Football

3 Positions to Watch in Spring

Dorian Leonard. (Justin Wells/IT)
Dorian Leonard. (Justin Wells/IT)

Quarterbacks? We don’t need no stinkin’ quarterbacks! Instead, Inside Texas delves into the three most important position battles going into spring ball, fully recognizing that you need someone to throw the ball from here to there to win ball games. We’ll leave that beaten horse for another day. Instead, consider this less controversial offering…

No. 2 Corner
The contenders: Jermaine Roberts, Bryson Echols
Dark horse: Holton Hill

Tale of the tape: Echols is a 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior who has kept his head above water on the depth chart with technique and tenacity. Jermaine Roberts is a 5-foot-9, 171-pound sophomore from New Orleans, LA. Holton Hill is a 6-foot-2 184-pound true freshman out of Houston, TX. He’s probably a better athlete than the two contenders and a quick glance at the height column here and on various wide receiver rosters around the Big 12 tells you precisely why Hill will be in the mix in short order.

The Battle:

Bryson Echols: Not the most physically gifted player on this unit, Echols held off more athletic players with everyone’s favorite platitude — moxie. In actuality he’s a decent athlete who’s technically sound. He’s also been in the program for almost three years now which should serve him well.

Jermaine Roberts: When you’re as small as Roberts, rounding down heights and weights is anathema and you take every pound you can get. With that said and at the risk of crossing into cliché territory, Roberts plays a lot bigger than he is. For our purposes, he’s also a better athlete than Echols which comes in handy in coverage and in the run game. One thing Roberts has over virtually every other corner on the roster is ability to flat stick a ball carrier which will serve him well in the run game and should give him a leg up when the judge is Charlie Strong’s Sharpie.

Holton Hill: For our purposes here, we’re going to pencil in Kris Boyd as a safety down the road, so Holton Hill is your darkhorse here. In the pass happy Big 12 replete with big, physical receivers, size matters and Hill has that in spades. The only question is how quickly he makes the transition from Texas high school football to the best passing league in America. Hill’s size, athleticism, and technical ability to play corner make him the best package and perhaps alternative for the 2nd corner spot opposite Duke Thomas. The problem is the game isn’t played in a vacuum and a defensive back’s head gets tested every bit as much as his athleticism. Handicap Hill’s ability to make the leap, and I’ll tell you how soon he’ll play.

Prediction: Eventually, this position is Hill’s to lose but it probably won’t be until the 2016 season barring injury. Hill is the prototypical NFL corner — he’s much like Richard Sherman; long, tall, but with great fluidity like you’d find in a prospect who’s 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10. Even more impressive is the fact that Hill is good at adapting and putting bad days behind him which will benefit him making the transition to big time college athletics. In fact, Sherman himself pulled Hill aside at The Opening after a bad session and told Holton he was flat out the best corner there. Hill responded by winning DB MVP honors at the camp the following day.

But Hill is also a true freshman and will have a hard time supplanting both Echols and Roberts, who are in an epic battle for the starting spot. Echols is well-liked by the staff and respected by the players, but word we’re hearing is that Roberts brings more to the table athletically in coverage and is a ferocious hitter which is precisely what Strong values in his defensive backs. Look for Roberts to solidify his claim to the starting corner opposite Duke Thomas with Echols providing valuable experienced depth for this unit.

Left Tackle
The contenders: Marcus Hutchins, Tristan Nickelson
Dark horses: Elijah Rodriguez

Tale of the tape: Marcus Hutchins is senior OL listed at 6-foot-5, 278 pounds at TexasSports.com. (If I’m Jermaine Roberts, I’m suing because he isn’t that tall). He’s also a converted defensive tackle who is still finding his way as a full-time offensive lineman. Tristan Nickelson is a sophomore juco transfer who is just now getting accustomed to his 6-foot-9 295-pound frame. Elijah Rodriguez is a 6-foot-3, 300-pound redshirt freshman out of Cy-Creek.

The Battle: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king they say. My guess is that if you asked coach Wickline, he’d settle for a left tackle who just needs bifocals. At this point, Marcus Hutchins continues to be the best option at the position because he’s, well, actually played the position in a real live game, but here’s where things can get interesting. We’re talking about a coach who is willing to plug in play with everyone’s whipping boy Taylor Doyle, and fashion an above average center out of basically whole cloth. Give coach Wickline some baling wire, bubble gum, and four or five oversized human beings, and he’ll find a suitable left tackle during any given offseason. (In 2014, Wickline was missing two out of three ingredients.)

Make no mistake, Wick will throw bodies at the position until he finds something that works, and my guess it goes beyond the three aforementioned players here if none of the above works out. Tristan Nickleson is the most intriguing of the bunch because he brings freakish size and insider reports say he moves surprisingly well for a big kid. The one question is Nickelson’s strength because it’s reported that the staff wants him comfortably above the 300-pound mark going into the fall. Tristan is struggling to get to that weight because of his work ethic, of all things. Folks close to the program claim Nickelson works as hard as anyone and therefor burns a lot of calories. If he can find a way to hold some that weight, and get the strength to have an adequate base, he can make some noise as a left tackle candidate.

Finally there’s Elijah Rodriguez, who is less of a dark horse and more of a viable option here. Rodriguez doesn’t have the ideal pass-protecting frame for a left tackle, but he’s got good feet and he’s probably stronger than Hutchins and certainly stronger than Nickelson. One thing going for Rodriguez over the other two is that Elijah has an established nasty streak that can serve him well if Texas opts to continue pound the ball in the running game. Either way, Rodriguez will make some noise in this competition before it’s all said and done this spring.

Prediction: As a gambler, if you’re not giving me odds, I’m not putting my money on a long shot. Nickleson seems to be on the verge of breaking out and becoming something special in due time. Rodriguez is a beast in the weight room and has the nasty streak necessary to maul opposing defensive ends and outside linebackers but I don’t see the security blanket aspect to his game that can unseat the experienced Hutchins.

X receiver
The contenders: Lorenzo Joe and Dorian Leonard
Dark horse: John Burt

Tale of the tape: Lorenzo Joe is the 6-foot-2, 201-pound sophomore out of Abilene. Dorian Leonard is a 6-foot-3, 205-pound sophomore out of Longview. The dark horse, John Burt, is a 6-foot-2, 185-pound speedster out of Lincoln High School in Tallahassee.

The Battle: John Burt is the classic Florida wide receiver and brings one element to the table that Texas sorely lacks at the position — speed. While very athletic, Burt is not a very polished route runner and must get better before he’s going to make any noise in big-time college football. In other words, he’s a 4-star athlete but may not have the technical chops of an upper echelon wide receiver to be able to make some noise early on at Texas.

Getting the dark horse out of the way, it appears the battle for the X position will most likely come down to Lorenzo Joe versus Dorian Leonard, who are also close friends. Both players have the size element that allows a quarterback more options and windows to deliver the football to. Joe may be a tick faster than Leonard, but Leonard probably has more physicality to go get the football. When all is said and done, if you were at the horse track, both would be even money to win so a Joe/Leonard ticket would be the ideal Exacta. Thankfully, they don’t call us Inside Texas for nothing (who else gets hacked by Syrian terrorists) so we have the goods on who’s winning the battle so far. Word is that Leonard is separating himself from Joe in the weight room and in voluntary passing workouts, so if you do make it out to the track, do your worst.

Prediction: Leonard by a nose.