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Top keys to Texas’ season: Growth at quarterback, finding defensive playmakers

Posted August 29th, 2017

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Here’s a look at four keys to the 2017 season:

1. Growth at quarterback

The last two years at Houston, Greg Ward Jr. saw incredible growth as a quarterback under coach Tom Herman. He threw for 2,010 yards as a sophomore in 2014 and then for a staggering 3,557 yards last season. The Longhorns will be in terrific shape if sophomore Shane Buechele has a similar growth pattern.

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Under Herman, the Horns run a pro-style spread offense. They want to have a balanced attack. But with questions about the durability of running backs Chris Warren III and Kyle Porter, that puts a little more pressure on Buechele to deliver through the air.

RELATED: Texas quarterback Shane Buechele heads into opening game with a lengthy leash

The receiving corps is thought to be the most explosive unit on the squad. Buechele simply needs to get the ball in their hands.

Freshman Sam Ehlinger may be a dynamic playmaker at some point. But for the time being, the job should belong to the player with 12 games of experience who set numerous freshman UT records.

2. So, about those receivers …

Collin Johnson was challenged to be more physical during the offseason. Straight-up called out by receivers coach Drew Mehringer is probably more accurate. Johnson was fine with that. “I don’t want someone to lie to me. If that’s how he feels, so be it,” Johnson said.

At 6-6, Johnson has all the physical tools to be the nation’s best wideout. But don’t forget about Armanti Foreman, Lorenzo Joe and Dorian Leonard. What about Reggie Hemphill-Mapps, Devin Duvernay and Lil’Jordan Humphrey? “The Juice” is still flowing in Jerrod Heard, too.

The Longhorns have an embarrassment of riches at receiver and a coaching staff that wants to utilize them all. This offensive line, led by preseason All-American left tackle Connor Williams, will give Buechele time to get rid of the ball. These highly-skilled athletes need to make people miss in open space and turn short catches into long touchdowns.

3. Any defensive playmakers out there?

Herman feels good about his defense, especially after that unit won three consecutive August scrimmages. “Our defense is hard to prepare for,” he said on occasion, praising the work done by defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.

But these are the same players that turned in two of the worst defensive seasons in Texas football history, in 2015 and 2016. The defense the last few years was dreadful. Is all of that about to suddenly change?

There are questions about the depth on defensive line. Poona Ford can’t clog up the middle all by himself for an entire game. Naashon Hughes is a fifth-year senior but he’s never had game-breaking impact. Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler will be targeted on other people’s scouting reports, so someone else must make some plays.

RELATED: Texas announces captains for 2017 football season

The Big 12 is an aerial showcase, no question. Teams generally drift between the 20s with relative easy. The key is fighting up in the red zone. That’s where Orlando can make his mark.

4. Actually focus on special teams

Herman still contends he’s never watched a single snap of UT game film from last season. Oh, but he knows Texas had three extra points blocked against Oklahoma State. “Unacceptable,” he said.

Said special teams coach Craig Naivar, “There’ll be a lot of eyes on that.”

Unlike some head coaches, Herman actually cares about special teams. He was the special teams coach at Sam Houston State on his way up the coaching ladder. This is something he’s spent an inordinate amount of time on during his career, so he knows when it should work.

RELATED: ‘The Punter’ believes Texas’ ‘Coach’ ‘takes everything seriously’ about special teams

The Longhorns have a Ray Guy award candidate in punter Michael Dickson. Barring the unforeseen, he’ll be fine, possibly even the best punter in the Big 12. It’s the kicking situation that’s worrisome. Transfer Joshua Rowland is untested on this level, both on placekicking and kickoffs. It’s still unclear who will handle punt returns. Former coach Charlie Strong simply wanted somebody to get out there and catch the ball. Hard to imagine Herman feeling that’s adequate enough.

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

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