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Texas youth movement starting to pay dividends

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Still clearly a flawed team, the Longhorns have hope for the future because of a talented group of freshmen.

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Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

"You can't run away from something that's going to be great in the next couple of years."

In one of the darkest moments of recent Texas Longhorns football history, there was freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson expressing unabated optimism despite the blowout against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

"Our team is all these young guys," admitted head coach Charlie Strong after an encouring victory against the Rice Owls on Saturday night.

As much as players like Jefferson and cornerback Kris Boyd and redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard made their respective cases for a hopeful future, there's just a mass movement afoot in the Texas program.

"And even like -- you know where it's just visible, like when we have pregame meals, the guys eat by class," Strong said. "So I call the seniors up and it's only a very few of them. So it's usually the seniors and juniors go together and there's not many juniors."

But when I call the sophomores and freshmen and then it's like the whole team like stands up and it's like, wow, there's a team right there. Because I always punch Vance and I said, there goes your team walking up right there."

Just take a look at the depth chart for the juniors and seniors right now -- there are only 12 seniors on the entire depth chart compared to 22 freshman and redshirt freshmen, not to mention three other first-year players who transferred from junior colleges as members of the 2015 recruiting class.

"I really feel like this is the class that's really going to change the program," said freshman wide receiver John Burt. "It was evident tonight. A whole bunch of freshmen were out there making plays, so I feel like after we get this first year under our belt, I really feel like going forward Texas is going to start heading in the right direction."

In two games, the Longhorns have two plays of 40 yards or more and Burt has both of them -- the 48-yard pass to set up the only score against the Fighting Irish in the opener and the 69-yard bomb to start the second half on Saturday. The passing game hasn't gotten going yet with so few plays, but getting the ball to Burt is major priority moving forward because he's a John Harris starter kit with better hands and more speed.

Even freshman cornerback Holton Hill contributed late. The freshman cornerback gave up a pass that allowed Rice to convert a third down, but he instantly laid a big hit on the receiver, serving notice that the young defensive backs plan on bringing a physicality to the Texas defense that it definitely needs. The fumble that fellow freshman cornerback Kris Boyd helped force only happened because he closed so quickly on the Rice speed option, a feat of reckless abandon that produced a Longhorns touchdown when Jefferson recovered the loose ball.

Then, of course, there was redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard, who provided a major spark with his arm and his legs, leading the team in rushing and producing two long touchdown passes.

"He's just so exciting to watch, because you know that he's a winner, he has an attitude about him, and it was just more of him just continuing to grow," said Strong.

Heard isn't the only one with that type of attitude, however -- it's something that defines the entire freshman class.

"The young players, they have so much energy and for Malik to Jerrod to Boyd to all those young players, even Vahe, they have a little just a little spark to them," said Strong. "And that's the way they are every day. That's the way they practice. That's just the way they carry themselves."

There's a fine line between confidence and cockiness or arrogance. For a player as grounded as Jefferson, staying hungry and staying humble is something he can accomplish.

"I don't speak highly of myself or the kids in my class, but there's something special about us," Jefferson said. "The meetings we have, the talks we have, the relationships we've built throughout the whole process, it's great.

"It can be this year, it doesn't matter, but eventually we're going to be great," he added. "Eventually it's going to start one day."

Maybe that day was Saturday.