As many begin the countdown until the start of the 2013 college football season, the storylines lingering from a year ago will start to shape the conversations.
The Texas Longhorns faced a number of obstacles last season that left them at 9-4 with a momentous Alamo Bowl win in December. Now with some confidence behind them, the 'Horns are looking to tackle a 2013 year that has special written all over it.
Every program will have its strengths and weaknesses heading into fall camp, and Texas is no different.
Nineteen returning starters is enough cause for some enthusiasm, but uncertainties at certain positions may seriously weaken the foundation for a run at a conference title.
Exactly what else are the Longhorns facing as the summer weeks dwindle?
The Running Game
The trio of Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron figures to be one of the most potent backfields in all of college football. The talent is there, but now it is time for that talent to translate into production.
With such a diverse set of skills between the three, there may exist a delicate combination of touches that will support the development of quarterback David Ash and the passing game.
Much it of, however, will rely on the progression of an experienced offensive line that returns all five starters.
Health is the biggest concern. Brown missed five games in 2012, which opened the door for Gray to shine. But like a tripod, Texas' running game will need all three legs performing consistently or the entire project can suffer.
Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley
You have heard it before.
Apart from Davis and Shipley, Texas does not exactly exude a ton of confidence with its other wide receivers. With 11 receivers on scholarship, that leaves plenty of doors open for whomever wants to lunge at the opportunity.
The senior Davis and junior Shipley will have plenty on their plates.
Davis decided to return for his final season instead of jumping to the NFL, a decision that should prove critical for Texas' deep ball. Meanwhile, a fully healthy Shipley figures to provide that security-blanket aspect for Ash in what will be a crucial year for his development.
19 Returning Starters
Texas returns vast experience as it becomes one of the most veteran teams in the country in 2013.
Offensively, the 'Horns get everyone back. And, from a chemistry standpoint, those returning starts will be imperative for the growth of co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite's offense.
Defensively, Texas will have to replace all-conference performers in Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro, efforts that will be heavily scrutinized during defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's third season in Austin.
Experience is not always everything, but inexperience ran wild throughout Texas' defense a season ago and we all know the result of that. Now, it is time to flip the script.
The Longhorns seemingly have been recruiting more speed lately and the offensive side of the ball figures to have plenty of it.
Although the departures of Marquise Goodwin and D.J. Monroe are huge losses in speed, the emergence of sophomore Daje Johnson could make us forget all about the long-goners.
Johnson impressed in his limited action as a freshman and he will look to inherit plenty of those speed-sweep and end-around looks as the go-to home run guy on offense.
Davis has shown his ability to get behind the opposing secondary, a tool that will be an essential component to Texas' offense this year.
Other notables include Johnathan Gray and up-and-coming wideout Kendall Sanders, who appears to be in line to secure the No. 3 spot behind Davis and Shipley.
Concern at Safety
Losing Vaccaro in the secondary is a huge hit and now the Longhorns are looking at a duo of senior Adrian Phillips—who struggled incredibly in 2012—and junior Mykkele Thompson, who has just six starts under his belt.
If Phillips can bring more of his 2011 self rather than his 2012 self, Texas will be in much better shape. But that is a big if.
The back end figures to be one of the more heavily scrutinized positions early on.
It is no secret that Texas had its biggest problem at linebacker last season, but the return of Jordan Hicks off of injury as well as the emergence of at least one other has generated some encouragement heading into the year.
Still, the flak coming from the worst statistical defensive season in Texas football history has issued plenty of concern.
Will Hicks come back as the difference-maker he was once projected to be? Is Peter Jinkens, who started three games in 2012, the real deal or was it some fixation?
How will Steve Edmond respond after a very disappointing season? Can Dalton Santos brew enough competition to provide a much-improved middle linebacker front?
Texas can squash all of the negative talk quickly with strong play from its linebackers and it is all a wait-and-see type of project right now.
Depth at Receiver
As mentioned above, Texas' depth beyond Davis and Shipley is laughable. The numbers are there with 11 receivers, but the consistency in performance is not.
Sophomores Kendall Sanders and Cayleb Jones appear to be the top underclassmen, but both have had off-the-field issues that have them suspended for the season opener. Marcus Johnson, however, is not far behind them.
Bryant Jackson, John Harris and Miles Onyegbule are the veteran upperclassmen, but their production has been stymied by injuries or the inability to perform consistently.
Can any of the three keep healthy enough to cash in?
Jake Oliver, Montrel Meander and Jacorey Warrick fill out the rest of the group as true freshmen, but the realistic expectations for this year have to be slim.
At the end of the day, Texas cannot be comfortable with just two proven options at receiver.
Junior college transfer Geoff Swaim could be making a push for the top job now that sophomore M.J. McFarland is recovering from a knee injury. Regardless, the Longhorns will have to see production instead of just imagining it.
Junior Greg Daniels is the only other tight end on the roster, but his body of work does not exactly scream production, either.
The Bottom Line
The Longhorns have plenty to work with—good and bad.
But if Texas can hone in on what it already has going strong while improving on its weaknesses, then 2013 will be a great ride to the end.
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