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By: Travis Hlavinka
For the first time in what honestly feels more like decades than years, Texas can rely on a group of players that are both experienced and physically up for the task of putting together 13 games of solid football.
The group, hoisted by the five newly elected captains, was led by the team’s top vote getter in senior defensive lineman Chris Nelson. The election of Nelson, however, was somewhat of a surprise to head coach Tom Herman, who said he had not seen the full impact that the defensive lineman had on his teammates.
“If you had told me six months ago that this guy was a captain, I would have said no way, because he doesn’t say a whole lot, at least in front of coaches,” Herman said. “And that’s why I think it’s really important that you have your team vote, because Chris was the leading vote-getter, much like (Poona) Ford was the leading vote-getter last year.”
The next two members of the group include a pair of roommates, seniors Andrew Beck and Breckyn Hager, the latter of which holds some sentimental significance to the Longhorn football program.
“To have Beck, and Hager being one of the true father-son combination in history of Texas football, to be captains is pretty unique,” Herman said.
Rounding out the list are a couple of guys that are “just do-right-all-the-time guys” in seniors Anthony Wheeler and Elijah Rodriguez.
The first two to just miss the cut, according to Herman, were seniors Gary Johnson and Kris Boyd. Those two, who are arguably the top two most talented defensive players on the team, undoubtedly boast resumes worthy of wearing Cs on their chests. The fact that both are left on the outside looking in speaks volumes about the abundance of maturity and elder influence in the locker room.
With five of the top seven vote-getters being defensive players, it’s no surprise that the defensive side of the ball excelled while the offensive struggled in 2017. Outside of the wunderkind true freshman Caden Sterns, the defense, like last year, oozes experience. Eight of the 11 defensive starters are seniors. The other two, excluding Sterns, are juniors. Speaking on the defense, Herman believes it is right where it needs
“(I’m) probably most confident about the continuity of our defense and the experience that we have there,” Herman said.
Offensively, Texas is more mature than it has been in recent memory. It returns four of five starters on the offensive line, all three of its top receivers, both of the team’s top two tight ends and a quarterback that’s been through the ringer. The other offensive lineman, senior Calvin Anderson, is a graduate transfer, and the running back position has experience between another graduate transfer in Tre Watson and returning sophomore Daniel Young.
A total 19 of the 22 starters on offense or defense are upperclassmen, and two of the other three starters, sophomores Sam Ehlinger and Derek Kerstetter, started the majority of games in 2017. Herman has found some satisfaction in the fact that this team is more mature than years past.
“I think college football is a game of development and experience,” Herman said. “There are very few impact freshmen that come in, especially when you get outside the skill positions on both sides of the football. So that requires physical and mental maturity and development.”
Texas has to benefit from its veterans if it plans to post a season worthy of being remembered. The senior class in particular is currently sporting a career record of 17-19, going back to the second year of former head coach Charlie Strong’s tenure. Their career record is centered around mediocrity, but can be easily forgotten if 2018 turns into the year it can be. And Herman believes that this group is up to the task.
“These guys have been through a lot, these upperclassmen,” Herman said. “They’ve seen what to do. They’ve seen what gets you beat. They’ve also see how to win against some very good football teams too.”