With spring practice now halfway complete, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman is continuing the process of evaluating where his program stands as it heads into his second season in Austin, with last Saturday’s scrimmage and Tuesday’s practice standing as good barometers of its current status.
On a hot, humid day, Herman was happy with his team’s effort level and ball security during the scrimmage on Saturday — the two most fundamental demands that he makes. Unlike previous practices, the running backs didn’t fumble, a significant development.
Since success for one side of the ball necessarily means failure for the other side, Herman wants to see a balance between wins for the offense and defense. In that regard, the biggest positive from Saturday was the fact that the offense only won by one point.
Though the performance “wasn’t great” on that side of the ball, by Herman’s estimation, the red-zone offense did succeed in scoring touchdowns, a major issue last season. In fact, last season’s offense ranked tied for 63rd nationally by scoring touchdowns on only 61.7 percent of all red-zone trips last season. Penalties were a particular problem, especially offensive pass interference, so cleaning up those issues could be the difference in one or two wins in 2018.
Then there’s the flip side.
“The defense did not force any turnovers and they gave up too many touchdowns in the red zone,” Herman said. “That will get you beat.”
That certainly held true for Texas last season, as it does for many teams — the ‘Horns had a positive 1.71 turnover margin in victories and a negative .67 turnover margin in losses. Turnovers in overtime against USC and Oklahoma State directly resulted in defeats, while two interceptions late against Texas Tech had the same impact.
On the positive side, the defense forced 10 three and outs and held the offense to conversions on only 8-of-28 third downs. Success in that area would continue a trend from last season, when coordinator Todd Orlando’s unit ranked No. 3 nationally in allowing opponents to convert only 27.1 percent of third downs. In losses, that number spiked to near 30 percent, while wins featured a 24.5-percent conversion rate.
However, in a throwback to the season opener against Maryland that included a 3rd-and-19 conversion by the second-string quarterback for the Terrapines that led to a critical touchdown, the defense also gave up several long conversions on third down on Saturday. Herman said those also led to touchdowns.
During Tuesday’s practice, the same general trend of balance continued.
“We had a first-down period where it was kind of back and forth,” Herman said. “Offense had some really good plays. Defense had some really good plays. Goal-line/red-zone period, where the offense played well. Then we turned around and ended practice with a two-minute drill where the defense dominated.”
Typically, Texas plays music during practice, but Herman opted for silence on Tuesday in order to listen to how his team communicates with each other.
“I wanted to be able to make sure that I heard the things that were being said both from a communication standpoint and from an energy and excitement and leadership standpoint,” Herman said.
While that experience helped the Longhorns head coach better understand the interaction between players, Herman also knows he has a tendency to focus on mistakes, like a 10-play drive by the offense that failed to create points because of a false start or delay of game.
It took an assistant reminding Herman how much progress has occurred since this time last year for him to recall the overall progress made by his program.
“Are we better now than we were then? Absolutely,” he said. “There’s a lot less coaching of culture and effort, or demanding of that. A lot more teaching.”
Instead of working on building culture, that allows the coaches to put an emphasis on development, one of the two key themes for the 15 spring practices this year, because the expectations were set last spring.
“I know when you compare it to this time last year, we’re well ahead of where we were,” Herman said.
“As long as it’s balanced, I think we’re headed in the right direction. It certainly appears that way right now.”