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Tom Herman’s first football practices as head coach of the Texas Longhorns will be telling on multiple fronts. It will tell Herman who some of his better players are, as he has yet to see them in a football practice. It will tell Herman who will continue to be leaders, as he has only seen them in conditioning drills with logo-less apparel. It will tell him what it is like to coach football at the University of Texas.
“I’m just excited about the start of spring practice,” Herman said. “Excited to see our guys rather than running around cones, actually running routes and covering people.”
Herman enters the spring of 2017 still blind to what specifically caused the team to lose seven games last year having watched no film of the previous season. Spring practice will open his eyes to who he can go to on the field and rely on as football players.
Herman talked about several players he has grown to rely on as people, juniors P.J. Locke and Malik Jefferson, and senior Naashon Hughes. While he may not know what they look like on the field, he does know that their leadership ability will help instill with the rest of the team what he demands in his program.
“I had a meeting with our coaches, in fact, this morning, and I said the two things that we demand in this program, that we don’t coach, that we don’t teach, that we demand are effort and ball security,” Herman said. “Everything else, don’t worry about anything else, we’ll fix it. Guy runs the wrong route or goes the wrong way, does the wrong technique, we can fix that. If a guy doesn’t go hard, that’s hard to fix. We want to see guys that go really hard, defense running and flying to the football, and then on offense if you touch the football, you better protect it with everything you’ve got. It’s the difference in winning and losing football games.”
Over the past few years, Texas has done its fair share of losing. Herman told reporters a story about one of his first meetings with the team as head coach. He how many of them were part of a winning Longhorn team. Only three players raised their hand.
Since most of the players, including the upperclassmen, have tasted very little success, Herman said he’s entered into a locker room receptive of what he’s trying to do.
“It’s probably even less immediate pushback than when we got to Houston,” Herman said. “When we took over at Houston, they were 8-5, just beaten Pitt in a miraculous comeback in the Armed Forces Bowl. I think there were some kids there that still looked sideways at us when we told them to do certain things. Here, I think our guys are embarrassed. They understand that change is necessary in order to achieve some results.”
Herman knows in order to get those results, there is a lot of work to be done, especially in the trenches.
TROUBLE ON THE DEFENSIVE FRONT
Almost unprompted, Herman told the media he thinks they have a major deficiency along the defensive line after winter conditioning.
“From a specific standpoint, I think we’ve got to find some d-lineman,” Herman said. “I’m worried about that group through the winter offseason. They didn’t perform very well. Not sure about the types of bodies that we have there as well. We’ve got to find some length.”
The players that are here, like senior Poona Ford and sophomore Jordan Elliott, came here as part of previous head coach Charlie Strong’s philosophy that bigger people beat up on smaller people.
Under Herman’s philosophy, they are currently too big to be effective.
“Right now, I don’t know because we have some guys that are 350, 360 pounds,” Herman said. I” don’t know how you move at that weight. We’re working on it. We’re certainly not going to throw our hands up and say ‘woe is me.’ Last time I checked, you’ve got to play with a defensive line. Cool thing about tight end is you can figure out formations where you don’t need one. In the game of football, you’ve got to play with a defensive line. We’ve got to teach them.”
Herman reiterated he and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will have to use the players in Austin in order to win at Texas. It was not all bad from Herman, as he acknowledged things could change very quickly. In addition, he believes his staff can get them to where they need to be.
“Everything is a concern right now,” Herman said. “It really is. We could go out and by practice ten, [the defensive linemen] could be the best position group, I don’t know. I’ve seen things like that happen, but it is a concern knowing the league that we play in, but I also know we’ve got four defensive coaches that are as good as there are in the country.”
WHAT HAPPENS AT TIGHT END?
While tight end was still going to be a little thin during spring practice, the addition of signees Cade Brewer and Reese Leitao in the summer were going to change the way Corby Meekins’ tight end room looked.
That all changed last week when Leitao was arrested at his school and was accused of possession with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of a school or park.
Leitao was someone who might have had the chance to contribute very early in his career at Texas. Now, Herman must wait for the legal system to process Leitao before he can do anything.
“The standing is that we’re not a court of law,” Herman said. “We’re not into that, so I think we’re going to reserve judgement for once we get some resolution as to the severity and if any crimes that he might have committed.”
With the charges Leitao is facing, it seems unlikely that he will make it to campus. However, Herman would not shut the door on whether Leitao could join the team or not.
“Again right now it’s allegation at this point, but at the same time I think if that resolution, I had this conversation with him and his parents, that resolution needs to be sped up than what a normal court process might be because I’ve got to know something somewhere around the summer as to whether we’re going to allow him to be part of the team or not,” Herman said.
In an unrelated move, Herman announced junior Garrett Gray would move to tight end, although he mentioned he was “a year away” due to not having the mass needed to play the position.
QUARTERBACK TOP TO BOTTOM
With Sam Ehlinger enrolling early, Herman now has a legitimate quarterback competition on his hands between Ehlinger and sophomore Shane Buechele. Buechele had a solid freshman campaign, but it soured toward the end due to thumb and neck injuries.
Herman would not talk at length about either quarterback, but he did mention what he expects from his quarterbacks.
“Competitive, leader, football smart,” Herman said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys that are average students that are brilliant on the football field. You don’t have to be a 4.0 GPA to be football smart. I think you’ve got to be a guy your teammates gravitate toward, that you make better. You make your teammates around you better through your play and your actions. Specific to the position, making great decisions, making them consistently, and then accuracy, ball placement, and the speed at which you can translate decision to ball out of my hand is important, too.”
There will also be competition behind Ehlinger and Buechele. Sophomores Matthew Merrick and Josh Covey will be competing for the third quarterback spot. Herman took the time to compliment Covey’s athleticism, saying he could possibly “add a dimension that gets you out of a game running around a little bit” if he ever was forced into action.
Does that mean junior quarterback turned receiver Jerrod Heard has completely moved on from throwing the football? Not at this point, but it’s not what he will be focusing on this spring.
“We don’t want to fill his bucket up with that in the spring and take reps away from Matthew and Covey to show us what they’ve got, but if Merrick and Covey can’t be that third guy, then in training camp we’ll start introducing a few things for Jerrod,” Herman said. “We want him to focus on being the best wide receiver he can be, and worry about the third team quarterback stuff when we need to.”
CHRIS WARREN – BIG IF
Junior Chris Warren is one of the biggest offseason topics of discussion for Longhorn fans, literally. Listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds but rumored to be closer to 260, Warren has the opportunity to continue where D’Onta Foreman left off.
So far, he’s impressed his head coach, but as Herman said, it has been in conditioning drills and not in football drills.
“I’ve never seen a 255 pound kid move and bend the way that he moves and bends,” Herman said. “It’s a pretty cool thing to watch. Football’s not played running around cones.”
Herman knows he could have a special talent at running back as long as he starts running the way he running backs should.
“Chris has been impressive,” Herman said. “He has been in the offseason drills. I told him, and I don’t mind sharing with you, I kind of pulled him aside during one of the workouts and I said ‘you have been a very pleasant surprise. You’re going to make a lot of money someday playing this position if you put your pads down and run through somebody.’”
What may be one of the more talented positions Herman and Orlando have at their disposal also have the most to prove. In this defense, as long as Herman can get his defensive line problems sorted out, the linebackers are expected to fly around to get to the ball.
Orlando’s 3-4 is composed of the boundary OLB or B-Backer, the weak side linebacker or Rover, middle linebacker or Mac and F-Backer or field linebacker. In nickel situations, Herman said the F-backer would come off the field.
One of the major questions is where freshman All-American Malcolm Roach would play. Roach factored in at multiple positions last year both at linebacker and along the defensive line. Herman told reporters Roach would play at defensive end, but in the middle of another answer went back on his previous answer.
“Before you write Malcolm Roach as a defensive end, I’m not sure right now,” Herman said. “I’ve got to be honest with you. Maybe he could go grab Todd Orlando. I know there’s been some discussion, I saw you typing away. I don’t want to make that statement until I’m sure. We’ve got to figure out where he’s going.”
Another player seemingly between positions is junior Breckyn Hager. Hager turned in a strong campaign last year after being moved into more of a pass rush from the edge role. Herman said Hager will get looks at the boundary backer. Herman also said the B-backer needs mass that he was not sure Hager had right now. Herman did mention that Hughes would likely fit into that B-backer position.
Even though Hager may lack some of the physical tools for the position, Herman was quick to praise the former Westlake standout.
“I love his intensity,” Herman said. “He wants to badly to cut his hair, too. He said he’s not cutting it until we win the Big 12 championship. Hopefully it’s pretty soon.”
Now, the question remains of what will happen with junior Malik Jefferson. Jefferson was forced into a middle linebacker role last season he was not completely familiar with. Now, he’ll be able to move around some and make plays within the new defense and with the addition of JUCO signee Gary Johnson.
While Herman barely touched on Jefferson’s on-field talent, he did identify things Jefferson needed to work on.
“He’s a phenomenal kid,” Herman said. “Great leaders aren’t always liked by everybody. Don’t worry about being liked, worry about being a great leader, being vocal, and being demanding on your teammates. He’s done a really good job going into that, hopefully we continue to see more of it throughout the spring.”
WIDE RECEIVER BUY IN
Herman did not go mention any specific names from the wide receiver room aside from Heard, but he did appreciate the buy in he received from his pass catchers.
In Herman’s offseason, players are designated as “champions” if they do everything to program standards in the classroom and weight room. Champions receive a special meal at the end of a “quarter.” The “quarters” for Herman are winter conditioning, spring football, workouts to the end of the spring semester, summer conditioning and the season.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a wide receiver group have over 50 percent of their position group as champions in the first quarter of a season,” Herman said. “That’s telling. That means they’re buying in. How good of football players they are, I don’t know. I like the fact there is some experience in that room, and it seems to be some decent kids that are willing to work hard.”
ODDS AND ENDS
-Herman barely mentioned anyone in the defensive backfield aside from Locke and John Bonney as two players who have stepped up as leaders. Regarding safety, Herman said “We’ll see who Coach Naivar jogs out there, who he thinks, and who Coach Orlando thinks.” Corners got almost no mention at all.
-Offensive line was also barely touched on. Herman did compliment Derek Warehime’s work at UH, starting a new combination almost every game.
-When asked what his strongest group was, Herman responded: “Let me reserve that one until we’ve put shoulder pads on. Anybody can look good running around cones and jumping over bags and all that. I don’t want to say anything is strong just yet.” His biggest concern was tight end.
-Herman was relaxed during the conference. When Texas SID John Bianco said there was time for only two more questions, Herman said he had as much time as the media needed. He joked with Bianco, asking him to fold his arms like a bouncer. Bianco joked right back with Herman, but it was interesting to see how relaxed he was at the podium. He even shot a compliment to San Antonio Express-News columnist Mike Finger congratulating him on his promotion.
-He also joked around about the LHN, but in a way that proved he knew the asset he had in the network. At the end of the conference, he tossed it back to Lowell Galindo in the studio.
QUOTE OF THE CONFERENCE
“Towing the line is exhausting. Me and the staff are going to make sure that if a drill says full speed through the cone, then it doesn’t matter if it’s the ump-hundredth rep of that, or if it’s hot, or if you’re tired, or if you’re sore. If we say full speed through the cone, and you don’t go full speed through the cone, there’s going to be consequences for that. It’s exhausting. You seem like the police out there at times as a coach. You have to set the expectation level early when developing the culture and developing the program. I would hope after fifteen practices they know what that expectation is.”