Heading into the Texas Bowl in December, it appeared as if the Texas Longhorns program was approaching a potential tipping point early in head coach Tom Herman’s tenure. Chris Warren III had transferred and several other juniors had declared for the NFL Draft. There were rumors about more attrition. There were injuries.
And then Texas soundly beat Missouri in Houston and Herman joined his players in celebrating the victory. Breckyn Hager said afterward that Herman had won the locker room.
“I think tonight, Coach Herman won the locker room — 100 percent, hearts out. He now has our hearts as a team,” Hager said.
Herman echoed Hager’s statement on Monday.
“The sentiment in that locker room was, ‘Wow, we can do this and we can do it at a really high level if we stay really positive and if we stay aligned with what we’re doing.’”
Now Herman enters his second spring in Austin with the program in a much better spot than it was at this time last year and a much better spot than it was in during the lead up to the Texas Bowl. There’s less defiance and negativity and more positivity.
“I am really excited and I told the team, actually told them numerous times that I’ve never been more excited to coach a team than this one,” Herman said on Monday. “We’ve had a magnificent couple of months of developing our players, of developing them on the weight room and on the field, but also developing relationships.”
If the first year was about establishing the program’s culture and expectations at the expense of Herman’s personal relationships with players, the second year has seen him back off a little bit in that regard. The players have also built better relationships with the coaches and with each other.
Just as importantly, the players now understand the expectations and are starting to police themselves, as they did in practice on Tuesday. During more than two hours of practice, only one young players was called back for not finishing a drill or a lack of effort.
“Really, all I had to do was blow the whistle and say his name,” Herman said. “The leaders of this group got on him pretty good. That’s encouraging. That’s when you know you’re heading in the right direction.”
“Develop” is one of the two buzzwords this spring and the early returns are positive in that regard, leaving a greater focus on the second — “finish.” Texas lost two overtime games and gave up late leads against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. The home loss to the Red Raiders to end the regular season was particularly discouraging after Sam Ehlinger threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter and the defense gave up two touchdowns.
“We’ve got to learn how to finish,” Herman said. “We’re putting our guys in situations every day to teach them how to finish, to team them how to be at their best in the fourth quarter of games, at the end of a workout, at the end of a run, at the end of a practice. That’s when you’ve got to be your best and we’re putting them in those positions. I think the guys are responding really, really well.”
For all the spring rhetoric, the team’s ability to finish better in the fall will ultimately help define its upside.