The brainstorming began in earnest among Longhorn coaches just hours after Blaine Irby's season-ending injury Saturday on Texas' first possession of the third quarter against Rice. It continued throughout Sunday's film sessions and remains a discussion-in-progress as Texas turns its attention to former Southwest Conference rival Arkansas.
For now, sophomore Greg Smith (6-4, 295) is listed atop this week's depth chart, followed by senior Peter Ullman (6-4, 260). Both have had knee surgery while at the Forty Acres; neither possesses the kind of stretch-the-field speed that fits the profile of a TE in Greg Davis' scheme. Smith has been a bit of a journeyman; he was recruited as a TE, but moved to the interior of the offensive line last season and took snaps at tackle during August camp. Ullman is a fifth-year senior with four career receptions, but two have gone for touchdowns.
"We have confidence in Peter and Greg," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said Monday, "but there are certain things that we ask of our tight ends that you really want a tackle playing there, and there are certain things that we ask of our tight ends that we want a wide receiver playing there. We've always looked for a guy who could do both."
Irby, who was Texas' third-leading receiver (95 yards on 10 grabs), met with doctors Monday afternoon to mull his options. For now, the only good news is long-term: Irby qualifies for an NCAA hardship and would have three remaining years of eligibility beginning with the 2009 campaign.
"It's a good rule that helps a young man when he's very disappointed," head coach Mack Brown said.
Coaches assumed Jermichael Finley would return for at least one of his two remaining years of eligibility (he was last seen in a Green Bay Packers uniform flagged for personal foul in Sunday's loss to the Dallas Cowboys). Josh Marshall fractured his scapula during August camp and is not expected back this season. Injured RS-freshman Ian Harris (6-4, 250) sat out the non-conference slate but should return to practice Tuesday, coaches said.
Davis has not ruled out the possibility of moving another defensive player over to the TE spot. RS-freshman Ahmard Howard (6-4, 248) cross-trained at DE and TE during the preseason but has worked exclusively with the offense for the past two weeks. Backup RT Britt Mitchell (6-5, 300) played TE at Kilgore and may emerge but is more suited for maximum-protection and short-yardage situations. Moving RB (and former WR) Chris Ogbonnaya to TE makes sense only if FB Cody Johnson continues to develop and if RS-freshman RB Fozzy Whittaker proves durable. However, Whittaker has missed two of the first three ballgames this season due to injury.
Texas has featured a two-tight end set approximately 20 plays this season, Davis said. For now, coaches are simply keeping all options open, however limited.
"We've talked about personnel and we've talked about going to more four wide receivers," Davis continued. "We've talked about going five-wide. We're going to toss a bunch of things around and see what, down the road, makes the most sense."
It's just that the road gets considerably harder following Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kick against Arkansas. The next five opponents are ranked among the top 30 collegiate teams in this week's Associated Press poll, including three in the Top 10.
Texas has not used a five-wide set since QB Chris Simms' final season (2002), but Davis mentioned it would be a "pretty simple" addition to the game plan.
"We talk, during August camp, about which player could be a tailback or a substitute wide receiver," Davis told Inside Texas. "It's not something that is as major as it might appear. The reason why we look to do it with 'base personnel' is because it means we usually get 'base personnel' out of the defense. We used a bunch of four-and five-wides when Chris was here. We were deep at receiver. We also got a bunch of nickel and dime looks that were designated just for that."
Aside from shifts in scheme, it boils down to a balancing act with a limited number of experienced personnel.
"You have to ask what the best thing is for Texas, but you also have to ask what the best thing is for that young man," Davis concluded. "You have to ask how close he is to being a starter, and how close he is to being ready now. You have to ask how hard it would be for him to adapt. All those things have to go into it, especially if you move him to a position that he has very little background in. Now, you're looking at a process of getting him ready. At the same time, there's a lot of season left. That's what all the discussion is about."
NOTE: Kickoff for the October 4th match-up with Colorado has been set for 6 p.m. (CDT).