Spring ball has wrapped up across Texas, coaches are hitting the road recruiting, the NFL Draft is upon us and the transfer portal is active. A perfect time for a new edition of Ask the Texpert.
(Editor’s note: Questions are lightly edited for length and clarity.)
What player from each Texas school is best positioned to succeed in the NFL? —Randall F.
Great and timely question with the 2022 NFL Draft kicking off Thursday. I’ll limit this to schools that are likely to have multiple players drafted, based on the grades from our NFL Draft expert extraordinaire, Dane Brugler (by the way, if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and check out “The Beast.” It’s the best draft guide out there). That means no Texas, TCU, North Texas, Rice, Texas State, UTEP or Sam Houston, which all project to have one or fewer players chosen in the seven rounds of the draft.
In alphabetical order by team:
Baylor — Jalen Pitre (safety): His versatility, study habits and instincts combined with his athletic ability make Pitre an enticing prospect. He should be an immediate special-teams contributor and then transition into a team’s secondary. He is probably best suited to play close to the box in a big nickelback role like he did his last two years at Baylor, but defensive coordinator Ron Roberts told me Pitre can play “on the roof” in coverage.
Houston — Logan Hall (edge): Whatever is asked of Hall he can do, whether that’s play on the edge, be an interior rusher or even play on the nose to provide some up-the-middle athleticism (he did all those things at Houston). His quickness at 6-foot-6, 283 pounds is impressive. There’s little question about his physical ability.
SMU — Danny Gray (wide receiver): Speed. Gray has plenty of it, evidenced by his 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the combine (and several of SMU’s opponents dealt with it firsthand). Needs to improve his hands but can be a good deep threat in the NFL.
Texas A&M —Kenyon Green (offensive lineman): After seeing Green play four different positions in 2021, I’m convinced wherever an NFL team places him, he’ll succeed. But guard seems to be the best fit. He’s technically sound, strong, athletic and smart. Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher believes he’s a potential Pro Bowl-level player.
Texas Tech —Erik Ezukanma (wide receiver): Of all the players on this list, Ezukanma is the most intriguing to me. I felt he was underrated at the college level. He consistently produced, averaging over 45 catches and 705 yards in his last three years on campus. He has sufficient size (just a shade under 6-2), played big and physically and was a dependable downfield threat.
UTSA —Tariq Woolen (cornerback): His pure athletic ability (4.26 40, 42-inch vertical jump) combined with his room to grow at his position gives him great potential. He has only played corner for two seasons, moving there from receiver early in his college career. His traits are terrific — once he gets more comfortable at corner, he could turn into a star.
What are your expectations for Baylor after Blake Shapen was named the starter? Does he bring enough upside as a passer to raise Baylor’s ceiling to a College Football Playoff contender? — Clayton R.
Even before Baylor tabbed Shapen as the starting quarterback this week over 2021 starter Gerry Bohanon, I was high on the Bears in 2022. They return four starters from a stellar 2021 offensive line plus the entire defensive line (and, they added an impact transfer in former Tulsa defensive tackle Jaxon Player). When you have that much talent and experience in the trenches, it’s a huge advantage.
I see Baylor as a definite Big 12 championship contender and, given the way the schedule sets up, flirting with the College Football Playoff isn’t out of the question. They have some holes to fill — they need to figure out who their bell-cow running back will be, they could use some help at receiver and replacing Jalen Pitre and Terrel Bernard on defense won’t be easy — but there’s still a lot to like.
As for Shapen, the feeling in the building is that his pure passing ability gives Baylor a chance to be more balanced offensively (the Bears were No. 1 in the Big 12 in rushing offense last year, but eighth in passing yardage). The thought is Baylor’s offensive ceiling is higher with Shapen behind center. When watching him in person, it’s easy to see why the coaches like him. He throws a pretty ball and does so with confidence. As long as he takes care of the ball, things should go well in Waco again this year.
Don’t undersell Bohanon, though. He played well last season, and Baylor doesn’t win the Big 12 without him (his performance in the Oklahoma win was terrific). Now that he’s in the transfer portal, someone will get a really talented quarterback.
I bet my brother-in-law, a huge Red Raiders fan, that Texas Tech would not finish with a top-15 overall class come signing day 2023. Think this was smart money? — Alex H.
I do. As impressed as I am by what Texas Tech is doing right now, you need a lot of blue-chippers to be a top-15 class.
Texas Tech, which is currently No. 2 in the 247Sports Composite team rankings, generated a ton of momentum on sheer numbers. Their 19 commits are the most in the country by far. In that group are a quartet of four-star prospects and 13 three-star prospects (the other two have yet to be rated).
Let’s use the average prospect rating for guidance. Texas Tech’s average recruit rating is 87.58. In last year’s class, that rating probably puts Tech somewhere in the top 25. By historical standards, that would be a fantastic finish for the Red Raiders.
In the post-Mike Leach era, Texas Tech has finished in the top 40 nationally only four times. The last time it happened was 2015 when the Red Raiders finished 32nd. The highest-rated class Texas Tech has signed in the modern era finished 19th in 2011.
In 2022, the top-15 classes with the fewest number of four-star recruits were LSU’s and Missouri’s, which each had six, but both schools signed a five-star recruit. The schools in the top 15 that didn’t sign a five-star were Oklahoma (15 four-stars) and Kentucky (10). So to get into that group, that’s what Joey McGuire and his staff need to do.
Regardless, Tech’s efforts have been impressive. Even a top-30 finish is a great first full class for the new staff, and that seems well within reach.
After watching Texas’ open practice on Saturday, it’s clear this team has the potential to light up the scoreboard no matter who starts at QB and still has some firepower on the way with transfers/freshman offensive linemen coming this summer. The run defense still looked pretty porous, though. Does Texas have what it takes to win the Big 12 with the conference’s top offense but a bottom-half defense? — Shane D., Montgomery, Texas
A middle-of-the-pack defense, maybe. A bottom-half defense, that’s asking a lot. Ask Texas Tech fans about how things work out when you can score at will but can’t stop anybody. They endured that a lot in the mid-2010s and didn’t sniff a Big 12 title.
The old, popular criticism of Big 12 teams not playing defense doesn’t really apply anymore, as evidenced by last year’s conference title game, which matched up the league’s two best defensive units (Baylor and Oklahoma State each allowed fewer than 18 points per game).
Texas doesn’t need to be the 1985 Chicago Bears, but the run defense needs to be at least respectable for the Longhorns to have a chance at the conference title. If the Longhorns could move their awful national rank last year (114th in yards allowed per rush) to, say, somewhere in the 60s or 70s nationally, or if Texas cuts its scoring defense (31.1 points allowed per game in 2021) to around what Oklahoma allowed last year (25.8), that would go a long way toward giving them a chance. The offense can’t score much if the defense is constantly on the field getting diced up.
But I agree — with the additions of Quinn Ewers, Isaiah Neyor, the insertion of a developing tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders and the deep offensive backfield, the Longhorns have a lot of weapons. They certainly set Longhorns fans abuzz on Saturday.
Watched the Texas Tech spring game and was shocked how well Behren Morton played. The entire QB competition has been focused around Donovan Smith and Tyler Shough, but what are the realistic chances that Morton will be the starting QB when the season starts? — Robert T.
Morton unquestionably helped himself Saturday. He looked like the best of the bunch, at least for that day. After the spring game, McGuire called the competition “even” throughout the spring.
“That’s not good or bad,” McGuire said. “Because at first, you’d be like, ‘Well, you wish somebody would step forward and take it.’ But one of them will.”
The beauty of a new coaching staff and a new offense is that all the quarterbacks began on relatively equal footing. Shough and Smith have more experience than Morton, but the offense is new to all of them. If you see him in person, there’s not much question about Morton’s physical gifts. He throws a terrific ball.
The next few months are important as they go through offseason workouts, summer seven-on-seven work and into training camp. It’s too early to make a definitive declaration, but Morton absolutely has a chance. I don’t think Texas Tech could go wrong with any of them, honestly. All three are talented and capable.
How actively do you think Texas A&M is pursuing transfers now that spring practices are ending? Would they be in the market for a linebacker or any other position? — Zachary B.
If the Aggies pursue anybody in the portal, linebacker would be the most likely position they seek. Don’t expect Texas A&M to grab a ton of players, because they’ve signed so many elite high school prospects. I asked Fisher about his portal strategy earlier this month, and he noted that A&M’s recruiting success has influenced it quite a bit.
When I visited with Fisher for our “State of the Program” story on the Aggies, he did say he’d like to have “one or two more” options at linebacker. A&M has sufficient depth at most other positions; I don’t see a glaring need anywhere else.
Any rumblings of when Houston is headed to the Big 12 and what the buyout money will be? — Brian S.
Houston’s hope and expectation is still to be in the Big 12 in time for the 2023 football season. As my colleagues Chris Vannini and Nicole Auerbach reported on Wednesday, negotiations to make that happen are still ongoing.
Ever since the Big 12 invitation came last September, Houston officials have operated under the 2023 assumption. The AAC bylaws call for a 27-month notice to leave the league, which puts the school’s departure at December 2023. And that is why they’re negotiating for the early exit, to arrive in the Big 12 in July 2023 instead.
The standard exit fee the AAC asks is $10 million, but the Houston Chronicle reported in March that the conference wants an additional $35 million from each departing school to get out early. Whether that will be the amount Houston, UCF and Cincinnati end up paying remains to be seen.
How hot will Jimbo Fisher’s seat be entering the 2023 season after he goes 8-4 this year? — Matthew C.
If that happens, there will certainly be some grumbling within the fan base, but it’s not like the Texas A&M administration can put much job pressure on him given his contract situation.
Fisher just signed a contract extension last season that fully guarantees him $94.9 million through 2031. That means, if A&M wanted to fire him without cause, it would be on the hook for the entire amount.
Also, given that he just signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country (and the highest-rated class of all time), there is still a lot of positivity about the direction of the program under Fisher in Aggieland right now. And Fisher believes he has the talent on hand to compete for SEC titles now.
Given the schedule, I look at A&M’s potential big run coming in 2023, but at minimum, improvement should be expected this year, meaning nine or 10 wins. And signing a class of this caliber (on the heels of three top-eight classes before it) does create a three-to-four-year window in which A&M needs to at least make the College Football Playoff to validate the high expectations.
Everything else is in place in that program, so barring any unforeseen circumstances, there aren’t many excuses for not accomplishing at least that much in the next few years.
(Photo of Blake Shapen: Photo by Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)