Texas Longhorns: Texas spring five to watch

AUSTIN, Texas -- We wrap up our five to watch series this week with a breakdown of five prospects in the 2015 class whose recruitment Texas fans should be watching closely. These aren't the five highest-rated recruits, but rather five who will tell us a lot about Charlie Strong's first full class with the Longhorns.

1. LB Malik Jefferson

This is a big deal, plain and simple. The Mesquite (Texas) Poteet linebacker is one of the best in the state and the nation, and there's a lot of time to win over the ESPN 300 prospect, as he won't decide until winter.

Last year, Texas got itself in good shape for three huge in-state recruits -- cornerback Tony Brown, safety Jamal Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas -- and hoped to leverage a successful 2013 season into a gigantic finish with that trio. That plan was a bust. It wouldn't be surprising if Texas finds itself in a similar position with Jefferson by the end of the summer.

If everything stays status quo during the 2014 season, Jefferson probably ends up choosing Texas A&M. He had great relationships with former Texas defensive coordinators Manny Diaz and Greg Robinson, but both are gone now and the new staff is catching up. They'll need to make a big impression this fall if they hope to sway him.

Whomever lands Jefferson gets one gigantic recruiting victory. He's the real deal and Texas will go all-in on him.

2. QB Zach Gentry

If Gentry does end up choosing Texas, it'll tell you an awful lot about what Shawn Watson can do for this program as a recruiter.

The nation's No. 72 prospect is a big deal -- and we mean that literally, as he's nearly 6-foot-7 -- and has offers from the likes of Alabama, Penn State, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Tennessee. The Albuquerque (N.M.) Eldorado standout took an unofficial visit to Austin the week of the spring game and seemed to come away impressed. A decision could come later this month.

Watson got on Gentry early on while at Louisville and has extended him offers at both schools. The in-state crop of quarterbacks is solid, and there could be room to take another like Quinten Dormady in this class, but Gentry would be a home run and a clear statement that Watson and the offensive staff won't be afraid to pursue elite passers outside the usually loaded Lone Star State.

3. CB Holton Hill

Texas is already in excellent shape to land Hill, an ESPN 300 defensive back from Houston Lamar with more than a dozen big-time offers. Now the Horns have to hold on and seal the deal.

Hill has visited Austin multiple times this spring and was high school teammates with 2014 Texas signee John Bonney. Hill is not a lock by any means, not with Texas A&M right up there with Texas in his early top two. This could turn into quite the battle, akin to the one for Otaro Alaka last year that the Aggies eventually won.

But Texas is in a promising position with Hill and also Gilmer (Texas) defensive back Kris Boyd. How well Vance Bedford and Chris Vaughn sell them on the future of "DBU" following Duane Akina's departure might make the difference.

4. WR John Burt

Texas has sent out offers to dozens and dozens of elite out-of-state prospects, the kind of guys who can choose from any SEC school they want. Their hope, quite simply, is trying to get those guys on campus for a visit. That's not a problem in the recruitment of Burt, who has gone out of his way to visit Austin multiple times in the past 12 months.

The ESPN 300 wideout from Tallahassee (Fla.) Lincoln will likely end up choosing between Texas and Florida State. What a win that would be for Strong and his staff if they can beat out the defending national champion for a talented local kid.

Burt visited Texas last season for a home game and again this spring for a junior day week. The staff change did little to dampen his love for the program. When an out-of-state kid makes it this obvious he's interested, you've got to lock him up.

5. DT Daylon Mack

Calm down, Aggies, we're not saying or predicting Mack will end up in burnt orange. It's more about what landing Mack or another elite committed player would mean for the momentum of this class.

The five-star defensive tackle from Gladewater (Texas) has been an A&M pledge for nearly seven months, and a strong one for most of that time. He's a leader-of-the-class type, the kind who other kids want to follow and play with. But Texas (and the rest of the SEC) will not give up any time soon.

There are several other committed prospects -- running back Ronald Jones II (Oklahoma State), safety Deionte Thompson (Alabama), tight end Jordan Davis (Texas A&M) -- Texas will also keep pursuing until signing day. Landing even one of them would make a statement about Texas' revamped recruiting.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Our five to watch series continues this week with a closer look at a group of incoming freshmen who could be in line to help the Longhorns right away in 2014. You won't see Texas' highest-rated pledge at the top of the list, because this is not exclusively about star ratings. It's about fit and function.

1. DT Poona Ford

There's a reason why this guy was priority No. 1 for Charlie Strong and his staff on national signing day. Ford, who was once Louisville's highest-rated pledge before the coaching changes, was a must-get for Texas to fix an area that might be relatively concerning.

Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson are legit, but the depth behind them is unproven at best. Hassan Ridgeway could turn it on and be a key piece this fall, but Alex Norman and Paul Boyette Jr. have not panned out entering year three in the program, and Texas failed to sign any defensive linemen in 2013 after losing A'Shawn Robinson to Alabama late.

So yeah, Ford walks into an ideal situation in terms of opportunity. There's a lot to like about what the 6-foot, 285-pound defensive tackle put on his senior tape. If Ford gets the defense down and come along quickly, you're going to see him this fall.

2. OLB Edwin Freeman

The first big commitment of the Strong era, Freeman is a safety in a linebacker's body. At 6-1 and nearly 215 pounds, he's the right kind of package to play some kind of a rover role and produce in the back seven.

A product of Arlington (Texas) Bowie who chose the Horns over Texas A&M despite Mack Brown's departure, Freeman is an explosive and smart downhill tackler who seems ready-made to knock heads on special teams as a freshman and find his way onto the field in the right situations.

These hybrid tweener types such as Freeman and Naashon Hughes seem poised to find a niche in Strong's defense, at least based on how he ran things at Louisville. You want guys like Freeman in a Big 12 defense.

3. WR Armanti Foreman

The Texas City native brings speed and attitude to Texas, plus the ability to play either receiver or defensive back.

Whether it's Foreman, Lorenzo Joe, Dorian Leonard or another one of the many Texas receiver signees, it seems likely at least one of these freshmen will prove to the cream of the crop by the end of fall camp and see early playing time.

The new staff had to put in some time to convince Armanti and his brother, D'Onta Foreman, to stay on board, and they nearly took a visit to Missouri. But both are ready to show up in Austin with the hopes of playing right away, and D'Onta is the kind of weapon Texas can put in the slot and make some noise with in the future.

4. DE Derick Roberson

Why is Roberson, the Longhorns' highest-rated ESPN 300 signee, so low on this list? Only because of Texas' solid depth along the defensive line. When you have a potential All-American in Cedric Reed and two exciting third-year ends in Shiro Davis and Caleb Bluiett, you're in good shape.

Roberson can make that group much better if he shows up ready to play. He'll bulk up in his first year under strength coach Pat Moorer and could turn into even more of a freak by Year 2. For that reason, a redshirt wouldn't be inexcusable.

But as a speed rusher who racked up more than 20 sacks in his senior year at San Antonio Brennan, Roberson is, at the very least, a passing-down rusher who creates problems in the backfield. Don't be surprised if he finds his way onto the second unit and excels when he sees the field.

5. QB Jerrod Heard

Texas fans might not be happy about this ranking, since Heard is the next great beloved quarterback (aren't they all?). Truth is, after watching Heard become a two-time state champion at Denton Guyer, it's easy to buy in and see him as the guy of the future.

That doesn't guarantee playing time in 2014, however. He's as polished as any freshman quarterback in the country and mature beyond his years. He's got the makeup you'd ideally want if you had to throw him out on the field as a rookie. Considering Texas' instability at QB, would anyone really be that surprised if Heard is the starting quarterback by November?

How far he gets this fall depends on how prepared he is this summer and what he proves to Shawn Watson. But assuming Max Wittek does end up in Austin and David Ash recovers to 100 percent as expected, Heard seems more likely to sit than play early on. Considering the expectations he faces, that might be for the best.
AUSTIN, Texas -- We continue this week's five to watch series with underclassmen who could take on important roles for the Longhorns in 2014. We'll exclude offensive lineman Kent Perkins, who would definitely make this list, because he made yesterday's list of key missing parts.

[+] EnlargeCaleb Bluiett
John Rivera/Icon SMICaleb Bluiett will be another athletic pass-rusher on Texas' defensive line.
DE Caleb Bluiett

Why put Bluiett here at No. 1 when he's not going to start? Because he reminded everyone in the Orange-White game why he's going to play a lot this fall.

The redshirt sophomore was disruptive off the edge in the spring game, tying for the team led with eight tackles while adding two TFLs and a pass breakup for the No. 2 defense. And with Jackson Jeffcoat and top backup Reggie Wilson gone, Bluiett will have to chip in.

He arrived in Austin an intriguing athlete, capable of playing tight end or along the defensive line. He bounced around between those duties throughout the 2013 season, flashed against Texas Tech once he settled in on defense and got to start against Oregon.

Bluiett has put on at least 30 pounds since joining the program and filled out into a really well-built end with intriguing tools. If he keeps coming along, he'll make life a lot easier for first-time starter Shiro Davis and the rest of this line.

WR Jacorey Warrick

Coaches and teammates call him by his nickname, "Petey," and it's a name you heard a lot during spring ball.

Warrick, a sophomore who played sparingly last year and didn't record a reception, has a chance to catch foes by surprise in the slot this fall. He overcame a torn meniscus suffered during his senior season at Houston Cypress Falls and was one of only a few true freshmen to see the field. Now it's time for an expanded role.

The 5-foot-10, 174-pound wideout enters Year 2 as one of the fastest players on the team at his position. He'll be pushed by fellow second-year receivers Montrel Meander and Jake Oliver (all three should contribute this season) and incoming freshmen like Armanti Foreman and Lorenzo Joe, but Warrick is a sharp route-runner who should get snaps in four-wide sets.

CB Bryson Echols

Lots of big-time former Texas defensive backs made their hay early with their special teams play. Last year, it was Echols who started making a name for himself on that front.

And not always in good ways, of course, with the few roughing the punter penalties Echols collected. But he did end up leading the Longhorns in special teams tackles with 10 on the year, and the DeSoto product can be one tough customer.

Where he fits into Texas' plans for 2014 remains to be seen, with Quandre Diggs and Duke Thomas slated to start at corner, but you need nickel backs in the Big 12 who can cover and tackle in space. As the Texas staff sorts through which pieces can make this defense complete, Echols' help in the secondary could make a difference.

Then again, it's entirely possible that by the end of the 2014 season, we're talking a lot more about redshirt freshman Antwuan Davis. He was good enough to play last year, but Mack Brown wisely opted to preserve his redshirt. A confident, aggressive corner with excellent speed, he was the real deal as a recruit and might be poised for a breakout.

LB Naashon Hughes

Hughes opened some eyes in the spring game with his play off the edge for the No. 2 defense. Depending on how Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford construct this defense, he could find himself fitting into a specialty role going forward.

[+] EnlargeKendall Sanders, Naashon Hughes
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsNaashon Hughes (40) impressed Texas' new coaching staff this spring.
The redshirt freshman from Harker Heights proved with his senior year of high school ball he deserved a full scholarship, and not the planned grayshirt. He brings speed and athleticism in a 6-4, 231-pound package, and is the kind of linebacker who can rush from the outside and get the job done in coverage.

Texas' overwhelming surplus of linebackers might mean a year on the bench for Hughes, unless more injuries strike that group, but his time will come.

DB Chevoski Collins

If you want a sleeper who could come out of nowhere on defense and make a difference, look at Collins and fellow safety Adrian Colbert.

Unless another underclassman like John Bonney or Erik Huhn rises up, Colbert and Collins seem likely to take over as backup safeties behind the typically inconsistent duo of Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner. Collins, a skilled athlete from Livingston could play in several spots in this secondary and brings lots of confidence for his age.

The redshirt freshman worked with the No. 2 defense in the spring game and still has some growing to do, but file that name away for down the road. He'll get his chance.
AUSTIN, Texas -- We continue our five-to-watch series this week with a look at a group of Texas players who missed some or all of the spring but will be important cogs in 2014. In the interest of mixing it up, we’ll focus on five Longhorns not named David Ash.

1. LB Jordan Hicks

Ideally, it would make sense for Texas to roll into Big 12 play with Hicks and Steve Edmond patrolling the middle of the defense. Having those two holding it down gives you all sorts of options. But it requires a healthy Hicks.

The senior has played in just one conference game in the past two years, felled by freak injuries in back-to-back seasons. He’d like nothing more than to take out that frustration on opposing offenses in 2014.

He’ll be relied upon, too, to help Quandre Diggs and Cedric Reed lead this defense in the locker room. Coach Charlie Strong is optimistic that Hicks can return sometime in June, which would have him ready to go for fall camp in August.

That would be a boon for a defense that has sorely missed Hicks. After all the missed time of the past two seasons, who knows how good this defense could be if he’s on the field and at his best.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
David K Purdy/Getty ImagesJohnathan Gray's status come fall camp will be a hot topic in Austin.
2. RB Johnathan Gray

There will be consternation among Texas fans over how Gray should be utilized this fall.

Some will say he can team with Malcolm Brown to form one of the Big 12 and even one of the nation’s best rushing duos. Others will argue that, whether or not he’s 100 percent recovered from his torn Achilles, Gray should redshirt in 2014 and led Brown carry the load.

It’s an interesting conundrum for Strong and his staff as they construct their offense this offseason, and one that can be ignored for now with a wait-and-see approach. But we at least know what Gray can do.

Over a six-game stretch in the middle of last season, Gray rushed for 628 yards and four scores and was the workhorse of the post-Ash run-heavy attack. If he does return sometime next month, as Strong hopes, there will reason for hope that he can play in the opener.

Don’t underestimate this: Gray is an absolute freak of an athlete. Normal recovery times might not apply to him. Let’s see how he looks in August before making any predictions about his junior year.

3. CB Sheroid Evans

Evans’ time is coming. The junior cornerback showed serious promise entering the 2013 season and played in five games before being lost for the year to a torn ACL.

After sitting out the spring to recover, Evans should get thrown right back into the mix to serve as Texas’ nickel corner, a job that’s good for a lot of playing time against Big 12 spread offenses. Bryson Echols and Antwuan Davis should provide good competition, but Evans is too good to stay sidelined.

He’s got all the tools, especially with his long arms and track speed, to develop into a Big 12 starting corner. Just depends on how he recovers and how he responds to his two new position coaches.

4. RB Joe Bergeron

Bergeron was held out for the final weeks of spring practice for undisclosed reasons -- reportedly academic issues -- but Strong expects him to come back. And he’ll need him back.

Behind Brown, you have a bunch of questions at running back in addition to Gray’s injury. Jalen Overstreet remains an unproven former quarterback, and a trio of freshmen arrive this summer of varying readiness. It’s entirely possible all three redshirt.

That would leave Bergeron, a thumper of a power back with nearly 1,400 career rushing yards.

Fumbling issues put him in the doghouse for a while last season, but Bergeron can be a lot more than a goal-line back when playing at his best. And the guy still scored 16 TDs in 2012. Texas’ backfield needs him on board.

5. OG Kent Perkins

Might Perkins be able to find a starting job on this Texas offensive line? Shawn Watson might have hinted at that late in spring ball by acknowledging that the right tackle had moved inside to guard in practice.

But Perkins went down with a minor knee injury that required surgery at the start of April, a setback that raises questions about what he can provide this fall. He’s expected to be healthy for spring practice, and the former top-100 recruit should have a major role on this line regardless of whether he starts.

With veteran Sedrick Flowers fairly entrenched at left guard, it’s possible Perkins’ best shot at starting will be on the right side competing with Taylor Doyle and Rami Hammad. He proved in his only start last season he’s good enough to back up Kennedy Estelle at right tackle, too.
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.

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