel more comfortable with the line's depth than ever before.
Projected starters DE: Jackson Jeffcoat, Cedric Reed
Projected backups DE: Shiro Davis, Reggie Wilson
Projected starters DT: Ashton Dorsey, Malcolm Brown
Projected backups DT: Desmond Jackson, Chris Whaley
Jeffcoat started the 2012 season on a heater, posting 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in six games. He would, however, go on to miss the last seven games of the season, and he will be returning from offseason surgery for the second straight year. Still, his veteran presence may be the most crucial piece on defense.
Reed really asserted himself as a player in Texas' Alamo Bowl win over Oregon State. His three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks against the Beavers could be just a hint of his true potential in 2013.
Filling out the rotation at defensive end are two players on contrasting sides of their careers in Austin.
Wilson heads into his senior year with something to prove after effectively getting cast aside by the more productive Reed, and Davis will have to shine in limited light behind Jeffcoat.
On the interior, the Longhorns have experience and numbers but may only dominate with the right combination of looks.
Starter might be a loose term for the four jockeying for position up front, and between Dorsey, Brown, Jackson and Whaley, they collectively provide the quality to win in the trenches, but will the production come?
Jackson and Brown are the shining stars, but they have yet to explode. Meanwhile, the two seniors in Dorsey and Whaley offer great experience, although the two are far from complete packages.
Defensive tackle was a position of weakness for the Longhorns last season, and with a formidable quartet up front, only time will tell if the right steps have been taken.
Projected starters (4-3): Jordan Hicks, Steve Edmond, Peter Jinkens
Projected backups: Tevin Jackson, Dalton Santos, Kendall Thompson
It is no news that the Longhorns needed serious help at linebacker last season, especially when Hicks would miss the final 10 games of the year.
Hicks, recently selected as a preseason All-Big 12 member, is already slated for a strong comeback year, but plenty will have to come from his teammates.
Edmond was frequently the center of the discussion regarding defensive breakdowns, and inexperience was an easy scapegoat. But with a year under his belt, combined with Hicks' return that looks to ease the pressure, Edmond could have a solid season, but he has to be looking over his shoulder.
Jinkens arguably had the best season of any Texas linebacker, and he did so with just three starts to his name. He is one of the top candidates for a breakout season.
Texas can finally claim some comfortable depth at linebacker. After a season where virtually every linebacker was seeing huge minutes for the first time, one would expect some better confidence from the group.
Jackson, Santos and Thompson all had their highlight moments but were unmistakably inexperienced at the end of the day.
The 'Horns will have a solid rotation at linebacker, but Hicks and Jinkens will be the go-to duo, it seems.
Projected starters CB: Carrington Byndom, Quandre Diggs
Projected backups CB: Sheroid Evans, Leroy Scott
Projected starters S: Adrian Phillips, Mykkele Thompson
Projected backups S: Josh Turner, Kevin Vaccaro, Adrian Colbert
The loss of Kenny Vaccaro seemingly puts a huge hole at the back end of Texas' defense, but you can be sure that defensive backs coach Duane Akina is taking all of the necessary precautions to find suitable replacements, whether by an individual or by committee.
Byndom and Diggs are the undisputed Nos. 1 and 2 at cornerback, with Diggs slated to pick up the nickelback position that Vaccaro vacated. The pair will be fun to watch as they contend to be the top duo in the Big 12.
Evans has made strides this spring after flashing some brilliance last season, and he will look to occupy the other cornerback position when Diggs slides into the nickel.
Scott, or perhaps even Bryson Echols, rounds out the rotation, but do not be surprised to see Akina mix it up even more as he looks to find the next big thing to come out of "DBU."
Safety is where the big issues could arise.
Phillips is coming off of a very forgettable season by most standards. After putting in a strong 2011 season, Phillips was the center of struggle for much of 2012, although he improved dramatically late in the year. If Texas' backfield produces big, Phillips will be a huge reason why.
Thompson got plenty of action at safety last season, and it is hard to ignore the open-field athleticism he brings to the table. If he gets the mental side of the game and does not shy away from contact, Texas appears to be in decent shape.
Texas will have numbers to play with if Turner, Vaccaro and/or Colbert can bring some mustard.
Projected starter P: Anthony Fera
Projected backup P: Will Russ
Projected starter PK: Nick Jordan
Projected backup PK: Anthony Fera
Texas' special teams may be just as interesting to watch as any other position on the team.
Fera appears to be in line to take over the punting duties vacated by Alex King—one of the lone bright spots on special teams in 2012. The junior Russ, who has failed to assert himself among the group on campus, may get some looks, too, if Fera does not hold up.
The kicking game was definitely a broken product between Fera and Jordan last season, but with Fera slotted for punting duties, Jordan will take full responsibilities as the place-kicker, although the leash has to be short for the sophomore.