Texas 2019 spring football preview: With marquee QB, Longhorns are back

Sam Ehlinger is Texas' answer to a decadelong search for a star quarterback. Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Is Texas back?

The Longhorns just might be.

Coming off its best season in almost a decade, coach Tom Herman's bunch has big goals for 2019. Four-time defending Big 12 champ Oklahoma stands in the way. But with quarterback Sam Ehlinger returning to lead a team overflowing with blue-chip talent, the Longhorns could finally return to the pantheon of college football.

2018 record: 10-4

Spring practice start date: TBA

Strength heading into spring: For the first time in 10 years, Texas will enter a season boasting one of the top quarterbacks in college football. After flashing moments of brilliance as a true freshman, Ehlinger took a major step forward as a sophomore, leading Texas to its first 10-win season since 2009.

As one of the most effective dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, Ehlinger passed for 3,296 yards while completing 64.7 percent of his passes. He also tossed 25 touchdown passes to only five interceptions. On the ground, Ehlinger added 482 yards and another 16 touchdowns. And in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia, he controlled the game with three rushing touchdowns, connecting on 70.4 percent of his 27 passing attempts.

Can Ehlinger elevate his game to yet another level in 2019? If so, Texas will have the goods to challenge Oklahoma for Big 12 supremacy -- and, perhaps, for a spot in the College Football Playoff, as well.

Question mark heading into spring: After relying almost exclusively on Ehlinger at times to supply a consistent ground attack the past two years, the Longhorns desperately needed to bolster the rest of their running game -- from the offensive line to the running backs.

Although a chunk of the offensive line is gone from last season, the Longhorns bring back a cornerstone in four-year starter Zach Shackelford. The spring will be critical in piecing together the rest of the group.

Besides being a better run-blocking team, the Longhorns also need more dynamic playmaking from their running backs than they've gotten since losing 2016 Doak Walker Award winner D'Onta Foreman.

Former ESPN 300 signee Keaontay Ingram should be given every opportunity to be the primary back after rushing for 708 yards as a freshman last season. The Longhorns, however, do have other options.

Either way, Texas has to produce a more efficient running game to protect Ehlinger and open up a more balanced attack.

Instant impact addition: With the upcoming graduations of Anthony Wheeler and Gary Johnson, the Longhorns will be light on experience at linebacker. Junior college transfer Caleb Johnson should help fill the gap after signing with the Longhorns in December.

Rated the No. 2 junior college outside linebacker and No. 22 overall juco transfer, Johnson has the talent to start right away. Or at the very least provide quality depth for Todd Orlando's defense.

2019 game to get excited about now: Although the Oklahoma showdown on Oct. 12 will be massive, the Longhorns won't have to wait until then to play in the national spotlight. LSU visits Austin in Week 2 (Sept. 7) in a barometer test for both Tom Herman and the Big 12.

Even though LSU won 10 games playing in the brutal SEC West last season, Texas could actually be the slight favorite with the game being in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

Beat LSU, and Texas could head into the Red River Showdown ranked in the top five for the first time since 2008, when the Longhorns beat Oklahoma on the way to finishing third in the polls.

Spring storyline to watch: After ranking third in the Big 12 in defensive efficiency last season, the Longhorns face the task of replacing eight starters, including All-Big 12 defensive end Charles Omenihu, cornerback Kris Boyd and Johnson. Still, talent remains for the Longhorns to be stingier in 2019.

Safety Caden Sterns is a big reason why. Sterns was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-Big 12 performer. He is also flanked by a host of talented underclassmen in the secondary, including B.J. Foster, Anthony Cook and DeMarvion Overshown.

Up front, Malcolm Roach leads the way after returning for his senior year. The Longhorns are banking that Roach could have the breakout final season that Omenihu delivered in 2018 on the way to being named the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year. Joseph Ossai could be in for a big season as well after starring in the Sugar Bowl.

With so much inexperience elsewhere, the Longhorns could have some bumpy moments early on. But this group has the potential to emerge into one of the Big 12's best defenses by season's end.