Texas head coach Tom Herman looks at the replay of a touchdown catch by wide receiver Brennan Eagles (13) against Iowa State during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Ames, Iowa. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas football is lacking true identity, real progress in Year 3

Posted November 18th, 2019

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  • Ten games into this season, and most of us frankly are mystified why, after back-to-back Top three nationally ranked recruiting classes, the Longhorns aren’t any better than 6-4 and unranked and on the outside looking in at the Big 12 championship.
  • Herman said upon his arrival on campus that he would win with defenses. Win championships with defense, he insisted. Uh, not yet.
  • Texas is clearly not back, as Sam Ehlinger so boldly claimed on the stage at the Sugar Bowl. He was wrong. And while few in the media seriously climbed aboard that bandwagon, neither did we expect such obvious regression.

So Tom Herman is deep into his third season at Texas, and he’s no closer to establishing a true, consistent identity or turning this program back into a powerhouse it should be than he was in December 2016 when he arrived here fresh out of Houston.

And quite frankly, that’s perplexing and very disturbing.

Ten games into this season, and most of us frankly are mystified why, after back-to-back No. 3 nationally-ranked recruiting classes, the Longhorns aren’t any better than 6-4, about to be unranked in the CFP poll and on the outside looking in at the Big 12 championship.

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Herman said Monday that he isn’t stunned his program isn’t further along than 23-14 after three seasons, but he did agree with the premise that by now there should be a clearer picture of his team’s identity and its strengths.

“I still think despite our lack of performance on Saturday, we can be a very good offense,” Herman said. “I thought our defense showed a lot of signs of life here these last three quarters, but the last drive was awful and gut-wrenching.”

Where is Texas?

Who is Texas?

Is Herman still the right man for the job?

All valid questions without clear answers. And that’s a dilemma.

Besides playing hard — which honestly should be a given — what exactly is the identity of this program?

Texas running back Roschon Johnson (2) can’t come up with a catch against Iowa State. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
We at least thought Texas was a good offense and an elite passing team, but you sure couldn’t tell that from the conservative game plan in Ames where Sam Ehlinger threw just seven times in the first 23 plays until that late first-half drive by necessity. In the second half, Texas threw it on 32 of 40 snaps. Hello.

It’s totally up and down in the run game. Keaontay Ingram explodes against Kansas State, then implodes at Iowa State when the Longhorns averaged 2.1 yards a carry and totaled just 54 yards on the ground. Unreliable.

Herman said upon his arrival in 2016 that he would win with defense. Win championships with defense, he insisted. Uh, not yet.

Texas coach Tom Herman, right, watches a replay during the second half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Kansas in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Now in his third season, he seems further away from a championship-level defense than he was in his first year. Texas looked better of late on that side of the ball but still ranks an egregious 111th nationally in total defense and an appalling 126th in pass defense. Only seven Power Five defenses are worse overall and just three against the pass.

It’s become a grab bag of philosophies from one Saturday to the next. Even he admitted Monday he was out-coached by Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and said, “Any time you lose a game, you’re out-coached.”

When you add some bad game-day decisions like the final Longhorns drive, it can be crippling.

Herman’s answer about two bad runs and an incompletion before punting the ball to the Cyclones for their game-winning drive was baffling.

“Had we thrown three incomplete passes and had no time run off the clock,” he said, “I’d be answering a lot of harder questions than I am now.”

Why does he assume there would be three incompletions when that was the best part of his offense in Ames?

Texas is left with no real identity, no meaningful progress since the huge Sugar Bowl win. Most everybody considered this a legitimate breakout season. Everything seemed to be in place to make a serious run at giving Oklahoma all it could handle and perhaps even making the playoff.

Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Kenneth Murray (9) hits Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) during the Sooners’ Red River Showdown victory at the Cotton Bowl in October. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
Texas wasn’t a favorite to reach the CFP, but it was ranked 10th in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll. That’s being in the same neighborhood as the Clemsons and Alabamas. But now 44 other teams have better records than Texas.

Nearly everyone assumed Texas’ expectations rested largely on the shoulders of Ehlinger and his good health. And by every metric, he’s delivered.

If Ehlinger stayed upright all season — and he hasn’t missed a meaningful snap yet — the theory was Texas would be in the running for a Big 12 title, its first since 2009. Not so much.

Sitting at a highly disappointing 6-4 after the loss to a now 6-4 Iowa State team, Texas seems destined for yet another Texas Bowl. Are you excited about those prospects? 

Yeah, neither are Herman nor his staff. If that seems to be a step backward, you are correct. Are you geeked for the future? Is Texas closer to being Florida State than Clemson? The future just got a little cloudier.

So what went wrong?

Yes, the secondary has been severely hurt by a ton of injuries. But Herman himself said he wasn’t worried and “wasn’t losing any sleep” over it when three defensive backs went out against Oklahoma State. Turns out he should have been. The loss of wideout Collin Johnson for the bulk of the season has been huge, but the offensive line, quarterback, defensive line and linebacker positions have been relatively intact.

Texas is clearly not back, as Ehlinger so boldly claimed on the stage at the Sugar Bowl. He was wrong. And while few in the media seriously climbed aboard that bandwagon, neither did we expect such obvious regression.

So Herman sits at 23-14 with three games remaining against Baylor, Texas Tech and a bowl opponent. That’s pretty average. There have been some highs this year, but the wins have come against six teams that are a collective 29-31 with four losses to teams that are 31-10.

Is it too much to expect that Herman would have the Longhorns further along in Year 3 than Matt Rhule has the 9-1 Bears in his third season, especially considering the Baylor coach had to lift his program out of the ashes and a death grip of a sex assault scandal.

Sure, it could be worse. Chad Morris didn’t make it past two seasons at Arkansas. Willie Taggart is already out at Florida State. Clay Helton’s holding on for dear life at USC. Scott Frost has done nothing at Nebraska but actually got an extension.

Texas is not getting what it’s paying for, not at $5.7 million a pop. I’ll be astounded if there are not big staff changes in the offseason.

Morris is suddenly available as an offensive coordinator. Herman better have a list of capable defensive coordinators. Does anyone really have any faith in Todd Orlando anymore? Lincoln Riley made the switch, fired the brother of his predecessor and hired Alex Grinch. Ed Orgeron hired passing guru Joe Brady. Instant results. It takes guts, but Herman had better be willing to make the hard decisions.

Or other hard decisions will eventually be made for him.

 

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