The Texas Longhorns huddle prior to their game against Notre Dame at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Sunday September 4, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

Texas midseason report: ‘We’re not going to let y’all down’

Longhorns have dynamic offense but need more defensive playmakers to emerge in season's second half

Posted October 18th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • Texas currently ranks second in Big 12 in rushing (238.8), first in sacks (23).
  • Charlie Strong praises players' focus. “You know what, I really love our kids.”
  • Texas currently 3-3 overall, 1-2 in Big 12 play heading into Kansas State matchup.

Texas has six games left in the regular season, and defensive end Breckyn Hager believes the Longhorns can win ’em all.

“We’re going undefeated,” Hager said Saturday night after Texas had blown past Iowa State to even its record to 3-3. Even coach Charlie Strong, who loves “my man, Hager,” had to cringe.

On Monday, long after adrenaline had stopped coursing through his veins, Hager expounded on why he’s so resolute.

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“Now the people that didn’t realize what these games mean and what it’s going to take, they’re starting to realize,” he said. “We’ve got a man that we love that we’ve got to keep. We’ve got fans that we want to impress and show our true talents. Then we’ve got former Texas Longhorn players that are trying to help us get to where they were.

“We’re not going to let y’all down,” Hager added. “That’s what we’re feeling. We’re not going to let y’all down.”

Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson (46) and defensive end Breckyn Hager (44) bring down UTEP running back Aaron Jones (29) during the second quarter of action held at Royal-Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson (46) and defensive end Breckyn Hager (44) bring down UTEP running back Aaron Jones (29) during the second quarter of action held at Royal-Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

In simplistic terms, Texas’ first half of the season can be summed up like this: The offense has been terrific, the defense has been awful. And as always under Strong, the special teams are not for the faint of heart.

Strong’s job status has become a near daily topic. Nothing’s really changed from the preseason, though. This coaching staff must likely win eight games to feel truly safe. Given the remaining schedule, eight wins is theoretically possible. Getting there could be a memorable journey.

“You know what, I really love our kids,” Strong said. “I love our football team, and I just love the way they have responded through so much adversity, and they just continue to just keep their head down and continue to go to work and not let it affect them.”

Here’s a look at each position after six games this season:

Texas coach Charlie Strong speaks with Shane Buechele before the match up against Iowa State Cyclones of a NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 at Royal-Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas coach Charlie Strong speaks with Shane Buechele before the match up against Iowa State Cyclones of a NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 at Royal-Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

QUARTERBACK

There’s no more debate. Freshman Shane Buechele has cemented himself as the team’s clear-cut starter. He’s already broken UT’s freshman passing and touchdowns records. With three more victories, he can pass Bobby Layne’s record of five wins by a freshman starter set in 1944.

Tyrone Swoopes did so well with the 18-Wheeler package against Notre Dame, but we haven’t seen it as much in recent weeks.

RUNNING BACK

D’Onta Foreman currently sits second nationally in rushing yards per game (146.2). He’s rushed for more than 100 yards in seven consecutive games dating back to last season. Earl Campbell holds the school record with 11. Foreman will get every defensive coordinator’s full attention in the weeks ahead.

There’s good news about Chris Warren III. His knee injury is healing, and there’s still a slim chance he can return in late November. If Kyle Porter can hold his own, there’s no need to rush Warren back at all.

Jacorey Warrick (11) celebrates touchdown against California during the first half of a NCAA college football game, Saturday, September 17, 2016 at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Jacorey Warrick (11) celebrates touchdown against California during the first half of a NCAA college football game, Saturday, September 17, 2016 at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

WIDE RECEIVER

One of the best aspects about UT’s offense under first-year coordinator Sterlin Gilbert is how many receivers are involved. Seven receivers have or will likely get more than 200 receiving yards, and six have scored touchdowns. From Dorian Leonard and Jacorey Warrick down to Jerrod Heard and Devin Duvernay, the Horns have plenty of weapons.

Questions still remain about John Burt, long thought to be the primary target during the preseason. A hand injury bothered him after Notre Dame, and Strong said the sophomore suffered a hip pointer last week. Whatever the case, he’s had some drops.

OFFENSIVE LINE

There hasn’t been much angst about this unit in recent weeks, and that’s a good thing. The most newsworthy item was Kent Perkins’ one-game suspension for driving while intoxicated. The Horns have the second-best rushing attack in the Big 12, so something is working up front.

Center Zach Shackelford’s left ankle could be a problem going forward. His status for Kansas State is still up in the air.

Texas' Malcolm Roach (32) celebrates sacking UTEP's quarterback with Chris Nelson (97) and Anthony Wheeler (45) during the first half at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)
Texas’ Malcolm Roach (32) celebrates sacking UTEP’s quarterback with Chris Nelson (97) and Anthony Wheeler (45) during the first half at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

DEFENSIVE LINE

Did you know that Texas leads the Big 12 with 23 sacks? Hager has three, and Malcolm Roach has a pair, as does Charles Omenihu. Naashon Hughes, who has been inconsistent, surprisingly has a team-high 3.5.

This unit’s biggest challenge in the final six games should be to force opposing quarterbacks out of the pocket. The secondary needs all the help it can get.

The run defense has been respectable. Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (214 yards on 35 carries) is the only opponent who has really gotten loose on the ground.

LINEBACKER

There are times when you wonder whether Malik Jefferson is even in the game. Jefferson himself admitted he hasn’t been producing like he wants. If this defense is to improve, he must get more involved with sacks, strips, tackles for loss, something.

Anthony Wheeler is quietly having a solid season. He’s got a team-high 47 tackles, but a lot of them are garden-variety stops that linebackers are supposed to make. It’ll be interesting to see if freshman Jeffrey McCulloch gets more playing time going forward.

Texas's Kris Boyd gets some hand to his helmet by OSU's Jalen McCleskey during the second quarter at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday, October 1, 2016. Texas lost to OSU 49-31. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN
Texas’s Kris Boyd gets some hand to his helmet by OSU’s Jalen McCleskey during the second quarter at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday, October 1, 2016. Texas lost to OSU 49-31. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN

SECONDARY

Texas has the worst pass defense in the Big 12. That’s not just one opinion, it’s a statistical fact. UT allows 278.5 passing yards per game, the most in the league. In the high-flying Big 12, that’s simply not acceptable.

The coaches have mixed and matched corners and safeties the last few games trying to hit on the right combination. If anyone knows what’s happened to Davante Davis and Holton Hill, please alert the coaching staff.

Kris Boyd flashed his athleticism against Iowa State, and John Bonney was praised for his tackling. Those two along with safeties Dylan Haines and Jason Hall may be the same four-man combination against Kansas State.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Michael Dickson is just killing it. The Texas punter is averaging 47.9 yards per attempt. No issues there. Kicker Trent Domingue is 9 of 12 on field goals, but he’s 4 of 4 in league play.

Outside of three blocked extra points against Oklahoma State, Texas’ only real issue has been on kickoff returns. Time after time, the Horns bring the ball out of the end zone only to get stopped short of the 25-yard line. Texas averages just 19.1 yards per return.

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

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