Five to watch: Spring surprises

May, 5, 2014
May 5
10:00
AM ET
AUSTIN, Texas -- A new coaching staff meant a clean slate and a new start for several Longhorns this spring. Here's a closer look at five Texas players who appeared to help their chances of making an impact in 2014 with their performances in spring ball.

1. WR Marcus Johnson

[+] EnlargeJohnson
AP Photo/LM OteroMarcus Johnson is poised to become Texas' big-play threat this season.
You remember Johnson from his 59-yard touchdown against Oklahoma and the 120-yard day against TCU a week later, but they were just glimpses of the speedster's potential.

After being relatively underused last fall, Johnson seems poised for a breakout year. He caught the attention of his new head coach with plays like this.

"I'll say this, he can run," Charlie Strong said. "I know that he can separate from a defensive back. [He needs] confidence and just continue to work on his confidence. What I told Marcus, I said, 'You have big-time ability. You need to play like that each and every day.'"

Johnson finished fourth on the team in targets last year and caught 22 balls for 350 yards and two scores. It's hard to believe he's already a junior, but that's how it goes when your freshman season gets wasted the way Johnson's was in 2012. He appeared in eight games but didn't record a catch and was targeted only one time.

He has an opportunity, with deep threat Mike Davis gone, to become the kind of impact wideout who makes defenses look silly when they sneak up to stop the run. That's just what this Texas offense will need.

2. OG Taylor Doyle

The more casual Texas fan must've been a little confused when scoping out the new-look Longhorns offensive line at last month's spring game. They've rarely seen the guy who was holding down the first-team right guard spot.

That would be Doyle, a local kid from Lake Travis with just two games of playing experience at Texas. The reason the junior was in that starting spot had a lot to do with opportunity.

He has been sitting behind four-year starters Mason Walters and Trey Hopkins, who departed just in time for new offensive line coach Joe Wickline to show up. Doyle learned enough over three years on the scout team to show Wickline he can compete for the right guard job.

Doyle has to hold off talented redshirt freshman Rami Hammad, who came close to seeing the field in 2013, and it's entirely possible the injured but exciting Kent Perkins moves over and takes the right guard job after moving over from tackle this spring. But at least for this spring, Doyle got lots of first-string reps and opened the door for more.

[+] EnlargeMykkele Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesIf he can play consistently, Mykkele Thompson could be poised for a big role in Texas' secondary.
3. S Mykkele Thompson

With 18 starts and 20 more appearances under his belt, is now the time when Thompson finally breaks out?

That's not to say there haven't been good days and big plays along the way, but Thompson is one of those guys who might have benefited in a big way from new coaches with new perspectives.

"We played him some at corner and some at safety," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. "He had an outstanding spring from the first practice to the last practice."

Thompson hasn't been very consistent in the last two years and struggled at times to be a reliable tackler and hitter, but Texas needs him to have a big year in the secondary with Adrian Phillips gone. It wouldn’t be surprising if he's a defensive standout in 2014.

4. LB Timothy Cole

New coaches just seem to like this guy. Installing Cole as a starter was one of Greg Robinson's first moves as defensive coordinator last year, though that plan was short-lived.

Now the new guys running the Longhorns have taken a liking to the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Cole.

"I call him Nat King Cole's nephew," Bedford said. "I mean, he is a big, physical guy."

After having hip surgery in January, Cole was healthy for spring ball and took advantage of the fact so many other Texas linebackers were not, starting with the first-team linebackers in the spring game. He doesn't bring the size of Steve Edmond or Dalton Santos, but he's athletic and figures to make more plays in space than he did in his less-than-stellar first start against Iowa State last year.

Cole was still learning back then, as a redshirt freshman, and has more to learn now with a new playbook. But if Texas' veteran linebackers deal with more injuries this fall (and that seems likely, doesn't it?), Cole could be in for significant snaps.

5. K Nick Rose

Can't forget the kickers. Texas had a near-automatic placekicker in Anthony Fera last year. In Rose, it has a junior whose role has been exclusively used on kickoffs over the past two years.

An open competition this spring to replace Fera resulted in Rose's emergence. If the season started today, he'd figure to be the guy on field goals, extra points and, yes, kickoffs. William Russ would be the punter. There's still time for that to change, with several candidates for each duty.

But we know Rose can boom it, as evidenced by his kickoffs and two solid attempts in the spring game -- a 40-yard make and the 55-yarder he missed. He just needs to be consistent, or else somebody else will have to take Fera's place.

Max Olson | email

Big 12 reporter

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