Football

‘Prove us right’: Texas players open focused on themselves, not Terps

Ranked 23rd, the Longhorns head into season-opening rematch against the Terrapins with a totally different mindset than last year

Posted August 31st, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Tom Herman: “I haven't had this much fun in a training camp in a long time.”
  • QB Sam Ehlinger knows he needs to be more patient, less gunslinger.
  • “If we get punched in the mouth, we’ll eat that punch and then throw a punch right back.”

Forced to watch last year’s game film against Maryland, Texas players were nauseous. There was a terrific buildup, then a cataclysmic meltdown.

“I saw us beat ourselves,” defensive end Breckyn Hager said. “When you watch them score at DKR, it hurts.”

Safety Brandon Jones felt the Longhorns didn’t really know what to expect in the first game with a new coaching staff. “I felt we were all uptight and didn’t want to make mistakes,” he said. “When you think like that, you end up making more mistakes than you planned on doing.”

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Nickel back P.J. Locke III didn’t pull any punches about that 51-41 beatdown, a game that left UT fans so upset they were throwing debris on the field. Those Terrapins were so good, they finished the year 4-8.

“I can speak about myself. I had a horrible game. Just a horrible game,” Locke said. “I wasn’t running to the ball. You could see the change in speed. It looked like I was out there second-guessing myself.”

Texas cornerback Kris Boyd (2) tackles Maryland’s Ty Johnson in the fourth quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Sept. 2, 2017. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Now here it, is one year later. Texas opens the 2018 season on Saturday against Maryland at FedEx Field, home of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. In a game that’s easy to bill as a revenge matchup, the 23rd-ranked Horns want no part of that narrative. Their motto in August was different — “Prove us right.”

Truth be told, players don’t seem too enthralled with Maryland at all. It’s not disrespect. It’s more about the Horns’ mindset after a stirring finish to the 2017 season, when UT won three of its last four games.

The win over Missouri in the Texas Bowl, where eight key starters didn’t play, felt like a major moment in Tom Herman’s young tenure. The Horns finished a mediocre 7-6 overall, but it sure didn’t feel like it that night at NRG Stadium. The excitement for the future was palpable.

Texas players gather near the marching band for the playing of Eyes of Texas after Maryland defeated Texas 51-41 in an NCAA college football game in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, September 2, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The phrase “prove us right” means for the Horns to prove to themselves they’re headed in the right direction, several players said.

“We had the team meeting after Maryland and basically we talked about two options here,” receiver Collin Johnson recalled. “Everyone could just disperse and say this doesn’t work. Let’s go our own way. Or, we could stick together.”

Some players never bought in and left. “I felt like the guys that took the positive route got enough of the guys to change their mindset,” receiver Jerrod Heard said.

Herman’s first offseason was rocky. This one was quiet and calm. Three-fourths of the team qualified for the Champions dinner, an offseason capstone to reward those doing things right. There are still plenty of soggy pancakes and burnt hot dogs for those doing it wrong.

Eagle-eyed fans were aghast in August when some third- and fourth-stringers quietly transferred out. No, the program is not in disarray. Roster churn is actually a sign that things are getting better. The overall talent level is rising.

“I haven’t had this much fun in a training camp in a long time,” Herman said at his Monday press conference. “Just excited of the trajectory that we’re on.”

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger was 2-4 as a starter in 2017 during his redshirt freshman season. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The second year in any endeavor is typically better. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger is sure excited for his sophomore campaign. After beating out junior Shane Buechele for the starting job, Ehlinger knows he needs more patience, less gunslinger.

“Last night we watched our game from last year, and it was pretty eye-opening to see how far behind we were offensively in the understanding of what we were doing,” said Ehlinger, who did not play in last year’s game but was named the starter the following week against San Jose State. “We know how far we’ve come since then.”

Ehlinger should feel comfortable behind a healthy offensive line, bolstered by graduate transfer Calvin Anderson. He should have help with a stronger running game, powered by graduate transfer Tre Watson and dynamite freshman Keaontay Ingram. The offense should flow better with a receiving corps led by Johnson. Herman has called Lil’Jordan Humphrey a “Swiss army knife,” and he’s raved about freshmen D’Shawn Jamison and Joshua Moore.

“Unfortunately in our microwave society where you plug it in, hit 30 seconds and it’s done, it doesn’t work like that in real life,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “It does take some time. I see that transformation taking place. I think our players feel it and see it as well.”

Asked about his biggest concern, Beck said, “Right now, I don’t know if I have one. I feel good about our guys, I do.”

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said he’s installed the entire playbook. He’ll deploy linebackers Gary Johnson and Malcolm Roach on various blitzes while trusting that Hager, Charles Omenihu and Chris Nelson can get to the quarterback.

Texas defensive back Caden Sterns (7) runs blocking drills with defensive back Montrell Estell (39) during practice at Wright-Whitaker Sports Complex earlier this month. Sterns appears to have earned a starting spot already. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Orlando loves Jones alongside freshman safety Caden Sterns. On his defensive freshmen, Orlando said, “They can play.”

One of the biggest question marks about Texas is special teams. Ray Guy Award-winning punter Michael Dickson is off wowing NFL fans in Seattle. His cousin, Australian-born Ryan Bujcevski, takes over those chores at UT.

Overall, the Longhorns who will show up at FedEx Field believe things are indeed different. Those who want to take a wait-and-see approach are fine doing so, too. After all, this is a program that’s teased for so long, some UT diehards have adopted a different catchphrase — “We suck until we don’t.”

“Everything’s great right now,” Herman said. “But what are we going to do when we get down 10 points in Washington, D.C., if we do? What are we going to do when another team decides that they came to play, too? So that’s something we constantly talk about.”

Hager has an idea.

“If we get punched in the mouth,” the team captain said, “we’ll eat that punch and then throw a punch right back.”

Prove us right, the Horns keep telling themselves. Said Hager: “You’ll see.”

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

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