For the first time since 2014, the Texas Longhorns are bowl eligible, but for head coach Tom Herman and a relatively small group of seniors, there’s still plenty to accomplish over the next two games, including on Senior Night on Friday against the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
“I'm excited for our seniors and everything that they've been through,” head coach Tom Herman said on Monday. “There's a lot at stake for this football game, there is a lot still left to be played for. Not just a better bowl position but we talked yesterday about, you know, having a winning record at home, about finishing the season, the regular season, with a winning record, which hasn't happened here since, I believe, 2013, winning four out of the last five games, winning the last three games of the season for the first time since 2009, which that team played for a national championship.”
A handful of those seniors have been critical to helping the culture change implemented by Herman and his staff, with senior defensive tackle Poona Ford leading the way. The 5’11 senior is now a captain after constantly being told that he was too undersized to make it in college.
“There's a lot of gratitude from me to Poona Ford from us as a staff,” Herman said. “You will not find a harder practicing guy on our football team, and that was from day one of spring practice. I wondered, too, when I saw him, I said that's our starting nose guard? And, again, I didn't watch any film from last year, either, but he made a believer out of me very quickly in spring practice.”
Ford was able to win over his new head coach quickly because he only has two speeds, according to Herman — off and full.
“He is a tremendous embodiment of our culture,” Herman said.
One of the top defensive tackles in the Big 12, Ford has 27 tackles, six tackles for loss, a half sack, a forced fumble, and a blocked kick this season. As the team’s nose tackle, however, he’s played an even bigger role than this stats would indicate by serving as a steady force over the center in the run game.
B-backer Naashon Hughes, another captain, also deserves credit, especially in remaining steady with his teammates after he was largely benched in recent weeks as defensive coordinator Todd Orlando went to the Lightning package.
“I think what they did was, when you have a senior class that, for the most part, buys in early and leads the way, that's unique when you come in and turn things upside down,” Herman said. “They're used to doing things a certain way and we've been blessed in both places that I've been.”
As a fifth-year senior, Hughes in particular has seen it all at Texas.
“I've seen a lot of change,” Hughes said on Monday. “I've had about five different coaches. I've seen the most change that I think any college player has seen. Some of it has been for the good. A lot of things have happened over time but I think that everything that's happened has all been a part of the plan. With Coach Herman coming in this season and us getting the ball rolling in the right direction, that's just a testament to what he's been preaching to us since we got here.”
One of the best stories on defense has been the play of nickel back Antwuan Davis in recent weeks. Playing in replacement of injured PJ Locke III, Davis had a career-high seven tackles against TCU before playing the best game of his career against Kansas.
Early on, he recorded his first career interception and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown. He added another interception before the game was over and recovered a late fumble that helped secure the victory. For his efforts, he was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week. Against West Virginia, he had a sack and forced a fumble.
As Davis has come on due to injury, safety Jason Hall has come on due to scheme choice. In an effort to get a better blitzer on the field, Orlando moved Hall into junior John Bonney’s former role in the Lightning package and it’s paid off over the last several games.
Hall has looked like a younger version of himself in delivering crunching hits once again, including one in coverage against Kansas, and has been effective off the edge heading to the quarterback or playing contain in the run game. In that performance, he stuffed the stat sheet — six tackles (five solo), an interception, a sack, a pass breakup, and a quarterback hurry. Last week, Hall had five tackles and broke up two more passes against the Mountaineers.
For players like wide receiver Dorian Leonard, whose career is over following a Jones fracture, the transition wasn’t particularly easy, as the Louisiana native struggled during spring practice.
"Basically I was tired and it was just back and forth," Leonard said. "Basically they got on me, and it really set me back with them. The thing with these coaches is, they remember everything. Whatever you do, they're going to remember. So that set me back with them."
So wide receivers coach Drew Mehringer had a private conservation with Leonard, challenging him to become a leader. The senior later apologized to the coaches and took the responsibility of being an older player to heart.
“He’s a changed man. I like being around him,” Herman said in August. “I’m sure there are others, but that one definitely sticks out for me as a guy that’s done a 180 in my mind. Now knock on wood, but he’s doing a great job.”
Like many of the wide receivers, Leonard wasn’t as productive during his senior season as he was in 2016, but he was able to beat out sophomore Collin Johnson for the starting job midway through the season. He finished the year with 18 catches for 147 yards.
Another wide receiver, Lorenzo Joe, became one of the most reliable players in the unit, according to offensive coordinator Tim Beck. And did so after tragically losing his younger brother during the season.
“One thing about Lo-Joe is in my opinion, he’s probably one of the most consistent receivers,” Beck said last week. “He’s where he needs to be when he needs to be. He understands coverage, leverage. It’s funny — he’s not the tallest guy, he’s not the fastest guy, he’s not the strongest guy, but he just kind of seems to always be open and always making plays.”
The numbers aren’t spectacular — 17 catches for 230 yards and a touchdown — but Joe has made some of the most difficult catches of the season. Two of them have come down the sideline from Sam Ehlinger and Joe also caught a post route for a touchdown on the first play of the Kansas game.
Joe’s favorite play at Texas says it all about him. It wasn’t one of those spectacular catches this season — it was a block for Marcus Johnson on a push pass that helped him squeeze through the final two defenders for the game’s first touchdown in the upset of Oklahoma in 2015.
As a group, the Longhorns seniors hope to reverse a disturbing trend of losses on Senior Night in recent years, as Texas is only 1-6 in the last home game of the season. In fact, only Davis and Hughes were around in 2013 when Texas beat Texas Tech at home on Senior Night.
“As I told you, they don't want to be remembered as the senior class that be went through the worst three-year stretch in the history of Texas football,” Herman said. “They wanted to be remembered as the senior class that helped to usher in a new way of doing things and, you know, a return to prominence, where they all believe Texas should be.”
The other seniors who will be honored on Friday night are kicker Mitchell Becker, wide receiver Armanti Foreman, offensive lineman Garrett Graf, tight end Kendall Moore, offensive tackle Tristan Nickelson, deep snapper Kaleb Smith, and tight end Robert Willis.