Brian Davis

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Eyes on Texas: Given all the position changes, Longhorns are an example in selflessness

Whether because of injuries or lack of depth, multiple players have been open to switching positions this season, helping No. 12 Texas find its footing

Posted September 19th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • Derek Kerstetter: “This year, I just want to play. I don’t care what position.”
  • “Some guys, they’d be like, ‘Oh, well. This isn’t what I came here to play.’”
  • Forced position changes can be revealing.

Unless Rivals and 247Sports have developed some metric that’s still in beta testing, the recruiting services still cannot measure a recruit’s selflessness.

We’re inundated with updates about each recruit’s height, weight, statistics, summer camp results and scholarship offers. But they really can’t measure how much an athlete is willing to help his team upon arrival.

The Longhorns insist this is a player-led team, and football is the ultimate team sport. Several players have agreed to change positions, move around to different spots and generally do whatever is asked for the greater good.

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Selflessness is a key reason why 12th-ranked Texas (2-1, 0-0 Big 12) has found its footing this season. This is how it’s supposed to be, frankly.

Here, let’s help the recruiting services. If you’re a recruit who’s unwilling to accept a position change or try something totally new once you enroll, that school doesn’t need you.

Offensive lineman Derek Kerstetter is now capable of playing all five positions up front. You may see him at tackle, guard or center. Left side or right side, it doesn’t matter to him. What’s best for his NFL prospects? He doesn’t seem to care.

“Last year, I obviously only (started) in five games,” Kerstetter said. “This year, I just want to play. I don’t care what position. I’ve just had a burning desire to get back on the field and just play to the best of my capabilities.”

Kerstetter played in all 14 games last season, but clearly he sees a distinction from special teams and being a backup to being an every-game starter. He started the first three games at right tackle but moved over to center against Rice when Zach Shackelford got hurt.

“I love the game of football,” Kerstetter said. “I played football since I was young. And I just love everything that comes with it.”

Receiver Devin Duvernay played second fiddle out wide last year. Coaches came to him just before preseason practice began and asked him to move to the slot. The senior could have balked.

“I was cool with it,” Duvernay said. “I mean, whatever the team needs me to do, I’ll do it.”

Now Duvernay has a team-high 27 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns. This is shaping up to be the best season of his collegiate career.

“Just us being college scholarship athletes, we think we can have impact anywhere,” Duvernay said. “Our mindset I feel like is just put us on the field, and we’ll just make a play whenever the balls is in our hands.”

Roschon Johnson signed with Texas as a quarterback. He enrolled early in January to learn the playbook and get himself in position to battle for the backup job. But injuries at running back in August prompted coaches to look around the locker room. Johnson accepted a position change before head coach Tom Herman even finished the suggestion.

“I’m glad he was here this spring for the physical development as well as learning the offense,” Herman said.

Texas running back Roschon Johnson (2) celebrates his touchdown against Rice with offensive lineman Derek Kerstetter (68) last week at NRG Stadium in Houston. (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman)

Johnson could have said no. He could have asked to redshirt this season. Instead, he’s averaging 4.7 yards on 25 carries and just caught a 25-yard touchdown pass against Rice.

“Some guys, they’d be like, ‘Oh, well. This isn’t what I came here to play,’” quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “But he’s been completely selfless in that aspect and approached the transition extremely well.”

David Gbenda was rated the 28th-best linebacker prospect in the state, according to 247Sports. He spent preseason camp learning linebacker and spent every waking moment thinking about defense. But when coaches were so desperate to find running backs, they asked Gbenda about moving to offense. Yes, he said.

“I say it’s pretty selfless of him,” linebacker Joseph Ossai said. “Because it’s hard to come to a school planning on playing one position and get switched to a totally different position.”

Ossai brought up Johnson’s position change and said, “I admire them a lot for that. So excited to see what they do and how they can help the team.”

Forced position changes can be revealing.

Why was Jerrod Heard an ultimate fan favorite? It didn’t work for him at quarterback in 2015, and he moved to receiver under Charlie Strong. Heard could have made things miserable for Shane Buechele, but didn’t. “The Juice” will forever be cheered at Royal-Memorial Stadium.

Texas wide receiver Jerrod Heard (13) salutes the crowd as he is announced during senior night presentations before the Iowa State in 2018. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

Tyrone Swoopes didn’t work at quarterback, either. He accepted a smaller role in 2016 and found a second life in the 18-wheeler package. Swoopes has gone on to log time with the Seattle Seahawks at tight end.

When Herman arrived in 2017, he moved Chris Warren III to tight end from running back. Warren, who thought he was soon headed for the NFL, hated the idea. “I 110% intend on playing running back in the NFL. Point blank, period,” Warren said at pro timing day. He went undrafted and was waived by the Oakland Raiders this August.

Everyone’s situation is different, of course. Ultimately, do you want to play or not?

“We just do whatever is necessary for our team,” Kerstetter said. “It’s such a cool feeling being out on the field. When you’re playing and when something good does happen for the team, it’s like we did our jobs and it feels good.”

Texas receiver Brennan Eagles (13) celebrates his touchdown against Louisiana Tech with offensive lineman Zach Shackelford (56). (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman)

These Longhorns don’t need forced attempts at camaraderie. Nobody’s talking about ping-pong, for example, although Buechele’s famed ping-pong table is still inside the players’ lounge.

These Horns celebrate each other’s successes and pick up those who experience failure. Keaontay Ingram had a bounce-back game against Rice. The happiest guys in the world were the teammates hooting, hollering and taking cellphone photos of him getting interviewed afterward.

Herman has a simple request for his offensive players: When you score, go hug a big guy. When sophomore Brennan Eagles scored against Louisiana Tech, he raced to find somebody, anybody to hug. He locked in on Shackelford.

“Maybe about as selfless of a player that we have on this team,” Herman said afterward. “I don’t know if you saw him after his first touchdown. But he sprinted to go hug a big guy. And that was friggin’ awesome.”

Shackelford loved it, too. “He’s what you want out of a teammate, to be honest with you,” he said. “He’s super selfless. He’s all about the team.”

Selflessness may not carry the Horns all the way to a championship this season. But it will certainly carry them farther than selfishness or individualism ever will.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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