1. How did spring drills go over in Austin?
As Tom Herman said after the Orange-White game last weekend, the Longhorns wanted to accomplish three things this spring -- improve the running game, which failed to produce a play of 40 or more yards last season, see improvement from the young cornerbacks, and find a front six on offense.
In the running game, the first-team offensive line improved its cohesiveness while working in three new starters, while the top two running backs, sophomore Keaontay Ingram and freshman Jordan Whittington, a do-it-all athlete in high school who was classified as a receiver, led a group that produced more explosive plays in 14 practices than the running game did all of last season. Ingram is stronger with better vision and patience and Whittington adjusted to the position remarkably quickly given that he’d never played it before, though he did take some direct snaps in high school.
Defensively, sophomore cornerback Jalen Green was as good during the spring game as any defender, while redshirt freshman nose tackle Keondre Coburn flashed and the two new inside linebackers, senior Jeffrey McCulloch and redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye, looked excellent in pass coverage and largely avoided missed tackles. The development of McCulloch, who had an interception, two pass breakups, and three pressures, was particularly heartening because he’s now playing the weakside linebacker position after moving from the Texas hybrid B-backer role and there aren’t any other experienced options there.
Additionally, Texas was able to get some first-team reps for backup quarterback Casey Thompson, a redshirt freshman who played on the scout team last season and looked like a capable replacement if starter Sam Ehlinger once again suffers an injury.
2. Texas ended 2018 on a high note with that Sugar Bowl win, but the team is losing a healthy amount of production. So how does that impact expectations for the 2019 squad?
I’ve received a far amount of pushback from optimistic Longhorns fans when noting my concerns about the eight departing defensive starters from last season, who combined for more than 230 starts at Texas. To me, it’s going to be really hard to replace all of those players, especially Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Charles Omenihu, the team’s only elite pass rusher last season, and all three starting cornerbacks. So Texas is entering this season without any proven pass rushers and with a lot of youth and inexperience at cornerback, which is going to make it hard to limit big plays and get opposing offenses off the field.
This is a program that needs to compete for a Big 12 title this season and I think there’s a good chance that happens with Oklahoma losing some really key contributors on offense, but I think this is a roster that will really peak in the 2020 season in terms of contending for a national title.
3. People will expect big things from Sam Ehlinger and the offense moving forward. What do they need to improve upon from last year, and how did they look this spring?
The big key is explosiveness. Texas was one of two FCS schools that failed to produce a play of 50 or more yards last season. And much of the limited explosiveness that was present departed when wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey left early for the NFL after leading the conference in catches of 20 or more yards last season. Humphrey also had 25 catches that converted third downs. So Ehlinger needs to find a new security blanket on third down and produce more explosive passing plays, including forging a better connection with Z receiver Devin Duvernay, a speedster with whom Ehlinger had trouble connecting on the deep routes Texas likes to run from that position.
Unfortunately, the offense wasn’t able to show off that newfound explosiveness because of gusting wind during the spring game, but there was enough evidence of the offense producing big plays in practice, including in the aforementioned running game, that there’s cause for optimism in that regard heading into the 2019 season.
4. Defensively, the Longhorns lose a ton of starters, but off a unit that struggled. What’s the expectation on that side of the ball with a new cast in 2019?
My expectations are limited by the youth, lack of depth at linebacker, and concerns about finding a true pass rusher. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando may need to find some non-defensive linemen who are excellent blitzers, because I’m not sure that he’s going to be able to produce a lot of pressure from his defensive line. Senior Malcolm Roach, a former hybrid edge defender, and sophomore B-backer Joseph Ossai are the best bets there, but combined for a single sack last season.
5. What’s the feeling among Longhorn fans on this match-up?
That Mike and Bevo probably shouldn’t have a pre-game photo opportunity in close proximity. No one wants that type of potential mutually-assured destruction. And no one in Austin wants to deal with the PETA email blast that would inevitably follow after that silly organization called for the retirement of both live mascots following the Sugar Bowl incident.
Since Texas is so clearly back now, there’s a lot of confidence rolling through the Longhorns fanbase right now and not much respect for the LSU offense, so fans were surprised by the early line favoring the Tigers so heavily. I wasn’t that surprised personally and think fans are underestimating Joe Burrow a little bit and overestimating the capacity of this defense to play at a quality level by the second game of the season.
6. Anything y’all would like us to pass on to the Aggies when we see them?
Tell them it’s sad and pathetic that they spend so much time heralding the achievements of other conference members as a way to feel better about their own incredible lack of success in the SEC.