July 29, 2008

The top 25 most important players at UT

With the start of training camp just a week away, it's time to take a close look at which players might be the difference between a Big 12 championship and another Holiday Bowl bid.

For the first time in the history of the site, we're unveiling our list of the 25 most important players to the program heading into the season. We're not necessarily profiling the 25 best players on the team as much as we're taking a look at the biggest questions facing this team and identifying some of the biggest performance related needs that must be addressed if this team is to return to the top of the national ladder.

No.25 - Kheeston Randall - Defensive tackle

The breakdown: Of all the incoming true freshmen, Randall was the only player to crack the top 25 list. With Lamarr Houston and Roy Miller entrenched as starters, the Longhorns have one of the Big 12's best starting tandems, but the depth behind both is mostly unproven. While Ben Alexander is expected to give the team some snaps as a back-up, the Longhorns desperately need someone to emerge and Randall probably brings the most physical upside of any underclassman in the program. Randall has impressed everyone upon his arrival and the staff has their collective fingers crossed that he holds up when the pads come on.

No.24 - Rashad Bobino - Linebacker

The breakdown: As a projected fourth-year starter at linebacker , the defense's emotional leader and the team's second-leading tackler among returning players, you might think returning Bobino would be higher on the list, especially when you consider that he's been running with the first-team defense when they go to their nickel defense. However, Bobino just hasn't been a playmaker for the Longhorns, even if he's been a solid middle linebacker. If he can turn into a playmaker during his final season, he'll have a chance to move up the list.

No.23 - Eddie Jones - Defensive end

The breakdown: It always comes down to health with the state's No. 2 overall prospect in the Class of 2006. When Jones is healthy, he can be a difference maker off the edge, while also providing a steady hand in the run defense. Yet, every time it appears as if Jones is going to breakout… he gets hurt. As he enters his redshirt sophomore season, Jones needs to prove that he be a difference maker on a full-time basis. Heading into camp, Jones will be battling with Henry Melton for the starting spot opposite Brian Orakpo, but Jones' ability to get to the quarterback off the edge makes him the player that needs to step up.

No.22 - Foswhitt Whittaker - Running back

The breakdown: His profile will increase dramatically if anything happens to projected starter Vondrell McGee. While Whittaker has been a smash hit this summer after a terrific set of spring workouts, the Longhorns don't need Whittaker to be Superman this season. Instead, they need someone that can provide the perfect change of pace to pair with McGee, while also giving the offense a little big-play pop that it lost with the departure of Jamaal Charles. If this off-season is any indication, Whittaker will fill the needed roles and might position himself in a way where the bar might end up being raised.

No.21 - Roddrick Muckelroy - Linebacker

The breakdown: Mack Brown has had very high hopes for Muckelroy since he first stepped on the field in 2006, but he hasn't been much of an impact player as he enters his third year. With a new scheme that should free him up to better use his athleticism, it's either time for Muckelroy to step or step out. The good news for Longhorns fans is that Muckelroy might have had the best spring of any linebacker on the team and he's been a standout in off-season workouts. Like Bobino, Muckelroy is getting first-team reps in the nickel defense, which means he's going to be on the field a lot this season.

No.20 - Trevor Gerland - Punter

The breakdown:This is a big year for Gerland because he's yet to make a dent in the program, despite being carrying high expectations after being recruited in 2005. Well, this is his fourth season in the program and the Longhorns desperately need Gerland to take this job by the horns and at least give them a solid option in the kicking game. In 15 opportunities last season, Gerland averaged 37.7 yards per kick. That needs to improve by at least four yards or someone else will be replacing Gerland on fourth downs.

No.19 - Ryan Palmer - Cornerback

The breakdown: Did you know that Palmer is the team's leading returning tackler and he posted as many or more tackles for loss last season as Muckelroy, Bobino, Scott Derry and Sergio Kindle did in 2007? Did you know he led the team last year in pass break-ups and forced fumbles as well? The bottom line is that Palmer was a pretty good player last season and that fact gets lost because of the team's terrible team pass ranking. The fifth-year senior is playing with more confidence and he's been a true standout in the off-season workouts. Expect him to have the kind of season that Brandon Foster had last season.

No.18- Cedric Dockery - Guard

The breakdown: Before Dockery was injured in the middle of the 2006 season, he had begun to emerge as one of the best interior linemen in the Big 12. In his first season back last year from a knee injury, Dockery never came close to that pre-injury level of play. Those in the program are proclaiming that he's getting back to that level of play that was previously seen during his sophomore year. When you consider that the guard spot held down by the duo of Michael Huey and Charlie Tanner is currently viewed as the most unstable spot on the line, it's imperative that Dockery play at a higher level than he did last season because this offense will have serious limitations if the line play isn't a strength for this year's team.

No.17 - Christian Scott/Ben Wells - Safeties

The breakdown: Pass defense, pass defense and more pass defense. If we're talking about improvement on this team it has to begin in the secondary and these are two young men that figure to play big roles in the team's base, nickel and dime packages. The Longhorns just didn't get enough good play from this group last year and these two will have a huge say in whether that changes in 2008.

No.16 - Malcolm Williams - Wide receiver

The breakdown: This Texas offense will have the firepower of a popgun if someone doesn't step up as a true deep passing threat at receiver. The Longhorns got by with smoke and mirrors while Limas Sweed played the first half of the season in 2007, but when he finally chose to have surgery, his downfield presence was never replaced. Williams is a dynamic athlete and has been running with the first-team group in off-season workouts this summer. He doesn't necessarily need to catch a lot of balls this season, but he does need to become a viable enough threat that defenses have to respect his presence on the field.

No.15 - Chris Hall - Center

The breakdown: The line's most valuable player in 2007 has moved to center on a full-time basis this season and he's expected to be an upgrade over Dallas Griffin. His performance in the Holiday Bowl was a huge bright spot on that night and there's little question that he's the best player suited to make the line calls that Griffin made so ably last season. It's been an underrated move, but his securing the center spot, coupled with the expected improvements across the board on the line, has this line in a position to make big improvements.

No.14 - Quan Cosby - Wide receiver

The breakdown: Call him Mr. Dependable because Cosby is exactly that and he certainly made his share of big-time grabs last season, but he's not exactly a home run threat. Although he caught 60 passes last season, he barely averaged 50 yards per game last year in receiving and that's largely due to his 11.3 yards per catch. He might not be the most dynamic receiver in the Big 12, but he's the only rock solid sure thing on the offense. When you add in his importance as a return guy on special teams, you've got yourself one of the team's key components to winning.

No.13 - John Chiles - Quarterback

The breakdown: The Longhorns are in such dire need of a difference maker among the skill players on offense that the mere fact that Chiles has the ability to be that guy probably warrants him being slotted higher on the list. However, as the season gets closer its hard to know how much of a role he's actually going to have. He hasn't lined up at receiver in off-season workouts and his passing hasn't improved to the point where he's a legitimate two-way threat at quarterback. If his only role is to come in and run with the ball, it's hard to imagine where a high volume of snaps are going to come from. If he expects to play considerably this season, it's time he start taking his overall game to new heights. It's not that he's not a weapon right now, but he can be so much more.

No.12 - Deon Beasley - Cornerback

The breakdown: If you look at Beasley's improved play in the spring and in off-season workouts, it would appear that he's ready to embark on an All-Big 12 type of season. Beasley probably didn't play as much as he should have last season, but he made some big plays when given the opportunities and his role on this year's team is indisputable. The Longhorns need Beasley to anchor this secondary with an awards-type season if this group is going to emerge as an area of strength. In some ways the direction that this group begins to take will be directly tied to Beasley's progress as a player.

No.11 - Roy Miller - Defensive tackle

The breakdown: Lamarr Houston may or may not emerge as a force this season at defensive tackle, but there's no question that Miller has to be a run-stuffing anchor this season in the middle of the line. Miller hasn't had a chance to be a full-time player in his career, but that changes in his fourth season and he has to be an above-average player for this defense. If the defensive ends are going to have more freedom to get up the field, then the interior players have to be able to not only make plays in the backfield, but they need to be able to eat up blocks and hold linemen off of the linebackers.

No.10 - Ryan Bailey - Kicker

The breakdown: You probably forgot about Bailey, huh? Well, after connecting on 18 off 22 field goals last season, he proved to be one of the Big 12's most dependable kickers. That's a quality that Bailey is going to need to give this team again this season because everyone can expect some tough games with this difficult schedule and a few of them might just come down to a kick.

No.9 - Kyle Hix - Offensive Tackle

The breakdown: You might be shocked that this second-year lineman is ranked so high, but there are whispers on the 40 Acres that Hix has a chance to be as good as any lineman that the Longhorns have had in the Mack Brown era. Even though he's still very green, there are high expectations for Hix to be the best player on the offensive line this season, which means he's expected to emerge as a full-time force in 2008.

No.8 - Sergio Kindle - Linebacker

The breakdown: There are two players on the Texas defense that have the ability to completely take over a game with the physical abilities and this kid is one of them. Of course, the issue with Kindle since he arrived at Texas is the fact that he's not been able to live up to his lofty potential. Coming off of a knee injury, Kindle is still a major question mark, but he seems to have an ace in the hole that he's never had before - Will Muschamp. The new Texas defensive coordinator plans on using Kindle's athleticism and playmaking skills in a variety of ways, including as a pass rusher off the edge in pass rushing situations. As arguably the most talented player in the program, it's time Kindle starts to sizzle instead of fizzle.

No.7 - Jordan Shipley - Wide receiver

The breakdown: After averaging 15.4 yards per catch last season and catching a team-leading five touchdowns in 2007, Shipley proved that he can be a difference maker when he's healthy, but the second part of that equation often comes with a hitch. Heading into this season, it appears that Shipley has emerged as Colt McCoy's favorite weapon in off-season workouts and he could be poised for a breakout season. One thing is certain and that's the 32,1 yards receiving per game he averaged last season needs to nearly triple.

No.6 - Earl Thomas - Safety

The breakdown: It really doesn't matter that Thomas has never played a snap at the college level. Thomas nearly cracks the top five because the play at safety was so uneven last year that it's hard to imagine this team improving defensively unless there's improved play at the safety spots. Well, the player who has made the most noise at the position in the off-season is this former West Orange-Stark star. Thomas has earned rave-reviews all off-season and the Longhorns have their fingers crossed that his active, playmaking ways translate when the lights come on. It's a lot of pressure to put on a young kid, but with almost no experience returning at safety, Thomas has no choice but to be good right away. If he can't play at a high level, there will be a real trickle-down impact on the rest of the defense.

No.5 - Lamarr Houston - Defensive tackle

The breakdown: In talking with NFL scouts in the off-season, a number of them believe that Houston, who moves inside from defensive end this season, has the most NFL upside of anyone on the defense. In the spring Houston showed the ability to be a dominating presence inside because of his quickness and overall athleticism. It's been a long time since the Longhorns have had a real impact player on the inside of their defensive line, but Houston has a chance to emerge as a real playmaker. If Houston can really emerge into a force, opposing defenses are going to have to make some tough decisions about blocking assignments. If Houston and Orakpo are both on the same side of the field, it's likely that one of the two is going to get single-blocking, which means that they will have opportunities to wreak havoc.

No.4 - Adam Ulatoski - Offensive tackle

The breakdown: Hix might be the player that emerges as the best player on the offensive line, but the player that the Longhorns need to emerge as the anchor on the line is third-year starter Ulatoski. It's easy to forget that Ulatoski is still just a junior and he still has two seasons of eligibility remaining, but up until now he hasn't been more than a solid player. As he moves over to left tackle this season, he needs to take his game to another level. Again, this offensive line has to be a team strength in order for this offense to be an above-average unit, and the Longhorns need Ulatoski to be not good, but very good this season.

No.3 - Vondrell McGee - Running Back

The breakdown: With the departure of Jamaal Charles, the weight of the running game needs suddenly falls on the shoulder of McGee, who was regarded as the state's top running back prospect in 2006 the staff and a number of recruiting analysts (including myself). Although McGee didn't have a breakout season in 2007, everyone in the program feels like McGee is more than capable of taking on a full load at running back. He'll split time with Whittaker, but when this team needs tough yards this season between the tackles, it's going to be McGee that gets the responsibility. If this team is going to have a deal closer in this phase of the game, McGee has to channel the ability that allowed him to dominate East Texas during his high school career.

No.2 - Brian Orakpo - Defensive End

The breakdown: Orakpo possesses the perfect blend of ridiculous athleticism and raw ability, but he's another guy that not only has to stay healthy, but he needs to prove that he can be a dominant player on this defense. If Orakpo can become a double-digit sack man off the edge and a guy that opposing offenses have to account for at all times, the possibilities for the other ten men on the field and new defensive coordinator Muschamp should open up like floodgates. Someone on this team has to be a great player and not just a good one, and Orakpo appears the most likely to emerge as that kind of impact individual.

No.1 - Colt McCoy - Quarterback

The breakdown: Doesn't it always begin and end with the quarterback position? The excess of turnovers that McCoy committed last season has to be cut in half if this team is going to be a legitimate contender this season. Although there's much focus on the things that McCoy hasn't done as a player at Texas, let's not ignore the things that he has accomplished and he's won a lot of games and thrown a lot of touchdowns in his first two seasons. As the undisputed leader on the offensive side of the ball, McCoy has to emerge this season as one of the Big 12's very best players. At the end of the day, this team will go as McCoy goes.

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