With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it’s time to take a look at 10 returning players who could be in for a big year in 2012.
Hoby Milner, SP, Junior
A fringe starter and reliever this past year, Milner should go into Texas’ opener in February as the Friday starter. Nobody should expect Taylor Jungmann numbers, but Milner should be a candidate to win at least 10 games and become the next ace at a school that is producing them. He won’t overpower anybody, but the 6-foot-2 lefty can mix four pitches at varying speeds and has the arm flexibility to last long into games.
Erich Weiss, 3B, Sophomore
As a freshman, Weiss was the team’s best hitter, finishing the year with a .348 batting average. He showed some surprising power, too, finishing second on the squad with four home runs and accumulating a .518 slugging percentage. A candidate for the three-hole (he hit cleanup in 2011), Weiss should once again carry the Longhorns’ offense.
Jonathan Walsh, OF, Junior
If you watched Walsh play this year, you saw the flashes of brilliance that made him one of the most coveted recruits in the 2009 class. Against North Carolina in the College World Series, Walsh strung together an at-bat in which he was twice just a few feet foul of a home run, only to ultimately pop out to the pitcher. A switch-hitter with tremendous power — if he can get his bat on the ball — Walsh could be the best man to hit cleanup next season. It might not be a bad idea to move him to first base; a move that would free up some space in the outfield for quicker defenders and give the Longhorns bigger pop at a position that is usually played by the best sluggers on the team.
Mark Payton, OF, Sophomore
The right-fielder started every game he played in 2011, even with a knee injury that plagued him all season. His numbers were fine — a .263/.325/.353 line and 34 strikeouts — but Payton could be in for a huge sophomore season after a year of experience and an offseason to heal his injury. The Texas coaching staff may be smart to insert the left-hander into the leadoff spot.
Corey Knebel, RP, Sophomore
It will be interesting to see what Knebel, the closing pitcher that took the nation by storm as a freshman, does in 2011. He could return to his post as the closer, where he racked up 19 saves and was named the National Stopper of the Year by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. If he added another pitch to his arsenal, he could make the transition to starting pitcher. There’s only one thing for sure: He won’t be surprising anybody anymore.
Nathan Thornhill, SP, Sophomore
One of the five Fab Freshmen, Thornhill emerged halfway during the season as a viable bullpen arm. With a 3-0 record and a 1.89 ERA, the right-hander from Cedar Park probably did enough in 2011 to begin 2012 as a weekend starter.
Cohl Walla, OF, Junior
Talk about a case of the sophomore slumps. A year after hitting .316 and eight home runs, Walla turned in a .229 season with no long balls. Granted, he was out for a month with a knee injury, but the center-fielder fell way short of expectations. With the possibility that Josh Bell, a highly touted outfielder from Dallas, turns down the Pittsburgh Pirates and comes to college, Walla might move back to left field, which is where he starred as a freshman.
Christian Summers, IF, Sophomore
This rangy infielder is going to start. We’re just not sure where. Shortstop Brandon Loy is most likely not returning to school after the Tigers drafted him in the fifth round, and second baseman Jordan Etier could sign with a professional team as a free agent. If Etier and Loy both go, Summers will play at short. If Loy goes and Etier stays, Etier could slide over to shortstop, which would leave the door open for Summers at second.
Jacob Felts, C, Sophomore
After a blistering start to the year — 4-for-8 in his first three games — Felts cooled down offensively. But his greatest value to Texas was defense, as he developed a very strong rapport with the pitchers, leading head coach Augie Garrido to say that Felts would continue to start even if he didn’t get one more hit. He might never be an offensive threat in the mold of past catchers such as Taylor Teagarden and Cameron Rupp, but Felts has proven he can be valuable in other capacities.
Kevin Lusson, DH, Senior
With strong play from Weiss and Felts, Lusson, who has played third and caught at Texas, found himself without a position. The fact that, for most of the year, his batting average hovered around the Mendoza Line didn’t help him either. But after a strong postseason, Lusson will enter 2012 riding a hot streak. In the Austin Regional, he hit a home run, a walk-off single and another home run in three consecutive games to help the Longhorns avoid elimination.