The silence was so extended it felt as if there was a technical difficulty somewhere.
For roughly ten seconds, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman sat on the stage at Big 12 Media Days in Frisco and pondered the question.
Austin American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls had asked Herman about how many elite players he had on his roster. Guys who are difference makers and can win championships.
The answer came in halting bursts initially, then progressing into an important admission.
“Some,” Herman said. “I mean, I don’t know. You kind of put me on the spot there, I haven’t tallied up difference makers and championship level guys and I don’t know that it’s fair for me to give an assessment with the limited time that you have to think about that question, but I do think there are guys both sides of the ball, probably more if I’m being honest, on defense than on offense right now.”
To be sure, the two Texas members of the preseason All-Big 12 team both play for Todd Orlando — defensive end Breckyn Hager and cornerback Kris Boyd.
Yet, both players are also instructive in Herman’s silence. Hager only started four games last season under Orlando and saw his overall production crater compared to his sophomore season. Boyd struggled in coverage against DJ Moore to open the season and committed major mistakes in most of the games during the season’s first half.
So the expectations for the best Longhorns defenders are still projections. The projection that Hager’s hard work in the offseason and niche in Orlando’s defense will produce the Austin product’s most productive season. The projection that Boyd’s early inconsistencies are now in the past and the Gilmer product will emerge as a lockdown cornerback throughout the entire season.
Offensively, there weren’t even any projections worth making.
From quarterback to running back to wide receiver to tight end to offensive line, Texas simply doesn’t have any proven offensive players currently capable of mounting an argument against the preseason projections. Not even any projections.
Tight end Andrew Beck was in Frisco prior to his fifth year at Texas. Left guard Patrick Vahe was there, too, prior to his fourth season as a starter. Yet, neither player holds a clear title as the best at their position, so the lack of star Media Days attendees offensively told a deeper tale than the simple lack of All-Big 12 players.
The two best players on offense could be wide receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey. As sophomores, the two players combined for only three receiving touchdowns compared to 18 by conference leader David Sills V. So Johnson and Humphrey have a great deal of development to achieve before even drawing consideration among the Big 12’s best.
A belief in graduate left tackle Calvin Anderson requires the assumption that he’ll grow marginally as a player while transitioning from Conference USA to the Big 12. Not an easy task coming from Rice.
Defensively, the goal for Todd Orlando is about similar incremental improvement from good players like Charles Omenihu and, to a lesser extent, Chris Nelson. Finding a role for Malcolm Roach. And hoping that Gary Johnson is healthy enough to lead the linebackers.
In fact, Johnson is the most important player defensively and arguably the most important player on the team — there’s a major drop off after Johnson since the position is in dire need of added depth through recruiting.
Make no mistake, though. Johnson’s value is massive from any perspective. The junior college transfer’s speed, toughness, and leadership ability should make him the most prolific tackler on Orlando’s second defense.
Of course, last season also featured some players emerge as stars defensively — Poona Ford, Malik Jefferson, Holton Hill, and DeShon Elliott. Each of those players had plenty to prove entering preseason camp, then flouished under Orlando’s tutelage, a fact that provides some hope for the defenders this season.
The 2018 recruiting class will provide a boost, with defensive backs who were enrolled for the spring semester poised to contribute. As much potential as the class features, however, none of those signees have played in a college football game yet.
What seems clear is that Texas is still a year or two away from having the star power necessarily to compete at the highest levels of college football.
“I do think we have some and I think every coach that sits up here would tell you not enough,” Herman said. “The ones that are playing for and winning national championships too. I do think we’re getting closer and closer to those elite programs in terms of the necessary elite championship caliber talent.”