July 17, 2008

UT Football: 5 players blowing up this summer

The Texas Longhorns are a little more than two weeks away from the start of training camp and the anticipation for the arrival of the start of the 2008 season is starting to grow. However, as everyone is counting down the days until the start of "official" workouts, the Longhorn football team has been preparing ferociously as a team throughout the summer, with their collective work being highlighted by the bi-weekly seven-on-seven workouts.

Although there are a number of questions facing this team on both sides of the ball coming into the fall, a number of players are emerging as possible answers.

Here's a look at five players that are not only turning heads, but they also starting to show the promise that could make them key pieces to the success of this year's team.

[/db]Ryan Palmer[/db]

What's his track record? - After seeing very little action before last season, Palmer emerged as a solid starter in 2007, finishing second on the team with 80 tackles, while also recording a team-high 14 pass break-ups, six tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. As bad as the Texas pass defense was last season, Palmer wasn't a huge source of the problem, but he also hasn't proven to be a playmaker on the defensive side of the ball while the ball is in the air. Heading into the season, most expect him to be a solid, but unspectacular player.

What he's doing this summer? - Locking down his side of the field. As the fifth-year senior heads into the season, he'll bring a ton of confidence because he's probably playing the best brand of football of his life right now. In talking with those close to the team, he's performing as well as any defensive back in the program.

What might all of this mean in the fall? - As Palmer heads into the season, he certainly doesn't have a national reputation like some of his more recent predecessors, so he's going to have to earn his respect on the field, but there's little question that he's a strong favorite to not only emerge as a starter for the second straight year, but if the secondary unit is going to be a strength and not a weakness for the third straight season, he's going to need to have a big year. The good news for Texas is that he's taken that next step in workouts and now he just needs to make it translate to the games.

Jordan Shipley

What's his track record? - Although he's probably known more for his injuries than anything else at this point in his career, Shipley did finally emerge as a solid starter in 2007 and he's expected to build on that success this season.

What he's doing this summer? - Stop me if you've heard this before, but Shipley is the talk of the summer workouts because if there's been one player that's consistently been among the top performers all summer, the first name most will mention is Shipley. After averaging an impressive 15.4 yards per catch last season, Shipley has been perhaps Colt McCoy's favorite downfield weapon in off-season workouts.

What might all of this mean in the fall? - Shipley averaged a mere 2.1 receptions per game last year and that has to change. Look for that number to double at the very least, as Shipley emerges as one of McCoy's more prolific targets. Assuming that he can stay healthy, Shipley has a chance to put together an All-Big 12 caliber season because if he can double his production from last year, that would mean he'd finish in the ballpark of 55 catches for 800 yards and 10 touchdowns. Shipley has been a good player, but the Longhorns need more from him and he looks like he's more than ready for that role.

Earl Thomas

What's his track record? - As a redshirt freshman from the 2007 recruiting class, Thomas doesn't have much of a track record because he's never played a down of college football. In his first real chance to compete for playing time this spring, Thomas emerged as one of several candidates that could develop into a starter at safety this year.

What he's doing this summer? - Thomas is probably the Shipley of the defense in that he's the first player on the defense everyone seems to bring up when they talk about standout performers this summer. Although he's not the most physically dynamic defensive back on the roster, he might be the most physical player of the group and he seems to have a real nose for the ball.

What might all of this mean in the fall? - The safety positions are a huge source of concern, but Thomas might be someone that can feel a very real need, which is finding a player that can be successful in all phases of the game. Thomas might not have the physical tools that a guy like Ben Wells or Christian Scott possesses, but he might be the best pure football player in the bunch. Is he green? Yes, but he the guy is a natural football player and he's always around the ball, which is something the Longhorns desperately need.

Foswhitt Whittaker

What's his track record? - Whittaker is another player that has zero game experience, but after a strong set of spring workouts, he's expected to be the second-team running back behind Vondrell McGee, but his big-play potential and style of play not only make him a great change-of-pace back to go along with McGee, but it ensures that he's going to see a lot of action in the fall.

What he's doing this summer? - It's not so much that Whittaker is doing anything different from what he was able to display in the spring, but rather its been his ability to build off of that and continue to produce a consistent, strong level of play. While the seven-on-seven workouts are hardly a platform to showcase running backs, Whittaker has done a great job of catching the ball out of the backfield all summer and his all-around game continues to become a more complete player.

What might all of this mean in the fall? - Following the spring, most had already penciled in Whittaker for a lot of playing time in the fall, but there's a lot of speculation brewing that the battle between McGee and Whittaker is closer than a lot of people expect and they could end up splitting carries fairly evenly if McGee doesn't explode out of the gate or if Whittaker's big-play ability gives the offense an added dimension that no other back on the roster can provide. The bottom line is that both McGee and Whittaker have performed well enough this spring/summer that few in the program are concerned about the position, even with the departure of Jamaal Charles.

Malcolm Williams

What's his track record? - Williams doesn't really have one. At 6-3, 220 pounds, Williams might be the receiver on campus that has the most dynamic physical ability, but after not playing as a true freshman in 2007, he'll enter this season without a single snap under his belt as a college player.

What he's doing this summer? - The former Garland star has finally started to settle in and feel comfortable with the speed of the college game. Williams has been working quite a bit with the first-team offensive group in workouts and his speed and big-play potential has been obvious throughout the summer. He's still a little inconsistent, but there seems to be little question that he's moved himself into a position to challenge for a starting position.

What might all of this mean in the fall? - The Longhorns feel pretty good about Shipley, Quan Cosby, James Kirkendoll and Brandon Collins, but they need someone that step up and make a difference at flanker and none of those four really fit the profile of the kind of player that's needed to work on the perimeter. More than any other player in the program at the moment, Williams has the best chance to give Texas exactly what it needs, which is a big, physical, strong playmaker in the mold of a Roy Williams or Limas Sweed. If Williams fails to develop when the pads come out, the Longhorns might have to get by with smoke and mirrors at that position this year and that's obviously far from a positive development.

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