AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The new $10 million locker room is complete. The massive new stadium video board is installed. Tom Herman has been cashing those big paychecks from the University of Texas for months.
Now it’s time to win.
Herman was hired at $5 million-plus per year to turn the Longhorns from Big 12 also-rans into champions again. After three straight losing seasons under Charlie Strong and eight years since its last conference championship, the school is aching to start winning again.
“It has been a whirlwind,” Herman said.
And a fun one so far. The school has spent millions dressing up the place in an effort to entice recruits and pump new energy into a program in need of it, both on and off the field. Texas high school coaches, the gatekeepers for future talent, have embraced him. Hundreds flocked to his coaching clinic in April, which included an appearance by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
And if the administration is telling him “no” about anything, it’s a rarity and unreported. Herman was allowed to hire his quality control assistant Casey Horny — a longtime friend — from scandal-plagued Baylor. The school agreed to admit tight end Reese Leitao after the recruit was charged in a drug case.
Texas has embraced everything about Herman so far. To keep that goodwill rolling, it has to translate into winning football.
Herman won’t go down the road of predictions, but clearly expectations are high. Even if Herman can’t turn his team in a title contender in Year One, anything that isn’t a losing season will be embraced by fans with an eye on the future.
“I remind people who love to throw on their burnt-orange sunglasses with all these crazy predictions … (that) kids we’re recruiting, since they were 10 years old, they’ve seen two winning football seasons,” Herman said. “It’s our job to show them what Texas is capable of, what Texas has been in the past, and what we’re planning on being again.”
Here are five things to watch this season:
BIG BOY BUCHELE
Quarterback Shane Buechele was a baby-faced freshman last season with some dazzling games and disappointments. Herman promised a training camp battle with freshman Sam Ehlingher, but few expect Buechele to be unseated as the starter. Herman has said Buechele is growing into a team leader. Despite Texas’ 5-7 finish last season, Buechele passed for 2,958 yards, a Texas freshman record, and 21 touchdowns.
Junior linebacker Malik Jefferson was supposed to elevate the entire program, but the spotlight turned sour when Jefferson’s play dropped off and he was benched toward the end of last season, his second in Austin. There are signs Jefferson has worked his way out of the doghouse and is ready to be the kind of player who can anchor the defense. Jefferson’s 62 tackles ranked third on the team last season.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to look in the mirror to find your mistakes,” Jefferson said.
The Longhorns have waited a long time for reliable, big-play receiver. Collin Johnson is a muscular 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, and looks like a physical mismatch for most defensive backs. He caught 28 passes last season and tied for the team lead with three TD catches. He impressed in the spring scrimmage when he caught a pair of touchdowns.
“I’ve never had a guy with his height and ball skills and ability to contort his body and have that much body control. So we’ve got to see how physical he can be,” Herman said.
LOSING THE FAT
Depth is in seriously short supply on the defensive line. Herman was sharply critical in the spring of a unit thin on experience and struggling with too much girth in the waistline. Texas has lacked ferocity on the front line in recent years. The Longhorns are searching for a consistent pass rusher and need some of the big guys to hold the middle against the run, neither of which happened last season.
Texas opens the season at home Sept. 2 against Maryland and then hosts San Jose State. Then comes a trip to Southern California in a matchup that will be Herman’s first with his new team on the national stage. With a dive into the Big 12 against title contenders Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State all by midseason, we should know by early October if Herman’s first season could be special or another Texas dud.