AUSTIN — UT’s freshmen may lack the across-the-board athleticism that its 2002 rookies parlayed into the 2005 national championship, but the class Charlie Strong inked in February will have more sudden impact than any group since. These freshmen have already made their presence known – and not just by default.
You can already pencil a handful of freshmen into the starting lineup and, halfway through August camp, several more have made opening statements for quality snaps. As important, the newbies have infused a mired-in-mediocrity program with a critical intangible missing since Colt McCoy hung up his collegiate cleats: call it swag, call it moxie, call it ‘dog’.
Call it a new day on the 40 Acres.
“The freshmen came in with a lot of confidence,” Strong said. “I told them I didn’t want them to lose their confidence because that’s what we’re lacking right now.”
Strong’s attempt to change the locker room culture – it was an unlikely mix of entitlement and self-doubt – saw the program take one step forward for every two steps back following multiple dismissals. Now, the new kids on the block are waging Texas’ Cultural Revolution.
Strong acknowledges that youthful bravado is typically unbridled this side of a freshman’s first NCAA game. That’s when reality will set in for many of them. Even so, “There’s a lot of excitement to them and there’s a lot of pizzazz to them,” Strong said. “And they work.”
The result has been a trickle-up effect.
“You get freshmen who can play,” Strong said, “and upperclassmen know who can play. That’s when the upperclassmen step-up their game. That’s what’s happening. The young guys are making the upperclassmen step-up their game.”
In some cases, the young guys have knocked upperclassmen off their perch. Despite defensive coordinator Vance Bedford’s disdain for playing freshmen, the rookies (as expected) are having the biggest impact at linebacker and in the secondary.
“This staff doesn’t really care what (class) you are,” said Peter Jinkens. “Coaches have said that if you don’t show during the first few days of camp that you’re the guy, then they’re going to go with someone else. That really clicked in my head that I have to turn it up another notch.”
Fans expect so much from Malik Jefferson that Strong recently told Texas’ most high-profile freshman: “There’s no pressure on you. Just go play like everyone else.”
LB Anthony Wheeler is a late-bloomer who has shown flashes as of late. Wheeler was a high school teammate of Jinkens at Dallas Skyline.
“When I was a senior in high school, he came in as a freshman and he was bigger than me,” Jinkens recalled.
Jinkens is currently listed as 6-foot-0, 230. Although Wheeler is currently listed as 6-foot-2, 209, he as reportedly tips the scales at 225.
“He’s another guy who’s going to do a lot here for years to come,” Jinkens added.
Overlooked in Texas’ ballyhooed class of linebackers is LB Breckyn Hager, son of former Longhorn All-American Britt Hager.
“The thing about Breckyn is he has such a great attitude,” Strong said. “He can find the football, and runs downhill to get it.”
Strong has reminded the young linebackers that Texas’ loaded D-line will allow them to play within themselves. However, the front seven has also been emboldened by the infusion of talent, and swag, in the secondary. Gilmer CB Kris Boyd, according to Strong, has emerged as a vocal leader for not only the freshmen class but also the entire program.
“Kris Boyd is the one who keeps them going,” Strong said.
Jinkens seconds that emotion.
“Boyd is one of those guys that gets you excited when you hear him talk,” Jinkens said. “When you hear him talk, you’re ready to play.”
Florida-product Davante Davis figures to be part of the two-deep in the secondary. CB Holton Hill has added 17 pounds of lean muscle and stands 6-foot-2, 197. It hasn’t stopped Strong from teasing him for being “too thin.”
“He’s long and athletic,” Strong noted. “He’s a guy that can cover you in coverage and against the run. We threw a lot of deep balls at him, and he has yet to give up one thrown over his head.”
One of the biggest surprises of August camp has been freshman DE Charles Omenihu, Strong reports. Strong lauded Omenihu’s “athletic ability” and the havoc his 6-foot-5 length can cause for offenses. The Rowlett-product had offers from Notre Dame, Florida, LSU, Oregon and Miami.
“He’s a tall guy who can cover a lot of ground. He has long arms.”
Offensively, true freshmen have made the biggest splash up-front. OT Connor Williams practically cemented a starting spot as an early enrollee, and Strong frequently applauds his work ethic, maturity and grasp of the game. Meanwhile, interior lineman Patrick Vahe is another true freshman who is raising eyebrows. The final Mack Brown recruit at Texas, Vahe was generally expected to remain low-profile following shoulder surgery in January. Now, he’s expected to lose his ‘shirt early this season.
“When you run the ball downhill, Vahe can cover a guy and move him off the line,” Strong said. “He’s big, strong and physical. I love his overall attitude.”
Vahe’s learning curve primarily has to do with pass-protection, but the freshman is expected to add desperately-needed depth — and competition — among the big uglies up front.
“When you’ve got somebody behind you who can push you, it’s going to make you better,” said Kent Perkins. “It makes you 1,000 times better.”
Physical RB Chris Warren’s star is on the rise and is coming off a solid Saturday scrimmage. Strong lauded the freshman for his behind-the-pads, downhill attack. By the end of the day, the defense had seen enough of the one-two punch from Warren and sophomore D’Onta Foreman.
“The defense didn’t want to tackle them toward the end of the scrimmage,” Strong recalled.
Freshman WR John Burt has emerged as one of Texas’ most dependable receivers and has been likened to former ‘Horn John Harris. Now, Deandre McNeal (offers from Alabama, Texas A&M, UCLA) is starting to emerge. His versatility gives Texas several options.
“You can put (McNeal) outside at wide receiver or you can put him inside at tight end,” Strong said. “He’ll be a mismatch if you get him in the open-field.”
For now, most pigskin pundits say Texas is a year away. But players say the future is now – even if it’s freshmen that lead them.