Tom Herman’s main mission this offseason has been to reverse Texas’ culture. He’s used the buzzword time and again through spring practice and summer workouts, aiming to change the mindset of a team that had lost 21 games over the past three seasons.
“You should never become numb to losing no matter how often you do it,” Herman said. “It should hurt the even worse the 21st time as it did the 20th time, and even worse the 19th time than it did the 15th time.”
Herman will need to instill a new culture for the stink of three sub-par seasons to wear off, but he can only do so if the Longhorns re-commit themselves to the defensive side of the ball. Texas ranked No. 94 in the nation in total defense in 2016, failing to stop opposing offenses in any meaningful way. But an added year of experience for the core of Texas’ defense paired should give way to some optimism.
One unit the Longhorns will rely on is their linebacking core. Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando are altering Texas’ scheme this year, employing the 3-4, with an added linebacker on the field. One player who should benefit is junior linebacker Malik Jefferson. The Poteet product recorded 6.5 sacks and 60 tackles last season, excelling when utilized as an edge rusher. Jefferson should earn even more time on the edge this year with Orlando’s guidance.
“He’s basically thrown himself at coach Orlando and said ‘I’m yours; do with me as you will and make me better’,” Herman said. “I think he’s put himself in a position with how he’s worked in the offseason to go out and have a really productive season.”
Junior linebacker Breckyn Hager will line up alongside Jefferson, coming off a 2016 where he recorded 13.5 tackles for loss and 65 tackles. Hager will move to middle linebacker this season, taking a greater leadership role in his third season with the burnt orange.
One unit where Texas must improve is in the defensive backfield. The Longhorns ranked No. 105 out of 128 teams in the nation in yards allowed per game last year, allowing chunks of yards through the air. The cornerback and safety units will bring back much of the same squad as the previous year, and will need to see development out of its young corners and safeties. Look for junior DeShon Elliott and sophomore Brandon Jones to make a greater impact.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Longhorns have a strength at the quarterback position. Sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele, who passed for 2,598 yards with a 60.4% completion rate in 2016, will look to build on his strong freshman campaign. However, the starting job is not guaranteed to be his throughout the season. Four-star recruit Sam Ehlinger impressed with his physical tools in the spring, and will compete for the starting nod throughout preseason practice.
“In a perfect world, you would not waste a year of eligibility on a guy to go in for mop up duty,” Herman said of the situation. “I don’t think there’s anybody that would want to do that, regardless of their quarterback situation.”