So much for just putting the icing on the cake and winning a lot of games.
The now-infamous words of former Texas Longhorns Charlie Strong that he had “baked the cake” in Austin before giving way to head coach Tom Herman weren’t exactly echoed on Monday.
“We're here for a reason, and that's to rebuild this thing from a bunch of years of mediocrity and sub-mediocrity, and we understand that that's going to take time. We also want to win right now, too,” Herman said.
As injuries along the offensive line and at tight end have exposed the lack of depth in the offensive front, the ‘Horns have struggled to win games against a tough conference schedule, sitting at 3-3 halfway through the season.
The secondary is still struggling with missed assignments, and if the kicking game was the icing for the cake, well, Strong left the cupboard bare there.
However, that’s not to say that the rebuilding effort is behind schedule.
“I think success would be if we play disciplined,” Herman said in early September, setting the expectations for the season. “If we protect the football on offense, and when people watch us, either opponents or when the casual fan watches us, if they can say, ‘Wow, I've never seen Texas play that hard. Wow, I've never seen Texas play that physical. Wow, I've never seen Texas play with that much passion, energy, accountability to their teammates and coaches.’ Then we'll be on our road to success.”
In terms of that holistic evaluation, there’s plenty for Herman to be happy about.
“We're well on schedule in terms of our effort level and physicality,” Herman said. “And I told our assistant coaches when we started training camp that if we can get them to play hard and play physical, we'll have a chance to be in every game that we play.”
So far, he’s mostly been correct — the team played without effort and physicality at times against Maryland, but still battled back to make the game competitive in the second half. Against USC, Texas showed it could compete on the road against a talented, highly-ranked team. In the annual rivalry match against Oklahoma, Herman’s team recovered from a 20-0 deficit to take the lead in the fourth quarter before falling late.
In between, the ‘Horns showed some much-needed ability to actually on the road in beating the Cyclones in Ames and successfully closing out the double-overtime thriller against the pesky Wildcats at home.
Put it all together halfway through the season and Herman still won’t admit to any moral victories...
But immediately after that statement in Herman’s post-game press conference at the Cotton Bowl, he praised his team’s effort, enthusiasm, belief, and fortitude.
Many of those attributes were conspicuously missing during long stretches of the Charlie Strong era, which features numerous blowouts.
“Ah, here we go again,” players would say on the sidelines during blowouts like the 50-7 thrashing by TCU in 2015.
Whenever it looked like the ‘Horns might be turning a corner, there would be a loss to the Cyclones on the road or to the Jayhawks on the road. By the time that Strong took his final lopsided loss at home against the Horned Frogs last December, it was abundantly clear that the Longhorns still lacked those crucial elements of effort and physicality, among other attributes.
“I think a sense of accountability and brotherhood, which, you know, again, I've had numerous players tell me that they feel closer to their teammates now than they ever have, which is big,” Herman added.
Ah, yes — alignment.
Now, facing a trajectory in those areas that perhaps isn’t quite linear, but is certainly trending upwards, Herman’s task is to put his team in a position to take the next step — beat good teams like Oklahoma State and TCU. And then avoid the letdowns against weaker opponents that so deeply characterized Strong’s failed tenure.
“So my challenge to our coaches this week was: ‘We've got to get our guys playing smarter,’ and so that's the big challenge this week, and if that means we've got to simplify some things on both sides of the ball, we will,” Herman said.
The biggest area for simplification would likely come on defense — blitzers missed gaps against Oklahoma early and coverage busts characterized the big plays given up by the secondary. Herman suggested that the team might play fewer coverages as a result.
On both sides of the ball, Herman is still seeking a deeper identity for the team. What can the offense master to help bolster the running game? What coverages and blitzes can the defense master to avoid giving up big plays?
Simply getting beat by great players is something Herman can live with.
“At the end of the day, if you're in the right place at the right time where you're supposed to be, and James Washington jumps over you and makes a hellacious catch or makes a move off, threads the needle in between three guys in zone coverage; that's going to happen. They do that to a lot of people,” he noted.
Too often early in this season, however, the ‘Horns have beat themselves with penalties or turnovers or busted coverages. Slow starts, a lack of explosive plays, and an inexperienced offensive line are also issues on offense.
Herman is hoping that the young players along the line can improve to catalyze that effort — sophomore left tackle Denzel Okafor only played a handful of snaps last year, right tackle Derek Kerstetter is a 280-pound true freshman, junior right guard Terrell Cuney hasn’t ever played much in his career, and center Zach Shackelford is only a sophomore who was pressed into action last season. With every game rep, those players improve, Herman believes.
To support those young players, the staff is looking for more ways to manufacture explosive passing plays, not an easy task given a multitude of factors. Freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger isn’t quite as accurate as sophomore Shane Buechele in that regard and opponents can generally stop the running game without having to devote safeties to the effort.
Last season, the presence of star running back D’Onta Foreman was enough to open up the downfield passing plays, but offensive coordinator Tim Beck could also simply become more aggressive in using players like speedy wide receiver Devin Duvernay on double moves or go routes.
As always, however, the issue with throwing passes downfield is that the pass protection has to hold up long enough to deliver the ball.
Herman isn’t sure why the ‘Horns aren’t starting quickly in games — on offense or defense against the Sooners — but he said that the staff is going through a self-evaluation process on both sides of the ball to find some answers.
Offensively, that might include a few new motions or formations to catch defenses off guard or more use of tempo, the latter of which requires the offense to get into enough of a rhythm to be able to run more than three plays at a time.
With half the season and the only bye week already in the past, though, the need for new wrinkles does conflict somewhat with Herman’s other stated desire of mastering enough plays to simply out-execute opponents. Finding that balance will be key moving forward.
The growing pains will likely continue for a young offense that includes so many freshmen at key positions, but a focus on the big picture can help alleviate the sting of the recent close losses and put the upcoming schedule into better perspective.
“We also understand that, you know, this wasn't — this is a process,” Herman said. “This is a journey. We're building a program; not a season and not a team and not a game. You know, so we need to — we need to be mindful of where we're headed and the journey that we're on but also be urgent with how we get there so that we can win and win now.