Football

Horns up, masks on: Faith will be necessary as Texas enters a truly unpredictable season

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Story highlights
  • “You know, I’m kind of rolling with the punches, just like everybody else in our program,” Herman said.
  • If Texas can’t get back to the Big 12 championship game, how will this team be viewed?
  • What would Ehlinger's legacy be? “I think that’s up to you to determine,” Ehlinger said in mid-August.

Posted September 5th, 2020

To be a Texas football fan in 2020 requires a leap of faith. Oh, and a mask.

You must have faith in coach Tom Herman and his seven new assistant coaches. You need conviction that new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich does indeed know how to call plays. You must trust that new defensive coordinator Chris Ash can recapture his Ohio State magic.

It takes a strong reliance on 85 scholarship players. The group didn’t practice once this spring after being scattered to the wind. The Longhorns worked out on their own in garages, driveways and nearby fields for half the summer before they were allowed back on campus.

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This will also require patience. Many season ticket holders will have to watch the games from home as only 25% of Royal-Memorial Stadium will be full, at least initially. Everyone who enters the gates will be required to don a face covering. There’ll be no tailgating and no Bevo Boulevard this year, either.

It’ll take some compassion, too. Die-hards will be apoplectic when players either leave the field early or refuse to hold up their “Hook ’em” hand signs during the post-game singing of “The Eyes of Texas” in protest. The athletic department has issued new guidelines to all its programs’ athletes; they do not have to sing the lyrics if they don’t want to.

Texas football players kneel in silence for nine minutes at the end of a team march to the State Capitol on June 4 to protest the killing of George Floyd. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

COVID-19 has turned this season totally upside down, and only the naive can boldly tell you what’s going to happen over the next three months. Even Herman himself said you’re “wasting brain cells” if you try to think beyond the next few weeks.

What is certain is that the Longhorns have boxed themselves into a strange place in these odd times.

Players spent the summer championing social justice issues. A group of mostly Black players walked to the State Capitol to raise awareness about the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent death of George Floyd. The players directed a list of “requests” at school leaders, including the changing of building names, erecting a statue to honor UT’s first Black letter winner Julius Whittier and to stop playing The Eyes.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, center, and teammates listen to coaches on the first day of practice on Aug. 7. Players are required to wear a mask when they aren’t wearing helmets that are fashioned with protective shields. There haven’t been any huddles, either. (Texas Athletics photo)

The school addressed almost every issue — except one. It is not changing “The Eyes of Texas,” a song with origins in minstrel shows in the 1920s but has become synonymous with school pride for decades.

“Sensitivity reigns right now,” Herman said. “You’ve got to be very sensitive to how these events in our society are affecting each individual, and it’s not for me, it’s not for anybody to decide how a young man is going to be affected. That’s for him to decide.”

The harsh reality is that none of this matters if the Longhorns don’t perform on Saturdays. Nobody cares about your platform or brand when your team has a .500 record. Heading into this season, UT was almost universally picked to finish third in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

“We feel like, and our advice to them is you can do both,” said Herman, one of the most progressive-thinking coaches you’ll find in college football. “You can effect change in your society as well as play football at an elite level. You can do those two things together.

“Playing college football at the University of Texas at the level that we plan on playing it is going to give a tremendous platform to all the players, not just on our team but especially those that are starring for our team,” he said.

It takes sacrifice, Herman noted. That means you can’t lounge around playing video games, as college students.

“There’s still enough time in the day and time effort energy in yourself, to go effect meaningful change in your society,” Herman said.

But what about meaningful change on the field?

This is an incredibly pivotal season for Herman, assuming it gets played all the way through. Not many coaches have a three-year starter under center for the season opener. Senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger is likely going to finish his career ranked No. 2 in most UT passing categories, behind only Colt McCoy.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, left, goes through passing drills on the first day of practice in August. He’s entering his fourth season as a UT starter. (Texas Athletics photo)

If Texas can’t get back to the Big 12 championship game and have a meaningful shot at winning it, how will this team be viewed? How would Ehlinger be viewed? What will his legacy be?

“I think that’s up to you to determine,” Ehlinger said in mid-August. “My mission at the University of Texas was to leave the program better than it was when I got here. That’s kind of my mindset with everything I do in life. If I feel in December or whenever this season ends, if I’m leaving and the program is better than it was when I first got here 3 1/2 years ago, I would say that’s a success in my mind.”

The fact remains Texas has not won a Big 12 title since 2009. Thus far, Ehlinger’s only truly meaningful victories include a win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and a 1-2 record against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. He hasn’t won a Big 12 title or played in the CFP, the two major measuring sticks for a program of this magnitude.

Getting through all 10 games will be a challenge in itself, as long as COVID-19 hangs around campus. “All the fun things in college will be there,” Ehlinger said. “If we can get through the season and avoid those distractions and avoid bringing the virus back to the team, that’d be a huge win for us.”

UT has allowed only two players to speak to reporters since preseason practice began — Ehlinger and defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham. Defensive back Josh Thompson has spoken about social issues through his Twitter account, something that will become more common as the years progress. But generally speaking, few outsiders truly know what to expect from this team or how players are feeling about all that’s happened.

Don’t be fooled by the anonymous practice reports on the message boards. According to those sites, Texas has never had a bad practice since the creation of the internet. Everyone has All-American potential, too.

Fans, reporters and the rest of the Big 12 can gauge for themselves on Saturday against UTEP. Then, UT’s next game is a road affair at Texas Tech on Sept. 26.

Herman felt terrific about his first two teams in 2017 and 2018. And those squads lost to Maryland in back-to-back season openers. Last season, Texas romped over Louisiana Tech in the season opener 45-14 because everyone was jacked for LSU in week two.

That LSU rematch has been canceled because of the coronavirus, yet another bummer about this hellscape that is 2020.

All anyone can hope is that everyone in burnt orange each Saturday has their mind focused on the task at hand.

“You know, I’m kind of rolling with the punches, just like everybody else in our program,” Herman said. “There’s no manual for this. And this is the first time any of us has ever gone through it. So we’re all kind of learning together, to be honest with you.”

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

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