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10 Biggest Impact Freshmen in 2016

Brandon Jones. (Courtesy of ETSN.fm)
Brandon Jones. (Courtesy of ETSN.fm)

We don’t normally write lists because of the lazy #content nature of them, but doing so is an effective way of associating expectations on the newly arrived freshman football players. It’s also a good way to have our opinions out there for all to see. When Gerald Wilbon is Big 12 Newcomer of the Year in 2016, you may hesitate to say you knew it all along if we can revert back to this thread to verify that very bold declaration.

Expectations differ for each and every player. The more highly rated players are naturally expected to contribute earlier, whether that’s fair or not. That doesn’t mean other players can go about their freshman year casually – that’s certainly not the case – but they’ll have more time to assimilate than some others. Some players will redshirt, but because of need, some players you may not have spent much time thinking about could be pressed into action early. A player or two always surprises with their mental readiness or physical play.

The Class of 2015 filled a lot of needs, but nowhere close to all. Going into 2016 there are still significant questions on the defensive line, at quarterback, at inside receiver, and depth in general, especially on the offensive line. Luckily for Texas fans, Charlie Strong followed up the 2015 class with one its equal, at least on paper.

While 2016 still has the potential to add more players because of the goings on at Baylor – or un-goings on if you’re a writer for BearsTruther247 – we’ll take a look at who’s currently on campus and discuss the 10 players with the greatest expectations heading into the season.

10. LB Jeffrey McCulloch: McCulloch might end up being one of the two or three best players in the class, but he isn’t likely to see as much opportunity as some others out of the gate because of the presence of Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler. With Texas spending almost all of its time in nickel, it will be hard for McCulloch to truly breakthrough. Now, if Erick Fowler doesn’t make it in, the staff would be wise to look at “Shark” on the edge where his powerful hands and quick striking make him a formidable presence. I don’t think Breckyn Hager or Naashon Hughes are better long-term answers at Fox than McCulloch, so if he starts seeing reps there my expectations increase. Also keep in mind if Texas lands Anthony Hines and Baron Browning, Fox may be McCulloch’s best fit anyway.

9. WR Davion Curtis: Not many have Curtis slotted as someone who will make noise this year, but the slot receiver has experience in this system and track speed. Before enrolling he had near daily contact with Sterlin Gilbert as they discussed the offense, hand signals, and adjustments. When you’re a freshman you have to have at least one thing that translates immediately; Curtis has two traits in speed and understanding of the offense.

8. SDE Andrew Fitzgerald: What translates for Fitzgerald is easily noticeable: size (6-foot-5, 255 pounds), technical ability, and motor. He also bends well for the position, meaning he’ll play with better strength than most freshmen. Charles Omenihu and Bryce Cottrell have more experience (and Omenihu still has tons of upside) but Fitzgerald should be able to contribute early and allow the coaches to rotate.

7. DT D’Andre Christmas-Giles: DC-G’s size and quickness off the ball will immediately give him a chance to see the field, especially with the lack of upper echelon talent ahead of him. Provided he plays with good pad level, he should be a solid contributor as a freshman, perhaps even more than that. I’d like to see him get a lot of snaps on 3rd and long where he can rush the passer or chase the screen.

Zach Shackelford. (courtesy of Shackelford)
Zach Shackelford. (courtesy of Shackelford)

6. OT Denzel Okafor: He’s not quite as big as Jean Delance, but his technical ability is highly advanced for his age. He’s long enough and plenty athletic to play at right tackle, but strength could be an issue. That’ll be hard to guage until we hear August reports. If Okafor isn’t ready for tackle, don’t rule out seeing him at guard as a freshman, again, dependent on strength. He’ll see the field early if he picks things up mentally, which I think he’ll do. I’m not ruling out a line of Williams-Vahe-Shackelford-Perkins-Okafor at some point in the season.

5. C Zach Shackelford: Perhaps expectations are unfairly high for the 3-star from nearby Belton, but those are the breaks when you’re gifted starter’s snaps as an early enrollee freshman. Shackelford should have the base to anchor versus most defensive lines, but how up-to-speed will he be mentally? Notre Dame in his first career game isn’t quite fair, I don’t care who the Domers lost on the d-line. Average center play in 2016 from him would have to be considered a success.

4. S Brandon Jones: Jones’ expectations are born of his high rating and Dylan Haines’ non-existent rating coming out of high school. Fans don’t seem to understand how cerebral the position of safety is. That written, Jones’ athleticism is the variety that can erase a lot of mistakes. He tracks and smacks. He’s a intelligent young man, but mental readiness afield comes to players at different times. For the record, I think Jones is more likely to eventually play the Haines role, and sophomore Deshon Elliott more likely to play Jason Hall’s part.

3. DT Jordan Elliott: Physically he already looks like a college upperclassmen and we know he has rare athleticism for his size. If he plays with good pad level and a consistent motor, I expect him to be the most disruptive defensive tackle by season’s end, and not just of the freshmen. I also like his versatility as someone who can play any defensive tackle discipline as well as DE in a three-man front.

CollinJohnsonSpringDayOne2. WR Collin Johnson: Size and ball skills doesn’t take long to translate from high school to college football. He’s still five inches taller than anyone covering him and makes better adjustments on the ball than most receivers you’ll find. We also know he’s quick and can run. Johnson should see his share of 50/50 balls and has the chance to become Shane Buechele’s safety blanket on the outside. He also has the right amount of self-confidence for a receiver.

1. QB Shane Buechele: No pressure here, Shane. Thankfully we’ve long had a good grasp of his mental make-up, and in the Spring game he showed a solid understanding of the offense. His pocket presence and ability to improvise should get him out of more trouble than it gets him into. His best friend won’t be a receiver, it will be what should be perhaps the Big 12’s best running game. Captaining the ship as a freshman is a tall order, but Buechele won’t be without help. There are weapons in place for him to experience modest success and perhaps more.

THE REST OF THE CLASS

RB Kyle Porter: Along with Porter’s readiness – something I believe he already has – his playing time will come down to Kirk Johnson’s health. If Kirk isn’t ready to go, I believe Porter is RB3 in short order. We do believe Johnson will be ready to go, however. This is the opposite situation we’re seeing on the offensive line; there likely won’t be any need to burn Porter’s shirt, and doing so would be a luxury.

WR Reggie Hemphill: Through his high school career Hemphill showed the ability to get vertical and use his slipperiness in space to his advantage, but he’s slightly built and there won’t be any need to feed him to the wolves in his freshman campaign. I’d let him hit the weights and see what he looks like in a year. He should be good in practice giving the defense some credible looks from the slot.

WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey: Word is he’s put on a lot of good weight and is carrying it well but there’s no need to force him into action unless he’s ready. I don’t believe he’d be immediately better than Dorian Leonard or Lorenzo Joe on the outside.

TE Peyton Aucoin: I know many believe Aucoin will end up at offensive tackle – certainly a possibility – but tight end numbers will have him wearing #88 to start. From there his body and depth chart will determine his future. If Texas preserves his redshirt I’ll assume he’s heading to offensive tackle because he’s going to get big. That may be a blessing in disguise because he’d be wonderfully athletic for the position.

OG Tope Imade: He’ll be given every chance to play early simply out of necessity. Imade’s more raw than Okafor and even Delance, but he has great size/strength and is intelligent. I have Imade figured for a redshirt and look forward to seeing what he looks like after a year in the system. I don’t think he’s immediately ready, but I don’t view him as a long-term project either. I think he has a good chance of playing a lot in 2017.

Jean DeLance. (Justin Wells/IT)
Jean DeLance. (Justin Wells/IT)

OT Jean Delance: Because Connor Williams was able to come in and play well immediately, many fans think that’s the norm. It clearly isn’t but Delance already possesses the size and athleticism, and I felt his senior film showed much improved technical ability. Combine that with the staff hoping to find someone capable enough to man right tackle so Kent Perkins can move back to guard and we know Delance will be afforded the chance to play early. I’m a believer in Delance and he finished #11.

DE Malcolm Roach: I have no idea how they expect Roach, at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, to play Fox. That’s his size before any strength and kitchening work. I think he’s an SDE long-term, and maybe a three-tech, but he should provide depth at Fox this season. I think he plays, especially with Erik Fowler likely not making it in.

DT Chris Daniels: He’s one of the harder guys for me to read from a ‘will he or won’t he play’ perspective. I lean towards him playing because of his size/length, athleticism, and ability to play up and down the line. There’s a pretty large beta here for WTF? and WTF! plays – much of this stemming from where his focus on pad level.

DT Gerald Wilbon: Thick and barrel-chested, Wilbon is a cask filled with MANSTRENF. Physically we know he’s ready because of his highly advanced functional power. An easy case can be made for him to be in the top 10 biggest contributors. If he becomes the early surprise of the class it wouldn’t be a shocker. Along with the strength he was apparently born with, Wilbon’s quickness and agility improved drastically from his junior to senior year. I suspect we have a hard worker on our hands here.

DT Marcel Southall: I’ve included him because I expect him to make it to campus. This is yet another large individual. One Texas player thought Southall was a parent (probably a dad but we don’t do gender presumption around here!) because of his grown man-ness. I think he can redshirt which is good because it allows him to focus on classwork and assimilate to the time demands of being a college athlete.

LB/DE Erik Fowler: I’ve included him because someone will ask about him. Hey, anything new on Fowler? And then somebody else will ask about him. I noticed E didn’t mention him either, what’s up there? Anything brand new since it was discussed five minutes ago? Sigh. I still don’t expect him to make it in, unfortunately.

Demarco Boyd. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Demarco Boyd. (Will Gallagher/IT)

LB Demarco Boyd: I think the only way Boyd plays this year is if we see significant injuries at Mike, though maybe they want his fearlessness and happy-go-lucky football anger on special teams. Regardless, Justin will still have a photo catalogue of an even 1:1 ratio of Boyd pics to everyone else.

DB Eric Cuffee: Texas has a lot of bodies to throw around the secondary so if we see Cuffee as a freshman I’d be surprised. It would be nice to see some DB’s learn the system in practice rather than in games. Since Cuffee is a bit tougher to project as far as position goes, the staff taking a year to figure it out wouldn’t be a bad idea. I think he could remain a boundary corner but not sure.

DB Chris Brown: If there’s one position Texas is thin at in the secondary, it’s nickel. PJ Locke has it on lock but after that it would be John Bonney or Kevin Vaccaro. I doubt Brown could fight through that depth chart as a freshman but he could surprise with his physical play and work ethic. I’m expecting a redshirt unless we see him on coverage teams. Given enough time he’s going to Be Someone, though.

Who do you see as the key contributors beyond the obvious?