Start scratching the days off the calendar, because there are fewer than 40 days until the Texas Longhorns take the field in their season opener on August 31 against New Mexico State.
And with less than two weeks until the players report for fall camp—not to mention the recent conclusion of the Big 12 media days—football is very much in the air.
The Longhorns return 19 starters as part of one of the most experienced teams in the country, quite the contrast to a season ago. But the struggles with inexperience may end up being necessary steps on the path towards greatness.
The list of returning players includes defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, wide receiver Mike Davis and linebacker Jordan Hicks—all of whom figure to set the standards for production and performance at their positions this season.
But the returning quality hardly stops there.
Let's run down the top 22 players the 'Horns will field this season.
The top spot undoubtedly belongs to (1) Jeffcoat, although his return from surgery for the second straight offseason has to raise some concerns about his durability.
Jeffcoat heated up quickly in 2012, posting 11 tackles for loss and four sacks through six games before missing the last seven. His ability to stay healthy and produce as a senior will be critical for a Texas defense looking to rebound from an awful year statistically.
Just as his predecessor Alex Okafor did, Jeffcoat will have to rise to the occasion as the consistent playmaker up front.
(2) Quandre Diggs and (3) Carrington Byndom, for all intents and purposes, are interchangeably slotted alongside each other.
As the productive veterans in the defensive backfield, the two will be responsible for the opposing teams' top threats at wide receiver.
Diggs is slated to inherit the nickelback spot, a position vacated by Kenny Vaccaro, while Byndom will generally match up against the opposition's No. 1 pass-catcher.
The senior Byndom put up a down season statistically, going from 15 passes broken up, two interceptions and eight TFL in 2011 to six PBUs, three INTs and three TFL in 2012. But there is no doubt that the Longhorns have a solid player at their top cornerback spot.
Diggs and Byndom are two huge pieces to the Texas defense, and any drop in consistency or performance may raise the pressure elsewhere.
Offensively, the return of (4) Davis could end up being the most critical piece to the puzzle.
In 2012, Davis hauled in 57 catches for 939 yards and seven touchdowns—all career highs. And after deciding to return for his senior season rather than make the jump to the NFL, Texas welcomes back a bona fide deep threat and playmaker.
With Davis' ability to get behind the secondary, and his growing connection with quarterback David Ash, there are not many reasons to believe that Davis will not break the 1,000-yard receiving mark. The last Texas player to do so was Jordan Shipley with 1,485 yards in 2009.
(5) Hicks returns to the Longhorns in 2013 after missing 10 games in 2012 with a hip injury sustained against Oklahoma State.
After all of the jawing on about the weaknesses at linebacker, Hicks' comeback has the feeling of a cure-all for a position that fielded a throng of young players.
Hicks' veteran presence cannot be understated now, and his return as the team's best intermediate defender could ultimately reform Texas' defense into the force it was in 2011.
The offensive line owns the next two slots, with (6) Trey Hopkins and (7) Donald Hawkins entering the picture up front.
Texas returns every starter from a season ago, with Hopkins and Hawkins serving as a couple of the team's most consistent linemen last year.
Hopkins—the lone Texas player selected to the preseason All-Big 12 offense—has truly emerged over the past two seasons as a top go-getter along the offensive line. His versatility inside and out will allow plenty of flexibility, especially with the added depth with junior college transfer Desmond Harrison recently arriving.
Hawkins took the JUCO route a season ago, and his second and final year at Texas figures to be a strong one. It is just a matter of deciding where he will play.
Texas fans should be giving the highest praise to (8) Johnathan Gray. Without the prepared and headstrong true freshman, the Texas running game would have been wholly different in 2012.
Since Malcolm Brown missed a chunk of time, Gray fell into the starter's role and shone in the spotlight, not to mention he maintained a good bill of health throughout the season.
Quarterback (9) David Ash indeed makes it into the top 10, but barely.
There is no question that Ash is the most important player on offense going into 2013, but his status as a top performer is still a work in progress.
Ash's passing results from 2011 and 2012 are somewhat encouraging (3,778 YD, 63.6 PCT, 23 TD, 16 INT), but 2013 is the year that can define the way we look at Ash's place in the program.
(10) Mason Walters rounds out the top 10, but he does so only because of his seniority.
Walters has not had the most praiseworthy career in Austin, but as he enters his senior season, there is no doubt about his role as a vocal leader on offense. When he talks, people listen.
But now, it is time for him to perform.
As one of three senior linemen, Walters needs a strong season for his professional prospects and for the Longhorns.
It seems like the elder Shipley (Jordan) and the younger (11) Jaxon Shipley have more in common than just what we see on the field.
The precision route-running and reliable hands were things of beauty when Jordan teamed up with Colt McCoy, and now Jaxon is showcasing those same talents and work ethic. But like his older brother, Jaxon has already run into some injury trouble.
When healthy, Shipley is a force underneath the Mike Davis deep stuff, and his ability to find open space will move the sticks plenty.
(12) Peter Jinkens and (13) Josh Cochran could have similar stories by the time their respective careers at Texas are over.
Cochran surprised many by claiming a starting position at left tackle as a true freshman in 2011, and now entering his junior season, he has experience at both tackle spots. However, a fractured leg suffered this spring kept has forced him away from football workouts, and a redshirt year is not out of the question since Texas has some depth up front.
But out of all of the young Texas players searching for the light switch, Jinkens has already found his, and the lights are bright.
As a true freshman in 2012, Jinkens was thrust into the inexperience workshop at linebacker.
Arguably the best performing linebacker out of anyone at the position, Jinkens is firmly on the radar as a playmaker.
Another pair of Longhorns who are on similar paths are (14) Malcolm Brown and (15) Dom Espinosa, but their beginnings are drastically different.
Brown, entering his sophomore season, will likely be a part of a quartet of defensive tackles that will aim to do damage by committee.
Although Desmond Jackson, Ashton Dorsey and Chris Whaley have the experience on Brown, the former Brenham standout has as much talent or more—with more years to come.
Epsinosa similarly saw plenty of action early on but with fewer bodies jockeying for position. And just as Espinosa has worked himself into a firm position at center. Brown will have every opportunity to earn that same praise with a strong sophomore campaign.
Just as they share the ball on the field, (16) Joe Bergeron, (17) Malcolm Brown and (18) Daje Johnson occupy the next three positions in the ranking.
Interchangeable for sure, the trio will bring several diverse skills to Texas' running game in 2013.
Bergeron is the bruiser, Brown is the do-it all and Johnson is the home run. Alongside the versatile Gray, the Longhorns can throw the kitchen sink at opposing run defenses, and Texas will be looking to run plenty.
(19) Cedric Reed and (20) Adrian Phillips are in dramatically different positions in their college careers, but both are primed for super-challenging seasons.
Reed, going into junior season, is coming off a strong Alamo Bowl performance during which he posted three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. After emerging from the depths of the defensive end depth chart behind Jeffcoat, Okafor and Reggie Wilson, Reed has set the stage for a huge 2013.
Phillips, a senior, struggled with an up-and-down campaign in 2012. A different player between 2011 and last season, Phillips is the most veteran player at safety. To expect him to pick up where Vaccaro left off would be foolish.
The pressure, now, is on Phillips to have a more 2011-like campaign, rather than a 2012 version.
Rounding out the top 22 are (21) Sedrick Flowers and (22) Kendall Sanders, two guys who have not played a whole lot but have shown plenty of promise.
Flowers, a sophomore, will likely see plenty of time as a reserve interior offensive lineman. The praise has been high for the Houston native, but the full brunt of playing time has yet to come.
Sanders has seemingly straightened himself out after an off-the-field issue that has him suspended for the season opener, and he has the speed and open-field ability to make a huge difference in Texas' offense. And with the news of Cayleb Jones' decision to transfer out, as the program announced on its website Wednesday, the No. 3 spot unofficially looks to be Sanders' to lose.
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