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Bohls: Herman signs solid class but may face major rebuild in 2021

Denton Ryan's Ja'Tavion Sanders is a five-star prospect who can play either wide receiver or defensive end in college. He's the highest-rated recruit in Texas' 2021 signing class.
  • Tom Herman isn't buying a makeover in 2021 even if he stands to lose a total of nine starters.
  • "I don't think so," Herman said of a rebuilding year. "That was very evident in Manhattan."
  • Losing nine starters stamps Texas as a program probably picked third or fourth in the Big 12.

The cavalry is on the way.

Well, not immediately. 

Seven of Texas’ football recruits will enroll at mid-term and be part of spring practice if there is spring practice, but the rest of the reinforcements have to find provisions, stop for fuel, get a little or a lot of seasoning, and then the cavalry will arrive.

In the form of Mr. Versatility Ja’Tavion Sanders, a five-star prize whom everybody named Nick Saban and Ryan Day and Lincoln Riley and their brother all wanted.

In the form of Hallettsville running back sensation Jonathon Brooks, the Jordan Whittington of this class who has run for more than 500 yards in a game and scored seven touchdowns in a game this season.

With four-star offensive tackle Hayden Conner and wide receiver-turned-tight end Gunnar Helm and stud safety JD Coffey and athletic linebacker Morice Blackwell.

Tom Herman got him some players. But it remains to be seen if he got difference makers. Or enough of them. While Texas' class isn't cracking the top 10 nationally, at least it grabbed five four-star players in the state, the same number as Oklahoma and one fewer than Texas A&M. The problem is OU lured a Longhorns wide receiver commitment away, and Alabama swayed three potential Longhorns linemen and a quarterback to Tuscaloosa.

Hallettsville running back Jonathon Brooks will lead his Brahmas into Thursday night's Class 3A Division I state championship game. But on Wednesday, he signed with the Texas Longhorns.

Of the 47 four-star players per 247Sports' composite rankings, 18 schools got signatures from at least one out of Texas while A&M, OU, Texas and Alabama landed the lion’s share. 

So Texas got some standout players, but this staff has to develop them, and these freshmen-to-be have to grow up.

And that won’t happen overnight as Texas figures to go from the Big 12’s third-best team to — gulp — a major rebuild.

Herman doesn’t necessarily agree, and he shouldn’t. He’s not buying a makeover season in 2021 even if he stands to lose his best offensive and defensive player and a total of nine starters, assuming that number doesn’t grow.

“I don’t think so,” Herman said Wednesday about dire 2021 projections for Texas. “I think that was very evident in Manhattan.”

He’s right in that his team had freshman starters scattered all over Kansas State’s field in what turned out to be Texas’ regular-season finale of a 6-3 season with an impressive 69-point performance. 

Herman had two rookies in the offensive line. He started a freshman running back in Bijan Robinson, who deserves to be the Big 12 freshman of the year and a natural cornerstone for future Longhorns teams. There were freshmen in the secondary. And the defensive player of the game, Herman said, was true freshman defensive tackle Alfed Collins.

And all of those figure to play huge roles in 2021.

They’ll have to because losing nine starters, if not more, from this year’s team stamps underachieving Texas as a program probably picked third or fourth in the Big 12 behind Iowa State, Oklahoma and maybe West Virgina next fall. It’s a roster that has a lot of areas to fill. Or fix.

These are some glaring holes.

New starting quarterback from a duo that’s never thrown a pass in crunch time. Sam Ehlinger, with his whopping 42 career starts, will be leaving the building. 

Three new starting offensive linemen, including a replacement for possible first-round NFL draft pick Samuel Cosmi.

Both starting safeties are done as Caden Stearns and Chris Brown have opted out for the draft.

The team’s best defensive player has left. Oh yeah, him. Joseph Ossai also could fit his way into the NFL’s first round. That leaves a major need for an elite pass rusher. Like Sanders, maybe.

Hey, the kicker’s back.

It may not look as gloomy as it sounds, but a schedule starting with impressive Louisiana and a road trip to vastly improved Arkansas won’t help that growing process.

Herman’s not having any of it, and who’s to blame him?

While having five captains opt out of the bowl game, at least it’s an encouraging sign that this staff is developing its talent into NFL players. Like three-star recruit Cosmi. That’s a plus.

Herman insisted his staff wasn’t done. Nine spots remain, and Texas hopes to find some defensive ends and offensive linemen with grad transfers like McNeese State cornerback transfer Darion Dunn or high school signees or players from the transfer portal.

Unfortunately, those difference-makers on both sides of the line don’t grow on trees. And even those that do are usually already plucked by Saban or Day or Dabo Swinney.

It won’t shock if — of the 19 recruits who signed Wednesday — maybe just one or two become impact players. Like from Day One. More had better become such game-changers or Herman won’t stick around.

And that’s Sanders, who might be the first Texas player in ages to arrive in Austin and have to decide whether he wants to play wide receiver or defensive end. Yeah, you read right.

Sanders is that good, that dynamic, that special.

“He is a unicorn,” said American-Statesman recruiting expert Mike Craven. “He’s a freak.”

But Sanders may be alone in that category as Texas’ recruiting fortunes dipped from its normal top-10 perch to the teens with a No. 17 national ranking. That’s not how you crack the College Football Playoff and not how you chase down OU and A&M in your own recruiting backyard.

Craven said in our interview for our “On Second Thought” podcast that he would give Herman’s recruiting class a “B-minus or a C-plus, but that’s grading on a Texas scale. When you’re at Texas, you should be getting a top 10 class every year.”

And that’s what fans have come to expect.

Of course, even with those highly ranked groups in Herman’s first three sessions, the Longhorns have failed to win a Big 12 championship, much less reach the playoffs.

In short, there’s much work to be done.

"We’re going to miss the heck out of Sam Ehlinger,” Herman said. "But the future is very bright based on what we have seen from the early returns from the young guys who have played a lot football for us.”

They’d better grow up in a hurry. Or 2021 will be more of the same.