Charlie Strong has opened up spring ball in Austin, and in his first year at Texas, he has plenty to sort out.
He and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford have to construct a defense that fits their image, but that also can run with the Big 12's offenses. On the offensive side, Strong has to identify playmakers in the passing game, assess his quarterback situation and put together a capable offensive line.
Bedford and Strong take over the nation's No. 57 scoring and No. 67 total defensive unit in the nation from a season ago. A unit that loses its best player, Jackson Jeffcoat, to graduation and the NFL. However, this unit has the potential to be special as the new coaches shape and mold players who truly want to play great defense.
The roster boasts quality at all three levels, and the returning players bring leadership along with the ability to get on the field and make plays. That will pay dividends for Bedford's unit as he breaks down a Texas defense that was too complex, at times, for the players to run to the football and just make plays.
The group will get more physical under the regime, and that has to become a hallmark of Longhorn football in the Strong era.
Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, Texas has designs on being physical, but it still must have an active passing game as well. On the throwing end of that venture it means finding a quarterback, and on the receiving side it means seeing the receiving corps continue to improve.
David Ash, who missed the bulk of 2013 with concussion issues, is non-contact in the spring but will be taking reps to show he can operate in the Shawn Watson-Joe Wickline offense. Tyrone Swoopes, the highly touted 2013 enrollee who only threw 13 passes during the season, will also be trying to show he is ready to contribute.
Identifying a starter is not going to be easy, and that might leave the puzzle unsolved this spring, leading Texas to dial up Max Wittek, the USC transfer, to fill the void.
However, for all the question marks at quarterback with respect to David Ash's health, Swoopes' development and Wittek's decision, Texas should have options on the edge.
Mike Davis is out, but the Longhorns return a crop of talented pass-catchers hoping to contribute. Jaxon Shipley has the most experience, but Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Daje Johnson all started in 2013 and bring skills to the table.
Daje Johnson is an interesting player who can contribute both out of the backfield and on the edge. Watching this new staff utilize the rising junior's skills will be a treat, regardless of who wins the quarterback job.
As the quarterback situation gets top billing and people get excited about Daje, it is the Texas offensive line that will be the cornerstone of the success for this offense. The unit loses key pieces from a year ago but does feature some youth with talent waiting to step into the open spots.
Dominic Espinosa is the veteran of the group, returning to the center spot to provide an anchor to a line in transition. His backup, Jake Raulerson, will get reps as well while he waits to get into the position for 2015.
Kennedy Estelle, who has started eight games and seen plenty of action, is expected to move to the left side to play tackle, replacing Donald Hawkins. Kent Perkins, who was able to start a game in 2013 and has played as a reserve, should get the nod on the right side at tackle.
On the interior, Sedrick Flowers has played a lot of football and will likely grab the left guard spot. However, opposite Flowers, Curtis Riser, Rami Hammad, Darius James and possibly even Alex Anderson, an early-enrollee lineman, will be pushing for the right guard spot.
Texas has bodies as Taylor Doyle, Camrhon Hughes and Desmond Harrison are all available depth for the springtime line battles. Harrison is an interesting player who came in as a highly touted junior college prospect, but was not able to crack the starting lineup a season ago.
The offensive line has to come together, and that means not only filling out a depth chart, but growing into the physical men up front that Strong and Wickline are looking for to power this offense.
Malcolm Brown is back to run the ball this spring and, hopefully in August, Johnathan Gray returns from injury. The ball-carriers are there for the program—they just need the line to clear holes, and that is what Strong and Wickline aim to make happen.
Now is the time when Texas' defense starts to improve, courtesy of Bedford and Strong's focus on the fundamentals and being physical. While the quarterback question may remain unanswered, it's worth watching for receivers to step up and for the bodies on the offensive line to grow into a cohesive unit.
If the Longhorns can build an offensive line set to play up to its potential, this offense, and this team, should be ready to run in 2014.
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