ARLINGTON, Texas — At Big 12 Media Days, Burnt Orange Nation was able to catch up with Bruce Feldman, college football writer for The Athletic and commentator for FOX Sports.
Our conversation is lightly edited for clarity.
Wescott: One sentence on Sam Ehlinger.
Bruce: The best competitor in college football right now.
W: The best?
B: Of players, yes. This is more than one sentence — I think Texas takes on his personality in a little bit of the way that Florida did with Tim Tebow. I think the difference is the way — he’s not Baker Mayfield personality-wise — but when Baker played and you watched his games, everyone in that stadium knew that he was the best player on the field. And I feel like now, Sam is that.
W: But Tebow ultimately didn’t have NFL passing ability.
B: No, he did not.
W: Does Sam Ehlinger?
B: I don’t know. I mean, I think he’s taken strides to get better. Some of the stuff...
W: Is he better in college than Tebow was?
B: He’s only a second-year sophomore. Remember, Tebow shared the job his freshman year...
W: At the same stage.
B: That is a good question. I don’t know. I would say that Tebow won the Heisman his sophomore year.
W: Who has more upside as a passer?
B: I would say Sam does.
W: By how much?
B: I don’t know. Here’s the problem with Tebow — he would freelance in his head to do stuff. I think Sam has the potential to be more structured. Tebow, I just don’t think he was ever going to be wired to do the things that coaches and his teammates were expecting him to do. I know a lot of guys who played with him in the NFL and there was stuff that was just like, “That’s just Tebow.” I think Sam will probably be a little different in that regard.
W: What does he need to do to take the next step? What does he need to overcome?
B: I think the things he needs to do best, right now — it’s hard for guys, depending on which coaches you talk to, that they can get much more accurate — I think it comes back to the decision making of, “Alright, this play didn’t work,” and just move on. I think because he’s an emotional guy — I mean, we saw that from Week 1 at Maryland to Week 4 at TCU — that I think he got better at compartmentalizing. It’s great that he’s a fiery leader, but sometimes you try to bite off too much.
W: He was doing that as a freshman, all the time, in the most key moments.
B: He was doing it a lot in that Maryland game. Maybe not a lot, but some of it. The reality is that, especially this year, I don’t think the defense is going to be good enough to overcome all that stuff. I think — you didn’t ask me — but I think they’re going to win the Big 12 this year. I really think they’re going to be terrific on offense.
W: What you just said, is that going to be one of the biggest keys?
B: Well, it is, but I think he’s already at that stage. By the end of the year, I think he was — as good as Jordan Love was, he still threw a couple of picks on his own and a couple other picks happened because it’s football — so I think when you look at guys who don’t throw a lot of picks, and he didn’t throw a lot of picks last year.
I think the key part of it is they need to get better at getting people off the field on third downs.
W: But they have to get to third downs, too. Because if you’re in 3rd and 1 versus 3rd and 6, that’s a big difference. That’s winning on first and second down. Or at least having more stops than they did last year.
B: Yeah, and I think they will be good in the secondary, because I think they recruited well there.
B: Jeffrey McCulloch has to step up, right?
W: How good does he have to be?
B: So you had a guy last who, when he was right, could overcome a lot of mistakes, right, because he could run sideline to sideline.
W: Gary Johnson.
B: Fast. I don’t know if they have enough difference makers in the front seven right now, but I think they can go — because I think their offense is going to be so good and the way everything sets up — they can go win and go 12-1 this year and get to the playoffs.
W: What do you think about Malcolm Roach? How good does he need to be?
B: Well, he needs to keep being a leader, that’s critical. It’s weird, because I remember two years ago, you look at him as, “He’s kind of a different guy.” He was kind of a wild card because he’s so big and he can do a lot of different things — and look, Todd Orlando is great at having guys do different stuff, exotic stuff. I think he needs to be, not just an X-factor guy, I think he needs to be a leader emotionally, but also a guy who is making a two-yard stop, not just a five-yard TFL.
The guys around him are going to be less experienced and, look, there are probably going to be more mistakes. Todd Orlando likes to do a lot of creative stuff and with younger players, you run the risk of having some mistakes, but I think they’re going to be so good on offense to outlast a lot of that.
W: How much of that is explosiveness offensively? Because if your defense is struggling, the ability to create those big plays is important.
B: Yeah, but I do think they should be better in the run game. I think Keaontay Ingram will step up, I think Whittington can help, so I think if you can be more balanced, then they have a chance to hit those big plays. Duvernay can run, Collin Johnson is a mismatch. I think they will get some big plays from Ingram in the run game. I think they’ll get some more of those. It’s hard to find too much fault — I think Sam had 42 touchdowns or whatever he had. I mean, that’s pretty amazing for a second-year sophomore and it wasn’t like they had Oklahoma O-line. They had a decent O-line, but it wasn’t like they had what Oklahoma had.
W: Herb Hand. Tell me about Herb Hand.
B: As a person or as an O-line coach?
W: Whatever you want to say about Herb Hand.
B: I think if Herb Hand ever becomes a college head coach, he’ll have the biggest throng of college football writers cheering for him. Just because he’s a high-level foodie and he’s a great storyteller. Herb Hand is basically from Upstate New York where I’m from and there’s not a lot of football coaches from that area. So I’ve known him a long time.
W: Not a lot of football culture, either.
B: No. Like, Will Smith from Syrcause is from up there and there are a handful of guys, but it’s not football country there. I think what’s helped him there is I know that they’re really high on Sammy Cosmi because he reminds him of guys he’s had at Vanderbilt. He used to have some really good players.
B: Wesley Johnson was a slightly undersized offensive lineman at Vandy who turned into an All-SEC kind of player and I think is in the NFL. That was the parallel to Sammy Cosmi.
W: Have you eaten Herb Hand’s food? That he cooked?
B: No, but one year he was on the Vandy staff and my wife and I went to a buddy’s wedding and he gave us dinner restaurant recommendations and the only restaurant that he took us to that was not outstanding was a Mexican place that he and his wife and kids came to eat with us. That wasn’t as good, but I live in California, so we get good Mexican food there.
W: As an offensive line coach, what sets him apart?
B: I think it’s so much getting guys on the same page. You have to have guys who communicate well and guys who believe in your vision. I think it’s a very singularly-focused job. You can have a great player over here, but if you don’t have them all on the same page, you’re going to get exposed. I think the fact that — no secret — they went a long time without having a player drafted up front and I don’t know how many different offensive line coaches in a short period of time. That’s been a USC problem and that’s been a Texas problem. It just wears more on Texas because you’re Texas. How come your offensive line isn’t better? There’s offensive linemen all over the place. So I think the continuity of having Herb for a little while I think will definitely help them. It’s not to say that some of those other guys weren’t good O-line coaches, I just think that when you’re constantly shuffling it and re-visiting it...
W: There’s no carryover.
B: No, and that’s a position that you’ve got to have development at.
W: Biggest culture change under Herman from Strong?
B: I think it is the ability to deal with success.
W: Believe. Texas is back.
B: The Notre Dame game was three years ago, but it actually feels like 10 years ago. So you have a lot of stuff where the kids at Texas, they’re all smart kids, you have a high percentage of pretty worldly college football players, social media, they’re out there, you’re in a big city relative to most college towns... there are a lot of kids around and Texas football is a big deal. So any success, a little like Miami, where they get a flash of success, everyone is like, “So and so is back.” They’re not back until there’s a parade after the last game. They give in to a little of the temptation and I think — and it seems like a feel — that Herman has done a pretty good job of, and this will be a different test, they mauled a pretty good SEC team. There’s something to be said for that.