Texas Football: Predicting the Starters for Each Longhorns Position in 2016
Down seven starters, Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong and his staff enter a crucial 2016 season needing his recruits to continue their stellar play from last season.
Losing almost a third of their starters hurts on the surface, but the Longhorns should feel lucky. They lack obvious backups at only two spots and will keep most of the two-deep from last season.
If anything, this is an opportunity to hand more responsibility over to Strong's 2015 recruiting class, which was last season's bright spot.
Unfortunately, the quarterback battle continues to be the biggest question mark for this team entering the offseason. If that doesn't get settled, there's little the rest of the team can do to make up for it.
With a new offensive coordinator and up to five candidates for the quarterback job, pinning down the starter will be both the toughest and most important task of the summer. For now, expect the Horns to roll with Jerrod Heard.
Heard never lived up to the hype from his record-setting performance against Cal back on Sept. 19. His struggles with accuracy, decision-making and overreliance on his legs became obvious over the course of the season, and defenses responded accordingly.
Still, Heard has obvious upside as a college quarterback. He's a deadly runner when he can find space, and his 7.65 yards per attempt would have ranked in the national top 50, per CFBStats.com.
Given the way the team as a whole responded to his taking over the job in 2015, it's worth seeing what he can do in offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's offense.
No longer forced to try to learn former assistant coach Shawn Watson's pro-style scheme, Heard can benefit from Gilbert's spread attack, an offense similar to that in which he won two state titles at Guyer High School in Denton, Texas. With his speed and ability to hit the deep ball, Heard has a great chance to find success in this offense.
But to do so, as Inside Texas' Ian Boyd notes, Heard's accuracy on intermediate routes must improve:
[The quarterback] needs to understand the system and the defenses he will face so that he can choose from his options correctly and make the right decisions with the ball. Also importantly, he needs to be able to lead a receiver on a deep ball and to make quick throws outside of the hash marks with accuracy and velocity. ... A noodle-armed QB, however accurate, will get picked off or set his receivers up for nasty hits trying to lob the ball outside in this offense. An inaccurate passer will get his team behind the chains by missing throws that the defense can force an offense to hit in order to function.
Heard's efficiency is the main concern, as evidenced by his 57.9 completion percentage. If he can't work out those issues with Gilbert, then this position becomes a mess.
Senior Tyrone Swoopes has never been able to consistently do anything this offense requires. Redshirt freshmen Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick are blank canvases at this point, albeit with more talent than most recognize. And then there's early enrollee Shane Buechele, who could easily factor into the race as a true freshman.
That said, Heard remains the favorite until we see something different bear out in spring ball. The good news is that the Longhorns have the entire offseason to evaluate all of their options.
Quarterback: Jerrod Heard
Based on seniority and a larger sample size, junior running back D'Onta Foreman should lead Texas' two-headed monster in 2016.
A backup in name only, Foreman was Texas' best offensive player until he hurt his hand while tearing up West Virginia for 147 yards and a touchdown on Nov. 14. Prior to that injury ending his season, Foreman had four 100-yard performances in his last six games, was averaging 7.2 yards per carry and had three runs of 65 yards or more.
Not only is this a 240-pound back we're talking about, but he's one who seemingly came out of nowhere. Foreman was a low-rated 3-star recruit, according to 247Sports, while twin brother Armanti got most of the attention coming out of high school.
Because of the junior's rise from forgotten man to one of the nation's most efficient backs, 247Sports' Jeff Howe argues there's no other choice to lead this backfield:
Foreman has had to work for everything he’s earned in his football career, and he’s earned the right to be the leader of the pack. Texas needs more players like Foreman who are self-starters and carry a constant chip on their shoulder. He is going to be put in a position to set the tone and challenge everyone in the room now that he’s the veteran of the group.
Working as the 1B to Foreman's 1A will be sophomore Chris Warren, a similar power back with surprising breakaway speed. These two project to combine for at least 25 carries a game, while sophomore Kirk Johnson can step in on passing downs.
With Foreman leading the way, this should be one of the nation's best rushing attacks.
Running Back: D'Onta Foreman
Wide Receivers/Tight End
Forced to replace two senior starters, Texas' receiving corps will be a young one in 2016. The return of the team's best pass-catcher should make the transition easier.
A year after leading the team in receiving yards, John Burt's the no-brainer of this group. The 6'2" receiver brings deep speed, a set of reliable hands and awesome tenacity as a blocker. He's already an every-down player and has breakout potential in an offense that should be more committed to getting him the ball.
The other two receiver spots should be more interesting, as the graduations of Marcus Johnson and Daje Johnson leave two jobs open without truly obvious candidates to replace them.
Junior Armanti Foreman is on notice after being benched at times in 2015. He has playmaking potential with the ability to play inside and out, but has to show more toughness as a blocker. Otherwise, beastly early enrollee Collin Johnson could snatch up the outside job opposite Burt.
In the slot, Ryan Newsome is the most natural fit for Daje Johnson's old role. Newsome's electric in space and has more reliable hands than the enigmatic Johnson, albeit with less straight-line speed. Also look for Lorenzo Joe and DeAndre McNeal to factor in on four-wide sets.
At tight end, Caleb Bluiett has earned the right to be an every-down player. The converted defensive end was invaluable as a blocker last season and made huge plays when called upon in the passing game. He'll never dominate a game, but he's good enough to make teams pay for forgetting about him.
Wide Receivers: John Burt, Armanti Foreman
Slot Receiver: Ryan Newsome
Tight End: Caleb Bluiett
Texas returns its three best linemen from last season's surprising unit, but the staff has some work to do to get quality players beside them.
Freshman All-Americans Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe are obvious locks for starting jobs after stellar debut seasons. The same can be said for senior Kent Perkins, but where he and Vahe end up actually playing is anyone's guess.
Already an elite left tackle, Williams will play there until he decides to leave. On the other hand, Perkins and Vahe are a little more movable. Perkins has swung from guard to tackle throughout his career, while Vahe was considered a top-tier center prospect by 247Sports. There's also some who believe Perkins, the most experienced lineman on the team, would be a fit in the middle.
Gabriel Alcocer of The Football Braniacs UOT Edition weighs in with this tweet: Gilbert & Mattox' O utilizes inside zone a lot. If they can solidify RT & RG, having Vahe & Perk at LG & C would be devastating. #HookEm"
In the end, it all depends on who shines during the offseason.
The best-case scenario would be for a right tackle to emerge and push Perkins to left guard. Tristan Nickelson was up and down in the role last season, which could open the door for true freshman Jean Delance when he arrives in the summer. Also keep an eye on sophomore Elijah Rodriguez.
The center spot will determine who ends up where inside. Redshirt freshman guard Garrett Thomas impressed last spring and should have the inside track to either a guard or center spot. As long as right tackle emerges, he and Perkins will fill the two inside spots with Perkins' experience getting the nod at center.
Left Tackle: Connor Williams
Left Guard: Patrick Vahe
Center: Kent Perkins
Right Guard: Garrett Thomas
Right Tackle: Tristan Nickelson
Losing Hassan Ridgeway hurts, but Texas has enough experience up front that it should be able to field a decent unit in 2016.
Ridgeway's departure for the NFL guarantees that the starting defensive tackles will be Paul Boyette and Poona Ford. Each has to be much more consistent, especially Ford, who has the tools to be a star. But since neither is a true nose tackle, as noted by Inside Texas' Ian Boyd, a slight shift in scheme might be needed to highlight their best skills.
Leaving the hybrid Fox position to the next slide, senior Bryce Cottrell is our last starter for this group. He emerged at strong-side defensive end last season and is quietly one of the best defenders returning for this team. He's a breakout candidate that will rarely come off the field.
Defensive Tackles: Poona Ford, Paul Boyette
Defensive End: Bryce Cottrell
Arguably Texas' best position group, the Longhorn linebackers return all but one player from last season's two-deep and have the potential to dominate in 2016.
Malik Jefferson leads this group and has a chance to top the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. Because of his strength, speed and football intelligence, Texas can deploy the freshman All-American just about anywhere. He's a lock to make an All-Big 12 team as an outside linebacker.
For the third-straight year, Naashon Hughes will play the Fox position he grew into as a redshirt freshman. He's extremely versatile in this role at 6'4", 232, and playing him with Jefferson allows Texas to create mismatches for the entire front seven. When these two are at their best (see: win over Oklahoma), this defense can take over a game.
At inside linebacker, Anthony Wheeler, Edwin Freeman and Breckyn Hager will battle for a role in which all of them will see the field. Wheeler's the best athlete of the bunch, Freeman showed well when he was healthy and Hager has the best knack for the position. Texas probably takes a committee approach here unless Wheeler seizes full control.
The one guy who could disrupt the order is Derick Roberson. He's the best pure pass-rusher on the team, and would be a must-start if he can improve against the run. Should that happen, Hughes likely moves back to linebacker with Jefferson playing more in the middle of the field.
There's a ton of talent here, and it'll be exciting to see how it shakes out.
Fox: Naashon Hughes
Outside Linebacker: Malik Jefferson
Inside Linebacker: Anthony Wheeler
As good as the linebackers are, Texas' secondary might have a claim to the best position group on the defense.
The strength of this unit absolutely lies at the cornerback position. True sophomores Holton Hill and Davante Davis are shutdown corners in the making that have the physical ability to play with any receiver in the country. Hill's especially worth watching, as teams avoided him like the plague at times during his freshman season.
Tweeted Ryan Autullo of Hookem.com during the Longhorns game against Oklahoma on Oct. 10: "Whichever WR Holton Hill is covering hasn't gotten open all day. The freshman corner is having a great game."
The best battle here will be at the nickel position, which has produced stars like Quandre Diggs, Earl Thomas and Aaron Williams. Kris Boyd, P.J. Locke and John Bonney will compete for the role in a battle that should last into fall camp. Boyd's size, fluid hips and overall athleticism should give him the edge over Locke's football IQ.
Safety will also feature some of the competition of the offseason, as neither Dylan Haines nor Jason Hall played particularly well in 2015. DeShon Elliott's combination of size, speed and violence demands that he see the field over one of these two. Since Haines is a senior, Hall probably finds himself on the bench to begin the year.
Locke should also factor into the battle at safety, and commitments from Brandon Jones and/or Deontay Anderson would further muddy the depth chart. Should that happen, Elliott could easily be starting next to a freshman.
Cornerbacks: Holton Hill, Davante Davis
Nickel: Kris Boyd
Safeties: DeShon Elliott, Dylan Haines
Unless otherwise noted, all stats and information courtesy of TexasSports.com.