After two rocky years, Charlie Strong enters his third season at Texas with big expectations and big pressure. The Longhorns must show serious progress in 2016 following a disappointing 5-7 season. Another impressive recruiting class arrives this summer, but first Texas a lot of work to do this spring.
The Longhorns get their spring drills underway on Monday. Here are some key storylines to watch:
Offensive returner ready to take next step: Wide receiver John Burt. Somebody is going to have to catch the ball for new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. His top wideout at Tulsa last year, Keyarris Garrett, put up monster numbers (96 catches, 1,588 yards and eight touchdowns) and was targeted a ridiculous 165 times. Texas’ best wideout is Burt, and he turned his 50 targets as a true freshman in 28 catches, 457 yards and two scores. On usage alone, he’s one guy who should break out if this new offense gets rolling.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: Safety DeShon Elliott. Had he not suffered a toe injury in one of Texas’ first fall practices last season, Elliott might have been a big piece of the puzzle for the Texas defense in 2015. He managed to get on the field late in the year and play 85 snaps. With star freshman Brandon Jones on the way and Elliott healthy and ready to hit, Texas’ future is bright at the safety spot.
Redshirt freshman to watch: The Longhorns only redshirted six of their freshmen last year, but quarterback Kai Locksley is probably the most interesting of the bunch. The former ESPN 300 athlete might have the size of Tyrone Swoopes and the athleticism of Jerrod Heard. He’s got the work ethic to compete with them, but we’ll find out if he can actually push the veterans this spring. Locksley could also end up becoming a dynamic receiver if he can’t win the signal-caller job.
Most significant position battle: Believe it or not, Texas has an open competition at the quarterback position. Again. This will start off in spring ball as a five-man battle between Heard, Swoopes, Locksley, freshman Shane Buechele and redshirt freshman Matthew Merrick. Experience is an advantage in that battle, sure, but what really matters is who does the best job of running Gilbert’s offense? Texas needs an efficient passer and sharp decision-maker. Good luck predicting who will win out.
Key midterm enrollee: A lot of eyes will be on Buechele, but don’t sleep on offensive lineman Zach Shackelford. The three-star signee from Belton, Texas, was supposed to enroll early at Kansas State before Texas’ staff made a late push to keep him home. The 6-foot-3, 296-pound lineman has already made a big impression on his new coaches and teammates. Shackelford will be given a real shot to win the starting center job and fill one of two key vacancies on Texas’ line.
Question that could be answered: Could Texas field the Big 12’s top defense in 2016? Can’t really answer that until December, of course, but we’ll get a better sense of what the Longhorns are working with on defense over the next few weeks. Malik Jefferson and his talented band of sophomores need to take a big step forward this spring. Veterans Poona Ford, Paul Boyette, Naashon Hughes and Bryce Cottrell must improve to fortify the defensive line. Who are the leaders of this unit? We’ll find out in the spring.
Question that won't be answered until fall: Even if the quarterback situation gets figured out this spring – which would be ideal – this offense is going to need a ton of reps before it starts clicking. Texas is trying to achieve the kind of offensive makeover TCU pulled off in 2014, and the Frogs weren’t feeling comfortable with theirs until they started scrimmaging in fall practice. These transitions take time. Texas’ offense simply isn’t going to look like a 50-points-a-game attack by the end of April.