The madness of March is in full swing, but football teams all across the Big 12 are going back to work for spring. Drills, drills and more drills are the order of the day as college football players everywhere don their gear and go through practices.
As we turn our attention to what those practices might mean, we’ve been giving a preview of each Big 12 team and exploring the questions they’ll try to answer in spring.
Next, we take a look at a team that recently experienced its first winning season since 2013, the Texas Longhorns.
Tom Herman’s inaugural season in Austin didn’t go as well as some fans and pundits expected, but with a bowl win and a recruiting class that ranked third in the country, Herman’s managed to generate some optimism.
In order to take another step forward and compete for a spot in the conference championship, Texas will need to prove in the fall that such optimism is justified. That process begins Tuesday as the Longhorns hit the practice field.
PRACTICE BEGINS: Tuesday, March 20th
SPRING GAME DATE: Saturday, April 21st
LOCATION: DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium
Despite Herman’s offensive coaching prowess, Texas was less than stellar on offense last season. Football Outsiders ranked the 2017 offense 99th in the nation in S&P+, a number that didn’t inspire much faith in offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
Offseason transfers and early departures weren’t helpful in that regard. Rumors that Herman’s demeanor had alienated some of those players – especially those on offense – abounded.
Nonetheless, next season’s depth chart will likely have more upperclassmen than has been seen in recent seasons at Texas. Seniors Jerrod Heard and John Burt could become full-fledged starters at wide receiver. Devin Duvernay, a junior, could grab a starting spot as well.
As was the case all of last season, Herman will likely not name a starting quarterback after spring practices. Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger both played last season and will compete for the starting spot. The Longhorns signed a couple of four star recruits, Casey Thompson and Cameron Rising, who could also make a push for playing time.
Offensive line is by far the biggest concern for Texas, but they’ve hired help in the form of former Auburn offensive line coach Herb Hand. Herman brought on Hand to be the offensive line coach/co-offensive coordinator for the Longhorns in January.
In particular, Hand will be tasked with improving the run blocking, which was mediocre at best last season. The Longhorns finished seventh in the Big 12 in rush offense and no Texas running back gained more than 400 yards on the ground.
Given transfers and early departures along the offensive line, improving that statistic might be tough. Texas needs most urgently to find an option at guard, but that might mean moving some players around.
Derek Kerstetter and Denzel Okafor have starting experience, but either would have to move from tackle to the interior. Elijah Rodriguez, who received praise from Herman last offseason, might be able to transition there as well.
That would leave a spot on the outside to be filled. Rice transfer Calvin Anderson is thought to be a starter when he arrives in the fall, but that doesn’t help the Longhorns right now.
Samuel Cosmi will be a sophomore and is also a name to look out for on the outside. Whatever happens, the priority for Texas this spring has to be developing depth for a unit that was much maligned last season and has only 66 career starts coming back.
Of course, key to Herman’s preferred style of offense is the tight end position. Last season, freshman Cade Brewer emerged into that role after senior Andrew Beck suffered a season-ending injury in August. Because of Brewer’s own late season injury, he’ll likely miss spring practice.
Beck will compete with redshirt freshman Reese Leitao, who had some off-the-field legal issues last summer. That pair’s only competition is likely Max Cummins, who was converted from defensive end.
Certainly, the strength of the Longhorns last season was the defense. In defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s first year, his unit saw immediate improvement, especially in defending the run. Texas gave up only 106.8 yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry, a testament to Orlando’s ability to develop quality tacklers.
Although veteran players with starting experience return on defense, some of the most talented 2017 players are now headed to the pro ranks.
The most pressing spot needing to be filled is at nose tackle. Chris Nelson probably has the most size and strength to step in there, but backup Gerald Wilbon will probably give him some competition.
Gary Johnson, a second year JUCO transfer from Kansas, will likely step in as the “rover” linebacker position. Johnson has a lot of potential and might end up being one of the best linebackers in the Big 12.
At another linebacker spot, Texas is slated to have junior Jeffrey McCulloch given the responsibility to rush the passer off the edge.
After early departures to the NFL, there are some starting spots available in the secondary, which might be the most intriguing position group on defense. Experienced players are available, but exactly who will fill in what spots remains a bit of a mystery.
Senior Davante Davis was not a starter until late last season, but has fourteen career starts and is likely to nab a starting cornerback spot. Of course, there are also players like Josh Thompson, who got reps last season as a true freshman, that might also make a big leap in spring ball.
The other major position to be filled in is safety, where senior John Bonney could become the starter. Despite Bonney’s sixteen career starts, however, he will have to compete with a couple of early enrollees in true freshmen B.J. Foster and Caden Sterns.
Both were highly touted five star recruits – Sterns, whose older brother was an all conference player at Oklahoma State, was the top ranked safety recruit in the nation and Foster was the third ranked safety in the country.
Texas will also have to deal with the loss of a punter as an early departure to the NFL Draft, a unique position most college teams don’t find themselves in. Ryan Bujcevski, the highest ranked punter in the 2018 recruiting class, will come in to try and make sure Texas doesn’t miss a step on special teams.
One area where the Longhorns struggled last season was field goal kicking, with Texas making just 57.9 percent of their field goals. They were second to last in the Big 12 in that category, so they signed local product Cameron Dicker to take over in the kicking game.
As always seems to be the case, there are a number of talented young players who could play key roles next season. There are a number of upperclassmen, however, who need to develop into starters in order for the Longhorns to take another step forward under Herman.
There is some justified anxiety about the defense, but improvement on the offensive side of the ball is probably the most urgent. If Texas can make noticeable strides there, it’s not out of the question for them to be in conference title contention next season.