AUSTIN, Texas -- With everybody taking a collective exhale from a season gone, well, nowhere, the time has come for the young players to start to inhale as much knowledge, time and wisdom as possible.
Texas’ first set of 15 spring practices -- given the 80 degree temps in Austin, the slightly skewed labeling is more than apropos -- has arrived. So at least there is something to warm this winter of discontent. There are also plenty of someones poised to benefit from the 15 extra practices awarded as part of reaching a bowl.
This is the time for the young players to step up, take notice and make themselves noticed. Given that Texas played 16 true freshmen this year and 18 last year, there is not too much youth left to be discovered. But as Texas remains at eight wins and holding, there is plenty of room for improvement from that youth.
This is, after all, the same time period a year ago in which David Ash converted himself from a liability into a strikingly average quarterback in the Holiday Bowl. His transformation, though possibly underwhelming to those who had not witnessed where he had come from and what he achieved, earned him the bowl game MVP and the edge in the 2012 quarterback derby. Ash, who regressed with three turnovers and a benching in his last start, is back in the same spot again this year.
For now it is time to look at three players who could benefit the most and rise the highest as Texas prepares for Oregon State in the Dec. 29 Valero Alamo Bowl.
Peter Jinkens, linebacker, freshman
Sure he starts and he will continue to be a starter in the Alamo Bowl. But while the freshman has added some pop, speed and exuberance to a defense severely lacking in bellicosity at times, he is far from perfect.
But Jinkens, along with linebacker Tevin Jackson, have brought a dimension to the linebackers that was lacking in several games following the injury to Jordan Hicks. Both fly to the ball and appeared to be heavily invested emotionally in the results of their play. This is a defense that is searching for some sort of spark, and Jinkens appears to have the makeup and game to provide that.
Now, Jinkens must gather the instruction and confidence necessary to be an impact player in the bowl game and beyond. Right now he does not know where he is going at all times. It’s more "see ball, hit ball," as defensive coordinator Manny Diaz likes to say. While that works, it will not consistently work and could get Jinkens in trouble on misdirections, etc. And a player who consistently runs the wrong way will not get many teammates to follow him.
Jinkens does appear to have the makings of a leader and now is the time he starts his campaign toward that goal.
Shiro Davis, defensive end, freshman
When Jackson Jeffcoat went down the thought was Davis’ playing time would spike. His redshirt was pulled and everyone was ready for the defensive end to use his speed to get to the quarterback. It didn’t happen because Davis wasn't ready.
He had spent most of the season buried deep on the depth chart, not getting any significant practice reps. So to throw him in midseason and expect him to swim past the tackles of the Big 12 was a big -- and unrealistic -- ask.
So for Davis, these practices become an essential time for him to show what abilities he does bring to the field, because the evaluations for next season have already begun. If Davis can prove that he has an extra gear it will allow the coaches to know they have four reliable defensive ends returning next season and they can plan accordingly.
Curtis Riser, freshman, offensive line, freshman
There has to be some change on the offensive line. The group is good against the bad teams and bad against the good teams. In Texas’ nine losses through the last two seasons, the offensive line has only plowed enough earth for the running backs to gain 125 yards per game. This year, Texas failed to gain 100 yards rushing against TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma. All of those games were losses.
Oh, and this offensive line has had four of the same five starters for the last two seasons and will return all five starters in 2013.
Now while Riser, who reshirted this season, might not be in line to take one of the starting spots at the start of 2013, these practices could go a long ay in proving to offensive line coach Stacy Searels that he has options. To date, Searels has been reluctant to play any other backup aside from senior Luke Poehlmann. But if Texas wants to change its fortunes in the run game against competition with which it should be better able to compete, there is little doubt Searels will have to look deeper into the depth chart. When he does that, Riser should be one of the first names to emerge.