Texas spring practice position battles

For every returning starter and proven commodity who will take the field Thursday for Texas’ first spring practice, there’s another who needs these next five weeks to prove himself.

From the backups to the redshirts to the newcomers, spring ball can mean the difference between a fall spent under the bright lights or on the bench. And in a program with the recruiting tradition of Texas, no starter should get too comfortable.

Here are the position battles we’ll be keeping an eye on during the Longhorns’ first 15 practices of the 2012 season. We all know what No. 1 is on this list, but don’t ignore the openings at these other spots. What goes down in the next month will have significant implications on what kind of team will take the field Sept. 1 against Wyoming.

1. Quarterback

Contenders: David Ash, Case McCoy, Connor Brewer

Ash enters the spring as the presumed starter after earning every snap in the Holiday Bowl and earning MVP honors for an OK performance, but competition has to be the name of the game this spring. The fact Ash didn’t get equal practice snaps last spring hindered his development, and that hurt all involved when he was thrown into the fire as a true freshman.

Ray Carlin/Icon SMI

David Ash threw for four touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2011.

Of course, the division of practice snaps – however it shakes out – will come with sacrifices. Give Ash too many and UT will find itself in a bind similar to last fall when the Garrett Gilbert plan fell apart, and over-committing to Ash could encourage McCoy to look elsewhere for playing time.

And then there’s Brewer, the touted true freshman who – given the experiences of last year – better be close to game-ready by the end of fall camp in case of emergency. The situation only gets more tangled when dual-threat freshman Jalen Overstreet joins the fold this summer.

For now, Longhorn coaches will have to handle this situation delicately. Too much of the 2012 team’s future is tied to this big decision.

2. Defensive tackle

Contenders: Ashton Dorsey, Desmond Jackson, Chris Whaley, Brandon Moore

Kheeston Randall graduated and Calvin Howell was dismissed from the program earlier this month, leaving a gaping hole up the middle for a Texas defense that enters the spring with lofty expectations.

Moore, a junior college transfer, must be a quick learner this spring and should get every opportunity to earn a starting job. The 6-foot-5, 335-pound junior joined the program in January and has an impressive resume, winning national titles as a backup at Alabama in 2010 and as a breakout star at East Mississippi Community College last fall.

Dorsey is perhaps the only favorite to earn a starting job, at least based on experience. He earned four starts at nose tackle early in the season before Howell took over the spot and has played in 21 games. Jackson played in all 13 games as a true freshman and recorded sacks on two of his 10 tackles. Whaley, a former running back, contributed at defensive end last season but will try his hand at tackle.

The key here isn’t to find two good starters out of the four. Texas defensive tackles coach Bo Davis needs at least four reliable guys he can plug in at any moment. Freshman Malcom Brown should get a chance to contribute immediately when he joins the program this summer.

3. Kicker

Contenders: Ben Pruitt, William Russ

We’ll rank this position ahead of several others only because there’s so little experience returning at the kicker and punter positions.

Now that senior Justin Tucker is gone, Russ is the likely favorite to take over punting duties. He impressed Texas coaches with his power and almost earned opportunities to punt in a few games late last season.

The left-footed Pruitt redshirted in 2011 and needs to make a good impression this spring, because incoming freshman Nick Jordan will get just as many reps as the other kickers when he arrives on campus. There’s also the matter of kickoffs, a job that will probably go to either Russ or Jordan.

4. Tight end

Contenders: D.J. Grant, M.J. McFarland, Barrett Matthews and Darius Terrell

The fact Texas didn’t sign any tight ends for the 2012 class is a bit puzzling considering no clear-cut starter developed last season and the position has been such a vital one in Bryan Harsin-run offenses.

Harry How/Getty Images

D.J. Grant caught three touchdown passes for the Longhorns last season.

Take that decision to mean a few things. First, Grant will get a chance to build on a surprising junior season. Despite missing the 2009 and 2010 seasons with knee injuries, he hauled in 16 passes for 180 yards and scored three touchdowns against UCLA.

Second, McFarland could be the solution. Redshirting last season should’ve done him some good: McFarland was able to put more than 15 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame. At 260 pounds, he should be a formidable new target for the UT offense.

Terrell and Matthews will also get a valuable chance to prove they can make an impact in the pass game. Matthews has played in 38 games but has 12 career receptions, and Terrell played in nine games last season but recorded one catch. If Harsin can't find a go-to guy from this group, at least he'll have a plethora of options to mix and match.

5. Free safety

Contenders: Adrian Phillips, Mykkele Thompson, Sheroid Evans

Say what you want about Blake Gideon, but the guy did start all 52 games of his career. The Longhorns have a proven commodity coming back at strong safety in Kenny Vaccaro, and Phillips -- who will be out this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery last month -- will be in competition to take over the spot next to him.

The talented junior is a reliable and versatile cover man, and it’ll be interesting to see how well he can slide into the safety role when he returns to practice. He’s vying with two young guys who got onto the field as true freshmen last year. Thompson is the tallest of the trio at 6-foot-2 and was UT’s leading tackler on special teams, and Evans played in all 13 games and was a sprinter for the track team this winter.

Honorable mention: Wide receiver

Contenders: Miles Onyegbule, John Harris, DeSean Hales

Mike Davis (despite his inconsistency) and Jaxon Shipley (despite his injuries) are presumed to be the starters here. But with Marquise Goodwin absent while he focuses on his Olympic dreams, the spring is a prime time for several inexperienced wideouts to prove they deserve snaps this fall. Four freshman receivers are on the way, too, so there’s no better time than now for these three to prove their value.