The Summer serves as a football desert when traveling between seasons. Luckily, this section of the Summer provides a little light at the end of the tunnel because all of the experts are publishing their preseason All-Conference, All-American, All-World lists for each division.
This provides a little hype and tension that builds and builds until the kickoff in August. To spurn on the spreading of ideas and hype, I have provided a list of players from teams that garner attention in DFW that I believe will serve as a marker for their team’s success. My goal was to find an obscure player with a certain disposition that, at seasons end, will be indicative of their unit’s success. Perhaps I should jump right into it and let you get the hang of it.
UT: Brandon Jones, S
First, let’s get to the team that does its best to embody the iconic title of “Texas Football” as a state representative and ambassador for sports news outlets everywhere. Despite returning the least offensive production in the Big 12, the success of this team will rest on the shoulders of the defense. Enter Brandon Jones, the senior safety. Across from him is budding defensive star Caden Sterns who is looking to build on a stellar freshman season, as well as a pair of young corners in Anthony Cook and Jalen Green. The talent level of this group is astronomical, but it will be put to the test this season. The ability to produce a pass rush, outside of blitzing LBs, was a struggle for Texas for a majority of the season. After saying goodbye to Charles Omenihu in the NFL draft, the new D-Lineman have their work cut out for them.
What this new D-line needs is room to grow. Texas brings in a steady crop of some of the nation’s top recruits to help reload their offense and defense on an annual basis. While the pass rushers and gap pluggers are growing into their new roles, a senior safety needs to bring all of his experience to the table and bring together a group of talented DBs to complement their front 7. Brandon Jones doesn’t need to set the world on fire and intercept a pass every other game, but what he needs to be is exactly what he is.
The returning leading tackler’s performance this season will be indicative of how long the Texas secondary can keep quarterbacks in the pocket and let their defense get after the Quarterback. A solid Brandon Jones will domino effect into Ehlinger and the offense getting more plays and subsequently scoring at a higher rate.
OU: Grant Calcaterra, TE
In a conference that focuses in on big plays on offense, the easy play becomes more underrated. Mark Andrews was an excellent safety valve for Baker Mayfield in Lincoln Riley’s offense, and Calcaterra brings more to the table than just that. He can play out of the slot or on the outside and take attention away from some of OU’s other playmakers. Somehow this team has been able to field a Heisman candidate transfer QB for the past 4 years, including this upcoming year, and given them the tools to torch opposing defenses up and down the field. The shiny toys for Hurts as he takes over a new offense are very similar to his setup at Alabama. Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb are comparable receivers who play at an elite level and Oklahoma has a similar stable of able-bodied RBs to hand the ball off to.
Similar to Jones at UT, Calcaterra does not need to produce outrageous numbers for his team. However, his inclusion and utilization will serve as an indicator as to whether or not Hurts will be able to keep up the pace of his Heisman winning, #1 pick, offensive juggernaut predecessors were able to set. The defensive situation mirrors that of the Kansas City Chiefs. They both have hired new defensive coordinators and brought in new personnel with the idea of “literally anything you can do is better than last year.” Lincoln Riley’s ability to put points on the board is inevitable and I expect that will be evident at the end of the year when you reflect on the performance of Grant Calcaterra.
TCU: Montrel Wilson, LB
A TCU defense thrives on Linebacker experience. Gary Patterson requires next-level intelligence from his unit as a whole, but having experience at the LB position is when they thrive as a group. Wilson is indeed a senior but has seen his time in uniform limited by injury these past two years. If you can remember as far back as the Trevone Boykin era, you may remember Wilson sealing a double-digit comeback by sacking Joe Hubener and forcing a fumble that ended the K-State upset bid. That was Wilson’s freshman season on a TCU defense that had been decimated by injury. This year he will join Garrett Wallow, budding talent in his own right, as the centerpieces of a talented defense. However, at the end of the year, Wilson’s numbers will be the result of how the defense performs as a whole. TCU’s defense will bring back the best DT duo in the Big 12 that was broken up last year due to a torn Achilles from Ross Blacklock. Now that they’re back together, Blacklock and Corey Bethley’s ability to keep the Horned Frog LBs clean from opposing O-Lines will be evident through Wilson’s numbers at the end of the season. Gary Patterson does not start Freshman LBs very often but it is something he did with Wilson and Wallow, which speaks to the level of play that they’re both capable of. TCU’s secondary is a salty one that will keep its course, and if they maintain the elite level of defense they are known for Montrel Wilson’s statistical output will be the real beneficiary.
BU: James Lynch, DE
Baylor has undergone a culture change under Matt Rhule. In previous years, they had the Lincoln Riley approach of turning a football game into a track meet and seeing who ends up with the most points. In recent years, Baylor has started to play defense. They still do their fair share of allowing explosive plays, but they’ve come a long way from giving up almost 40 pts per game. If they are going to continue this trend, you will see it reflected in James Lynch’s stat sheet. Gearing up for his junior season, Lynch comes in as the returning sack leader with 4.5. Despite that number being minuscule for a P5 defense’s sack leader, it is still impressive for a true sophomore. Despite his talent, I do believe Rhule would rather keep Charlie Brewer, JaMycal Hasty, and Denzel Mims on the field to keep his defense from getting fatigued and exposed. Honestly, Baylor’s best defense might be an offense. Alas, the offense cannot stay on the field for 4 quarters straight. Clay Johnston and Raleigh Texada should lead the LB core and Secondary respectively, but the ability of Lynch to produce as a pass-rusher will decide the fate of the defense. His position is a little different than the other’s I’ve written about in this article because of the pressure on him to perform, but his importance to the Baylor defense goes beyond performance. If we see a solid number of TFLs, sacks, and hurries at the end of the season, Rhule could use Lynch as the foundation of a defense Baylor can use to compete at a higher level.
OSU: Chuba Hubbard, RB
I would be very wary of the QB performance of Dru Brown, but this is also a team that had Taylor Cornelius walk-in in his 5th year without a start and do a pretty bang-up job slinging the rock. I wouldn’t be surprised if Spencer Sanders gave him a run for his money, but one thing is for certain: Gundy will create a solid opportunity for his QB to be great. Furthermore, asking Chuba Hubbard to be Justice Hill would be outrageous, yet he still might be able to do it. Tylan Wallace is a star in his own right and he headlines a solid receiver core that makes it pleasant for whoever is going to be throwing the ball, and subsequently will make things easier for Hubbard. OSU’s offensive line is an experienced group that should be able to protect and create holes, which is where Chuba comes into play. He made some of his runs look effortless last year and has the potential to do so again this year if he stays his course and allows the offense to come to him. The passing game for the Cowboys should establish itself early on, but the postseason appraisal of how well their offense was put together will be revealed through the performance of Chuba Hubbard.
TTU: Seth Collins, WR
The Texas Tech athletics department must be exhausted from carrying the rest of the Big 12 through Basketball and Baseball season. After playing in the NCAA Basketball tournament final and making a solid run in Omaha, Tech is looking to the last member of the big 3 college sports market to shatter expectations. If that is to be the case, Texas Tech is going to need to maintain their explosive passing game during the regime change from Kingsbury to Wells. The run game in Lubbock is pretty diverse, with no RBs receiving over 100 carries last season. I imagine Ta’zhawn Henry will change that this season but the success of the offense will hinge on the WR core. Hopefully, the offensive line can keep Alan Bowman clean enough to make the throws and see the field, which I imagine will be more of a possibility with the O-line another year older. With the idea that experience makes you a better player, Seth Collins has had an extraordinary journey to Lubbock.
After playing in a much different environment at Oregon State, Collins has taken his talents to Lubbock. I’m sure he sees this as a “prove yourself” senior season where he justifies his move to Tech with a stellar senior season. That is not a necessity for the Tech offense to flourish. Heck, this offense had Patrick Mahomes and didn’t rely solely on him to carry the offense. What turns the knobs of this offense is having more than two receivers the QB can rely on to toss it their way and let them work. With Antoine Wesley moving on to the NFL and TJ Vasher appearing to take his role as the big body on the outside, Seth Collins looks to take up the spot as a dependable counterpart. McLane Mannix, the Nevada transfer, shores up the receiver talent at the slot position which takes the pressure off of Collins and allows the staff to move him around the field. Collins operates best out of the slot, but Tech history shows their ability to utilize size on the outside.
The intertwining of these concepts points to a solid role for Seth Collins. He occupies a spot where the offense does not flow directly through him but expects him to be a viable option. I imagine the lack of pressure will provide Seth Collins with a platform to excel and use his senior experience to be an important cog in the offensive machine. I think Matt Wells has gotten more derision than he deserves this offseason and will use the experience on the defensive side of the ball to turn that culture around. However, Tech’s reputation was built on high-powered offense and maintaining that offense will be vital to success while the defense makes positive steps. The ability to maintain their explosive offense will be evident at the end of the season when you check the stat sheet of Seth Collins.
SMU: Reggie Roberson, WR
Now that I’m getting close to the end of this article, I’m realizing how much I value the number 2 receiver in an offense. With that being said, the value of Reggie Roberson in the SMU offense cannot be overstated. Shane Buechele has been disposed of by the UT Longhorns in favor of Sam Ehlinger, something that happens with teams who are easily impressed by their new shiny toy of a highly rated recruit. If Shane Buechele is to play the role of Tom Herman misfit-toy turned SMU gunslinger, he’ll need just a bit more than James Proche and Ke’mon Freeman. The Buechele-Proche-Freeman trio of talent is expected to produce because everyone loves to attribute an offense’s success to a group of “triplets.” (See Dallas Cowboys of the 90s).
While it is a romantic idea, it simply is not true. Offenses produce because they work well as a team and execute the offense well together. Roberson is a talented receiver transfer from West Virginia and there is no shame in being stuck behind the WVU receiver trio of Sims, Sills, and Jennings. Just look at his +50 reception +800 yard performance of last season. If the second fiddle is able to produce that much, Buechele should feel more than welcome tossing the pigskin to these receivers. If the offensive line is able to give him a pocket, which isn’t asking too much, Buechele should be able to produce what he did at UT his Freshman year.
If you saw him his Freshman year, you know he didn’t get much protection and still threw for almost 3000 yards. Of course, he had a solid receiving core catching those passes, which is something Roberson and Proche will bring to the table. The ability of the offensive line to stand tall and protect will be evident when checking the performance of Reggie Roberson at the end of the season and subsequently will tell SMU’s story for 2019.
UNT: Khairi Muhammad, S
As much as I love watching the UNT offense go to work, I had to write about their defense. It’s always intriguing to me when I see a defense that has 3 players with more than 3 interceptions like UNT. The only one of those returning for 2019 is Khairi Muhammad. There are multiple question marks on this defense, but one of the safety positions will be locked up by Muhammad. I’ve been given pause as to how this defense will look next year after losing their leading tackler, sack leader, and leading interceptor, as well as many other producers. Muhammad brings a whelp of proven experience as a top 3 in tackles and top 3 in interceptions. The ability to cause turnovers, as well as tackle in the open field, are two things that make it easier on the rest of the defense.
While UNT does not have to replace too much in the secondary, having a leader in the DB room who can be a solid example on the field steers things in the right direction. Back to back 9 win seasons can be attributed to the ability of the defense to get off the field on third down and bend without breaking. A lot of their defensive success can be attributed to an unwillingness to be bullied in the passing game and playing smart enough to know where the ball is going before it gets there, something that Kemon Hall knew very well.
A strong back end will allow the defensive front to get after the Quarterback, something that UNT would like to do more this season without having to blitz all of their linebackers. Furthermore, the number of plays Seth Luttrell’s offense gets to see can be a huge indicator as to how well they’ve been able to execute their gameplan on defense and offense.
On the to-do list for ensuring this happens, the secondary will need to cover and provide more time for their line to get after the passer. Subsequently, the ability to lock down another team’s receivers is the middle domino in a row that hinges on the performance of Khairi Muhammad.