The eyes of Texas are upon you Charlie Strong. You were rebuilding last season, so they might can give you a little bit of a pass for the 6-7 record, but that can’t go on forever. At least it can’t if Strong is to remain the head coach at Texas. For the record, I approved of the Strong hire and still do. He put a very good defense on the field last season that was hindered by poor offense and special teams. However, that doesn’t matter to Longhorn fans in the long run. Wins and championships are what Texas expects, and Charlie Strong needs to show that he is capable of getting them back to that level.
Johnathan Gray has been a pretty good running back in his time in Austin, but it’s also fair to say that he has failed to live up to his five-star status as a high school recruit. Now, part of that is attributable to the torn Achilles’ tendon he suffered in November 2013. Last season, it seemed to still be effecting him some as he failed to reach his 2013 stats even in nearly five more games. That’s perfectly normal as Achilles’ injuries are exceptionally difficult to recover from, and many people never fully recover. Gray is still very young though so it’s more likely for him to recover than say an aging Kobe Bryant.
Texas’ offensive line had some struggles last season, but have plenty of talent and experience to suggest improvement. Four of the five projected starters up front have double-digit career starts, and the fifth is a highly touted freshman. Connor Williams was listed as the post-spring starter at right tackle as a true freshman. Expect the two guards to be the strength of the team with both Kent Perkins and Sedrick Flowers getting some preseason all-conference love.
Despite Tyrone Swoopes being the returning starter at quarterback and listed as the started heading into fall camp, Charlie Strong has already publicly stated that both Swoopes and redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard would play. The old saying goes, “If you have two quarterbacks, then you have no quarterbacks”, which has some merit but even “old sayings” aren’t without exceptions. I’ll be as interested as the rest of you to see what the split is at quarterback and how the offensive playcalling changes depending on who’s behind center.
With Jaxon Shipley and 1,000-yard receiver John Harris gone, neither quarterback has the luxury of a proven receiver in which to throw the ball. Marcus Johnson, the leading returning receiver, caught 27 passes for 313 yards last season. Armanti Foreman, even if he doesn’t start, and Jacorey Warrick could be potential breakout candidates though. Both looked fairly impressive on only ten receptions apiece as a freshman and a sophomore respectively last season.
Defense, especially the pass defense, was far and away the strength of this team last season, and will be so again in 2015. Up front, the losses of Cedric Reed and Malcolm Brown will hurt, but the return of defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway presents a nasty presence inside for opposing offenses. Ridgeway had 9.5 tackles for loss and six sacks last season. The rest of the linemen coming back were less impressive from a pure statistical standpoint, but have shown talent. The return of nose tackle Desmond Jackson is also big. Jackson missed 2014 with a foot injury.
Peter Jinkens and Dalton Santos will start at the two linebacker spots, and are also the only two linebackers on the roster who played last season. They only had a combined 28.5 tackles, but that’s largely because they were overshadowed by Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks, both of whom topped 80 tackles. Now it’s Jinkens and Santos’ turn to start, and if the Texas’ defense is to match last year’s level of play they will need to be just as good or close to what Edmond and Hicks provided for the Longhorns last season.
The secondary should be in good hands with leading returning tackler Dylan Haines prowling at strong safety, and Duke Thomas returning at cornerback after intercepting three passes and breaking up ten more a season ago. Bryson Echols will be the other corner, and played sparingly as a sophomore in 2014, but did have 15.5 tackles, a pass break-up and a forced fumble to his name. An intriguing player to watch will be redshirt freshman John Bonney, who will be starting at the nickelback position. Nickelback is a key position in this Texas’ scheme and Quandre Diggs left behind some pretty big shoes to fill, but if Bonney can fulfill high school scourting projections he should be a solid player there for at least the next two seasons.
Texas has plenty of talent and Coach Strong appears to have this program headed in the right direction. However, a tough schedule, quarterback question marks, and some coaching staff turnover are huge barriers standing in the way of an improvement in the win column. The season opening trip to Notre Dame should give us a pretty good gauge of what both of those teams are working with this season. It also doesn’t help that the Longhorns have to travel to TCU and Baylor this season.