Every player on the Texas football team started with a clean slate during the Longhorns’ 2021 spring practice considering the arrival of 10 new coaches and a different face in Steve Sarkisian at the helm. While Sarkisian and his staff had plenty of personnel questions to address, a roster chock-full of young talent produced several standouts who helped their case to earn playing time in the fall.
Here are the three biggest winners from Texas’s spring practice period:
Sophomore linebacker David Gbenda
One of the biggest concerns for the Longhorns heading into spring practice was the shallow depth at the linebacker position. The team’s leading tackler in 2020, Juwan Mitchell, transferred to Tennessee in the offseason and All-Big 12 Honorable Mention selection DeMarvion Overshown missed the entirety of the spring session recovering from surgery.
As Texas searched for a young gun in the linebacker room to fill the void, sophomore linebacker David Gbenda answered the call. Gbenda, who played in every game of the 2020 season as a redshirt freshman primarily contributing on special teams, turned heads with his mentality and quick instincts in practice. He finished off the spring by leading the White team with seven tackles during the Orange-White Spring Game.
“I’ve been very, very impressed with him,” Sarkisian said of Gbenda during an April 13 teleconference. “He is flying around the football field, playing physical. He’s got a real leader’s mentality.”
Graduate transfer linebacker Ray Thornton
While Gbenda earned his stripes manning the middle of the field, graduate transfer linebacker Ray Thornton will be tasked with trying to replicate some of the havoc that Joseph Ossai created on the edge last season. He’s even going to be wearing the same No. 46 jersey.
The LSU transfer became an immediate veteran leader for the Texas defense during spring ball, earning praise from various players for his tenacity and vocality. Thornton is looking to become an instant impact player for the Longhorns in his first and only year with the team. While Texas has brought in various linebacker transfers (Alabama’s Ben Davis, New Mexico State’s Devin Richardson and Notre Dame’s Ovie Oghoufo), Thornton has embedded himself within the team through the spring.
“He came in with high energy. He’s just one of those leaders that just comes in and everybody feels him,” senior defensive back Josh Thompson said in an April 6 teleconference. “(He and I) actually connected real quick just because we have that leadership and high energy role.”
Sophomore wide receiver Jordan Whittington
A heralded wide receiver signee in the class of 2019, injuries have thus far limited Jordan Whittington’s production on the field. In two seasons, Whittington has suited up in only six games.
Physically healthy and playing for a new coaching staff this spring, however, the sophomore flashed explosive athleticism and showed mastery of the new offensive schemes. Sarkisian mentioned Whittington as one of the most gifted athletes on the roster during spring media teleconferences, and the receiver enjoyed a solid Spring Game by leading the Orange team in receiving yards with 56 on five catches. Whittington set himself up for a starting position on the offense and the potential for a breakout 2021 campaign if he can stay healthy.
“The first two years were very frustrating. I went through a dark time,” Whittington said in an April 20 teleconference. “I just kept my trust in God, and I told myself, ‘If I’m going to quit, God’s going to have to literally walk in my room and tell me to.’ … I feel like I’m on the bright side. I’m glad I didn’t stop going.”