The nature of college athletics means that every offseason necessitates new leaders emerging to replace departed players. With three of the four team captains for the Texas Longhorns in 2017 off to the NFL, the winter conditioning period was no different than normal for head coach Tom Herman’s program.
So which players stepped into the roles vacated by Naashon Hughes, Poona Ford, and Connor Williams?
Herman rattled off a list of 12 players mentioned specifically by name.
At wide receiver, senior Jerrod Heard is stepping forward at a position that had plenty of talent last season, but largely underachieved while lacking any notable leaders. Armanti Foreman, for instance, didn’t play against Kansas State and Oklahoma and didn’t catch passes against Oklahoma State and West Virginia, ostensibly because of his practice habits.
Now that the quarterback room is finally full of scholarship players again, that means that Heard can focus on honing his wide receiver skills and leading that position room. He spent much of the 2017 season shuttling between wide receiver and emergency quarterback because of injuries and the lack of scholarship depth at his former position. As a result, he had four fewer catches, 100 fewer receiving yards, and two fewer touchdowns than he did in 2016, his first year at wide receiver.
Better leadership would benefit that position, but the bigger need is for a consistent playmaker to emerge.
So far, the only captain revealed by Herman is at tight end — senior Andrew Beck, who redshirted after fracturing his foot again in fall practice. As much as leadership matters, keeping him healthy through the spring and summer is a bigger priority for the staff.
Along the offensive line, Herman mentioned seniors Patrick Vahe and Elijah Rodriguez and junior Zach Shackelford, the oldest and most experienced players at the position following the departures of Williams, Jake McMillon, Terrell Cuney, Garrett Thomas, and Alex Anderson.
None of those names are surprising, but each needs to elevate their level of play to match the expectations that come with being juniors and seniors. Graduate transfer Calvin Anderson, whose signing with the Longhorns was announced on Monday, should also become a leader in that room once he arrives this summer.
And then there’s virtually the entire defensive line. Okay, not the entire defensive line, but there’s a lot of experienced talent with big personalities there — seniors Breckyn Hager and Charles Omenihu, and junior Malcolm Roach, who will play some B-backer this spring. As a freshman, that’s where Roach made a big impact before playing as a four technique last season and seeing his production drop in tackles for loss and sacks.
At linebacker, Gary Johnson not only has the big personality to draw in his teammates, but the toughness to excel as an inside linebacker and the desire to rise above his humble beginnings in Douglas, Alabama.
“Gary (Johnson), the kids love Gary, man,” Herman said. “It’s no surprise. Why do they love Gary Johnson? Because he tells funny jokes? No. Because he buys them dinner? No. Because he goes really, really stinking hard, everyday. He always has a blast doing it and has a smile on his face.”
Senior cornerback Kris Boyd has been a little banged up, according to Herman, but has also emerged as a leader, along with junior Brandon Jones. Both players were inconsistent last season, with Jones in particular needing a breakout campaign to fulfill his enormous promise coming out of high school.
The only positions without any names mentioned? Running back and quarterback.
“I mean, both quarterbacks are doing a good job of leading,” Herman said.
Until someone emerges there, whether it’s junior Shane Buechele, sophomore Sam Ehlinger, or one of the two early enrollees, the Longhorns will still lack critical leadership at the game’s most important position.