- Tom Herman likes his starting 22, but worries greatly about his depth.
- Of biggest concern are the positions at right tackle, tight end, linebacker depth and cornerback depth.
- Herman considers the offensive and defensive lines as the most pleasant surprises since January and the team's biggest strengths.
My question was simple enough.
Does Tom Herman think he has Top 25 talent on this Texas football team?
Following a short pause, the first-year head coach said, “I think our starting 22 could play with anybody in the country. Would we win every game? I didn’t say that. We can play, if we play to our abilities, with anybody in the country.”
I take that as a yes. With an asterisk.
He does have Top 25 talent.
And now the Longhorns will have Top 25 coaching. For a change.
They didn’t have that for the last three seasons, unfortunately. And that switch in the coaching staff should pay dramatic dividends for Texas in 2017 and beyond. Herman and his staff will pay attention to the little things — special teams, false starts and opening coin tosses — and little things almost always lead to big things. Like bowl games.
In short, for all you recipe enthusiasts, the proverbial cake at Texas is not even close to being baked, as one former head coach suggested. It’s in the oven, however, but it requires more time. Forget the icing.
What Herman does not have, however, is Top 25 depth. And that could be a very large Achilles heel.
The Longhorns don’t have depth at right tackle, at tight end, at linebacker or at cornerback. Those are important positions and critical positions if you’re talking championship-caliber teams because they’re already thin in those spots and very few teams go through an entire season unscathed.
Tristan Nickelson has just six starts at right tackle, and Denzel Okafor none. Neither of the two top tight ends — junior Garrett Gray and freshman Cade Brewer — has ever caught a pass in college. The three backup linebackers — Breckyn Hager, Jeffrey McCulloch and junior-college transfer Gary Johnson — have five college starts, all by Hager. Junior Davante Davis is a capable third cornerback, and the staff is pushing to get true freshman Josh Thompson ready.
But depth could well be the key issue that determines whether Texas goes 7-5 or 9-3. It’s not built to sustain big injuries at left tackle, quarterback or cornerback.
Should All-American left tackle Connor Williams go down, it’d spell trouble. If sophomore and 12-game starter Shane Buechele is not productive at quarterback, there’d be quite the learning curve for true freshman Sam Ehlinger. The staff is super high on lockdown cornerback Kris Boyd and likes Holton Hill, but the backups and the backups’ backups scare the coaches to death.
Herman, being the smart guy he is, hesitates to put a win-total on expectations for his first season. I don’t blame him.
Texas was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12, which is in the ballpark since four other teams (No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 10 Oklahoma State, No. 20 Kansas State and No. 22 West Virginia) are all ranked ahead of the No. 23 Longhorns in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
“I’ve said this since the spring,” Herman said, “so there’s no changing of stances. I’m concerned about our depth. I am. Whether that means we have championship- or Top 25-talent … But certainly not top to bottom, as you would like.”
There’s a whole lot to like on the starting 22, starting up front.
“Excitingly,” Herman said, “I think our strength on both sides of the ball is the line. Offensive and defensive lines. I think we still need to find a consistent, productive right tackle.
“Those other four guys may be (as good as) the national championship year at Ohio State that I was a part of (as offensive coordinator in 2014). That might be the only other offensive line that could compare with these guys. Then the defensive line has been a very welcome surprise, considering where I thought we were at this position in January.”
That’s where good football always starts.