AUSTIN — Eleven months ago, Texas head coach Tom Herman walked off the team bus to enter Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth with a baseball bat in hand. The message in Fort Worth was to keep swinging, that is, keep believing in the way Herman’s staff was trying to set up the program. The Longhorns lost to TCU that night, but there was a little reward at the end of the year as a result of that continued swinging, a bowl victory in the Texas Bowl.
That victory, however, came after a 6-6 regular season with multiple mishaps, notably Maryland, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech. To many, a 7-6 season, especially after hopes surrounding Herman were so high, seemed more like a disappointment despite the two-game improvement. The season opening loss in D.C. allowed more doubt among fans to spread, and a one-possession win over Tulsa did nothing to stem that advance the following week.
Then, Texas beat a talented USC team in front of a record crowd. The next week, the Longhorns beat TCU for the first time since 2013. And seven days later, Herman’s team did something a Longhorn team hasn’t done in 16 years, win at Kansas State.
The 4-1 start has the Horns ranked No. 19 heading into the Red River Shootout against No. 7 Oklahoma in Dallas. With emotions riding high not only because of Saturday’s opponent but also because of the previous four weeks’ result, Herman noted his team, now more than ever, believes in the system he and his assistants brought to Texas because they kept swinging.
“Certainly trust is earned,” Herman said Monday. “It’s not given, and I think more than anything we as coaches have earned their trust and we needed to win a few of these games to prove to ourselves that this isn’t just theory, but the way we do things in this program actually reaps dividends.”
Though there may be a level of trust Herman has for many of his players off the field, the number is more limited on the field. His in-game rotation is 15 to 16 players on each side of the ball, not including special teams.
There’s a wide variety within that group. There are fifth-year program guys like Jerrod Heard, Andrew Beck, Chris Nelson, and Elijah Rodriguez. There are true freshmen like Caden Sterns, B.J. Foster, and Keaontay Ingram. There’s a mixture of classes at other positions that includes players like Sam Ehlinger, Gary Johnson, Brandon Jones, and Breckyn Hager.
Those players currently are the ones determining the results of the game on the field, but for Herman, he can’t operate a program with 30 players.
“I think the core group of guys that we trust are ones that have been maybe easier for us to have earned their trust,” Herman said. “So we continue daily, hourly even, to cultivate the trust of our teams and our players.”
Herman is finding the right amount of trust at the right time for the Longhorns. Though he may publicly say the preparation for Saturday afternoon’s game against Oklahoma will look the same as preparation for previous weeks, every player as part of that preparation has to walk by a countdown clock in the Moncrief facility that now shows there’s less than a week until kickoff in the Cotton Bowl.
“We’ll have to play our best to stay competitive in this game, but as we proved last year, I think if we do, our best is good enough to be competitive,” Herman said. “Excited for our fans, excited for our university. We understand the passion and history and the importance of this rivalry for both states, for both universities, for college football.”
Some of the players Herman trusts have performed at a level higher than expected like Sterns, Ingram, and Jones. Others have been steady, and others are in need of improvement.
Through all that, Texas continued to win. When asked to pinpoint how that happened, Herman once again stressed belief and trust.
“Our players trust us and we trust them,” Herman said. “Winning on Saturdays certainly helps, but at times even last year that didn’t.”
With the winning?
“I think we’re making progress every day,” Herman said. “I wouldn’t say there’s nobody in that locker room that doesn’t trust us, and there’s nobody in that locker room we don’t trust either.”