Head coach Charlie Strong’s inaugural football season is behind him, but the challenges he faces are only beginning. As he looks toward 2015, Strong finds himself losing upwards of 15 key contributors from last season’s team — primarily graduating seniors, but also a handful of players who intend to declare for the NFL Draft or transfer schools. Strong and his staff will have to prioritize finding replacements for key players as the new season draws closer.
Beyond the players who graduated in December and those who plan to graduate this May, three of Strong’s underclassmen players have also declared their intention to leave, even before their Longhorn eligibility ends. Star defensive tackle Malcom Brown, who has a wife and two children, decided the best plan for his family was to forego his senior season and declare for the NFL draft. His decision will likely pay off — Brown, who is an All-American, is expected to go early in the draft, with most analysts predicting his name will be called late in the first round.
Brown isn’t the only player leaving the 40 Acres early. Earlier this month, Horns Digest reported that a few players were considering transferring after Strong’s first season. Sure enough, junior tight end M.J. McFarland announced early Friday that he would transfer to UTEP for his senior year. McFarland, a native El Pasoan, decided to head back home to play for the Miners in an offensive scheme more suited to tight ends.
A day after McFarland’s announcement, sophomore offensive lineman Curtis Riser announced on Instagram he would be transferring to Sam Houston State. Riser saw limited action under offensive coordinator Joe Wickline, even though the offensive line was the thinnest unit of 2014.
Despite the vacancies he must fill, Strong does have a promising pool of talent coming in the next few years. Next season’s seniors have the chance to be a major factor in Texas’ success in 2015, as many have already had valuable playing time, giving Strong a much more experienced team than he had in a 2014 team hampered by dismissals and injuries.
The offense will see the most returners of this group, with junior running backs Johnathan Gray and Daje Johnson joining junior wide receiver Marcus Johnson as playmakers for the Longhorns. Junior offensive guard Sedrick Flowers will once again be the most experienced player in the trenches, and junior center Taylor Doyle looks to cement his role as a starter when spring practices start.
The other side of the ball will also see valuable upperclassmen return, although they’re experiencing a much bigger loss than the offense. With Brown, Cedric Reed, Jordan Hicks, Quandre Diggs and others departing, the defense, which was arguably the best in recent years, might struggle to find solid replacements. Strong and his staff are expected to be looking at junior defensive end Shiro Davis to step up during camp after having an inconsistent junior year, and junior cornerback Duke Thomas will need to be more consistent to keep his spot in the secondary. Junior linebackers Peter Jinkens and Dalton Santos also have the opportunity and ability to play a vital role in defensive coordinator Vance Bedford’s defense.