SAN ANTONIO — No question, 2019 was quite the year for the Longhorns.
It started on New Year’s Day with a statement win over Georgia, a program-defining moment that was supposed to launch Texas into another competitive stratosphere. But the year ends on New Year’s Eve in the Alamodome, practically another galaxy away from the College Football Playoff.
No matter what happens against No. 11 Utah on Tuesday, coach Tom Herman’s program faces an uncertain future.
Beating the Pac-12 South champion Utes (11-2) would give everyone in burnt orange a nice lift going into the offseason. But it won’t change the fact that 2020 will be a pivotal year for Herman, two new coordinators, quarterback Sam Ehlinger and a young defense that needs to show dramatic improvement.
How’s this all going to work out? Nobody knows — at least not anyone who works in the UT Tower, Moncrief or the north end of Royal-Memorial Stadium.
“I feel like this program is headed in the right direction. A lot of people don’t see that,” running back Keaontay Ingram said. “Everybody just expects a straight line to success, like there’s not supposed to be any type of curves. A lot of people don’t understand the growing pains in the process.”
Here’s what is known after a frustrating 7-5 regular season: Things are far better than they were.
Texas had three straight losing seasons from 2014-16. That coach was fired, and in came Herman from Houston. Since then, the Horns have produced three winning seasons, won two bowl games and made one appearance in the Big 12 championship game.
The Horns are seven-point underdogs in the Alamo Bowl. Still, with a win, Texas could claim its first three-game postseason winning streak since 2006-08.
“What I’ve seen on film with Utah, they’re a physical team, they’re big,” defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said. “They’re not a very tempo team. They just want to pound the ball, like we preach over here.”
Utah is similar to Kansas State, interim defensive coordinator Craig Naivar said. The Utes are not a fast-tempo team; they like to huddle between plays. Quarterback Tyler Huntley has a 23-9 record as a starter and has more wins than former Utah star Alex Smith (21).
Naivar didn’t expect to be the interim anything for this game. But Herman fired defensive coordinator Todd Orlando as part of a major staff shake-up on Dec. 1. That triggered a wave of changes, consequences from a mediocre season that nobody saw coming.
“We’d be complete fakes and phonies to sit there in front of these young men and lecture them on being mentally tough, responding to situations, fighting through things like this and kind of mailing it in and not having a great demeanor in how you go about doing things,” Naivar said.
Said Ingram: “I don’t see anybody half-stepping or half-anything in intensity toward anybody. I feel like we’re all on the same mission, same goal, same mindset.”
In addition to Orlando’s departure, Herman fired outside receivers coach Drew Mehringer and demoted two others. It was a total coaching staff reset, something that all head coaches get to do at least once. Usually, only once.
On Dec. 17, the school named Chris Ash the new defensive coordinator. On Sunday, it was announced that Mike Yurcich would be Texas’ new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Both have Ohio State ties, as does Herman. Both start their new duties in January.
“I’m excited. I know that,” Herman said Monday. “I know this is going to be an important offseason for me as the head coach in terms of teaching our culture and our way of doing things to some of these new coaches. Haven’t had to do that in a long time. I’m excited for that challenge, too.”
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger stirred things on Sunday by saying he would seek input from the NFL draft advisory committee. Herman said Monday that Ehlinger already had his grade back. The coach “absolutely” expects Ehlinger to return in 2020.
Frankly, every underclassman that wants to play in the league should do that, though. Colt McCoy did it after the 2008 season and still returned for a sensational senior year.
So what will the offense look like under Yurcich? Will Ehlinger be comfortable learning a new system? Will it be seamless?
“(Herman) actually was very transparent with me and what he was looking for and what he wanted to do, and he made sure that I felt that I was very involved in understanding of the situation and the process,” Ehlinger said. “So I appreciated that tremendously.”
Utah’s defensive players wouldn’t mind if Ehlinger checked out now. They’ll take their chances against Ingram, Devin Duvernay, a healthy Collin Johnson and a seasoned offensive line.
“He looks like a linebacker. And he runs like one,” Utah’s terrific defensive end Bradlee Anae said. “Big, dual-threat quarterback. If we want to be successful, we need to take care of him.”
The Utes enter the Alamodome with the nation’s No. 1 defense. Utah allows 70.3 rushing yards per game, the nation’s lowest total, and 185.9 yards through the air.
Ash can take plenty of notes on Texas’ defense from his couch.
Safety Caden Sterns and cornerback Josh Thompson are expected to play, giving the banged-up secondary a nice boost. Linebackers like Joseph Ossai will be motivated since they feel like they let Orlando down.
The key is figuring out how Texas can utilize more four-man defensive fronts next season when there may not be enough manpower to support it. Senior Malcolm Roach (46 career games) is playing his final game Tuesday, which means Coburn, Ta’Quon Graham, Marqez Bimage and Moro Ojomo have to figure it out.
One of the reasons Orlando got fired was because the defense couldn’t generate a consistent pass rush without blitzing, which left the back end vulnerable.
“Just had a nice recruiting class coming in,” Roach said. “A lot of guys who weren’t supposed to play this year got a lot of playing time, especially in the secondary.”
When offseason begins, Texas coaches and players will also be doing it unfamiliar territory.
Coaches have already moved out of Moncrief into temporary office space — where the sports information and marketing offices are — while the south end zone expansion continues. Players will move into the visiting team locker room.
Stadium construction won’t be done until 2021, but Texas needs to renovate its place in the Big 12 pecking order next fall. Everyone knows the general direction the Horns should be headed in. But at the moment, it sure looks foggy.
“We’re a close team, it’s a brotherhood,” Ingram said. “You get all that together, and special things can happen.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.