There have already been plenty of surprises through Texas’ first week of spring practice. Several young Longhorns are boosting their stock at key positions, but the defense still really needs somebody to step up.
As expected, Texas’ offensive attack has been the most obvious change from last season. The pace has obviously quickened, and running back Johnathan Gray had some effusive praise for its impact on the team:
I like how it spreads out everything where you can run and pass. It mixes up everything. The defense doesn’t know what’s going to happen. It helps out the running back, quarterback, the wide receivers and the offensive line. I love this offense.
Just as before, it’s still unclear who eventually runs this ramped-up attack. Tyrone Swoopes has made the early statement, leading a group of upperclassmen who have responded to the need for some leadership. Even the offensive line, which struggled for most of last season, has shown some signs of real depth thus far.
At this point, the main concern lies with Charlie Strong’s defense, where injuries and a lack of experience are already catching up along the line and secondary.
Going forward, fixing this and getting more out of redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard will be of the utmost importance.
Stock Up: QB Tyrone Swoopes
The rave reviews continue to pour in for junior Tyrone Swoopes, who has taken an early lead for the starting quarterback job.
Media, coaches and teammates have all been singing Swoopes’ praises this spring. 247Sports’ Jeff Howe sees a decisive edge as a passer, showing an improved ability to go through his progressions and deliver an accurate ball.
In the same interview cited above, Gray also elaborated on the maturation he’s seen from the big junior.
“He’s grown up a lot,” said the senior running back. “He’s been more of a leader. He’s pushing guys past their limits, and it’s what you want from a quarterback. He’s starting to lead us, and I see it from him.”
Reportedly carrying less weight than last season, the quicker reads and added freedom to run should lead to more of the Swoopes we saw put up huge numbers against Iowa State and Oklahoma. The competition is far from over, but he’s put himself in a good position to keep his job.
Stock Down: QB Jerrod Heard
As encouraging as it’s been to see Swoopes improve, it’s been almost as disappointing to see Jerrod Heard so clearly behind him.
This isn’t to say Heard looks like a bust. He’s obviously an electric athlete with superior skills once he’s on the move, per Howe. But right now, he’s a projecting as a passer, which doesn’t bode well for him beyond a specialty role.
Heard has to become a serviceable passer who can capitalize when the defense overcompensates for his legs. Until he makes up ground in that department and as a leader, the coaches will lean toward Swoopes.
Stock Up: RB/WR Daje Johnson
Is this finally the year Daje Johnson turns into the offensive terror he’s shown he could be? He’s finally acting like he wants to this spring.
Seemingly suspended since he returned a punt 85 yards against Oklahoma, Johnson was very close to not being a Longhorn anymore. He started off his time with Strong on a bad note, and he ended up suspended for the first half of 2014.
It wasn’t that Strong had anything against Johnson. Even when he was squarely in the doghouse, Johnson’s rare ability had his coach singing his praises back in August:
Daje is a special player with a lot of ability. The thing you like about him, he is so explosive with the ball. He can get the ball in his hands and he’s one of those guys who can make people miss and a guy who can break away at any time.
Seven months later, Strong is happy with where his all-purpose weapon, and can’t wait to get him the ball.
He has come a million miles. I think that it was probably July, a year ago, and we had a talk. I think at that time I had suspended him like five or six games. I said to him, you have to prove to me you want to be here. And at that time he said to me: I’ll tell you what, I will not be in your doghouse again. So, I’m hoping that he sticks to it. But what an explosive player. He has so much ability. He’s one of the guys you can get the ball to him in the open field, make a guy miss and take it.
A focused, involved Johnson should mean some big plays for this offense. He possesses unbelievable 4.34 speed according to ESPN, and he has a rush, reception and return of over 70 yards for his career.
Now that Texas is trying to push the pace, Johnson has a chance to put up huge numbers as long as he stays the course.
Stock Down: DE Derick Roberson
This early in the spring, it’s difficult to differentiate who’s excelling from who’s struggling. At this point, injuries are the toughest pill to swallow, especially with a player like Derick Roberson.
Still battling a shoulder injury, the top recruit from Texas’ 2014 class has yet to see the field and will now miss spring football.
Raw from a physical standpoint, Roberson needed all of the practice he could get to compete for a starting job this fall. The Longhorns desperately need a pass-rushing presence, and he’s easily Texas’ most talented player in that department.
Without Roberson, incumbent starter Naashon Hughes will get a chance to keep his job. SB Nation’s Wescott Eberts notes that he struggled with consistency as a redshirt freshman, but his length and range make him a high-ceiling option once the game slows down for him.
Roberson’s absence also should expand freshman Malik Jefferson’s role in the defense. The 6’2″ freshman was a frequent blitzer in high school, and his agility would be a problem for opposing tackles.
Stock Up: OT Tristan Nickelson
All four of Texas’ early enrollees along the offensive line are providing depth. So far, it’s Tristan Nickelson who has been taking starter’s reps.
Less heralded to this point than Connor Williams and Brandon Hodges, Nickelson has been the one running with the first team at right tackle. He’s absolutely massive at 6’8″, 312 pounds, and should provide some road-grading ability to an offensive line that couldn’t pave a sidewalk in 2014.
With Joe Wickline at the controls, Nickelson’s spot could easily go to someone else by the next time we get a look at this group. Still, his size should be an asset, and the overall depth the new guys provide will pay dividends this season.
Evans’ health issues will prevent him from filling Texas’ vacant starting corner spot.
Stock Down: The No. 2 Cornerback Spot
The competition for the No. 2 cornerback spot was still open when Sheroid Evans went down with a knee injury last week. He was just the obvious top candidate.
Evans, who took a redshirt after tearing his ACL last season, went down on Saturday, according to Rivals.com’s Anwar Richardson.
The severity of the injury has yet to be disclosed, but the assumption is that it’s bad. He had been nursing the previous tear since October 2013, and re-injuring that same knee would end his football career in all likelihood.
The worst part is that Evans was tearing it up before he got hurt. “Sheroid is still Sheroid: fast as can be,” top corner Duke Thomas told 247Sports’ Jeff Howe. “He’s still one of the top-10 fastest, or whatever he was before the injury. He’s flying out there.”
Now that second spot is in total limbo for the rest of the spring. Nobody else on the roster has any real game experience, and top recruits Holton Hill and Kris Boyd don’t arrive until the summer.
Jermaine Roberts and Bryson Echols will each get a hard look in the meantime.
Stock Up: DB John Bonney
The good news in the secondary is John Bonney is stepping up to take Quandre Diggs’ spot in the nickel, one of the defense’s most important roles.
At 5’10” and 180 pounds, Bonney doesn’t fit the mold of what the Horns have traditionally trotted out in this spot. As 247Sports’ Jeff Howe discusses, he’s small by most every metric and isn’t an especially explosive athlete.
What Bonney does bring is football smarts and decent length for a player his size. The Longhorns need a player like that who can diagnose what the offense is trying to do now that Diggs and Jordan Hicks have graduated.
As with every open spot, the coaches will experiment with this position once this exceptional group of freshmen arrives on campus. Bonney has to spend the rest of the spring proving his football IQ can trump superior physical traits.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats and information courtesy of TexasSports.com.