Despite the fact that this week has proceeded at what feels like a glacial place, the Texas Longhorns are now less than 24 hours away from the season opener against the Maryland Terrapins at FedEx Field.
So I thought I’d take a few moments to make some predictions for the 2018 season.
QB1 — Sam Ehlinger
The narrative from the coaches is that this was a close race throughout fall camp between the sophomore, Ehlinger, and junior Shane Buechele. If that’s the case, then head coach Tom Herman isn’t going to give Ehlinger a particularly long leash. However, I think Ehlinger takes control of the job early in the season and never looks back.
(Full disclosure: The Ehlinger family has kept me on a hefty monthly retainer for about a year now to promote Sam. Thanks to them for their contributions to my livelihood.)*
Offensive MVP — WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey
As Herman noted on Monday, the junior can do it all for the Longhorns offense. Look for him to take some direct snaps again this season and line up at a variety of different positions as a wide receiver. After a season in the system, the coaches will have a better feel for how to effectively deploy him. And the Orange-White game was proof that Humphrey and Ehlinger have developed a strong rapport in the passing game.
Most Improved Offensive Player — WR Devin Duvernay
After making some big plays as a freshman, Duvernay only caught nine passes last season, raising questions about whether he wanted to stick around a program that clearly didn’t utilize him effectively last season. Instead of giving up and transferring, Duvernay buckled down on refining his game.
Throughout the spring and into preseason camp, the coaching staff has praised Duvernay for his hard work, so he profiles as a player as a much more complete wide receiver this season. Expect that hard work to pay off.
Leading rusher — Daniel Young
The ideal answer here is really “anyone other than the starting quarterback” after Ehlinger led the team in rushing last season. This pick could arguably go three different ways. but graduate transfer Tre Watson’s best value will come in the passing game and freshman Keaontay Ingram may need a few weeks to get used to the college game.
So I’m gong with my dude Daniel Young, who has the best short-yardage ability of all the backs, which also means that he’s the most likely to pick up five yards when the offensive line blocked for three.
According to the coaches, he’s improved since last season and that’s not a small thing to consider since he’s only been playing running back since his junior season of high school. The fact that he’s a co-starter with Watson and has so far held off Ingram is no small achievement.
Leading receiver — Humphrey
As at running back, there may not be a lot of separation between Humphrey, Duvernay, and junior Collin Johnson. The way Herman talks about Humphrey, though, makes me think that he’s more ready than Johnson to be that guy.
Offensive Freshman of the Year — WR D’Shawn Jamison
Picking Ingram here seems like the safe selection, so I’m going to be a little bit contrarian and make a much more bold choice. The staff didn’t move Jamison to the offensive side of the ball for him to get a touch or two here and there. Make no mistake — they want to get him the football.
In the second scrimmage, Jamison responded with a 70-yard jet sweep and two touchdowns to show off his explosiveness and open-field ability. The staff is intent on getting him the ball in space and when that happens, expect electric things to happen.
As Jamison becomes a more refined route runner throughout the season, his effectiveness is only going to increase.
*This is obviously a joke.
Defensive MVP — LB Gary Johnson
This was a tough choice, and even though Johnson isn’t one of the five captains, I have the sense that he’s an important emotional leader for this defense. He’s also the most indispensable player in a scheme that’s designed to produce huge numbers for the two inside linebackers.
Johnson was slowed by an ankle injury last season and needed some time to get healthy, fully master the scheme, and adjust to the staff’s expectations of him. Once that happened, he took off.
Look for a monster season from Johnson.
Most Improved Defensive Player — NT Chris Nelson
Replacing Poona Ford is no easy task, but it was notable what defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said about him on Wednesday — Nelson isn’t as twitchy as Ford, but his athleticism has improved under strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight. As a result, Nelson has been making some impressive plays in practice.
That’s huge news for the defense and a sign that the drop off from Ford to Nelson may not be as significant as feared. And I think a lot of people forget that Nelson played quite well at nose tackle as a sophomore under Charlie Strong.
Most tackles — Johnson
An improved Brandon Jones, the junior safety from Nacogdoches, will also be in the mix here, but look for Johnson to put up over 100 tackles this season. In fact, since the 2008 season, Emmanuel Acho was the single-season leader in tackles with 117 in 2011. Calling my shot now that Johnson eclipses that mark if he can stay healthy.
Most tackles for loss — LB Malcolm Roach
Following a disappointing sophomore season that was limited by a toe injury and a lack of a clearly defined role, the staff is going to put Roach in a better position to succeed this season and that should result in a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage. Look for Roach to cause some havoc when he lines up at Mac and stunts into the backfield.
Most sacks — DE Breckyn Hager
Now stronger, more explosive, and entrenched at the defensive end position, Hager will receive the most snaps of his career. And for the first time, he’ll have to stamina to play at a higher level for a longer period of time. He’s arguably the best natural pass rusher on the team and that will pay off in big ways in 2018.
Defensive Freshman of the Year — S Caden Sterns
This may be the easiest pick so far, as Sterns is set to become the first true freshman to start a season opener at Texas since Blake Gideon in 2008. And Gideon didn’t have to deal with nearly as much competition as Sterns did this year.
Sterns is smart, athletic, and possesses a rare feel for the game that will allow him to play a number of different positions in the secondary if that’s what Orlando wants out of him.
Whatever happens, Sterns will make some plays to carry on Deshon Elliott’s Joker celebrations.
Regular season prediction — 9-3
For the entire offseason, I’ve been sitting at 8-4 as the most likely record for the Longhorns this season. The team will definitely be better and the injection of talent combined with the experience and continuity gained by a rare offseason of stability in the program will help ensure that this Texas team finishes better than last season.
So what’s made me change my mind and boost the win total by a game just hours before the season kicks off?
For one, the schedule as a whole and especially the quarterback position in particular will be easier to navigate.
More importantly, I’ve been reasonable and rational all offseason. There’s no better time for optimism than before the first game of the season, so I’m going to allow myself a little bit of hope for these final few hours.