April 2, 2008

Where does the offense go from here?

With the conclusion of spring drill this past weekend, the Texas Longhorns are now in the beginning stages of the longest stretch of the off-season, with the team taking the next four months to prepare for the beginning of fall camp in August. As the Longhorns head into this quiet time, they'll do so with more questions than answers as it relates to the 2008 season. In this three-part series, we'll take a look at the top five questions on each side of the ball as we head into the summer.

Today we take a look at the offense.

No.1 - What happens with John Chiles?

It's pretty safe to assume at this point after he took the overwhelming majority of snaps at the quarterback position with the No.2 offense this spring, John Chiles is the back-up quarterback in Austin. What remains to be seen is how exactly the Longhorns plan to use the ultra-athletic quarterback.

During last season's Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State, the staff appeared to take the first real step towards infusing Chiles into the offense. When the ball is in his hands, he's the team's most explosive offensive weapon. With Colt McCoy firmly entrenched as the starter, it will be up to the staff to figure out creative ways to involve Chiles into the offense.

Does that mean more snaps for Chiles at quarterback and less for McCoy? Will Chiles take snaps at other positions? Would Chiles even be open to moving to another position, even if in small doses, to help the team with some of the existing personnel issues?

The identity of this Texas offense won't truly begin to form until the decisions on Chiles are made.

No.2 - Who emerges as the starter at running back?

This might be the most talked-about personnel decision that remains to be made because of the high-profile nature of the position in Austin.

The favorite remains sophomore Vondrell McGee, who was everything the coaching staff hoped to see this spring. He's a downhill runner that moves the chains and the staff feels like he has more potential for explosive plays than some give him credit for.

While McGee was everything that the staff hoped he would be this spring, Foswhitt Whittaker proved over the course of the spring camp that he's going to be a major factor on the field. Although he's not the pure between-the-tackles force that McGee looks to be, Whittaker is the quickest back on the roster and he made big play after big play through the last month.

As the team enters the fall, McGee will have a slight lead, but both players are going to receive a lot of carries in this offense and the real starter might not ultimately be decided until someone takes a step forward with their in-game performances.

No.3 - Who starts at flanker?

The Longhorns have had the luxury of having Limas Sweed's combination of size, athleticism and big-play ability at flanker coming into each of the last four seasons. However, the Longhorns learned last season that replacing Sweed's presence on the field is easier said than done.

Without the vertical threat that can dictate the way opposing defenses roll their personnel in coverage, the offense became much more restricted in what they could do in both the run and passing games.

If the season started today, senior Quan Cosby would likely start at flanker, but he's better used in a different role because of his size and strengths as a receiver. In an ideal world, one of several young prospects on the roster will develop in the next four months into a legitimate starting candidate.

The top candidates to emerge from the pack at flanker are redshirt freshman Malcolm Williams and true freshman Dan Buckner. Both players showed flashes this spring of eventually becoming tremendous players, but they are still struggling to consistently perform at a high level, which should be unexpected at this stage of their careers.

It's been during this dead period in past years when Texas receivers have really developed because of multiple seven-on-seven sessions that will take place from now until August. If Williams and Buckner can continue to make progress from now until the start of fall drills, they'll be in a much better position to position themselves for a starting spot.

In a best-case scenario, one of those guys needs to step up and allow Cosby to move back to split end and in the slot. If neither guy is ready in the fall to be a major player in the offense, the staff will need to throw true freshman D.J. Grant into the flames to see if he can be the guy.

If things remain the same, look for Cosby to start at flanker and his performance level is going to have to be at an all-time high because of the demands he'll have to fulfill without more support.

No.4 - What's up with the tight ends?

Yes, you've forgotten what it feels like not to have an All-Big 12 caliber suiting up at the tight end position. From Bo Scaife to David Thomas to Jermichael Finley, the Longhorns have been stacked at this position for the duration of the decade.

That history is nice, but as this team heads into the season there are major questions about what kind of role this position will have in the offense.

Sophomore Blaine Irby, third-year sophomore Josh Marshall and redshirt freshman Ian Harris have all shown improvement, but none appear for ready for a staring role in the offense. Unless someone makes dramatic improvement, this might be a season when the staff has to get by with a committee at the position, while lowering the expectations for the projected output from this position for the year.

If the tight end position doesn't provide a go-to-guy for the quarterbacks in the passing game, that's going to add more pressure to a wide receiver unit that is still trying to sort themselves out as well.

No.5 - What five guys emerge as starter on the offensive line?

With junior right tackle Adam Ulatoski out this spring, sophomore Kyle Hix was forced to play on the right side, while sophomore Tray Allen worked on the left side. Once Ulatoski moves back into his position on the right side in the fall, look for Hix to battle Allen for that starting left tackle position.

If you talk with team insiders right now they feel like Hix and Ulatoski will be the starters at tackle, while Allen will be the top back-up on the left side and Hix can flip over to the right side when Ulatoski needs a rest.

If you look at the interior of the line, Chris Hall and Cedric Dockery look like sure-fire starters at center and right guard, respectively.

That leaves a battle for the left guard job between junior Charlie Tanner and sophomore Michel Huey. Both players had good spring camps, but Tanner might have a slight edge at the moment, although Huey has more upside and will likely get there faster with a more prominent role.

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