Texas head coach Tom Herman watches his players run drills during a Longhorns football spring practice at the Frank Denius practice fields in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

Does Texas have ‘some’ elite players or not? Answers start revealing themselves in August

Practice opens Aug. 3 as Longhorns need big production from the upperclassmen to break through in 2018

Posted July 27th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • DE Breckyn Hager: “I finally saw the light when that bowl game was over.”
  • Longhorns enter 2018 with a senior class that sports an 17-20 record.
  • If seniors do not produce, this coaching staff has shown a willingness to go younger.

Here in this hot-take, Twitter-wired world, it was easy to make fun of Texas coach Tom Herman’s pregnant pause at Big 12 media days.

Asked how many elite players UT had, Herman hemmed and hawed. “Some,” he said.

Some? 

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“I mean, I don’t know. You kind of put me on the spot there,” the coach continued. Herman said it may not be fair to label and differentiate players in such a limited time. “But I do think there are guys both sides of the ball, probably more if I’m being honest, on defense than on offense right now.”

The Longhorns open fall practice on Aug. 3, and we’ll soon find out whether this team is half as good as they’ll have you believe on social media. 

Between the pool parties, slick edits and hyper-praising of recruits, it would appear Texas is a top-25 powerhouse. In reality, it’s a program that went 7-6 in Herman’s first season and snapped a three-year losing streak. It’s a program picked to finish fourth in the Big 12.

So it remains a valid question: how many elite, championship-caliber players does Texas truly have? Gauging the totality of the answer in late July is a fool’s errand. 

Texas defensive back Kris Boyd (2) deflects a pass intended for wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey (84) during the Texas Orange-White spring football game in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

This time two years ago, nobody predicted D’Onta Foreman would become an elite-level running back and win the Doak Walker Award. Going into the 2016 season, there were real questions as to whether then-offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert would run the ball enough. 

Last summer, nobody predicted safety DeShon Elliott would snag six interceptions and become a Thorpe Award finalist. Poona Ford was considered a solid nose guard, but who thought he would end up becoming the Big 12 defensive lineman of the year?

The Longhorns had only two players garner preseason all-Big 12 honors — defensive end Breckyn Hager and cornerback Kris Boyd. The door is wide open for plenty of others to step up and make the postseason all-Big 12 squad, the one that truly counts.

When searching for elite players, always start with the upperclassmen. 

This year’s senior class thus far cards a 17-20 record the last three seasons at Texas. It’s now or never for players like Hager, Boyd and defensive backs P.J. Locke III, John Bonney and Davante Davis. Linebacker Gary Johnson transferred into UT last season, but this will be his senior campaign, too.

Offensively, this is it for speedster John Burt and locker room and fan-favorite Jerrod Heard. Tight end Andrew Beck will likely be a team captain. Left guard Patrick Vahe has started 31 out of 34 career games.

Seniority means little to this coaching staff, as it should be. In the back half of last season, some seniors weren’t even allowed on the field. They didn’t produce, so they didn’t play.

Receiver Collin Johnson, a junior, should be dying to have a breakout 2018. Same holds true for safety Brandon Jones. At both positions, the Longhorns have eager freshmen waiting in the wings to step in. Looking for a junior who could become a sleeper hit this season? How about the versatile Malcolm Roach running wild under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando?

Quarterback Sam Ehlinger is the sophomore that draws the most attention. Toneil Carter and Danny Young are two running backs that need to have a breakout August. If not, graduate transfer Tre Watson and freshman Keaontay Ingram are eager to play.

And speaking of the freshmen, Herman and his staff will give their signees a clear runway. Get to know defensive backs B.J. Foster, Anthony Cook and Caden Sterns. Keep tabs on receiver Brennan Eagles and defensive tackle Keondre Coburn. 

And learn how to pronounce linebacker Ayodele Adeoye’s name. Eye-oh-DEL-ee Ah-DAY-oh-way.

The most positive thing about the 2018 roster was what happened in the Texas Bowl at the end of 2017. Playing without eight key contributors, the Longhorns rallied to knock off Missouri, a team that came into Houston having won six straight. “An S-E-C team!,” Herman said at Big 12 media days.

Afterwards, players talked about the bond they forged in the weeks leading up to the game. That night at NRG Stadium, the Longhorns had a hell of a good time in a 33-16 win.

“I finally saw the light when that bowl game was over,” Hager said two weeks ago. “But it started creeping in like the holy spirit.”

OK, so maybe national and Big 12 pundits aren’t falling all over themselves to praise Herman’s roster. And perhaps there’s not an obvious All-American in the bunch. 

But this is still Texas, and these were still wildly successful players in high school. 

Texas head coach Tom Herman talks with offensive line coach Herb Hand during the Texas Orange-White spring football game in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

This coaching staff should feel pressure to produce, too. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck has such a tenuous hold on his duties, Herman wouldn’t even mention Beck’s name nor confirm who was calling plays at Big 12 media days. 

Running backs coach Stan Drayton has seven scholarship athletes in his room. But right now, would any of them scare the Oklahoma defensive staff?

New offensive line coach Herb Hand must find a left tackle and right guard. Defensive line coach Oscar Giles must figure out who replaces the departed Ford. Defensive backs coaches Craig Naivar and Jason Washington have a lot of talent at their disposal, but how do they manage it to keep everyone happy?

Whether he wants to admit it or not, the pressure is already building on Herman, too. 

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley got his club into the College Football Playoff in his first season. New Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher is already making headway on the recruiting trail.

Herman deserved major kudos for getting Texas over the .500 hump. “We’ve had our first winning season in four years. We had our first bowl victory since 2012,” he said at Big 12 media days. Those are legitimate accomplishments, to be sure.

But this is Texas, where everyone has a championship-or-bust mentality. To do that, it requires elite talent and elite coaching. In the end, all fans truly want is to feel the Longhorns are headed in the right direction.

The first step on that journey happens Aug. 3.

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

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