Head Coach Tom Herman against Kansas Jayhawks during the NCAA college football game in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, November 11, 2017. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Still longing for elite status for Texas? The Horns still have ‘some’ way to go

Posted July 17th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • When asked how many elite players Texas has, head coach Tom Herman was stumped. He finally answered, "Some."
  • On Phil Steele's four All-America teams -- first through fourth -- just one Longhorn made the list. That's second-team linebacker Gary Johnson.
  • The Longhorns have some talent at wideout, linebacker, defensive line and secondary. But are any of them stars?

FRISCO — The question may not so much have stumped Tom Herman as it gave him serious pause:

So just how many elite football players does the Texas program currently have?

The second-year Longhorns coach took half a minute to collect his thoughts, contemplated his roster and eventually smiled and said, “Some.”

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He didn’t say it with a whole lot of conviction.

But enough?

Obviously not.

His answer seems a bit troubling. The preseason All-Big 12 team voted on by 52 members of the media was hardly effusive with praise. The offense didn’t include a single Longhorn. The defense boasted two in linebacker/defensive end Breckyn Hager and cornerback Kris Boyd, but Hager on Tuesday said with his customary candor, “I ain’t done nothing yet.”

Interestingly enough, Herman didn’t name a single player he would put in that elite category, which should give the Texas fan base equal pause. By any reasonable account, the Longhorns have very few difference-makers, and that may be the difference between another 7-6 season like 2017 and a strong championship run in 2018.

There seems to be no pure consensus.

Texas football has been a shell of its former self over the past five years; the Longhorns have gone 31-32 in that span. But Texas snapped a three-year run of consecutive losing seasons in 2017 and signed a top-5 recruiting class. (Ricardo Brazziell/American-Statesman)

Big 12 reporters voted Texas as the fourth-best team in the league. Yet Phil Steele’s encyclopedic summer magazine rates Texas as a co-champion with Oklahoma and a top 10 team. Wide disparity there, and truthfully a case can be made for both in a more wide-open league although the magazine projects a first, second, third and fourth-team All-American squad. Texas has just one anywhere, and that’s second-team linebacker Gary Johnson, who may be elite. Oklahoma has five total players on those teams, and West Virginia four. A team like Clemson has six.

“You guys pick it, so you tell me,” Texas tight end Andrew Beck said. “Four of our losses came with us having the lead in the fourth quarter. We’re preaching finish this year, and our confidence is real high.”

West Virginia running back Kennedy McKoy is tackled in the back field by a herd of Longhorns during an NCAA college football game in Morgantown, West Virginia, on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

But so much has to happen positively for a team that was on the brink of a breakthrough season at one extreme but a bowl-less one at the other. It was that close to both.

So can Texas win the Big 12 for the first time since 2009?

“I don’t know,” Herman said. “All the prognostications are based on the chance you stay healthy. We feel like we want to be in contention in the months of November and December.”

It says here Texas is a year away. Maybe longer.

Not from respectability, though. The Longhorns are already there. They got there by knocking off SEC-tested Missouri in the Texas Bowl for the school’s first bowl victory since 2012. They had their first winning record in four years, have killed it on the recruiting trail and were on the verge of a spectacular season but for late collapses with crucial Sam Ehlinger turnovers against USC, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

They showed grit in a feisty game with OU. They showed nothing against TCU, barely registering any first downs. Texas was lucky that West Virginia Heisman threat Will Grier broke a finger in the first half and was done for the game. The Longhorns beat four teams with winning records and blew out a pair of 1-11 Kansas and Baylor clubs and a 2-11 San Jose State.

And the Horns have to be better, right? More polished on the offense. Todd Orlando still has his genius status. Contributions from big-time recruits, especially in the secondary, at kicker and running back.

But as for serious contention for a Big 12 championship and more trophies, Texas appears a bit lacking in star power. The offense ranked next to last in the league, ahead of only Kansas. Can’t be worse, can it? The schedule is ranked as the eighth toughest in the nation by Phil Steele but at least catches USC, TCU and West Virginia at DKR. Herman raved about how 60 of his players can vertically jump 30 inches — or was it 30 who could leap 60 inches? Does that even matter?

Texas offensive coordinator Tim Beck talks with quarterbacks Shane Buechele (7) and Sam Ehlinger (11) during warmups before an NCAA college football game against Texas Tech in Austin, Texas, on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Neither Ehlinger nor Shane Buchele has proven he is special yet and may not be. They ranked 13th and 14th in Big 12 pass efficiency last season. A combined 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions don’t really inspire, but Herman bragged on Ehlinger’s passing in the spring. Who’s to say freshman Cameron Rising isn’t the best among them?

There’s not a marquee running back on the roster but lots of candidates. If Ehlinger is the leading rusher again, Texas might be a Liberty Bowl candidate. On the offensive front, if Rice transfer Calvin Anderson is that good of a left tackle, wouldn’t he already be in the NFL?

We’re still waiting for Collin Johnson to emerge as one of the best receivers in the nation after a showcase game against USC. Lil’Jordan Humphrey, as known recently for his inflammatory poetry as his poetry in motion on the field, might emerge as elite.

Poona Ford left a gaping hole on the defensive line that Chris Nelson will try to help plug along with Hager, Charles Omenihu and ascending Taquon Graham. Is there a star in the group?

Big-time players make big-time plays.

This is not to suggest Texas doesn’t have that capability, just that potential only makes for stars in July, not October.

Herman did reference his nationally third-ranked recruiting class as “historic,” but shouldn’t a class be rated at least first to be deemed truly historic? None has played a single snap yet, but many will produce instantly this fall. “Our three young DBs are going to be rock stars,” Herman said.

Maybe even elite.

Until then, Texas has “some” ways to go.

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