Texas head coach Tom Herman’s eagerness to coach in his first game at Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday became obvious about halfway through his Monday press conference when he no longer needed the services of the chair he was seated in. He stood up, leaned on the table and spoke about his football team in a way that made it readily apparent he was ready to see how they reacted “when the bullets fly and adversity hits.”
For Herman, and most Texans, the excitement of game week is tempered by the destruction experienced by many in Houston due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey. Herman made several coaching stops in the Houston area, and many of his players hail from that same metropolitan area.
Herman made sure to note that of the 20-plus players from Houston, everybody’s family has been accounted for. In addition, Herman said he planned to take action to support his former hometown.
“We’re working on some plans right now with our team in terms of collecting items that we can send over there,” Herman said. “I talked to JJ Watt this morning via text. We’re going to try to help him and his campaign both from a team standpoint and myself and Michelle. It’s hard to watch, especially when there’s so many loved ones that are there and affected by it, but we’re going to try to do our best, the Herman family as well as Texas football, to put action into place.”
Because of the storm, Major Applewhite’s Houston Cougars are practicing in Austin and using Texas’ practice fields and workout facilities.
“We talked a couple times a day through all this,” Herman said. “I think for a guy that’s never been a head coach or has only been a head coach for eight, nine months to be thrown this big of a curveball in your first season would be tough for anyone. He’s handling it as good as possible.”
With the storm still affecting Houston, Herman has looked to football as a way to bring people of all walks of life together and make a difference. “To see all of the different examples have some light shed on them in times of trouble, like we’re going through in Houston, it’s at least comforting to know that we haven’t lost that part of our society where sports is a giant melting pot of people with no agendas,” Herman said.
FIRST GAME EXCITEMENT…
Herman is now the second coach in four years to have to answer questions about the initial excitement level heading into the first game of his new tenure.
Understandably, Herman told reporters he was prepared to take the sidelines for his debut.
“Been a long nine months,” Herman said. “We’ve had a lot of things happen to us over the span of those nine months and so I’m actually relieved a little bit to be back in the offensive meeting room, to be back in the staff room, to be preparing for an opponent, to doing a lot less media things and to get back to coaching football and preparing to win a game. I think relief and excitement are probably the two emotions.”
The main question, however, is if the team is as ready as Herman is. When Herman first arrived, he asked the team if anyone had been on a winning team at Texas. Only a few players were able to say yes.
Most of the major contributors on the team have only experienced losing seasons at Texas. Herman has tried to make the team ready for the real games, but determining whether or not his attempt to mentally fortify the team can’t be done until after 11 a.m. on Saturday.
“If we have a couple three and out drives to start the game, how are we going to respond?” Herman said. “If we give up an early touchdown, how are we going to respond?
“I know how they’ve been trained. I have a lot of confidence in the way that they’re trained and the way that they’ve responded to that training and taken it to heart. Again, putting it in practice in front of 105,000 people with a formidable opponent such as Maryland, that’s a whole other ball of wax. I think we will respond well to adversity and I think we will know how to win, but again, that remains to be seen.”
Technically, this isn’t Herman’s first ‘first game at Texas.’ In 1999, he served as an offensive graduate assistant under Mack Brown and Greg Davis, debuting in a notorious losing effort against North Carolina State.
Herman said he wasn’t nervous for that match up, but did note the time he cost the Longhorns a timeout in that NC State game.
As a graduate assistant, Herman’s role was to assist Davis and to let him know whether the team needed to kick the extra point or go for two. Normally, Herman would figure out the proper call prior to the beginning of a drive. A quick strike from the Longhorns, an 80 yard touchdown pass from Applewhite to Victor Ike on the first play of the drive late in the second quarter, put Herman into a pinch as he had not informed Davis how many points they would need from the PAT.
“It was some funky score, and Mack Brown is calling to Greg Davis saying ‘is it two or one, two or one?’” Herman said. “And (Davis) is looking at me ‘is it two or one, two or one?’ And I just froze. We called timeout, actually, so I cost us a time out.”
WHO TROTS OUT AT QB?
As reporters received their copies of the game notes, they quickly turned to the depth chart to see who the listed starter at quarterback was.
They found sophomore Shane Buechele at the top of the depth chart with freshman Sam Ehlinger behind him. In recent weeks, Herman had spoken highly of both quarterbacks while refusing to call one of them the starter.
Herman said Buechele was the starter, but qualified it by saying he would start if they had a game on that particular day.
“Myself and Coach (Tim) Beck talked about it again today,” Herman said. “Today, if we played today, we would let Shane play the game. He’s had a really, really good last few days of practice, but again, if the Z receiver goes out and has three really bad practices, the backup’s probably going to probably play a little bit more. We’ll know more towards the end of the week. If we were to play today, Shane would play the whole game as long as he’s playing well.”
When asked what it would take for Ehlinger to play, Herman mentioned it would require bad play or practice from Buechele leading up to the game.
However, as Herman noted, Buechele has performed well in practice recently, and retains the first spot on the depth chart.
“If he stumbles and opens the door a little bit in practice, or stumbles and opens the door during the game, then we’ll have to evaluate it at that point,” Herman said. “It would be Shane not having the types of practices that he’s had the last few days that have been really good.”
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
When asked where the strengths of his team were, Herman gave one expected answer, the offensive line. He also added a more surprising answer in their counterparts on the defensive line.
One of the first major storylines of Herman’s first spring at Texas was the shape of the defensive line. Herman made it clear to his line and to the media that the players in Oscar Giles’ room needed to improve their bodies
Most of the linemen made the improvements Herman and Giles were looking for. Some members of that group didn’t make it past the spring and decided to transfer, but according to Herman, those who stayed make up one of the strongest units on the teams. “The defensive line has been a very welcome surprise considering where I thought we were at that position in January,” Herman said.
The majority of snaps along the defensive line will go to senior Poona Ford, juniors Chris Nelson and Charles Omenihu and sophomore Malcolm Roach. Behind them, Herman mentioned junior Jamari Chisholm, sophomore Gerald Wilbon and freshman Ta’Quon Graham as players who would contribute behind those first four.
On the offensive side, Herman is encouraged by the play of four of his five linemen. The one spot that continues to concern him is right tackle. Currently, sophomore Denzel Okafor and senior Tristan Nickelson are in a battle for the starting role.
The other four, left to right, of junior Connor Williams, junior Patrick Vahe, sophomore Zach Shackelford and junior Jake McMillon, give Herman plenty of hope.
“We still need to find a consistent, productive right tackle, but those other four guys are – maybe the national championship year at Ohio State that I was a part of, that might be the only other offensive line that can compare with these guys – so I’m excited to see them play,” Herman said.
According to Herman, other weaknesses are a result of depth. He made sure to note that he thought his starting 22 could compete with anyone in the nation. He also acknowledged his responsibility to create a strong roster past those first 22.
“Certainly not top to bottom as you would like,” Herman said. “We’re getting there. We can’t go on the waiver wire. We can’t sign some free agents. They’re ours, and we’ve got to develop them.”
THE OPPONENT AHEAD
Texas is currently an 18.5 point favorite for the opening match-up against Maryland. Though favored, Herman isn’t taking the Big Ten East foe lightly.
“I know that they went to a bowl game last year in DJ Durkin’s first year,” Herman said. “I have a ton of respect for him. He was one of the best defensive coordinators in the country for a long time. For him to get his hands on a program like that, I think the sky is the limit for him and what he’s able to accomplish there, a team that was a bowl team last year that is very veteran on defense.”
The Terrapin defense has nine upperclassmen listed as starters and 16 upperclassmen in the two deep.
“There’s a lot of experience on that defensive front, especially the middle linebacker, I think he’s wearing No. 1 this year, wore No. 23 last year,” Herman said.
Maryland LB Jermaine Carter, Jr. dons the single digit this year, but his tackles last year were in the triple digits at 110. He also added six sacks and nine tackles for loss on his way to an honorable mention All-Big Ten season. Herman also noted another playmaker on the Maryland defense, defensive end Jesse Aniebonam, calling him “a heck of a player.”
Heading into Saturday’s game, Herman now has an answer as to what Maryland quarterback he has to prepare for. Herman only named a starter for if there was a game that day, Durkin named Tyrrell Pigrome as his starter that weekend.
Herman said Pigrome added an additional dimension to their offense.
“They’ve already shown themselves to be a really good running offense in terms of (Lorenzo) Harrison and (Ty) Johnson in the backfield,” Herman said. “I think they averaged over 200 yards rushing a game last year. Now you add a dynamic runner at QB and that is going to cause you fits.”
Although he has to respect a new threat, Herman laid out a path to victory on the defensive side of the ball.
“I think if we can neutralize their front six or seven on offense and keep them away from our quarterback and move the line of scrimmage a little bit in the run game, and then if we can stop the run, those are going to be our two biggest points of emphasis to win the game.”