In the season opener, the Texas Longhorns played 10 true freshmen against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but other than freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, some of the biggest contributions came from players who had barely made a previous impact for the Longhorns.
Head coach Charlie Strong talked up players like senior wide receiver Jacorey Warrick during fall camp and noted the progress of junior wide receiver Jake Oliver in the spring, but there was serious skepticism that the two could hold off younger players.
“You just love those two guys because of the work they've put into it,” Strong said on Monday.
The same goes for sophomore offensive guard Alex Anderson, who earned a spot in the rotation ahead of freshmen like Denzel Okafor and Patrick Hudson, and senior safety Kevin Vaccaro, who rather ably replaced fellow senior Dylan Haines.
Even sixth-year senior cornerback Sheroid Evans was expected to contribute, but his start over sophomore Holton Hill was both surprising and effective.
None of those players were expected to play much in 2016 with all the incoming talent, yet have emerged in the new offense or under different position coaches or both.
Warrick caught 10 passes in 2013 as a true freshman, but saw his production dwindle to six catches in 2014 and two catches last season. None of them were particularly impactful — certainly not as impactful as his catch on the first play of overtime, a short pass that featured Warrick eluding a defender and gaining 20 yards.
After earning the job as the team’s starting punt returner, the 5’11, 172-pounder had a 20-yard return, though it was eventually brought back for an unnecessary block in the back.
The coaches clearly like his steady presence back as a punt returner, as knowing when to field the ball and doing so cleanly with consistency is not an easy task.
“The reason why he's back there catching punts, I know this, number one, the ball's going to get caught, which I feel really good about that,” Strong said. “But he can make a guy miss and go take it.”
Where Warrick had been a spot contributor on offense, fourth-year junior Jake Oliver didn’t play as a redshirt freshman and then saw most of his action in eight games last year on special teams, making two tackles.
In new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s system, however, Oliver was able to break out during the spring as an inside receiver. Losing around 24 pounds, according to Strong, also helped to maximize his quickness.
More than just improved quickness, the Dallas Jesuit product has stood out due to his reliability, alternatively earning the nicknames of Automatic and Mr. Clutch from his head coach.
“Just look what he's done,” Strong said. “And I know that the defensive coaches get mad at me because I call him Mr. Clutch. When we get in the red zone with our defense, he needs to rely on him because he never changes the speed. He comes off the ball and you think he's running slow, and all of a sudden Shane gets it to him.
“Then they're trying to drop him underneath it and he goes overtop. Then he threw it where he gets back inside the guy. And Shane too with the ball where he thought he was going, then he kind of faded away from him.”
Four years after Oliver set the state high school record in receptions with 308 to go along with his 56 touchdowns, he led Texas n catches in fall camp, hauling in over 100 and dropped only one or two passes, according to Strong.
Against Notre Dame, Oliver made his first career catch for five yards on 3rd and 6, enabling Texas to go for the first down in Fighting Irish territory. On the 16-play, 88-yard drive to take the lead, one of the key plays was his 21-yard catch and run on 3rd and 8 in which he surged through an attempted tackle short of the first-down marker.
Olvier’s persistence in continuing to work hard for his opportunity and then take advantage of it has earned him the admiration of his coach.
“I'm so happy to see the way he's coming and how everything is working out for him,” Strong said.
The younger brother of former standout Kenny Vaccaro, Kevin mostly played on spcial teams sandwiched around a redshirt season before stepping in for Haines last season after he was ejected for targeting against Cal. Generously listed at 5’11 and 188 pounds by the school, Vaccaro responded with nine tackles, one pass broken up, and a forced fumble inside the Texas red zone.
Once again, Haines had to leave the game, this time due to a head injury, and Vaccaro was ready. Coming on a blitz, the senior was able to sack Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire for an 11-yard loss and end a drive even though it’s often difficult to bring Zaire down.
Vaccaro wasn’t the only injury replacement who played well, as Anderson stepped in for senior right guard Kent Perkins after he left the game for the third time. It was Anderson who pulled into the hole and made a key block on the first overtime touchdown run by senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes on 3rd and goal.
Offensive line coach Matt Mattox calls power his “Mama” play because it’s what the ‘Horns will go to in key situations. In his first game action at Texas, Anderson made sure it worked on a critical play.
Asked about Anderson on Tuesday, offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert said something that could describe all of the older players who stepped up unexpectedly.
“The biggest things with any guys that come in and fill in for somebody is we have a next man up mentality,” Gilbert said. “Our guys have got to do a great job of being prepared week in and week out. Each guy knows he’s one play away. Really good (for) him and his focus, throughout camp, and obviously preparation for the Notre Dame game, that he was prepared when that opportunity came.”
They all were. And took advantage.