Sam Ehlinger lit a fire in the bellies of Longhorn Nation during his Sugar Bowl MVP acceptance speech when he proclaimed “We’re back” for the whole world to hear.
It’s a phrase that many have pondered since Charlie Strong’s victory over the Sooners in the Red River Rivalry in 2015. There was a notion that Texas was “gone” when they saw Mack Brown’s dynasty fizzle out at the end of his tenure, to be followed by a rebuilding year behind Strong. Old Charlie donned the Golden Cowboy Hat and people across the nation wondered if this was the turning point Texas needed to return to prominence. 3 years removed from Charlie Strong’s shining spot in an otherwise unentertaining tour through Austin, the Horns have found the gusto they’ve been looking for. After being overlooked in preparation for their showdown with the Bulldogs last bowl season, they overcame and are looking forward to build on it in the near future.
The Horns bring back some serious offensive production, with Sam Ehlinger coming off a year where he threw 25 touchdowns along with 16 trips to the endzone on foot. An experienced signal-caller spells success in the Big 12, more often than not. In addition, the Horns also return leading rusher Keontay Ingram while bringing in true freshman Jordan Whittington. Whittington supplanted Junior Daniel Young on the spring depth chart and showcased his skills in the 4A DII Texas State Championship game where he ran all over the field. Another outlet Ehlinger will have at his disposal is a solid receiving corps. Collin Johnson is one of the best receivers in the Big 12, almost surpassing 1000 yards last year, and Devin Duvernay is a threat as well.
The question mark for the offense is more about the big boys upfront. The Horns snagged a solid grad transfer in Georgia Tech’s Parker Braun. Zach Shackelford can’t be the only interior lineman with experience and Braun’s experience allows the opposite guard’s learning curve to be a little more round. Tom Herman is doing a little dangerous experimentation after Samuel Cosmi’s redshirt Freshman campaign at Right Tackle, by switching him to left tackle. I’ll admit, it is a subtle variation. However, Cosmi could find himself out of place on Ehlinger’s blind side and flounder. Putting him back at RT after stumbling a few games could prove costly to the confidence of Cosmi and the other tackles in play in this game of musical chairs. The skill positions look to be more than enough to put points on the board, despite losing LJ Humphrey’s outstanding production, but what might give Herman fits is fitting together the right Offensive Line.
The defensive side of the ball is a little harder to track. Texas graduated a lot of depth on the front 6 from a pass rush that relied heavily on experienced backers. Gary Johnson and Charles Omenihu accounted for 16 sacks last year that Texas is going to have to find from someone else. Todd Orlando’s defenses typically don’t rely on a hand-in-the-dirt lineman-like Omenihu to produce that much pressure anyway, but the role of Jeffrey McCullough and Joseph Assai will be critical. Wheeler and Johnson were able to produce when blitzing from the depth and disguising their rush. McCullough should be up to the task as a senior, which will provide a little slack for Assai and Ayodele Adeoye as they will be first-year starters.
Malcolm Roach’s role cannot be overstated in helping the Horns get a pass rush as well. Alleviating pressure for Freshman DT Keondre Coburn will help keep the linebackers clean and contain offenses. A spot that a lot of people are high on, that I am reluctant about, is the UT Secondary. Caden Sterns is an otherworldly force at Safety, but most of his interceptions came from QB pressures or outright athleticism. The pass rush will be taking a step back and Sterns is coming off of offseason knee surgery, so the Longhorn faithful might need to be patient with their budding star. Elsewhere in the secondary, Brandon Jones will be babysitting 4 sophomores in the defensive backfield and will need to do his best air-traffic control work to keep this secondary on the right track after losing Kris Boyd, Davante Davis, and PJ Locke III.
Overall, Texas might not be “back” according to the standards that they hold themselves to, but that doesn’t mean that they will have an awful year. Tom Herman regressed after his up-year in Houston before taking the UT job and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another slight drop this year, reaching between 8 or 9 wins with their bowl game included. I can see them losing to the Tigers, Sooners, Horned Frogs, and one of the last two road games between Iowa State or Baylor with a lean towards Iowa State. Herman also appears to have a tough time coaching when he can’t sell the “underdog” narrative. His record is 8-2-1 against the spread, yet he has lost to Maryland in two straight seasons.
Scheduling LSU in your non-conference schedule also doesn’t do yourself any favors. Then again, Texas could come out and beat LSU in typical Herman underdog fashion and get the ball rolling for the rest of the season. If they can do that, then Texas is back.
Featured Image: The Spun