Spring practices are beginning to wind down across the Big 12 and teams are sending their squads into summer workouts. As they move forward, we’ll provide some thoughts and observations on things we’ve learned after the past few weeks.
The Longhorns began spring practices in mid-March and wrapped everything up last weekend. After a slight improvement to 7-6 in 2017, there is a lot of focus on second year head coach Tom Herman as he tries to bring championship-level play back to Texas.
Herman managed to generate some goodwill in the offseason with a nationally ranked recruiting class, but early NFL departures and transfers have raised questions as to whether the Longhorns can be better in 2018. With so much NFL talent leaving the rest of the Big 12, however, Texas will be aiming to progress from last season’s fourth place conference finish.
Can the Longhorns make a jump to championship caliber in the second year under Herman? Below are some thoughts on the Texas Longhorns as they go into the summer.
1. THERE MAY NOT BE MUCH OF A “COMPETITION” AT QUARTERBACK AT ALL
Overall, Texas is better at the quarterback position than they’ve been in almost a decade. They have four quarterbacks who all appear to have the potential to be high level signal callers in the Big 12.
None of the four scholarship players currently on campus have definitively elevated their quality of play to that standard, however. The closest is probably true sophomore Sam Ehlinger. His athleticism and ability to scramble were on display in the spring game, and it’s the trait that makes him the likely starter in the fall.
Herman has been loathe to name a starter, however, contending that it’s still a competition between Ehlinger and junior Shane Buechele. Buechele is more accurate than Ehlinger, and he showed as much in last Saturday’s scrimmage with big throws to players like Collin Johnson. Some of the issues that plagued him last season, including a tendency to hold on to the ball too long and an inability to make plays when the pass protection breaks down, also showed themselves at times.
Buechele, who has nineteen career starts under his belt, is by far the more seasoned signal caller. It might be the worst kept secret in Austin that both fans and Tom Herman seem to prefer Ehlinger, whose athleticism can help generate rushing yards.
Ehlinger did not do anything to separate himself from Buechele definitively on Saturday, but he showed some improvement in his ability to throw the ball and the job is probably the younger player’s to lose.
2. THE RUNNING GAME CONTINUES TO NEED WORK
If fans watching Saturday’s spring game were looking for reassuring answers about the Texas running game, the play on the field was a mixed bag. Reports out of spring practice were that the running backs had struggled with fumbling the ball, and sophomore Toneil Carter fumbled early.
Fellow running backs Daniel Young and Kyle Porter also didn’t impress very much on the day. It’s hard to gauge their play or the play of the guys blocking for them in a spring game, where the Longhorns only used eight scholarship offensive lineman on the day.
Speaking of offensive line play, the big uglies up front for Texas didn’t do a lot to assuage anxiety about their improvement. The addition of graduate transfer Calvin Anderson last month is a possible source of hope, but for now it appears that offensive line coach Herb Hand will have his work cut out for him.
3. SPECIAL TEAMS COULD BE BETTER OVERALL
After a season in which kick and punt reruns were somewhat underwhelming, the Longhorns will need to find some more dynamic players to bring back kicks. Devin Duvernay has logged some reps there, but Texas needs his top end speed to translate into better field position.
The Longhorns do have help in the kicking game. On Saturday, Australian Ryan Bujcevski had a good looking punt against air. While he might not be a Ray Guy award winner, Bujcevski will definitely be able to get the job done at Texas.
With last year’s much-maligned kicker Joshua Rowland looking like he might be improved as well, the third phase of the game could take a step forward.
4. THE DEFENSE SHOULD BE STOUT IF THEY CAN AVOID INJURIES
Multiple players sat out of the spring game with injuries, including starting linebacker Gary Johnson and presumed starting nose tackle Chris Nelson. Their injuries will hopefully not linger into the fall, as they will be key to Texas filling in for some departed stars.
Defensive end Breckyn Hager had a big day in the spring scrimmage, however, constantly wreaking havoc in the backfield. Many of the backups who were in for expected starters also looked like solid tacklers, a testament to defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and his staff.
It’s not out of the question that if everyone stays healthy, Texas might actually be better defensively in their second year under Orlando, but nothing is certain. The defensive side of the ball will likely carry the Longhorns once again in 2018.
Next season is shaping up to be a big one for Texas’s second year head coach. If the Longhorns show only modest improvement, he will probably garner praise for steadily moving Texas in the right direction.
If the offense doesn’t improve, however, many amongst the Longhorn faithful will raise questions as to why that side of the ball – which is supposed to be Herman’a area of expertise – is lagging behind.
The defense should be solid even if they take a slight step back, but even if they are truly elite once again, the offense needs to make noticeable strides before Texas can say they have a serious shot at the Big 12 title. Will they? Herman and his staff have four months to try and solve that particular puzzle.