Texas spring practice preview: Longhorns need to toughen up on defense

Tom Herman

This seems like the same description for any of the past few seasons when talking about the Texas football program.

Texas returns 17 starters (seven on offense and 10 on defense) off a team that went 5–7 and lost five games by seven or fewer points. Texas was one of the youngest teams in the country and is filled with talent. It could be argued that the difference between wins and loses for those five games was coaching. For many, the coaching change from Charlie Strong to Tom Herman was welcomed with open arms.

Couple that with early enrollee help at quarterback and running back and the signing of five-star JC linebacker Gary Johnson and you have instant help added to the depth chart for 2017.

Herman and the Longhorns open spring practice Tuesday.

RELATED: Tom Herman will start learning about his Longhorns this spring

The three biggest position battles

1. Running back: One of the starters lost from 2016 was the team’s best player — Doak Walker Award winner D’Onta Foreman. While there were thoughts that Texas had a two-headed monster with Foreman and Chris Warren, the truth is there was a real drop-off from Foreman to Warren. Warren has yet to stay healthy, Kirk Johnson has yet to truly leave the training room, Kyle Porter does not have ideal size and early enrollee Toneil Carter hasn’t touched a ball on a college field. The talent is there, but this battle may come down to who can avoid injury and play consistently.

2. Linebacker: Any other linebacker coming out of high school in 2015 who had the first two years of Malik Jefferson’s career would have been hailed a star. Jefferson is a former five-star recruit and a really good football player. With Texas switching to a 3–4 base scheme, the position is deep — even before Gary Johnson makes it to campus in June. Jefferson, Anthony Wheeler and Naashon Hughes are the veterans, and Malcolm Roach, Breckyn Hager, Erick Fowler and Jeffrey McCulloch are fighting for time. Making the eight-man two deep will be hard for some.

3. Safety: Texas only lost one starter at the position in former walk-on Dylan Haines. Jason Hall returns but has struggled with busted plays and blown assignments. Brandon Jones was arguably the top safety in the country in the class of 2016 and played well in spot duty and special teams as a freshman. Every Longhorns fan has been waiting for DeShon Elliott to answer his promise, but everything from injury to the “dog house” to his preparation have kept him from showing out. Chris Brown is undersized, but is by every description a throwback football player. Trying to pick two starters out of this group will be difficult, and the competition should be great.

The three strongest positions

1. Defensive Tackle: There are veterans Chris Nelson (eight career starts) and Poona Ford (17 career starts). Add to that the top defensive tackle class in the country in 2016 with D’Andre Christmas-Giles, Jordan Elliott, Chris Daniels, Gerald Wilbon and Marcel Southall. Daniels and Southall redshirted. This is a defense that is switching to a 3–4 base and should always have fresh legs and versatility at tackle.

2. Wide receiver: Texas returns six of its top seven receivers from 2016 — and sitting outside of that at 18 catches is John Burt (Texas’ second-leading receiver in 2015). Burt had a breakout freshman year, then fell victim to a sophomore slump plagued with drops, mental errors and eventually a loss of confidence. After forgoing track this spring, expect him to return to form this fall. It took the previous staff a while to figure in 6-foot-6 Collin Johnson and blazer Devin Duvernay. Put them together with veteran Armanti Foreman and the position is flush.

3. Cornerback: Texas had two big freshmen corners garner honors in 2015 in DeVante Davis (6-2) and Holton Hill (6-3). Like Burt, both experienced some tough times in 2016. The change in secondary coach from Chris Vaughn to Clay Jennings did not help. Texas fielding one of the worst defenses in the history of the program really clouded reason in judging the position. Both are NFL-type corners. Kris Boyd might be the team’s best athlete and was a capable and successful backup when Hill and Davis faltered. Veteran John Bonney will provide depth and Texas also signed two nice-sized corners in the 2017 recruiting class.

Offensive newcomer to watch

QB Sam Ehlinger: Ehlinger, an early enrollee, gives the Longhorns the top quarterback in the state of Texas two years in a row. He is big, strong and fast, has a plus arm and is athletic. He missed much of his senior year because of to a number of injuries. Still, it seems likely he will work his way to at least the backup role behind returning starter Shane Beuchele.

RELATED: Twitter ‘war’ shows why Sam Ehlinger could be good for Texas

Defensive newcomers to watch

DTs Chris Daniels and Marcel Southall: The key newcomer in the fall will be LB Gary Johnson; he was the top-ranked inside linebacker in the junior college ranks for 2017 and the third-ranked overall player. But he won’t be on campus until the summer Thus, we’ve picked the two defensive tackles. A strong spring increases the likelihood of being in the rotation in the fall. A poor or mediocre spring? That will make it more difficult to get on the field this season.

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