Multiple times in recent interviews, Tom Herman has reiterated that the Texas Longhorns does not have a depth chart at this time, doing so again during a press conference on Thursday.
He has also stated on more than one occasion that he has not watched any film on Texas from last year, nor does he have any plans to do so. What Herman learns about his players through the next eight months of preparation for September 2 against Maryland at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium is all that will be considered when determining who will step onto the field for the first snaps.
There are many benefits to this approach. The first benefit is that this will surely provide Herman with a recruiting edge over the next month, which is greatly needed considering the transition period is always a challenging one for new coaches when it comes to gaining recruits. Herman has a fine pitch in that the recruits will essentially be entering his program on even footing with the upper class men in the program.
While some are sure to earn their positions between now and the end of the spring semester, many positions will still be open in May, and if a freshman is able to come in and perform better at their respective position, they will likely be the ones receiving the majority of the snaps on opening night.
While there is a lot of talent on this team, and several spots are likely to be filled by a returning starter, some positions seem to be immediately up for grabs.
The most obvious is the starting quarterback position. Sam Ehlinger will be on campus this spring and is expected to push for the starting quarterback position. While it is clear that the Westlake native has a legitimate chance at capturing the position, it is also likely he will benefit from a redshirt year based on the multiple injuries he suffered as a high school senior and how difficult it is to transition from a high school system to a Division I system, especially at quarterback.
Many believe that Sam has a slight edge over the 2016 starter, Shane Buechele due to the belief that he better fits Tom Herman’s system as a dual threat quarterback, but that is simply not the case. When comparing the two side by side, both are 6’1 to 6’2 and both run about a 4.8 second verified 40-yard dash. One big difference noted is that Shane is about 20 pounds lighter than Ehlinger, but other than that, at least physically, the two seem to be about equal.
Ehlinger is rated the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in his class, but Buechele was also rated highly as a dual-threat quarterback, coming in at No. 4. In fact, Buechele ran the ball for 643 yards in his senior year at Arlington Lamar, with an average of 7.3 yards per rush.
While Herman has clearly stated his preference for a quarterback who poses a threat running the football, he also said on Thursday that the quarterback does not have to be Micheal Vick or Braxton Miller — he just needs someone who can take advantage of a cheating defense in the run game. Interestingly enough, Herman did say that he’s seen enough of Buechele to know that he can so, even without watching specifically film on the sophomore.
Both Buechele and Ehlinger seem to fit that mold, and it will simply come down to what Herman and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tim Beck feel is best for the program in 2017. One thing is sure, the competitive atmosphere created by having solid talent at the quarterback position and the depth that having two solid prospects there provides will benefit Texas over the next several years.
Running back is another position that should produce intriguing competitions.
Toneil Carter will be on campus this spring, and based on his high school film and his performance in the Under Armor All-American game, Carter seems to be ready to contribute from the start.
Carter will join a backfield with Chris Warren III, who is returning from injury, and Kyle Porter, who had the expected troubles of a freshman transitioning to the college game in 2016, but also showed signs of improvement throughout the season.
Kirk Johnson should also return from an injury in 2016 and may see significant playing time in 2017 if he can remain healthy. Based on the 2016 experience, one thing Texas fans should be well aware of is that a team can never have enough depth at running back.
Tight end is the last offensive position that seems to have a clear competition involving newcomers. Andrew Beck comes off a 2016 campaign in which he struggled at times run blocking and only caught four passes for 84 yards. While Beck was not targeted a great deal as a receiver in 2016, it is clear that Herman is focused on getting the tight end more involved in the passing game for 2017 based on his recruiting efforts at the position.
New commit Reese Leitao may need a redshirt due to his relative inexperience playing football at the high school level, but he not only has elite athletic ability, especially for someone of his size, he also has all of the intangibles that a coach looks for in an athlete, including coachability, intelligence, and excellent work ethic. This, combined with the large amount of growth Leitao showed as a football player between his junior and senior seasons and the fact that Tom Herman likes to use two tight ends, especially in the passing game, may be reasons why Leitao winds up on the field sooner than later for the Longhorns.
Another tight end prospect to watch for the ‘Horns is Cade Brewer. While Brewer is a very similar style of player to Leitao, he is much more polished as a football player. Brewer is an elite receiver with excellent hands and body control, who can split out or line up as an in line tight end or H-back.
While Brewer demonstrates better-than-average blocking ability, he is only listed at 220 pounds, which may present some challenges when lining up as a blocker at the next level. Despite this fact, Brewer has elite body control and excellent hands, the best Lake Travis High School head coach Hank Carter has ever seen, not just from a tight end, but from any receiver. This skill set will surely benefit Texas in 2017, especially in the red zone, where the ‘Horns struggled last season.
Other than Beck, redshirt freshman tight end Peyton Aucoin will compete with the two previously mentioned true freshmen for playing time in 2017. While Aucoin is not known for being a pass catcher at the tight end position, he is listed at 243 pounds and was known for being an elite blocker at the tight end position coming out of high school.
Another position that Herman is heavily recruiting currently is middle linebacker. While it is unclear if this push if for a player Herman expects to make an immediate impact on the team or if Herman is planning for the upcoming attrition at the position, especially if Malik Jefferson decides to leave for the NFL or if he makes a transition to outside linebacker, as many expect.
It is possible that a transition to an outside 3-4 linebacker will lead to a higher competition level at the middle linebacker spot, potentially opening up a battle for any incoming linebackers that Herman may be able to secure between now and National Signing Day.
While it is fun to speculate about what might be in 2017 for the Horns, one thing is clear — there are no favorites, and no one has earned anything on this team, yet.
What happened prior to Herman’s hire will not even be remotely considered when making personnel decisions from this point forward. Because of this, many questions will remain unanswered regarding what the ‘Horns will look like in 2017 until April, when the Orange and White game is played on the 15th.
At that point, there should be a better idea of the team’s strengths, weaknesses, and a general idea of what the depth chart will look like on September 2, including what incoming freshman will be legitimate contenders for playing time in the upcoming season. Until then, we will all be forced to wait, wonder, and hypothesize where the ‘Horns are headed next year.