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Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer 7d

Texas football is ... Back? Overrated? A Complete Mystery?

College Football, Texas Longhorns

AUSTIN, Texas -- Tom Herman is in a good mood these days.

As he enters his third year at Texas, the Longhorns have made significant progress under his watch. In January, they wrapped up their first double-digit-win season since 2009 with a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia. He has turned in consecutive top-10 recruiting classes. The Longhorns have the same starting quarterback for the third straight season, something that couldn't be said of the rest of this decade.

Herman's desired culture is set. Expectations are understood. What's left in the "Texas is back" tour is competing for and winning a championship.

"Obviously we've got a lot of work to do on the field," Herman said. "But these guys are a joy to be around. I love coming to work every day. The guys do a good job policing our culture, the players do."

Flipping the culture was a crucial part of Herman's building project. There was endless talk about being "1-0" every day. Bodies had to be reshaped by strength coach Yancy McKnight. The talent, quite simply, had to be upgraded. And players had to understand what Herman believed to be the most important aspects to their on-field success.

"It was starting to shift last year," Herman said. "These days I do a lot less running. We tell our guys all the time, 'There's two demands in this program that are non-negotiable, and that's effort and ball security.' And if you see a guy loaf, you'll see eyes changing colors or smoke coming out of ears.

"Or a guy carrying the ball loose, it's not me running after the perpetrator, it's usually some player, saying 'Hey, that's not how we do things.' That's pretty cool to see."

Those positive trends combined with a strong finish to 2018, in which the Longhorns made the Big 12 championship game and dominated the Bulldogs in New Orleans, have observers bullish on Texas in 2019.

The Longhorns dot the top 10 in various "way-too-early" top 25 national rankings, but the metrics are more skeptical of Texas at this point. ESPN's Football Power Index has the Longhorns outside the top 25 (they check in at 26th) while Bill Connelly's S&P+ projections has Texas even lower, at 35th.

That's not necessarily unusual (insert your Texas-is-back or preseason rankings joke here), but it is fascinating, because the Longhorns are a team that seems to be on the rise even if it's hard to pinpoint where their 2019 ceiling is.

The reasons those metrics might be skeptical could be related to a couple of areas of concern for Herman this spring: the loss of defensive leadership and the lack of big plays on offense last season.

On defense, there are numerous voids to fill.

A host of veteran, multiyear starters are gone: the entire 2018 starting defensive line (Charles Omenihu, Chris Nelson, Breckyn Hager), two of the three starting linebackers (Anthony Wheeler, Gary Johnson), both starting corners (Kris Boyd, Davante Davis) and the starting nickelback (P.J. Locke III).

That doesn't mean there isn't talent in the pipeline. Herman is comfortable with the ability of the players who will take over. What he is concerned with -- and a focal point for the defense this spring -- is developing players who can lead in the way those did.

"These guys have been vocal leaders," Herman said, referring to his bygone defensive seniors. "We just have to develop some more vocal leadership from some of these guys that are not used to that role."

Safeties Brandon Jones and Caden Sterns have already established themselves as playmakers at Texas. Both, however, are sidelined this spring with injuries, and Herman noted that it's "tough to lead from a scooter on the sideline."

One player Herman increasingly has looked to this spring is senior defensive end Malcolm Roach, who has 34 games under his belt.

"He's a guy everyone's respected but has always acquiesced to the Wheelers, the Maliks [Jefferson], the Charleses, the Breckyns of the world," Herman said. "He was the Plan B leader if you will. Now he's Plan A. He's getting used to that role."

Senior Jeffrey McCulloch, who has appeared in 36 games, is a returning starter who will also be looked to for leadership.

Offensively, the Longhorns are in a better situation when it comes to experience and leadership. Sam Ehlinger is entering his third season as the starting quarterback, receiver Collin Johnson spurned the NFL draft to come back for one more year, receiver Devin Duvernay is entering his senior season and the offensive line is sprinkled with veterans, including senior Zach Shackelford and junior Derek Kerstetter.

Where Texas' offense must get better is in the big-play department. The Longhorns were one of only two teams in the FBS in 2018 to not have a single play from scrimmage of at least 50 yards.

"We had to get more athletic offensively," Herman said.

And so they did, or at least it appears so based on the early returns from their 2019 recruiting class. Jordan Whittington, the ESPN 300 athlete from Cuero (Texas), has already impressed in spring drills. He's cutting his teeth at running back, but could also find some time at slot receiver eventually, too.

"He's really smooth," Herman said. "When you watch him there's not a whole lot of wasted movement ... It doesn't take seven steps to change direction."

Bru McCoy, the ESPN 300 receiver who initially enrolled at USC before transferring to Texas in January, has also impressed thus far. It's not certain if he'll be immediately eligible to play this season as Texas awaits the NCAA's ruling on McCoy's waiver application, but Herman has praised his work ethic, versatility and competitive fire.

Add in ESPN 300 receiver Jake Smith, the Gatorade National Player of the Year who will arrive in the summer, and the Longhorns have an influx of speed to complement an already solid talent base on offense.

More important, to Herman, is that the team maintains what it did well in 2018, even as it pursues more eye-popping plays.

"How do you win 10 games with no plays over 50 yards on offense?" Herman asked. "We do it because we ran the ball when we needed to, we were efficient on third down and we only turned the ball over 11 times in 14 games. I think they all believe in that."

The Longhorns will have to ably answer the above concerns in order to challenge Oklahoma's stranglehold on the Big 12 crown. Naturally, that's top of mind right now, isn't it?

"Nope," Herman said. "It's going 1-0 today. And then 1-0 tomorrow. And then, when it gets time, we'll worry about beating Louisiana Tech."

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