Reading between the lines: Tom Herman

Tom Herman at his introductory press conference (Will Gallagher/IT)

Tom Herman at his introductory press conference (Will Gallagher/IT)

At this point, I’ve touched on the major issues Texas is facing: the coaching effort needed to fix the offense, the difficult path to six wins, and Herman’s desire to have staff continuity.

This season now comes down to winning one of the last two games in order to be called a success. Lose these next two, which is just as likely as winning one of two, and Herman’s first year is more of the same of the last three years of Texas football. Reach a bowl, and the story is a little bit different.

Since I’ve written on the biggest story lines facing the Longhorns right now, I decided to “read between the lines” again, and look at everything Herman mentioned in his press conference yesterday.

Opening statement: Really brief opening. Still, again, really proud of the win. It gives us a winning record in the Big 12 conference play heading into the last two weeks of the season. Proud of how our guys handled adversity, and proud of the fact that we definitely turned the page and we are full-steam ahead in preparations to try to win a road conference game again this season and in a very hostile environment against a top 25 opponent. Updates, offensive players of the game: Derek Kerstetter, who had, I believe, 7 knockdown blocks, graded out 87%, and then Lorenzo Joe. So, two very polar opposites of the spectrum from an experience standpoint, but two guys that played really well for us. Then, defensively, the player of the game was Antwuan Davis.

My take: Coach V put Kerstetter down for a C which is failing in his system, but the coaches’ system must have seen a little different. No argument on Joe and Davis though, they made the plays the team needed against Kansas.

On Connor Williams being available: Barring a setback, yeah, I think so. Practiced non-contact last week. Practiced against the scout team, but in shorts and helmets yesterday. Tomorrow will be a big test for him. Put the full pads on, get in inside drill, bang him around a little bit, and see how he feels.

Connor Williams (Will Gallagher/IT)

Connor Williams (Will Gallagher/IT)

My take: Putting Connor Williams back in the lineup makes things so much easier for this offense. Williams makes left tackle a strength instead of a liability, no matter how rusty he might be. The interesting thing will be if Kerstetter remains at right tackle, or if Nickelson or Okafor move to replace him. That might be difficult, since Kerstetter has played as well as the coaches could have asked for from a true freshman.

On conversations with Williams: I think I’d rather keep my conversations with Connor private.

My take: With this touchy of a subject (injuries, NFL draft, leaving early), not surprising.

On how much Connor Williams’ injury affected what the offense could do: A lot. But so did Elijah’s injury and Andrew Beck’s injury. Those were guys at positions that we were not deep at. Could we have handled a wideout or two going down, certainly. But, you know, to have those three guys go down, two of them for the season, basically, and one for the bulk of the season was a big impact on the offense’s development. I think it was a big impact from the standpoint this year that, again, we’re not where we want to be, but I think it’s also a really good impact for the future too. Those guys that filled in for Connor, Elijah, and Andrew and Denzel Okafor, Derek Kerstetter, and Cade Brewer, those guys are going to be a lot better next year having been thrown into the fire as they were. They’ll be so much stronger and bigger with a year’s development in our program. We’ll look back on it, and it’s never a good thing, but we’ll certainly find the silver lining there.

My take: Go ahead and mark the “Williams, Beck, Rodriguez” spot on your Tom Herman press conference bingo card. This is one of Herman’s normal talking points, and though it might get old hearing it over and over and over, it still holds true. This offense is so much different without those three players. Not only were they starters (though I’m not totally sold on just how great Rodriguez was), but they were the guys who could open up holes in the run game. When they went down, the run game went with it. Those young players who filled in did get good experience, but the team would be much better if they were not asked to contribute the way they are right now.

On Malik Jefferson having to come off the field a bit the last two weeks: He had a — he sprained his toe in this game (against Kansas). He was battling the stomach bug that was going around pretty much our whole team the last couple weeks. I think it’s going around the whole university to be honest with you. But, yeah, he battled that Thursday and Friday, but I think he felt okay on Saturday. But he sprained his toe, had to come off, get it examined and taped.

My take: Tom Herman asks for championship hydration for a reason.

On the rotation at running back and receiver and the reasoning behind that: Well, I think, one, nobody has completely separated themselves at those positions, so there is a lot of deserving players to play. I think to say that you’re going to play three wide receivers the entire game, their legs would fall off, as much running as they do. The tempo at which we play and no-huddle and all of that. So I think that’s pretty standard for most no-huddle spread teams. Then at tailback, we’re trying to figure out, you know, which of those two true freshmen merit the most carries. I think Danny Young had 20 carries in the game. So I didn’t feel any that there was a lack of carries going to him as opposed to the other ones. So it’s more of a freshness thing. We don’t have Ricky Williams. We don’t have Roy Williams. We’ve got a bunch of good players that are performing really, really well right now. A lot of them deserve to play.

My take: I posted this in the media thread yesterday: “This team ran an offense last year in which one of its advantages over defense was that they WOULDN’T sub on offense unless injury or situation said it needed to. Granted, they rotated guys a lot, but that was before a series began, not in the middle of it. But Herman didn’t watch any film from last year.” Also the fact that Herman is trying to figure out which of the two freshman should see more snaps is telling. Not which of the running backs, not which of the options available, which of the two true freshman. Go ahead and mark the “We don’t have this (former great) on our team” spot on your Tom Herman press conference bingo card.

On Dorian Leonard, P.J. Locke and Gary Johnson’s status: Yeah, Dorian is out, fractured. The CT scan actually showed some other issues that he was having with his foot that he was actually playing through, which I thank him for. PJ, it’s not going to be this week. He got out of his boot Sunday, yesterday, and we’re hoping to have him back for Texas Tech. Gary practiced non-contact yesterday after being diagnosed as a pretty good stinger. So as soon as the stinger — I’ve learned over the years it’s a trauma to the nerves in the neck and different nerves heal at different rates. So, again, he can run around and do everything. He just can’t bang on that nerve until it heals, and it could be a day or two. It could be four or five days. He was out there doing seven on seven non-contact stuff yesterday.

My take: Losing Leonard is tough because he was a senior starter who had played well this season, but now it’s time for Collin Johnson to consistently make plays. Jerrod Heard is listed as his backup, as the do it all junior continues to do everything the coaches ask of him. If Locke is not back in time, Davis has good film from this season. The only problem is that most of the film is either on special teams or against Baylor and Kansas. WVU and Tech present some tough challenges for the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week. Stingers suck, and the Longhorns will need Gary Johnson this game.

On the tackle rotation if Connor Williams is back: Then the tackle rotation, if Connor’s there, again, it will be a big play-it-by-ear situation because this is a guy that hasn’t played in a game in whatever it is, eight weeks, seven weeks, something like that. So we’ve got to be cognizant of how his body feels throughout the course of the game. Then I think at right tackle, both those guys would be in the mix in terms of (Tristan) Nickelson and (Denzel) Okafor, and I think we’ll see how we rotate them. I think it would be difficult because of the lack of experience that Denzel has, to move him from left to right might rock his world a little bit. So I would think the guy that Tristan would be there on the right side and maybe a little bit more than Denzel behind (Derek) Kerstetter.

My take: I say go with Kerstetter, because even if he hasn’t been great, he’s been decent this year. I’m not sure it’s possible to say that for the other two options.

Sam Ehlinger (Will Gallagher/IT)

Sam Ehlinger (Will Gallagher/IT)

On the quarterback situation the final two weeks: Too early for me to tell anything. I think these last two games it’s going to be — what do we need to win, and what do these guys do well in the game plan? Do we need to run the quarterback a little bit more and have more of a presence in the zone read game? Then we’ll play Sam a little bit more. If we’ve got to throw the ball down field and we’ve got to get the ball out of our hands really quickly and some of the RPO stuff because of the zone coverages that we’re seeing, then that’s, obviously, right up Shane’s alley. So I think as we see how the game plan develops, we’ll know a lot more in terms of the number of reps. I would imagine you’ll see both of them at some point. But in what ratio, I don’t know just yet, having only watched a couple hours of film.

My take: If you want to win, start Ehlinger.

On the secondary and the potential problems there that WVU poses: Yeah, he’s (WVU QB Will Grier) the fourth leading passer in the country. And he’s got some pretty talented guys around him. He’s got the Sills kid who is leading the country in touchdown catches. He’s got a couple other receivers that are very high up in some categories. So I think what he presents might be — well, no, there is a kid in Norman that’s pretty good too, and in Fort Worth. But he’s along the lines of Mayfield and Hill in terms of he’s really, really accurate throwing the football. He’s a tremendous passer. But he can make you pay with his feet too. He’s as good as we’ve played, and we’ve played some really, really good ones. How was the secondary? Inconsistent would probably be the best way to put it. I think, again, everybody wants to say, oh, you had the ball thrown on you, so the secondary must have played bad. Or you didn’t stop the run, so the D-line must have played bad. Or you couldn’t run the football, so the O-line must have played bad. There are a lot of things that go into giving up yards in the pass game. So we did make some great plays, but three interceptions. So to say that it was a bad game, I don’t think is fair, but we lacked some consistency at times.

My take: Some Sooners saw this yesterday without full context and thought Herman possibly said Grier was better than Mayfield. Obviously Herman caught himself and noted that Mayfield is one of the best players in the country, but he still knows Grier fits well in Holgo’s offense. He’ll be a lot better than what they’ve seen from Carter Stanley, Charlie Brewer, and Zach Smith these past couple of weeks.

On the decision to move Chris Warren to tight end: I think the decision was led by, obviously, necessity, one. We needed some more physicality at that position. We had decided that with the offensive line inexperience that the two freshmen running backs were going to probably get a lot more carries here these final half of the season, because of their elusiveness a little bit and ability to break tackles. So you’ve got a 6’2″, 245, 250-pound kid that can run and bend, can catch the football, that loves his team and he’s a great kid and is a hard worker. Standing him on the sideline is probably not his best role on the team. So we’re still experimenting with it. Obviously, that’s a tough spot to put him in with just a few weeks left. Hey, go learn a new position. So we’re very careful with what we’re asking him to do on a week-to-week basis, and make sure that the package that we have for him is consumable by him and executable by him. Again, it was all of those things, and mainly it was Chris’s attitude and effort and desire to win.

My take: Max protect is going to be needed a lot for the offense the rest of this season. It’s good to have an experienced blocker in the backfield to help out when the quarterback needs it, and that’s what Warren provides. He’s also now in a position where he can make plays out of the backfield catching the football. On the times I zeroed in on him Saturday night, Warren looked like a willing and somewhat capable blocker. Even if he wasn’t blowing guys up, he was making sure they didn’t reach the ball-carrier. The future of this position is Brewer, but the present asked for Warren and he did pretty well when called upon. Also, very telling on the freshman RBs. They’re the best ball-carriers on the roster right now.

On playing in Morgantown and if he’s happy about the game time: To answer the second one, absolutely. Not just for the atmosphere, but anytime you go on the road, especially on a plane ride, playing in the morning is good because you get to get back at a decent hour. We got back at 6 a.m. after we played USC. So that’s never a good thing when you’re talking about the student-athlete’s well-being. I don’t know. I’ve never played there — or never coached there. I hear it will be loud. I imagine that. Morgantown is a bit remote in terms of travel to get there. And they’re really good. So, I think the places that are really hard to play in this country usually revolve around teams that are really, really good.

My take: Better at noon than 7. Likely better for some of the furniture in Morgantown as well.

On the team learning how to win and if it’s taking the necessary steps to do so: Well, we’ve got to win one that we’re not supposed to. I think right now, save for the very first game, we’ve won the ones that we’re supposed to, and we haven’t the ones that people said we weren’t supposed to. So I think that’s got to be the next step. As opposed to last year, I don’t know anything about last year. But I did have a couple players tell me, hey, this game started off a lot like last year’s game against Kansas. But this year there was never any doubt on the sideline. There were a couple bumps in the road there in the second and third quarter, but we were going to be just fine. So I think that is a step in the right direction, when your players are actually communicating that to you after the game. But I think the biggest next step — yeah, are we learning how to win? Certainly. But the biggest next step is we’ve got to win one of these road games against a top 25 team that most people would think we don’t have a chance at doing.

My take: Whenever this team appears to be on the brink of breaking through, reporters start asking coaches and players the “is this team learning how to win” question. It’s relevant, since this team doesn’t really know how to win. 21-26 will do that to you. Every time it gets asked, the Longhorns prove that they either haven’t fully learned the subject matter yet, or that the other team has a more advanced understanding of learning how to win.

On Antwuan Davis: I mean, who wouldn’t, if you’re around that guy as much as they are? I think probably the biggest thing is they have seen firsthand what he’s been through, and the ups and downs that some, of no fault of his, some of fault of his. But they’ve seen him persevere. Anytime you have a success story like that where you can go through all of the ups and downs of his career, you can be as disenfranchised as he was and be given a second life, and then capitalize on that with his commitment and his hard work and his dedication, I think it’s inspiring to the rest of our team. He’s a fun guy to be around. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. When you have the story that he has, and he can inspire through first-hand experience, and then you throw on top of it just a great teammate and a likeable guy, that’s when the magic happens, as they say.

Antwuan Davis (Will Gallagher/IT)

Antwuan Davis (Will Gallagher/IT)

My take: In case you missed this detail from Herman in my game story, here it is again: “This is a guy that needed to pass an ungodly amount of hours in the spring and summer to graduate, and he needed to graduate to be eligible to play this season,” Herman said. “(Safeties coach/special teams coordinator) Craig Naivar dove into his life and prodded him and taught him and mentored him to where he did, and he graduated and is playing really good. This is a guy that has thrived in his role on special teams, done an excellent job there, and then when P.J. (Locke) goes down, he’s filled in very, very well for P.J.”

On if Shackelford, Ehlinger and Carter were on a ‘pitch count’ Saturday against Kansas: I think probably the only one of those three with a pitch count was Sam because of the very minimal amount of contact that he got the week of practice. So we wanted to make sure that we just didn’t throw him out there and have him bang around a bunch. But the other two guys, Shackelford and Toneil, they have gone through a full week of practice, so they were good. Maybe just the biggest thing is how strong Connor is in comparison to certainly Derek and Denzel, and, again, this is a youth thing. I love those two kids, and I think their future is extremely bright. But I saw Connor Williams power clean 395 pounds or something ridiculous like that or 365. I mean, it was off the charts strong. So I think just the inside run game presence has been difficult to manufacture without his strength in there.

My take: Pitch count? Sam saw one batter. He needs to get the start this game. Williams’ strength at his size is what makes him so appealing to scouts and decision makers at the next level. It’ll be a huge benefit for this team.

On finishing strong and holding player morale high: Well, I think the guys that are playing key roles for us usually aren’t disgruntled. So I don’t think there is an issue there. I think what you said is real. I think we have a senior class, an experienced class, that although small, is very well-respected. Naashon Hughes and Poona Ford are as respected — are as respected of a two-guy tandem in that locker room as you’ll find in any locker room in the country. So I really do think that there is a genuine desire for our guys to make sure that we get them to the postseason, and that they can play one more game in the burnt orange and white. But I also think that, you know, I mean we also realize the potential of this team, knowing that we lost by five points to one of the top two or three teams in the country. We lost by a field goal in overtime to one of the top teams in the country. Certainly the best — one of the best, if not the best offenses in the country. So I think that desire to send those seniors out with a bang, as well as the confidence and hope that some of the games throughout the season have given us, I don’t see any issue keeping them motivated.

My take: Go ahead and mark the “really want to get our seniors to a bowl” and the “lost by X to the No. X team in the country” spots on your Tom Herman press conference bingo card

On Lil’Jordan Humphrey: Don’t like the leaping part because it exposes the ball too much. So we’ve had some conversations about that. And, in the wildcat, I think it’s back, whatever it was, 8, 10 years ago, when the wildcat first kind of started, it was so very, very new. Then people caught on, and it was like, well, just call a different defense. That’s not the quarterback back there. So if you give them time, the defense time to realize who is back there kind of loses its effectiveness. So the one thing that we wanted to make sure that we did was all of our H-receivers are trained at doing that. Being in the game, and when Coach Beck wants to go to a wildcat deal, where, again, it’s like running your quarterback without running your quarterback because you do have a lead blocker, but it’s not the quarterback carrying it, we can hurry up and do it. Whoever is at the H-receiver position, gets back there, claps his hands and takes a snap. So it’s not — although Lil’Jordan is really good at it because of his physical nature, and I’m sure his experience playing running back in high school has something to do with it too. But it’s something that goal line, short yardage deals that we feel by going fast to it that we can maybe get an advantage.

Lil'Jordan Humphrey (Will Gallagher/IT)

Lil’Jordan Humphrey (Will Gallagher/IT)

My take: I find it interesting that the slot receiver is the one the coaches like running the wildcat. I can’t see Reggie Hemphill-Mapps doing that, but Humphrey makes sense. He is getting the starts at H right now, and he did play running back at Southlake Carroll, so he knows how to run behind an offensive line.

On his perception of the Big 12 while at Houston and if it’s possible to play good defense in this league: Yes, to your second part. I think, again, it will be interesting to see how this year shapes out in terms of the National Championship picture. But as I’ve said before, and I don’t know if any of you fact checked me or not, but I think I read a stat where since the inception of the BCS only one team has won the National Championship with a defense outside the top 25, and that was Auburn with Cam Newton, and they were ranked 32nd. So I think it’s a goal, which it is, and should be, at the University of Texas is to win National Championships. I think you have to play great defense. We are well on our way to establishing that and that culture. My thoughts on the Big 12? I really didn’t — I know it’s probably — it sounds like coach speak, but it’s so true. You’re in such a tunnel when you’re somewhere else. I had no brain cells to waste forming an opinion about a conference that didn’t affect me or my team. But what do I think of it now? I think when you have a senior quarterback and/or a fourth-year junior quarterback, you’ve got a chance in this league. Everywhere, from I’ve said it before, you want to talk about quarterbacks from Jesse Ertz to Baker Mayfield, to Mason Rudolph, to Kenny Hill, to Will Grier, and, oh, by the way, there is a kid up in Lubbock that happens to be third in the country in passing. So these are some special, special quarterbacks. I’m glad a lot of them are seniors, to be quite honest with you. But the Big 12 is tough to play great defense. But I think us and TCU have certainly found out that you can.

My take: Go ahead and mark the “and that was Auburn with Cam Newton” and the “quarterbacks in the Big 12” spots on your Tom Herman press conference bingo card, you might have bingo. Herman is showing that he is extremely serious about both sides of the ball. Also, though he didn’t have brain cells to dedicate to the Big 12, he was at Houston in the midst of their bid to join a Power 5 conference. I’m sure he knew about what he was getting into.

On his message to the fans about the state of the program and where it’s headed: Well, I think where we’re at is not where we had hoped to be. So that’s — you know, there is nobody associated with the University of Texas that that affects more than us. In terms of doing everything we can to make sure that we end this thing on a positive note you. But in terms of the direction, boy, I don’t — I think we are headed in a very, very healthy, good direction. We’re playing with a tremendous amount of effort, tremendous amount of intensity, physicality, and we have proven that when you can do those things, regardless of any deficiencies that you might have, regardless of losing three starters up front on offense, regardless of losing the Doak Walker Award winner at tailback, regardless of having to play musical chairs at quarterback because of injuries and both guys being somewhat inexperienced, that if you do those things, if you play with great effort, intensity, and physicality, you’ve got a chance to win. I think when you look at the direction, I mean, it is exciting because we’re not going to have to deal with some of the cards that we were dealt with this year. Even if we were, the development of the people that had to step in in those roles is going to be one year ahead of where we were this year.

My take: The first sentence of this is honest. Possibly my hottest take from this whole article, I agree with everything Herman says here.

On the traits Chris Warren and Kyle Porter bring to the table: Well, with Kyle, it’s definitely his toughness and his leadership ability. He’s a really well-respected guy. Didn’t want to lose, wanted to make sure that he had a role on this team. The same with Chris. I think his physicality, his ability to combine a guy of that size with some bendability and some speed and athleticism were things that we’re going to continue to make sure that we can find a role for them.

My take: Kyle Porter’s role might be on kick return instead of as a ball carrier, because he’s shown the ability to get moving in the return game and pick up a lot of yards. With Warren, it’s good that Herman is using a big body where they need it. If Warren plays with a tough demeanor, he could be a pretty darn good H-back over these last two or three games.