Texas Football: 5 Backups Critical to the Longhorns' Success in 2014
David Ash is inching closer to a return, but that doesn't lessen the need for the Longhorns to get both of their backups ready to contribute in a big way. And that's not the only position where Charlie Strong will have to lean on his bench.
Through and through, the Longhorns are solid at the skill positions and at linebacker. The spots are stocked with reliable starters and enough backups that Charlie Strong can handle an injury or a bad game.
The rest of the defense and the offensive line are somewhat less stout. The secondary has no depth and only one reliable starter, the defensive line has talent without any reinforcements, and the offensive line is replacing three starters.
Because these groups are thin on experience and/or talent, the top backup from each one will be absolutely critical to how Texas performs this season. With the exception of the quarterbacks, each of these five guys will have to play, and play well, every single week of the season.
QB Tyrone Swoopes/Jerrod Heard
Texas has needed a backup to start at least one game each of the two seasons Ash has had the full-time job. Based on his concussion history alone, it would be miracle for him to pull it off this season.
Ash going down would be a major blow to this team, but Charlie Strong can't afford to let his health dictate how the season goes. He needs to have the backup ready to make plays, or else the 'Horns just will not keep pace in this conference.
Right now, that backup should be Tyrone Swoopes based on his experience with the team. That could change with Jerrod Heard in the fold and already digging into the snaps, according to Howe's report. The good news is both are dangerous with their legs, which should make it easier for one of them to run a scaled-down attack.
CB Bryson Echols
Texas is razor-thin in the secondary, making every defensive back on the roster important to the team's success. Spring star Bryson Echols will be the first backup off the bench, and he has to provide a steady hand when called upon.
The third corner will see a lot of action thanks to the early-season meetings with UCLA, Baylor and Oklahoma. After breaking up three passes against the first-teamers in the spring game, the redshirt sophomore Echols looks like he has that role locked up.
But even beyond his role as the third corner, Echols could easily end up a starter for this group. We have seen Duke Thomas struggle to stay with his man, and it wouldn't be a shock if Quandre Diggs had to play some safety.
Either way, Echols figures heavily into how Texas will defend the pass.
DT Hassan Ridgeway
Texas is talented but thin at defensive tackle behind starters Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson. If he plays up to his potential, Hassan Ridgeway would limit the dropoff when one of them needs a breather.
Though he played in 12 games, Ridgeway was unable to step up last season when Chris Whaley went down with a torn ACL. He bullied his way to nine tackles and three quarterback pressures through the first two games, then posted just four stops the rest of the way.
This season, Ridgeway is really the only experienced player the Longhorns can turn to here. Poona Ford has been cleared to enroll by the NCAA, but the freshman will take some time to adjust. Until then, Ridgeway is going to have to handle most of the backup work.
The tools are there for the 6'4", 309-pound tackle, and it's time for him to get some production out of them.
DE Caleb Bluiett
Similar to the situation at tackle, the Longhorns need a consistent pass-rusher backing up Cedric Reed and Shiro Davis. Caleb Bluiett has been productive when he's gotten his chances and needs to keep it up in 2014.
Bluiett was the star of the spring game on defense, piling up eight tackles with two sacks and a pass deflection. In fact, the performance was enough to warrant some consideration for a starting role over the unproven Davis.
The Longhorns need to get after the quarterback to protect their secondary, meaning Bluiett will see a lot of snaps even as a backup.
OL Darius James
Gifted and versatile, redshirt freshman Darius James looks like offensive coordinator Joe Wickline's Swiss Army knife up front thanks to his ability to play all three positions.
The offensive line remains a fluid situation until we get more clarity on Kent Perkins' health situation, but it seems like Taylor Doyle has grabbed one of the open guard spots. That's a bit of a surprise given James' 5-star rating, per 247Sports, but it won't prevent James from contributing.
At 6'5" and 311 pounds, James is listed as a guard but played left tackle in the spring game. As noted by The Oklahoman's Gina Mizell, Wickline has an affinity for linemen who can play multiple positions, and he will have James moving bodies whenever he can.
Texas is loaded and experienced at linebacker, limiting the importance of one single man from that position group. However, Freeman brings a special skill set with his range and feel for the game, which will eventually land him in a hybrid role in Strong's defense. He will be making a difference in such a role as soon as he proves he can handle it.
Next in line behind Echols at corner, the redshirt freshman has rare athletic ability and the size to play safety. That alone makes him somebody to watch given the situation in the secondary.
Big and fast for a safety, Colbert is all potential. On paper, he looks like he would be a stud. On the field, you're wondering if he's just a bulkier Mykkele Thompson.
Like Freeman, he's a linebacker with the athletic ability to be so much more. He's going to play, but he will have to beat out the freshman to avoid getting lost in the shuffle.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats and information courtesy of TexasSports.com.