Texas expect to win on a grand scale.
Over their storied history, the Longhorns hold the fifth most wins in college football history and the ninth-best winning percentage. That's why this most recent four-year stretch is so puzzling. Since Mack Brown left and Charlie Strong entered the picture in 2014, the Longhorns had one winning season and watched their conference dominance disappear while in-schools like TCU, Baylor, and Texas Tech have gotten their licks in.
The "Mastermind" Tom Herman (Dave Campbell's Texas Football's description, not ours) took over in 2017, and while the Horns improved, seven wins and a Texas Bowl aren't going to cut it.
The now often meme'd phrase "Texas is Back!" is a punchline, but the Longhorns are on their way back under Herman. If and when Texas arrives again is dependent on Herman's program answering some critical question, starting this fall.
Herman is nothing if not a disciple of Urban Meyer. The philosophies, mantras, and scheme of Herman's program are taken directly from Meyer's juggernaut. If you're going to impersonate a program, the Buckeyes are an excellent place to start. Just because you start a cover band, it doesn't mean you can hit all the notes. Meyer's offense has led or been second in the Big 10 in rushing offense each of his six seasons in Columbus. They are a smashing machine. Texas is not.
Tim Beck's first season in Austin saw a Texas offense that couldn't run the football to save their season. The Longhorns leading rusher was quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who failed to eclipse 400 yards for the season. As much as Texas fans want to blame Beck for the offensive woes, perhaps the Mastermind has some explaining to do.
Herman's 2015 Houston squad put together a dream season, 13 wins, a New Year's Six win over Florida State and the rushed for 235 yards per game. In 2016, with expectations on bursting the playoff bubble, Houston rushed for 147 yards per game and 9-4. Herman's first Longhorn club rushed for 139 yards per game. If you take away a 408-yard rushing explosion vs. San Jose State, that number drops to 117 yards. For some perspective, just a year before D'Onta Foreman averaged 184 yards per game all by himself and the collective averaged 239 yards.
If Texas can't reverse the trend, they won't be back anytime soon; but if they can, watch out because they can play with anyone on the schedule.
Sam Ehlinger is Texas' best chance of winning, though Shane Beuchele is no slouch. Chances are Texas will need both to play, especially if Ehlinger's injury history and his style of play don't give way.
As usual, Texas signed a hotshot freshman who could challenge for playing time and turn the offensive narrative on its head. First, there was Buechele; then there was Ehlinger, now it's Casey Thompson. He played well enough in the spring game that Texas fans will be pining for his entrance anytime the offense sputters.
At running back, the names are the same, Toneil Carter, Kyle Porter, and Daniel Young. Cal grad transfer Tre Watson and freshman Keontay Ingram introduce themselves to the roster as well. Some tab Carter as a potential breakout player in 2018, but each of these backs has a pedigree and high upside. If Carter can't hang on to the ball better, Herman might not issue him a helmet.
Young had the best season numerically of the incumbents, average 4.6 yards a carry. He's a bigger back at 225 out of Westfield. Watson is the intriguing addition; he's an every-down back who has homerun abilities. Cal was equally anemic, if not worse, running the football.
If you want to see an impressive group of athletes, watch the Texas receivers practice. Hell, watch 'em walk to class, or catch a bus, or eat a Big Mac. They're impressive, physical specimens and dynamic on the field.
Collin Johnson looks like he should be playing the three on an NBA roster. He's 6-6, 215, and caught 54 passes as a true sophomore. He should establish himself as one of the best receivers in the Big 12 this season and then as a first-round pick beyond that. Lil' Jordan Humphrey is almost as big and nearly as productive with as much talent.
Devin Duvernay squeezed onto the field last season as a sophomore and if there were more balls to go around would've had a more significant impact. Somewhat forgotten speedster John Burt and former quarterback Jerrod Heard help make up for the transfer of return man and target Reggie Hemphill-Mapps. Burt and Duvernay in the slot have world-class speed, and teams must account or risk needing to catch them. Johnson and Humphrey are matchup nightmares with their length and athleticism. Pick your poison.
There's always another freakish talent arriving on campus and this year's addition might be Alief Taylor's Brennan Eagles. The 17th ranked receiver nationally, he'll try to break into a crowded group. Al’vonte Woodard and Joshua Moore arrive as well, both four-stars.
Tight ends Cade Brewer, and Andrew Beck gives the Longhorns their best pair of tight ends in some time. Their presence provides the offense with versatility.
Guard Patrick Vahe has fulfilled his lofty potential out of Euless Trinity, starting 31 games since his arrival on campus, earning Freshman All-American honors and Honorable Mention All-Big 12 as well. He arrived with Connor Williams and Malik Jefferson, they've both departed for the NFL, and this is Vahe's last ride. He and center Zach Shackelford are the pillars of the offensive line.
Shackelford is a mauler inside. A late switch from his commitment to Kansas State, the Belton native, started as a true freshman as well. Fifth-year senior Elijah Rodriguez returns at the other guard position. He'll have to fend off JC transfer Mike Gandy.
Jake McMillon started at guard last season, and Terrell Cuney provided spot starts as well, both graduated as juniors leaving Tope Imadi, Patrick Hudson, and Junior Angilau to provide backup resources.
Much has been made of Calvin Anderson, the grad transfer from Rice, who is penciled in to start at left tackle. Anderson played well for Rice, but for as much as people want to say he's an equal or the departed Williams, those are large, first round shoes to fill. Denzel Okafor shouldn't be counted out either.
At right tackle, Derek Kerstetter started the final ten games at right tackle as a true freshman. His ceiling is immense, and if he stays healthy, he could be an NFL talent in a year. Kerstetter jumped J.P. Urquidez on the depth chart, but the former four-star lineman from Copperas Cove is available to step in.
I'm not sure I can name a better defensive coordinator in college football than Todd Orlando. Perhaps Brett Venables or Dave Aranda, maybe Don Brown at Michigan. The list if it exists isn't long and probably deploys better talent. Orlando knows how to bring the chaos. He lifted Texas' 2017 defense some 50 plus positions in total defense (94th to 41st). He did the same thing in year one at Houston (53rd to 13th). In year two, the Cougars became elite. Expect a similar trend in Austin. The Texas defense will be a pain in the ass to handle.
Breckyn Hager and Charles Omenihu will hold down the defensive end spots. Hager is among the best pass rushers in the Big 12 and if he's allowed to hold down the end position, rather than move around, watch out. Omenihu is solid, and if other players get more attention, he should be in line for a lot of opportunities. At 6-6, 275, his physical tools are ideal.
Malcolm Roach might be the best of the bunch, but he's so versatile it's hard to forecast how he'll create havoc, but it's happening. Orlando could use him at defensive end, outside linebacker, a hybrid, a third down pass rushing defensive tackle, or just let him roam the earth. He's a coach's kid and the Longhorn staff rave about his acumen. And he hits like a runaway concrete truck.
If Texas has a weakness up front, it's the absence of Poona Ford who found a home at nose last year. Chris Nelson and Gerald Wilbon will fill that role this year. Nelson gets the nod.
The linebackers in Orlando's 3-4 will be active and overwhelming. Besides Roach, Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler will play Mike and Rover respectively. Wheeler wasn't as acclaimed as some of his 2015, but he's been the best on the field for the past three seasons. Johnson came in as a JUCO transfer last year, and his promised athleticism didn't disappoint.
Jeffrey McCulloch will get first shot at Orlando's rush linebacker or B-backer, a position manned by Naashon Hughes last season. Texas will miss his 34 starts, but McCulloch is a junior and been around the block. If there's any hiccup, Roach is ready to fill the spot as well.
Edwin Freeman and true freshman Ayodele Adeoye give Texas an embarrassment of riches and depth at the position. Adeoye enrolled early and took to the defense quickly and might rocket into playing time.
The secondary might be the deepest position on the field, but the real talent will be a dream haul of freshman. At corner, it's Kris Boyd and Davante Davis starting. Boyd can be one of the best in the league if his head is connected to his body. He's capable of playing shut down defense, but also prone to rather glaring mistake. Davis made two picks last season in spite of starting just three games. The 6-3 Davis gives Texas' a long-armed athlete to matchup with bigger receivers.
Eric Cuffee and two of the better high school corners in last year's cycle will lend support. Four-star Jalen Green should be a solid fit along with Anthony Cook out of Houston Lamar. Kobe Boyce is a dependable rotation player as.
At nickel John Bonney and P.J. Locke are both competent options. Both are seniors, and with the youth injecting into the defensive backfield, that experience is useful. Most projected Locke as a lockdown corner out of Beaumont Central but he's struggled to find a consistent role.
Texas loses safety DeShon Elliott and his ball-hawking ways. Chris Brown and B.J. Foster will look to replace him. Brown is a sophomore from Elsik and Foster is a true freshman. Five-star Brandon Jones is back at strong safety. More of a box safety, his pass coverage can be an issue. Caden Sterns is a true freshman with a load of upside and might be good enough to force his way onto the field at either safety position. Texas coaches are salivating at his potential.
If you have one knock on Texas defense as a whole, they aren't deep at certain positions. As much as recruitnics and fans want to project super powers for recruits, until they suit up and see live action, projections are an inexact science. If the Horns end up playing true freshman in starting roles on the defensive line or the secondary, chances are things have gone wrong and depth is an issue.
We don't often mourn the loss of a punter or his impact on the game, but Michael Dickson was easily the best punter in college football, and if you saw the Texas Bowl or any of Texas' games last season you know how critical his role was for the Longhorns' success. Good luck stepping into another Aussie, Ryan Bujcevski. No pressure.
Josh Rowland will handle kicking; for the first time in what feels like a long time, no grad transfer kicking savant showed up. Rowland connected on 62% of his attempts last year.
Collin Johnson - Receiver
One of the best in college football as a sophomore, is poised for big things in 2018 and then perhaps a trip to the league.
Lil'Jordan Humphrey - Receiver
On most teams Humphrey is a headliner. He's a matchup problem, exacerbated by Texas' depth at the position.
Patrick Vahe - Guard
The pillar of the offensive line is one of the better interior linemen in the Big 12.
Zach Shackelford - Center
Shackelford fought through injury last season, but if he's healthy, he could be among the best in the country.
Malcolm Roach - Destroyer of Worlds
No matter where you line Roach up, he's going to impact the game. His intelligence is exceeded only by his physical tools.
Breckyn Hager - Defensive End
Hager's no longer a great head of hair, he's one of the best pass rushers and penetrators in the league.
Anthony Wheeler - Linebacker
The most consistent linebacker in the past few seasons at Texas is back for one more run.
Gary Johnson - Linebacker
The best athlete at the linebacker position, and that's saying a lot, is also one of the most productive.
Best Case: The offense becomes potent or at least serviceable. Texas avoids a few bear traps (at Maryland, at Kansas State, and at Texas Tech) gets TCU at the right time given the Frogs' quarterback questions and picks off one of the Oklahomas. Hello, New Year's Six, maybe even a Big 12 Title. 10-2.
Worst Case: Sam Ehlinger is still the best running threat or perhaps worse, he gets injured doing his best Earl Campbell impersonation; USC, TCU, and Oklahoma don't see drop-offs at quarterback. 7-5.
Texas isn't a team you want to play if they're healthy. The Longhorns have very few personnel questions, and if they work out their scheme/efficiency issues, they can deal with anyone on their schedule.
Herman's Houston program was prone, especially in 2016, to playing with their food a bit too much, allowing lesser talented teams to hang around and sting them. Texas fans will recognize this phenomenon after watching the Maryland and Texas Tech games last season. This Texas team doesn't have many built-in excuses. The talent is evident, they have more money than God, and AD Chris Del Conte is committed to winning EVERYTHING.
The question isn't if Texas will be back, but when.