A member of the Longhorn Band runs with the football team as UT Head Coach Tom Herman watches his players at practice at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday March 25, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

Longhorns will be ‘vanilla,’ but Texas hopes to show growth in spring game

Both QBs Shane Buechele, Sam Ehlinger will be front and center during Saturday's Orange-White spring game

Posted April 14th, 2017

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Story highlights
  • Royal-Memorial Stadium gates open at 11 a.m. Saturday. Scrimmage scheduled to begin at 1 p.m.
  • UT fan fest will be located on the stadium's north end between gate 8 and gate 25 plazas.
  • Three years ago, UT didn't look good in this event. Three straight losing seasons followed suit.

There was palpable excitement the last time Texas fans got their first public glimpse of a new administration. About 20,000 fans filed into Royal-Memorial Stadium in 2014 to see a new coach, new offense, new everything after 16 years of Mack Brown.

The headline the following day in the American-Statesman read, “Not a pretty sight.”

Days later, Charlie Strong would stand before more than 400 Texas fans at Joe T. Garcia’s restaurant in Fort Worth and make a stunning declaration. “We will not be in the national championship game,” he said as fans choked on fajitas.

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April 2014 was memorable for all the wrong reasons. And thus began three long, frustrating, losing seasons.

The overwhelming majority of UT fans are fired up about new coach Tom Herman. No detail is too obscure for this virtual dynamo, who even demands a “championship” color of urine from his properly-hydrated Longhorns. But in the end, as Herman himself admits, this is a performance-based business.

At the moment, this fan base will take anything it can get during Saturday’s Orange-White scrimmage.

Texas coach Tom Herman talks to his team during practice at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday March 25, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Asked what fans should expect, Herman said, “Like most spring games that are televised, we’ll be very vanilla. We don’t want to give a whole lot away, especially being a new staff. That’s the one of the positives of being a new staff. You have a little bit of edge going into the first game.

“So it’ll be very vanilla, but you still should be able to see a defense that flies to the football,” he added. “Eleven hats that fly to the ball, getting takeaways. You should see an offense that is, hopefully — at least with the (first team) — one that has limited penalties and the ability to sustain drives but also make big plays.”

If there was a hot-and-heavy quarterback battle early in spring practice, it didn’t last long. Shane Buechele, who started all 12 games last season, appears to have pulled ahead of mid-term enrollee Sam Ehlinger. Still, this will be the first time Ehlinger gets to strut his stuff wearing burnt orange, not the red and blue of the Westlake Chaparrals.

Neither quarterback will have the benefit of UT’s top running back threats. Chris Warren III and Kyle Porter will be held out with minor injuries, leaving backups Tristan Houston and Toneil Carter as the only two scholarship running backs available.

The vast majority of the offensive line and receiving corps will be on full display, though. Keep an eye on the second-string tackles — Jean Delance and Denzel Okafor. Also, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Reggie Hemphill-Mapps have turned heads out wide. Will they keep it going when everyone is watching?

UT quarterback Shane Buechele goes through drills at practice at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday March 25, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

All the conditions are right for the UT defense to have a strong performance, something that would be a welcome sight. For those just arriving from Mars, the Longhorns have turned in two of the worst defensive seasons in school history the last two years.

New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s scheme presents multiple looks, and Herman is heaping all sorts of praise on Poona Ford, P.J. Locke and others.

“If we can get 11 guys playing like Poona Ford on defense, look out,” Herman said. “If you’re a defensive player on our team and you want to see what kind of fanatical championship effort you need to play with snap in and snap out, just look at No. 95.”

There continues to be high hopes that linebacker Malik Jefferson will be unleashed in this new scheme as a rover. Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach turned heads last year with their tenacity. A defensive backfield full of talented playmakers need to show continued progress, too.

“We’ve got some talent back there,” Orlando said earlier this spring. “I’ve been impressed for what they’ve done. They’ve been great people, great kids. They bought in. They’re trying their hearts out.”

That’s been a common theme this season from Herman. “They’re trying,” he’s said multiple times.

Herman is an unabashed realist. He’s the ultimate tell-it-like-it-is coach. That said, he realizes this is a program that went 16-21 the last three years. It’s a program that needs nurturing, too.

That’s why the most important aspect of Saturday’s spring game is the so-called eye test. Is this team making progress or not?

Compared to how badly it all started three years ago, this program has only one direction it can point its horns — up.

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

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