Texas Season Preview: The Savior Cometh...Again

Say this for Texas; they aren't deep on narrative. Four years ago the Longhorns hired Charlie Strong and promised to remake facilities, reconnect with the local high school coaches, bring a physical, elite brand of football to the 40 acres and put Texas back in its rightful catbird seat amongst the state's FBS programs. In December of last year, Strong was let go, and Texas hired Tom Herman. Herman promises to bring Texas into the modern age with a facilities remake, to reconnect with Texas high school coaches, bring a physical, national championship caliber program back to Austin and put the lesser programs in Waco, Fort Worth, and College Station in their place. 

He's already spent some of UT's vast coffers on a new locker room and weight room renovation. He's rebranded the Longhorn's social media efforts, and he is recruiting at a national level. Whether Herman is a program builder or a program renovator is still a valid question. At Houston, he hardly had time to rebuild Tony Levine's roster, and the Cougars were in desperate straits this spring due to low numbers. At Texas, a myth perpetuated by interested parties is that Charlie Strong didn't recruit well enough or evaluate talent well enough. Strong left the 512, leaving behind a plethora of four and five-star talent. Herman benefits from a loaded roster. 

Is Tom Herman able to build and sustain a program? When programs purge his coaching staff, and there are no new shiny things to renovate or remake from a facilities standpoint can he keep Texas in the catbird seat long term? Is there substance over the vast quantities of style? Time will tell. For 2017, he looks to be sitting atop a monster that is coming of age. 

Tim Beck was the most hated man in Ohio last season when the Buckeye offense floundered late. If Beck knows anything, it's how to mold a ruthlessly efficient offense. His handling of that now dubious quarterback room at Ohio State led some to question his abilities as a quarterback guru. He'll have the benefit of the guru in the office down the hall if things get interesting in Austin. What Beck can do is give Texas an offensive identity, something that seemed to fluctuate week to week under Strong.

Still, none of his current QBs fit the mold he worked with at Nebraska (Taylor Martinez) or Ohio State (J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller). He won't want to expose Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger in the running game, so he'll need to be more conventional in the Longhorns rush attack. Fortunately, Buechele possesses passing abilities that none of the previous four quarterbacks had. Coupling that with Texas' stable of freakish receivers, the Longhorns should be explosive down the field. 

On defense, Herman brought his most valuable lieutenant with him from Houston in Todd Orlando. Orlando established a high standard of attacking, turnover inducing defenses while leading the Cougars. Expect more of the same from his units in Austin. While Texas may not have the line talent, they have linebacker and secondary talent in mass. Those groups should be able to hold things down until Orlando finds a defensive line rotation.

Key Numbers

Scoring Drive % (Big 12 Rank) Touchdown Drive % (Big 12 Rank) Scoring Drives % Allowed (Big 12 Rank) Touchdown % Allowed (Big 12 Rank) 3rd Down % (Big 12 Rank) 3rd Down Defense (Big 12 Rank) Turnover Margin (Big 12 Rank) Total Adjusted Run Rate (NCAA Rank)
38% (9) 28% (9) 34% (4) 26% (5) 36% (9) 38% (3) -3 (5) 0.526 (44)
  • Scoring Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in points.
  • Touchdown Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in touchdowns. 
  • Scoring Drives % Allowed: Percentage of drives allowed that ended in points. 
  • Touchdown % Allowed: Percentage of opponent's drives that end in a touchdown. 
  • 3rd Down %: Offensives success on 3rd down. 
  • 3rd Down Defense %: Can a defense get off the field.
  • Turnover Margin: Total number of giveaways minus total number of takeaways. 
  • Total Adjusted Run Rate: Taking the national average of yards per carry and yards allowed per carry and comparing that to the relative team. Teams that end up with a plus Total Adjusted Run Rate average 8.4 wins per year. Teams with a negative Total Adjusted Run Rate average 5.5 wins per season. The top 20 teams in Total Adjusted Run Rate Averaged 9.7 wins per season over a five year period. 

Quarterbacks

Texas' quarterback room may be in better shape in 2017 than it's been in a while. We hate to be mean, but when your backup in Tyrone Swoopes, you've got issues. Swoopes skill set didn't exactly jell with Texas' desire to run a west coast offense, it fit better with the Mike Norvell spread, but his abilities certainly didn't fit with the Bear Raid of Sterling Gilbert. Now Texas has Shane Buechele and a very similarly gifted true freshman Sam Ehlinger

Shane Buechele

Shane Buechele

Let's start with Buechele, a gym rat who can walked into DKR for his first college game against Notre Dame and didn't blink.

Buechele did a lot of good things, some of them very good. He struggled with things that young players typically struggle with, i.e. sack rate and interception rate. As the game continues to slow down for him and his comfort level grows those areas should improve.

As to the good things, Buechele throws with confidence and accuracy. He's already near elite level in terms of completion percentage and efficiency. He gets the ball out quickly on horizontal routes is just enough of a run threat to keep defenses honest. 

The question will be how Herman and Tim Beck use him. He's not comparable to any of Herman's recent quarterback progeny. His game doesn't fit with Ohio State quarterbacks J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, or Braxton Miller. Nor does he compare with Greg Ward Jr. from Herman's time at Houston. How conventional can the Beck/Herman offense look with a quarterback who isn't a creator in the run game?

Ehlinger was all-everything at Austin Westlake, just up the hill from UT's campus. Former Longhorn quarterback and legendary high school coach Todd Dodge mentored Ehlinger at Westlake. He's bigger than Buechele at 6-2, 225 which may help him in the running game but we doubt either of Texas' quarterbacks will be asked to do a ton of running. 

Herman has hinted that the Horns will have a package for Jerrod Heard, the dynamic quarterback who transitioned to receiver last season. At the very least Heard will give opposing coaches something to think about as they prep for the Horns. He's a game breaker in the right scheme. 

Running Backs

Tom Herman could have held spring meetings with his healthy running backs in a phone booth. A hamstring injury ended Chris Warren's spring. Kyle Porter was held out of the spring game with an ankle. Tristan Houston and Toneil Carter both were limited, and Kirk Johnson was held out due to knee issues.

Assuming a couple of those guys survive the summer and get to fall camp, Herman will use one or more of them to try and replace D'Onta Foreman. Rather big shoes. Warren will get the first shot, but his injury history doesn't give us much confidence. Hamstrings tend to linger. When he is on the field, Warren has been an elite level back. In three of his four games in 2016 he rushed for 90 or more yards. In 2015's final two games, Warren rushed for 276 and 106 respectively. 

Herman would like to see him lower his pad level and thinks he'd be unstoppable if he does. His running style may be a reason for his injury issues in three successive seasons, dating to high school. 

Porter will next first man up to spell Warren. As a true freshman he rushed for 205 yards on 46 carries. Porter was very productive at Katy high school. True freshman Carter, who was the only healthy scholarship running back available for the spring game, had some impressive moments but has a proclivity to but the ball on the ground. After that there's a mishmash of Roderick Bernard, Houston and Johnson who could all play some role, but will be playing their first minutes. 

Receivers

Collin Johnson

Collin Johnson

Every year Texas seems to add another incredible, freakishly talented receiver or two. First came Armanti Foreman out of Texas City, who makes circus catches seem routine. Then came world class burner John Burt. Last season 6-6, rangy, Collin Johnson showed up from California. In the midst of all that Jerrod Heard, the most explosive player on Texas' roster, transitioned from quarterback to receiver and looked good doing it. Southlake Carroll phenom Lil'Jordan Humphrey, the 6-5 sophomore who should play an even bigger role in Texas' offense.

Those are the headliners and there's more where they come from.

Johnson is one of the most exciting prospects in some time. He's dominate on jump balls and should be even better with a year in Texas' strength program. Last season he caugh 28 passes and 57% of his targets.

If he expands beyond just being a vertical threat, Burt should give opposing coaches more frequent nightmares. He's a home run hitter who caught just 50% of his targets so he'll need to work on his hands. His production slipped from 2015, but his world class speed requires attention. Dorian Leonard brings the same ability to take the top off a defense. Meanwhile Heard continues grow into the receiver position. He's as elusive a player as there is in the country.

Devin Duvernay comes out of spring looking like the starter at the H receiver position. He led Texas in yards per catch last seasons at 20.6. Reggie Hemphill-Mapps was the biggest mover in the spring, going from a fringe player to challenging for playing time and even bumping Foreman out for reps.

Tight Ends

For several years now the Texas tight end position has been comparable to Spinal Tap's drummer, lots of different guys, some of which spontaneously combust. Andrew Beck has been the best of the bunch, even if he is a converted linebacker. 

Last season Beck caught four passes, two of which went for touchdowns. Beck should see his production go up in Texas' new offense. Last season at Houston Tom Herman used  Tyler McCloskey to the tune of 21 catches. Beck has a similar skill set. 

Beck broke his foot during spring drills but his recovery is encouraging. 

Behind Beck are a number of unknowns. If something happens to Beck, chances are Texas does without. The Longhorns have converted Garrett Gray from receiver, but he will need time to make the adjustment. True freshman Cade Brewer may not be physically ready to play in 2017. 

Offensive Line

Call us fools, but we're buying into the Texas offensive line. Again. We did it in 2014 when all five starters returned. We even liked it with two freshman playing big minutes in 2015. We like it now. Perhaps our faith will be rewarded. 

Connor Williams

Connor Williams

Connor Williams has the look of a player who's going to play for a long time at the next level. Williams was a Freshman All-America and a First Team All-America last season as a sophomore. Chances are this will be his last season in Austin. He's the foundation of the Longhorns front along with Patrick Vahe. Vahe, a guard garnered Freshman All-America honors and made nine starts last season in a year where he admitted he lost his way a bit. Vahe claims he's in a better place and moves back to left guard along side Williams. 

At the other guard junior Jake McMillon was the surprise of 2016, emerging to take his spot by storm. He'll be flanked by Zach Shackelford the sophomore from Belton who started at center last year. Shackelford is a brute inside who plays with a chip on his shoulder. He struggled this spring with an ankle injury. If he's not ready then McMillon slides over to center and Elijah Rodriguez gets a shot a right guard. 

The other tackle is in open competition. Last season's starter Brandon Hodges announced his transfer last week. Denzel Okafor played quite a bit in the 18 wheeler package last season and looks to have the inside track. 6-9 Tristen Nickelson started twice in 2016 and the senior can't be counted out entering fall camp. 

The Horns have some depth with a couple of four-star redshirt freshman filling second team roles. Patrick Hudson is as physical as they come and JP Urquidez could step in at tackle if necessary. Sophomore tackle Jean Delance was given time on the second team unit as well. 

Defensive Line

Texas returns a lot of pieces from last season. They should fit well in Todd Orlando's attacking 3-4. Last year Texas was pretty good up front, ranking the top 50 in Standard Run Down Rank, Havoc Rank, Tackles for Loss Game, and yards per carry rank. 

The Horns return two starters up front including senior Poona Ford. Ford is a multiyear starter for Texas and a decent fire hydrant inside to hold up against the run. At 5'11 he doesn't have ideal size, but apparently Herman can't find ideal size on his roster. He blasted his defensive line in the spring for being too short and out of shape. Ford was named to the preseason All-Big 12 squad this week.

Big time 2016 recruit Jordan Elliott transferred late in the spring leaving a depth issue inside, but Chris Nelson returns after starting eight games in 2016. He flashed in the spring and moves outside to defensive end. 

Outside we're excited to see what converted linebacker Malcolm Roach does at defensive end. Easily one of the most physical players in the Big 12, Roach could be an impact player at 270. D'Andre Christmas the sophomore out of New Orleans returns and should see a bigger role, moving outside to defensive end. 

Chris Daniels is a very highly regarded inside player out of Euless Trinity. With Elliott transferring, Daniels and Gerald Wilbon will both get a crack at backing up Ford. This group will benefit from Orlando and the new scheme. While they aren't ideally sized, they are talented and should come into fall camp in better shape. 

Linebackers

We've heard of the transcendent possibilities of Malik Jefferson for over two years now. He was the crown jewel of Charlie Strong's recruiting efforts and would be a Pied Piper for recruits and wins. So far the Texas linebacker has flashed potential, but not enough to live up to the hype. Briefly benched in 2016, Jefferson moves outside in Todd Orlando's 3-4 defense. If anyone can truly tap into Jefferson's ultimate abilities it's Orlando.

Malik Jefferson

Malik Jefferson

Naashon Hughes is penciled in on the other side at OLB. He and Jeffrey McCullough are in a battle for playing time, though both will see time regardless of the outcome of the position battle. Hughes is a rangy athlete, moves from a defensive end position to a stand up edge player will be a perfect fit for the odd-man defense.

Inside Breckyn Hager is set to move from defensive end to inside linebacker. Hager's old man was a legendary in Texas' 43 defense. He's an explosive player who can play in any of the four linebacker slots. Orlando wants him inside for now. 

Texas' most productive linebacker from 2016, Anthony Wheeler, returns inside. He'll play alongside Hager and provide stability to a linebacking group that is moving a lot of pieces around. Highly rated JUCO transfer Gary Johnson checks a lot of the boxes inside. He'll push Hager and Wheeler for playing time. Redshirt freshman Demarco Boyd may also see time. The Gilmer product spent last year transitioning to full-time linebacker and adjusting to the college game.

Secondary

Like so many things in Austin, this doesn't add up. Texas has depth, speed, size, and credentials in the secondary, but the Longhorns still struggled in 2016 against the pass. All that talent is back and perhaps a new voice can harness the talent. 

Texas returns four corners that would start for most of the Big 12. The Longhorns will have to sort out playing time which is a good problem to have. Kris BoydHolton Hill, P.J. Locke and Devante Davis. They'd have five with John Bonney, but Bonney moves to safety. Boyd and Hill will start at corner. Davis can play in relief of either or nickel corner Locke

Someday Charlie Strong should get credit for the assembly of talent he left in Austin.

At safety the Horns lose playmaker Dylan Haines, but they return sophomore 5-star Brandon Jones who is ready for prime time. At strong safety DeShone Elliott and Jason Hall will compete in the fall for job. Both are capable, Hall is coming off an injury. 

Specialists

Michael Dickson is known to his new head coach simply as "the punter." Herman is a jokester, of course, Dickson is a weapon. He averaged a school record 47 yards a punt in 2016. He's a frontrunner for the Ray Guy Award. Herman would like to use him less than the 65 attempts he booted in 2016. But if called upon, Dickson will undoubtedly kick it a long way. 

JUCO transfer Joshua Rowland will get the first chance at holding down the kicking job. Rowland was inconsistent in the spring, at one point drawing the ire of Tom Herman for his inability to thread the goal posts. Like everyone else in Austin, he's full of potential.  

Texas used burner Devin Duvernay in the return game; he averaged 21 yards per kickoff return in 2016. Armanti Foreman returned punts when graduated senior Jacorey Warrick wasn't. He averaged just under nine yards a return. Expect Texas to audition some other, younger return men in 2017. 

2017 Schedule

Best Case

The Tom Herman Hire pays off as he finally gets his roster to play to their expectations. If that's the case, bar the door because there's a TON of talent in Austin. They can beat anyone on their schedule. 

Worst Case

The quarterback and running back pieces just don't fit the scheme. The offensive struggles to become a downhill, physical unit without the threat of the quarterback run game. A tough early conference schedule takes its toll. Still, less than seven wins would be a shock. 

Maryland Win

D.J. Durkin's second season opens in Austin. 

Should be a rough trip to Texas. 

San Jose State Win

Texas plays a decent Mountain West team in San Jose State. 

Decent Mountain West won't stand a chance vs. the Horns. 

@ USC Loss

Horns travel to LA for a marquee showdown with the Men of Troy.

Can Texas slow down Sam Darnold and is the moment too big for Texas?

@ Iowa State Win

Texas Opens up Big 12 play in Ames. 

The last few trips that far north have been tougher than the Longhorns anticipated. 

Kansas State Win

Bill Snyder brings his always tough Wildcats to Austin. 

Herman must keep the Horns from looking ahead to Red River Week. 

Oklahoma (Dallas) Win

We aren't buying the Sooners in a game that's been close the past few years. 

Herman's team makes a statement. 

Oklahoma State Pick'em

Brutal three game stretch ends with a visit from the Pokes. 

The Big 12 could be decided in Austin this weekend. 

@ Baylor Win

The Bears could make their season and give Matt Rhule a signature win vs. the Horns. ]

Texas has too much for the Bears.

@ TCU Loss

The last time Texas went to TCU the Frogs embarrassed the Horns. 

Last year's game wasn't that close either. 

Kansas Win

Sweet revenge for 2016. 

Expect the internet to be ripe with KU '16 memes. Don't expect the game to be close. 

@ West Virginia Loss

Holgorsen and the Mountaineers will be rocking and ready for Texas. 

Prepping for Morgantown is a tough challenge. 

Texas Tech Win

Expect a blowout. Tech can't start to stop Texas' offense. 

Projection 9-3