This time last season, Texas coach Tom Herman was riding high. The Longhorns were fresh off a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia and projected as a top 10 team.
There are plenty of reasons that Texas struggled to meet its lofty goals in 2019, none bigger than inexperience. But no one knows better than Herman, at Texas, excuses aren’t acceptable. So he fired both coordinators after the season. Others left on their own. Only two assistants remain from Herman’s initial 2017 staff.
But when identifying why the changes were made, Herman didn’t focus on tight losses that cost the Longhorns a shot at a Big 12 championship. Instead, the struggles with player development took center stage. None shone brighter than the 2018 defensive back recruiting class, regarded as one of the best in recent memory, that yielded a bottom five national pass defense.
“We were recruiting at an elite level, but we weren’t quite developing at the level we needed to,” Herman said. “When a couple of those guys got hurt, our even younger and more inexperienced guys weren’t as ready as I thought they’d be.”
Repeating that mistake wasn’t an option. Herman reached back to the Ohio State tree to fill both coordinator spots. On defense, he hired his longtime friend Chris Ash, who served as defensive coordinator to Herman’s OC when Ohio State won its championship in 2014. On offense, Herman poached longtime Oklahoma State assistant Mike Yurcich from Ryan Day’s College Football Playoff staff at Ohio State.
Yurcich focused on the passing game at Ohio State. His offense will look similar to Herman’s, with a few tweaks. The Longhorns have an elite group of receivers to mix with senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who ranks among the best returners in the nation. Maintaining a top 15 offense is critical.
The previous defense struggled to get consistent pressure without blitzing, a big no-no in the pass-happy Big 12. Ash is switching things to a four-man front so Texas can get its big-bodied defensive linemen on the field and get after the quarterback. Getting more up front should help get more in the back from Texas’ secondary.
“We’re very confident that we’re going to be put in the right situation,” safety Caden Sterns said. “Since the staff came in, they’ve been very positive. The constructive criticism we’ve gotten is all positive.”
Of course, not everything went wrong in 2019. The Longhorns played national champion LSU closer than any team in America, including its College Football Playoff foes. Texas also dismantled playoff contender Utah in the Alamo Bowl to close the season. Playing Iowa State and Oklahoma close proved that the Longhorns were not far away. When the team was healthy, Texas was a real threat. The Horns needs to find that confidence again to survive the grind in 2020.
“We definitely learned some lessons on how not to handle things, but we’ve also learned some lessons on what we’re capable of when healthy and playing our best,” Herman said.
The best news? With all the injuries and youth that Texas faced a year ago, the Longhorns are one of the most experienced teams in America. Only Oklahoma State brings back more production in the Big 12.
“The great thing about being inexperienced one year is you end up being experienced the next year,” Herman said. “We’ve got guys who have been through the fire. The young guys have more experience than any other team I’ve been around.”
Texas will get tested early and often during its 2020 schedule. The Longhorns travel to the defending national champs in Baton Rouge on Sept. 12. Games against the Oklahoma schools and a sneaky trip to Lubbock could decide whether an Ehlinger-led Texas team will ever win a Big 12 championship.
Ultimately, Ash and Yurcich were brought to the 40 Acres to do one thing: Win. With Ehlinger and a plethora of blue-chip talent across the roster, nothing less will cut it.
“When I say win, I mean, have we played well enough to win championships?” Ash said. “That’s what it’s about here. It’s not about winning seven or eight games. That’s not the standard. We want to play good enough defense to help us do that. That’s it.”
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