In Year 2, Tom Herman focused on ending Texas' decade of losing

AUSTIN, Texas -- As he settles into the chair in the corner of his office, Tom Herman bathes in the expectations that come with coaching football for the University of Texas.

The Jim Thorpe Award, which Michael Huff and Aaron Ross captured in back-to-back years, stands on the end table to Herman's right. In front of him, Ricky Williams' Heisman Trophy towers atop the coffee table.

Yet for far too long, the Longhorns have failed to field a squad befitting the lofty expectations of their past. In fact, since playing for the 2009 national title, Texas, inconceivably, is only five games above .500.

But with Herman having settled into the job going into his second season in Austin, the Longhorns are hopeful their decade of unprecedented inferiority will finally come to an end.

"I think there is legitimacy to teams learning how to win," Herman said. "And we've got to do a better job of coaching them and teaching them how to win."

Herman's rocky debut season underscored just how much a proud program with four national titles had forgotten about winning.

Because of his sterling track record that catapulted him to the most coveted non-Power 5 coach in the game two years ago, some simply assumed Herman would immediately conjure the same magic at Texas that he'd unleashed while propelling Houston to 13 wins in 2015 as a rookie head coach. Herman confesses now that last August he mistakenly allowed himself to buy into the promise of instant success, having inherited a roster loaded with former blue-chip prospects.

Then, the season began.

And Big Ten cellar-dweller Maryland ran Texas out of its own stadium in the opener, exposing all of the parts still broken. The Longhorns committed mindless penalties, whiffed on makeable tackles and, most egregiously, inexplicably got obliterated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

As he watched Maryland unload 51 points, even after losing its starting quarterback, Herman quickly came to the realization this would be no quick fix.

"What was going through my mind was, 'I've got to do a better job of finding out what's real and what's not real,'" he said. "I had believed that, for the most part, the team had bought in and we'd done a good job of coaching them to our level of expectation of how to play. But I saw things in that game that I hadn't seen since the first day in pads at spring ball, in terms of effort level and technique and all that stuff."

From then on, Herman said he and his staff lasered in even more on implementing their culture, while easing their attention on the X's and O's. Getting the team to play hard trumped expanding the playbook.

"I would argue that [Maryland] was a really important game for our guys to have," Herman said. "There's a big difference between being compliant and committed. We got a lot of kids committed after that game."

Winning still didn't come often or easily. After All-American left tackle Connor Williams suffered a season-ending injury, the offense essentially degenerated into relying on first-year quarterback Sam Ehlinger to freelance his way to big plays. Yet behind a Todd Orlando defense that rapidly rebounded into a hard-nosed unit, the Longhorns hung tough in every game the rest of the way to a 7-6 finish.

"When you first get to a program and you're trying to get everybody in the same alignment of culture, the way that we do things, football is secondary, maybe even third -- you don't even think about that," said Orlando, Herman's right-hand man who came with him from Houston. "All these things where you could refine a player to make them technically better or devise a scheme to make them better, we're not going to that point until we actually get this kid to be accountable. Take away his ego, work his tail up, be mentally and physically tough. If you skip that step, you can't go anyplace. That will implode on you when you get to Year 2 and 3. You have no foundation."

Herman and Orlando say they firmly believe that foundation is finally now in place.

Nearly every week, Herman meets with a group of 15 team leaders. He said the watershed moment of a culture shift came during one of those gatherings in March.

"I said to them, 'What do you guys think is different?' And one of the kids said, 'We're happy,'" recalled Herman, who had just punished them with 100 up-downs after a quarter of the team failed a random hydration test. "I told them, 'The standards haven't changed. Here's what's changed: You guys are adhering to [the standards] so much more that the moments of discipline are few and far between now.' It was like, they didn't even realize it. Like, 'Oh, that's what culture is?'

"It was 14 months to get to this point. And they were excited about that. ... The buy-in level now is just through the roof."

Culture in and of itself, of course, won't beat Oklahoma, bring Texas a conference championship or take the Longhorns to the College Football Playoff.

The biggest downfall through its decadelong struggles is Texas has been toiling in quarterbacking purgatory ever since Heisman finalist Colt McCoy graduated in 2009. Not only have the Longhorns not boasted an All-Big 12 quarterback since McCoy, they haven't even had a quarterback start the Red River Showdown in consecutive seasons.

A quarterback coach by trade, Herman agreed with the premise that until the Longhorns get elite play behind center again, they'll fail to be serious contenders in the quarterback-rich Big 12, much less for the College Football Playoff.

"I would argue really the only sustainable [counter] blueprint [to that] has been Alabama," Herman said. "All the other [playoff] teams [have had elite quarterbacks], from Florida State and Jameis Winston to Clemson and Deshaun Watson, to Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett at Ohio State, even going back to [Auburn's] Cam Newton, [Oregon's] Marcus Mariota."

Herman, however, is optimistic a quarterback capable of leading Texas back into contention currently is on campus.

As a true freshman, Ehlinger had moments of magic, most notably when he squared off against a pair of quarterbacks who went in the top three of last month's NFL draft.

In his first career start, Ehlinger tossed a go-ahead, 17-yard touchdown with 45 seconds remaining, only to see No. 3 pick Sam Darnold rally USC to a game-tying field goal.

A month later, Ehlinger put Texas up on Oklahoma in the fourth quarter on a dazzling 8-yard touchdown dash, only to see No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield retake the lead for good three plays later.

Yet as promising as he looked against the Trojans and Sooners, Ehlinger also doomed Texas in three losses with costly late turnovers. He fumbled at the goal line in overtime against USC. He tossed a game-ending interception in the end zone in overtime against Oklahoma State. And in the regular-season finale against Texas Tech, Ehlinger threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, which allowed the Red Raiders to pull off an improbable last-minute comeback.

In between, concussion issues derailed the momentum Ehlinger had generated early in the season, opening the way for Shane Buechele to start five of Texas' last six games.

"He was really headed in the right direction," Herman said of Ehlinger, an Austin native. "We've got to do a better job of making sure that he plays as consistent as we know he can."

Over the spring, Herman challenged Ehlinger to tighten and quicken his release, which the Longhorns are banking will help him with ball security as well. Still, Herman reopened the competition between Ehlinger and Buechele, and seems to be in no hurry to name a starter. Herman also welcomed a pair of ESPN 300 quarterback signees to camp in the spring in Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson, the son of former Oklahoma wishbone quarterback Charles Thompson. Both flashed plenty of potential during the spring and could get a chance should Ehlinger and Buechele stumble in the fall.

"Ideally, you'd want someone to run away with it and say, 'This is our starter and he's going to be our starter until either he gets hurt or falls flat on his face,'" Herman said. "If they're pretty close, then we'll figure something out."

Either way, the offense around them stands to improve after finishing seventh in the Big 12 last year in yards and scoring.

The Longhorns landed a pair of high-profile graduate transfers to revive their ground game in former Rice left tackle Calvin Anderson and Cal running back Tre Watson, who recently chose Texas over Texas Tech and LSU. Having the bulk of the receiving corps and the offensive line back should help as well.

"There were games where we started a true freshman quarterback with a true freshman running back with a true freshman tight end with a true freshman right tackle and a true sophomore left tackle -- if that's a recipe for success in anybody's book, I'd like to see the book," Herman said. "There were games last year where we weren't to our standard offensively. We've got to do better. I do think we can."

One of Herman's biggest offseason victories was keeping Orlando in Austin with a $700,000 pay raise after Texas A&M and Florida State reportedly tried to poach him.

In the 11 weeks following the Maryland game, Orlando's defense was second in the country in defensive efficiency, trailing only Clemson. Despite facing Darnold, Mayfield and the nation's leading passer in Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, the Longhorns still ranked third nationally in three-and-outs forced, third in third-down defense, 10th in red zone defense and 13th in turnovers forced.

"There's no breather in this league," Orlando said. "You either embrace it or you sit there and you get scared of it. We're not going to be scared. ... We're going to attack people."

Texas must replace several key players from that defense, most notably All-American safety DeShon Elliott and Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Malik Jefferson. The Longhorns, however, also just signed arguably the top defensive recruiting class in the country this year, including ESPN 300 defensive backs B.J. Foster, Caden Sterns and Anthony Cook, who are all already pushing for time after enrolling early.

"They will knock you down in the dirt," Herman said. "For kids that are still supposed to be in high school, it's like, 'Whoa,' just how physically prepared they are, and the confidence."

The way Herman and Orlando glow about their young defensive backs harks back to the time Huff and Ross roamed the secondary of Texas' 2005 national title team.

The Longhorns aren't there yet. But with a culture in place, an elite defense building and the potential in young quarterbacks, Texas could finally -- after this decade of losing -- be on its way in Year 2 of the Herman era. One the Longhorns are hoping turns into Texas' next epoch of winning big.