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Signing Day: Texas, Tom Herman land 19 new Longhorns

After three top-10 classes, Longhorns slip to 17th nationally but Herman glad to still be coaching them

Texas head coach Tom Herman had signed three straight top-10 ranked recruiting classes. His 2021 group is ranked 17th; he signed 19 players on Wednesday, the first day of the early signing period, but said as many as nine more prospects may be added by national signing day in February.

Texas coach Tom Herman made the conscious decision Wednesday to keep the focus on the 19 newest Longhorns instead of talking about himself.

Others have done plenty of that in recent weeks.

Herman’s first public appearance since athletic director Chris Del Conte fired his supportive signal flare last Saturday came on early signing day. Not exactly ideal. Looking dapper on Zoom, Herman deflected all questions about himself and kept a laser focus on a class that fills needs but wasn’t best in show.

Asked what he thought about Del Conte’s weekend statement, Herman said, “This day is about recruits. So, my opinion really is irrelevant.

“I feel very confident,” he added. “I feel very confident and glad and thankful that Chris did what he did. But at the end of the day, today is about those recruits.”

After three straight years of top-10 classes, Texas signed a group that so far ranks 17th nationally in 247Sports' composite team rankings. That’s not final as UT still has possibly nine spots available, Herman said, and will look for more when February's national signing day arrives.

Eleven are early enrollees and will go through spring drills, the school announced. 

Still, Texas fans are going to nitpick these recruits and wonder about those who got away. Would Texas have signed a better class if not for all the “outside noise,” as Herman calls it. Should Del Conte have backed his coach sooner? Should he have been stronger in the statement?

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte, left, congratulates Texas coach Tom Herman on the 28-21 win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019.

Surely, Herman faced some awkward questions from parents before their sons sent in their letters of intent.

“We did have to have some hard conversations with them about what the truth really was," Herman said. "And the good thing is that they trusted us, they trusted our administration and we signed a heck of a class because of it.”

Herman had said previously that Del Conte would jump on the phone and speak to any recruit. The athletic director had a long talk with running back LJ Johnson from Houston Cypress-Fairbanks and his father, a source told the American-Statesman. Johnson, who has almost 40 scholarship offers, is expected to wait and sign in February. 

The gossipy notion that Del Conte would support Herman only to get through early signing day and then make a change was met with bemusement inside the athletic department. But around UT, anything is possible and perception is reality.

The reality is that some fans were whipped into a frenzy thinking coach Urban Meyer was right around the corner. Herman has locked in four straight winning seasons, but none have ended with a Big 12 championship. Del Conte spoke with Meyer, and the three-time national champion told UT he wasn’t pursuing any coaching jobs because of his health.

The school would owe Herman and his assistants about $25 million in buyout money. It would probably cost another $10 million to buyout another coach and bring him to UT. Del Conte made the decision to stand pat with Herman, who is 31-18 in four seasons in Austin.

Herman had to collect his thoughts and get moving. First, that meant getting through Wednesday.

He welcomed five-star athlete Ja’Tavion Sanders from Denton Ryan. Sanders “will play both sides of the ball here at Texas,” Herman said. The 6-foot-3 specimen was ranked the third-best overall prospect in the state.

Four-star safety JD Coffey and cornerback Jamier Johnson will bulk up the secondary. In addition to being a standout defensive end, Derrick Harris Jr. is also the first competitive swimmer Herman has ever signed. 

Defensive tackle Byron Murphy II enjoyed “an awesome senior year” at DeSoto. “Really love his motor, love his power, love his intensity,” Herman said.

The Longhorns believe the recruiting world slept on Hallettsville running back Jonathon Brooks. He rushed for 3,215 yards and 59 touchdowns as a senior. “We believe and have believed for a long time that he belongs in the elite class and tier of running backs in this class of 2021,” Herman said. 

The coaching staff “thinks the world” of Austin High quarterback Charles Wright. The Horns needed to pick up another quarterback after freshman Ja’Quinden Jackson put his name in the transfer portal and will look elsewhere.

The biggest surprise was the signing-day transfer announcement of cornerback Darion Dunn from McNeese State. He was thought to be going to North Carolina State. The graduate transfer was a first-team all-Southland pick in 2019.

Herman did acknowledge how recruiting was turned upside down this year by the pandemic. NCAA rules prevented recruits from visiting campuses, so almost everything was done via Zoom. 

“There’s probably four or five guys where the first time I'll meet them or will meet them in the flesh will be when they move in,” Herman said.

One of those will be Australian punter Isaac Pearson, another in the line of ProKick recruits shipped to UT. The first, Michael Dickson, famously landed in Austin in 2015, came straight to campus sight unseen and went on to win the Ray Guy Award.

“You know, this is a guy that I think was working as a mechanic in a coal mine when he was approached by ProKick and trained with those guys for a year or two,” Herman said, “and now we're excited to see him enroll in January.”

Come again? A coal mine? Good recruiters will find ’em anywhere.

Herman now can turn his focus back onto the current team. The Longhorns have reopened the facilities after shutting down due to COVID-19 protocols. Herman said he “can’t imagine” the players wanting to opt out of a bowl game like other schools have.

He also doesn’t expect Oklahoma or Iowa State to have any COVID-19 issues that would allow UT to be summoned for Saturday’s Big 12 championship game. 

Bowl matchups will be set on Sunday after the College Football Playoff announces its final four pairings at 11 a.m.

Texas could play Miami in the Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Depending on the ACC championship outcome, it’s possible UT could face Mack Brown’s North Carolina Tar Heels. That would certainly get Texas’ full attention.

Not all Longhorns will be there, though. Five captains have opted out while a sixth suffered a season-ending foot injury. That leaves senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger as the only team captain ready to lead a group of younger players into a bowl game.

Herman’s just glad he’ll be there, too. 

Meetings are still virtual, and the Horns will get back on a regular work week schedule next week. But as for getting back on the practice field, Herman said, “It was awesome.”

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