Texas finds wild cards in Sanders, Johnson

October, 23, 2013
10/23/13
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AUSTIN, Texas -- By now, Texas’ opponents should know plenty about Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley. The scouting reports on those two are obvious.

The Longhorns love to go deep to Davis. He has 30 receptions of 20-plus yards in his career. Shipley is the guy who makes his hay over the middle and on critical downs.

[+] EnlargeKendall Sanders
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWith 25 receptions for 240 yards, Kendall Sanders has found a home as Texas' slot receiver.
They've been doing that for years. TCU has plenty of tape on those two entering this week’s matchup.

The Horned Frogs could have a harder time on Saturday when it comes to accounting for the new wild cards of this Longhorn offense -- Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson.

The sophomore wideouts are starting to emerge as dangerous options. Shipley, for one, is not at all surprised to see them thriving this fall.

“It’s crazy because a lot of people don’t think they have much experience because they didn’t play last year,” Shipley said. “We’ve seen them, ever since they’ve been here, gradually every day they've gotten better and improved. Those guys are making huge plays during camp. We already knew they were going to do big things.

“Everybody outside hadn't seen it, so they didn't know. We had all the confidence in the world in putting them in.”

Johnson enjoyed his breakout moment against Oklahoma, beating his defender on a wheel route and hauling in a 59-yard touchdown. That score, the first of his young career, put Texas up 17-3 in the second quarter.

“[Chris] Whaley's touchdown and that great shot from Case [McCoy] to Marcus Johnson -- those were some big plays for us and I believe those two shifted the momentum for us,” Texas running back Malcolm Brown said after the game.

Johnson first broke onto the scene in September against Kansas State when he picked up big first downs on catches of 14 and 21 yards along the sideline. He’s now averaging 19.5 yards per reception on his seven catches.

It’s a nice start for a wideout who saw action in eight games last season but caught no passes. Sanders didn’t have much of a role either, recording two catches in 11 games. Both entered the season with high expectations, especially with Texas’ need to replace NFL draft pick Marquise Goodwin in the slot.

Sanders rose to the challenge and becoming the clear No. 3 option among Longhorns receivers. In fact, he has nearly just as many targets (43) as Shipley (46) and Davis (45) do this season, and has turned that into 25 catches for 240 yards.

He seems to have found a good rapport with new starter Case McCoy, too. Sanders has a team-high 18 receptions in the three games McCoy has started, though his best play this season came on a pass from Ash.

On a play that’s usually Davis’ specialty, Sanders snuck behind Kansas State’s defense to haul in a 63-yard bomb for his first career score.

Add in the early-season exploits of the explosive Daje Johnson, who despite injury problems already has a rushing, receiving and return touchdown, and 2013 has been a good one for Texas’ trio of sophomore wideouts.

“They’re taking an extra step to get better and starting to put their names out in college football,” running back Johnathan Gray said. “They’re doing a great job for us right now and they’re hard workers. The sky’s the limit for those guys.”

TCU has the No. 1 run defense in the Big 12. It also has the league’s best cornerback in Jason Verrett, who will no doubt be dedicating his attention to Davis and Shipley.

That could potentially make for a big day for Sanders and Johnson. It’s never quite that simple, of course, and TCU has more talent in its secondary, but either could be the X-factor that Texas’ offense seeks.

While Texas co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite likes what he’s seen from the duo in practice and games, he’s careful to give too much praise. Sanders and Johnson are not done developing.

“That’s the biggest thing. The road to the championship is always under construction,” Applewhite said. “You've got to keep working. You’re never there, you’ve never arrived.”

But when the Longhorns find themselves in need of a momentum-changing play this weekend, don’t be surprised if one of the sophomores gets a chance to build on the breakout seasons they've begun.

Max Olson | email

Texas/Big 12 reporter

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