Texas Football: 7 Position Battles Heading into Longhorns' Fall Camp

Zach SheltonFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2013

Texas Football: 7 Position Battles Heading into Longhorns' Fall Camp

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    Texas football may not have a quarterback controversy heading into fall camp, but it does have some crucial position battles that need sorting out. And quickly.

    Whereas the running backs and defensive linemen will essentially stage a postion battle every game, these position battles need to be sorted out before the start of the season. The winners of these battles need the first-team reps and to develop the necessary chemistry with the rest of the team.

    One thing Texas fans understand is the price of an offseason-long position battle after dealing with one at quarterback for two years. And while none of these position battles are as pivotal as one that takes place under center, determining the best of the bunch in a timely manner is the best course of action for the entire team.

    These are the battles that need resolution heading into fall camp, accompanied by the projected winners of each.

Middle Linebacker: Dalton Santos vs. Steve Edmond

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    Finally, the Longhorns do not have a quarterback controversy heading into the fall. What they do have is a controversy at middle linebacker, the quarterback of the defense, and it is the single most important position battle on the Texas roster.

    What makes this battle so important is that linebacker is imperative to the success of Manny Diaz's defense. Last year was a painful reminder of that, following the departures of two NFL draft picks and the catastrophic loss of Jordan Hicks, the linebacking corps' lone remaining veteran.

    With both outside positions now solidified by Hicks' return and the emergence of Peter Jinkens, Texas can focus on hashing out who is ready to man the middle. Edmond, last year's starter, has all of the physical tools but never consistently carried them over to the field.

    Santos, on the other hand, has every intangible quality you want at Mike but faced an uphill battle with the speed of the Big 12 for much of the season. Then, he was strong, with six tackles, including one for a loss, in the Alamo Bowl.

    The 'Horns can always reverse their decision during the season, but one of these guys needs the first-team reps with BYU and Ole Miss in the first three weeks. Santos is the type of leader that even the upperclassmen will follow, and the 20 pounds he lost in the spring will make him a faster player.


Safety: Mykkele Thompson vs. Josh Turner vs. Adrian Colbert

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    Following the departure of Kenny Vaccaro, filling the void at free safety is only slightly behind sorting out the middle linebacker position. Unfortunately, it is a much bigger mess.

    Aside from Vaccaro, every Texas safety in 2012 made fans want to take a bath with a toaster at least a dozen times. They missed tackles, blew coverages and often seemed to enjoy ending up on the other team's highlight reel.

    Rising senior Adrian Phillips, has been good in the past and should reclaim some or all of his dignity in 2013. That leaves juniors Josh Turner and Mykkele Thompson as the remaining culprits to take over for Vaccaro. Both are athletic, but faster than they are strong and struggle with delivering the pop that the first-round pick used to bring.

    Then there is redshirt freshman Adrian Colbert, an athletic beast that will overrun a play trying to make the hits that the other two will not. If the Big 12 were not such an innovative passing league, he would get much more consideration.

    So the hope remains that either Thompson or Turner will claim the spot. Otherwise, either Colbert has to get thrown into the fire or Texas has to move its best corner, Quandre Diggs, over to safety. Give Thompson the prohibitive edge due to his size.


Interior of the Offensive Line: Trey Hopkins vs. Dom Espinosa vs. Everyone Else

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    You would think that the Longhorns returning all five starters from last year's offensive line would make that group a no-brainer this season. Well it isn't, thanks to the arrival of a new projected starter.

    The impending arrival of Desmond Harrison, provided he meets academic standards, stands to throw a monkey wrench in the configuration up front. Texas wants him at left tackle for his size, athleticism and run-blocking abilities, all of which helps Texas against tougher fronts.

    But that means someone is the odd man out. Donald Hopkins, last year's left tackle, is still expected to move to guard (via HornsNation). And following a strong spring from embattled center Dom Espinosa, All-Big 12 guard Trey Hopkins could be the guy coming off the bench at least to start 2013.

    There are still a lot variables that need to be sorted out before anything is definite. The main goal here is to get best five working together and get something ironed out by Week 1.

    PROJECTED WINNERS: LG Hawkins, C Espinosa, RG Walters

Tight End: M.J. McFarland vs. John Harris vs. Greg Daniels vs. Geoff Swaim

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    The Longhorns and their recent run of trying to make tight ends out of something else has been the ultimate exercise in futility. But they just might have something in 2013.

    With the offense moving toward more of an up-tempo attack, the practice of substituting situational tight ends should be buried and buried deep. The 'Horns need a guy who they can rely on as a receiving threat and that can block.

    Meet sophomore M.J. McFarland, who stands 6'6" and weighs nearly 250 pounds. He struggled last season with his blocking, but has reportedly been putting in major work in the weight room this summer (via HornsNation). For a guy that averaged 15.6 yards per catch last season, the added strength could be the clincher.

    Granted, Greg Daniels has been working on his hands and John Harris has been discussed as a flex-type player. But if we are talking about a true tight end by measurement and receiving ability, McFarland stands alone.


Slot Receiver: Kendall Sanders vs. Cayleb Jones vs. John Harris vs. Duke Thomas

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    The only offensive starter Texas lost after 2012 was slot receiver Marquise Goodwin. Now, there is a lot of inexperienced talent looking to replace him.

    This conversation starts with sophomores Kendall Sanders and Cayleb Jones. Both are talented, rangy and ran into legal issues after strong springs. Each will be suspended against New Mexico State, but that will be a minor inconvenience moving forward if they stay out of trouble.

    The suspension does, however, leave the door open for somebody else to wow the coaches with a big game. If Texas is looking to replace Goodwin's exceptional blocking, 220-pound spring star John Harris deserves a look and has solid hands to boot. Duke Thomas, who could play both ways, also has the ball skills and speed to shred a defense in space.

    There is no doubt all of these players, along with all-purpose back Daje Johnson, will see time in Major Applewhite's system. But given his proclivity toward speed and the preference to have the third receiver play on the outside, Sanders gets the slight nod over Jones.


Kicker: Nick Jordan vs. Nick Rose

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    For the first time in his career, head coach Mack Brown lacked a reliable kicker in 2012. And that issue could carry over into this season, regardless of who wins the competition for field goal duties.

    Penn State transfer Anthony Fera may join the conversation later, but right now the kicking race is a two-man one. Fera will take over at punter, so it is up to Nick Rose and Nick Jordan to fix a kicking game that only connected on 11 of its 19 attempts.

    Jordan spent most of the season as the team's kicker and struggled early. He made seven of his last 10 attempts on the season, including a career-long 40-yarder in the team's Alamo Bowl victory.

    Rose, one of three scholarshipped kickers on the team, spent last season as the kickoff specialist, with 30 touchbacks on the season. In our first look at him in the spring game, he connected on a 34-yard attempt but missed from 42.

    Texas played six games last season that were decided by a score or less. Even if the 'Horns are better in the redzone, they need somebody who can give them three points when needed, especially late. Bank on Jordan getting over his freshman jitters.


Backup Quarterback: Case McCoy vs. Tyrone Swoopes

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    Following Connor Brewer's untimely departure from the program, Texas will be in dire straits if David Ash goes down with injury. The decision for who replaces him will not be an easy one.

    Brewer's transfer effectively leaves Texas with two quarterbacks—Ash and freshman Tyrone Swoopes. Presumed backup Case McCoy up and decided to take a 10-week mission trip to Peru, causing him to miss summer workouts. The remaining quarterback was Jalen Overstreet, before the coaches decided his athleticism was better served elsewhere on the field (via HornsNation).

    Since the coaches want to redshirt Swoopes, as they should, that leaves McCoy as the backup, who will play should Ash go down again. The problem with that is we have already seen the best of McCoy, as there is no way he got better in Peru this summer. 

    Now, Ash could make this a moot subject and play every significant snap, but the point is that Swoopes needs to be ready, especially if Ash is out for multiple games. His throwing needs major improvement, but the same could be said when Vince Young was thrown into the fire.

    McCoy probably remains the official backup because Brown will not carelessly burn Swoopes' redshirt, but Swoopes is more likely to start a game.