Limiting late-game turnovers is key for the Longhorns as they look to improve on a 7-6 debut under Head Coach Tom Herman. The offense must take major steps after averaging 1.5 gains of 30 or more yards a game last season, 112th nationally and last in the conference and a 38.8 percent success rate, 106th nationally and eighth in the conference.
In order to do so, sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger has to make better late-game decisions throwing costly interceptions in losses to USC, OSU, and Texas Tech. Last season he threw for 1,915 yards and 11 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He also led in rushing with 383 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Shane Buechele, 1,405 yards and seven touchdowns to four interceptions, is a proven backup and the most accurate passer on the roster.
After failing to have 400-yard rusher the running backs must improve. Sophomore Daniel Young finished second with 373 yards and three touchdowns. Junior Kyle Porter, 261 yards, and four touchdowns, teams with Young. Both are receiving threats combining for 19 receptions for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Toneil Carter provides depth after running for 252 yards and three touchdowns.
Leading receiver junior Collin Johnson returns after making 54 receptions for 765 yards and two touchdowns must be more consistent after getting benched for drops last season. Second-leading receiver junior Lil’ Jordan Humphrey returns as well after a 37 reception, 431 yards one touchdown season. Both are big, physical receivers who are matchup problems. Junior Devin Duvernay and seniors Jerrod Heard, a former quarterback, and speedy John Burt will see action. Senior tight end Andrew Beck, who missed last season with a foot injury, is a ferocious blocker who helps in the run game.
Three starters return on a line who losses star tackle Connor Williams, a second-round draft pick. New line coach Herb Hand, formerly of Auburn, fills Williams spot with Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson. He received honorable mention All-Conference USA honors and started the last 36 games for the Owls. He chose Texas over the likes of Oklahoma and LSU. Senior Elijah Rodriguez teams with senior Patrick Vahe at guard, junior center Zach Shackelford, and sophomore tackle Derek Kerstetter round out the line.
Defensive Coordinator Todd Orlando has his work cut out for him losing several key players. Up front, he must replace tackle Poona Ford the Big 12 Defensive Linemen of the Year. Senior end Breckyn Hager, the returning sack leader with four, is the leader of the line. 300lbs senior tackle Chris Nelson assumes Ford’s spot. Senior end Charles Omenihu, seven tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles, rounds out the three-man front who must improve after allowing 258.8 yards a game, 109th in the country.
Senior weak-side linebacker Gary Johnson lived up to being the nations top junior college linebacker a season ago notching 49 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble, assumes the leadership role left by Malik Jefferson who led with 110 total tackles. Junior Malcolm Roach is a versatile outside linebacker who can play standing up or with a hand in the ground. He notched 27 tackles, four for loss and two sacks. He is nimble for 270lbs. Senior Anthony Wheeler assumes Jefferson’s spot at middle linebacker after finishing with 35 tackles, 5.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks. Look for early enrollee true freshman inside linebacker Ayodele Adeoye to see time after a strong spring.
Saftey DeShon Elliott, a Thorpe Award finalist after leading with six interceptions including two returned for touchdowns, and corner Holton Hill, six pass breakups and two interceptions, depart. However, the Longhorns still boast an experienced secondary led by senior corners Kris Boyd, 15 PBU’s and two interceptions, Devante Davis, three PBU’s and two interceptions, and strong safety P.J. Locke who finished with two PBU’s and 2.5 tackles for loss. Look for highly touted freshmen Caden Sterns, the No. 1 safety in the country, and B.J. Foster the No. 2 safety in the country, to push for playing time. Highly touted freshman Anthony Cook, Jalen Green, and D’Shawn Jamison push for playing time at corner. Sophomore Josh Thompson, 9.5 special tackles, takes over for departed Antwuan Davis.
Ray Guy award winning punter Michael Dickson departs. He pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line a school record 42 times last season. Dickson’s cousin true freshman Ryan Bujcevski takes over at punter. Returning kicker senior Joshua Rowland, 11-18 field goals, has to fend off freshman kicker Cameron Dicker to retain his job.
The Longhorns face a tough nine-game stretch including games against USC, TCU, at Kansas State, Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State and West Virginia. Only Maryland, Tulsa and Baylor appear to be the best chance for early wins. The final three games, including a road trip to Texas Tech, are all winnable and might determine where they end up in the bowl picture.