Following three straight classes that ranked among the top 10 nationally, Tom Herman’s 2021 class currently sits at No. 17 nationally and No. 2 in the Big 12 after inking all but one pledge during the early signing period.
The Burnt Orange Nation staff got together to discuss where Texas may have struck gold this cycle, the misses that ultimately led to an underwhelming ranking, where Texas can go from here, and more.
From a position group standpoint, which group is the strength of this class?
Wescott — With a relatively small group right now, the process of elimination makes this pretty simple and it’s the linebackers. Morice Blackwell is one of my favorite players in the class because, as I wrote when he committed, I think he’s the perfect spread linebacker for the modern Big 12. Tom Herman said on Wednesday that he thinks Blackwell can play anywhere on defense besides the line. Terrence Cooks fits that bill as well with his range and athleticism. Then there’s the Derrick Harris Jr. on the edge, a player who has some natural pass-rushing ability and can also drop into coverage — if jumbo athlete Ja’Tavion Sanders doesn’t end up at Jack, Harris could be the answer there.
Cody — Linebacker is the clear strength of the class. As Wescott noted, guys like Blackwell and Cooks are pretty ideal prospects for the style needed in the Big 12. Once his frame fills out, Harris looks the part of a potentially special Jack LB, which is where I think we’ll end up seeing Sanders, as well.
Gerald — This depends on the future of Ishmael Ibraheem, as he continues to deal with legal issues. He was the lone player not to sign, but if he is able to sign with Texas in February, paired with JD Coffey and Jamier Johnson could be a dynamite trio in the secondary for Texas. If Ibraheem is unable to join the class, then the obvious group is the linebacker group, especially with the need for depth at that position. Harris, Blackwell and Cooks are all high-upside athletes that give Coleman Hutzler a lot of talent to work with.
Seahorn — The linebacker group is definitely the strength of this class and you have to tip your cap to Coleman Hutzler for the job he did this cycle. Hutzler’s ability to build relationships paid dividends when it came to landing Terrence Cooks and on top of that he landed a certified stud in Morice Blackwell, who was incredibly under-ranked when he committed to the Longhorns early in the cycle. Rounding out the trio is New Caney’s Derrick Harris, who was another early cycle victory for Hutzler. Harris missed most of senior year due to injury, but he put out some promising tape pre-injury and I am very interested to see where the staff plugs him in once he hits campus.
In comparison to previous classes, the 2021 class can be considered an underwhelming haul from Tom Herman and his staff. Whether it’s specific players or a position group, which misses most significantly contributed to Texas finishing with its lowest-ranked class since Herman’s transitional class in 2017?
Wescott — This discussion has to start with the offensive line class. Five of the top 15 players in the state were offensive lineman and Herb Hand wasn’t able to land any of them. The chief failure there was losing the Brockemeyer twins to Alabama. But losing commitments from No. 4 dual-threat quarterback Jalen Milroe and No. 2 athlete Billy Bowman were huge, too. I’m not sure if adding those four players would push the class into the top 10, but it would certainly put Texas close enough that we wouldn’t be having this same discussion.
Cody — Herb Hand had an opportunity to construct an offensive line class that was absolutely elite — in regards to rankings, comparable to Texas’ 2018 defensive back haul — and completely whiffed. Texas signed two 3-star tackles in Hayden Conner and Max Merril, but this misses will always be what’s looked back on — The Brockermeyer brothers, who are Texas legacies, Savion Byrd, Rueben Fatheree, Donovan Jackson, Bryce Foster, and the list goes on. Of course, Texas wasn’t going to get all of its top targets, but to miss on basically all but one is less than ideal, to say the least.
Gerald — It seemed like both the wide receiver and offensive line groups were an effort in settling for what was there and even after settling, the offensive line group was still left wanting. In a year where five of the top 15 players in the state of Texas are offensive linemen, Texas managed to land exactly none of them. That seems like an indictment of both the direction of the program and the coach of that group. Losing four of those five to the Texas A&M Aggies and Oklahoma Sooners is inexcusable and setting up your rivals for a bright future.
Seahorn — You can easily point your finger at almost any position group on the offensive side of the ball, but it is easily the offensive line all things considered. It was known for a long time that the offensive line crop in-state was going to be stacked and the late bloomers we are seeing pop up did not factor into the equation at the time. The floor for Herb Hand and Tom Herman at the position group should have been pretty high given what was available and they absolutely whiffed on all primary targets aside from Hayden Conner. The Longhorns had a chance to reload at a big position of need and now they will have to scramble for options in January and throughout the spring to try to solidify depth in 2021 and further down the road.
To that end, knowing the weaknesses and names still out there, who are the 2-3 recruits Texas can possibly add to the class ahead of the February signing day?
Wescott — Texas still has a shot at Cy-Fair running back LJ Johnson, though the emergence of Jonathon Brooks probably lessens the need to land Johnson down the stretch. Keep an eye on Bryan Rudder wide receiver Keithron Lee, as well, since the Horns still don’t have a slot receiver in the class yet. Along the offensive line, Dallas Parish Episcopal offensive tackle Austin Uke is a late-rising prospect who could blunt some of the pain from missing out on so many other top targets, but it’s not clear yet if Texas waited too long to offer him. Sigh. Those are the guys on my radar right now, but others may emerge in the coming weeks and, of course, Texas will be active in the graduate transfer market along the offensive line.
Cody — Landing LJ Johnson would be a nice late addition, but my money is on A&M winning that battle. I’m in agreement with Wescott, Gerald, and Seahorn — Keithron Lee and Austin Uke are the two main names to know now, and they fill a position of need. I think Texas is much more likely to land Lee, but Herb Hand simply needs to go all out on Uke and lure him away from somewhere like SMU unless he is confident in his ability to pull from the transfer market.
Gerald — With the need for a talent injection at the offensive skill positions, LJ Johnson and Keithtron Lee, both of which Texas seems to have a shot at. Austin Uke is a guy who Texas could add with a high upside, but waiting to offer until after other players committed could - and likely will - cost them in this race. I think Texas will have to get aggressive in the transfer marketplace in order to fill some needs along the offensive line.
Seahorn — Four star running back LJ Johnson is easily the biggest target on the board for the staff, but Austin Uke and Keithron Lee should be high priorities as well. Texas was very close to earning a commitment from Johnson before the season, but now they will have to work hard to get him in the boat in the final month of the cycle. Uke was a no brainer offer well before the staff decided to finally push for his services and I’m not too optimistic on their chances currently. Lee has put on some phenomenal senior tape on both sides of the ball with some incredible production and the staff needs to do whatever they can to land him down the home stretch.
Who’s your pick for a signee who’s not being discussed too much now, but will be within the next year or two?
Wescott — My first inclination here was to go with jumbo athlete Juan Davis. I almost talked myself out of it because it’s often easier to imagine a role for a flex tight end like him than it is to actually get them on the field and contributing, especially with other talent at the position — I’m still high on Brayden Liebrock, for instance. But Davis is so versatile and has so much athletic upside that he could rise up the depth chart quickly.
Cody — Now that the Jonathon Brooks bandwagon is near capacity, my pick is Jaden Alexis. The kid can absolutely fly with a 4.41 40, which is something Texas can afford some more of in the slot. Pair his speed with his shiftiness after the catch and once he earns a role in the rotation, we’ll probably start seeing some explosive plays shortly after.
Gerald — Before the season I would have said Jonathon Brooks, but now everybody is familiar with Mr. 3,000. Wide receiver Jaden Alexis will step onto campus and almost immediately be one of the fastest players on the team. He’s an explosive player out of the slot position and can get up to top speed quickly out of his cuts.
Seahorn — Byron Murphy is my pick because defensive tackles that are vertically challenged often get written off. Murphy is an absolute baller despite lacking ideal size and Baylor was working hard to try to get him back in the class after he flipped to the Longhorns.
Three or four years from now, which prospect from this class do you think will have had the greatest impact on the program?
Wescott — Ja’Tavion Sanders. The difference in talent level between Sanders and the rest of the class is pretty extreme, even before the legal issues for Ishmael Ibraheem, so that really seems like a no-brainer. It’s a little bit concerning that the staff will have to make a difficult choice in how to use him, but he’s such a transcendent talent that he should have success whether the staff decides to use him on offense or defense. Or both.
Cody — Ja’Tavion Sanders. I think is greatest upside is as an edge rusher, so I think Texas will try to use him similar to how they utilized Joseph Ossai, and long-term, I think Sanders can have a similar kind of impact on the edge, if not even more. He’s just a special talent who will probably be a pro in three years, and in the meantime, I’d guess that we’ll see Texas take advantage of his pass-catching abilities a bit, as well.
Gerald — Greatest impact is probably Ja’Tavion Sanders. He’s a guy who can step in and be an impact player and contributor as a true freshman and beyond. He’s a do-everything guy from a defensive end position and can even generate points from that position as well. I might also be picking a dark horse, but Byron Murphy was often the best player on the field for the DeSoto defense and a good defensive tackle can make a defensive front, so be on the lookout for the anchor in the middle.
Seahorn — Ja’Tavion Sanders is the easy answer here. I’m very intrigued to see how the staff handles his development because he could make an impact on either side of the football at the collegiate level. Edge rushers are obviously more valuable than tight ends in the grand scheme of things, but Sanders has made a pretty good case this year that his upside at tight end may be too much to ignore.
More immediately, give me one offensive and one defensive signee who will make an impact next season.
Wescott — Yikes. This offensive class... Forced to choose, I’ll go with Sanders just because I don’t think anyone else really has a legitimate shot of contributing besides maybe Jaden Alexis because of his pure speed. On defense, I think Byron Murphy II could play a role similar to what T’Vondre Sweat did last year or Alfred Collins did this year, although JD Coffey could definitely make me look bad for saying that.
Cody — With the need at Jack LB with Ossai’s departure, I think there’s a pretty clear path for Sanders to emerge as the second-team option there entering the season, and progress from there much like Bijan Robinson did as his freshman season progressed. I’m a fan of his long-term potential in Austin, but in a class with relatively few offensive options and nearly none who will contribute next season, I’d go with Jaden Alexis in the slot.
Gerald — It seems like most of the wide receiver positions will be open competition heading into spring camp. Jaden Alexis is set to enroll early and with his top-end speed and a ready-to-build frame, he’s a guy who could take a big jump and be a contributor early in that group. I’ve been a Jonathon Brooks evangelist for two years, but with Bijan Robinson taking a stranglehold on the No. 1 RB spot and Roschon Johnson continuing to progress, I think we’re a couple of years out. Defensively, you might see one or all of Sanders, Harris, Cooks and Blackwell in heavy rotation, as the linebacker group is in heavy need of bodies and talent.
Seahorn — If Sanders starts out on the defensive side of the ball then he will get into the rotation sooner rather than later because the Longhorns lack depth at the position currently. Offensively, I will say Jonathon Brooks has a shot at making an impact depending on what Keaontay Ingram decides to do, as he may be needed to take ease the load on Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson.
What’s your overall assessment of this class, as it’s currently constructed?
Wescott — As I noted on Friday, circumstances have really forced Tom Herman to rely on his evaluations and the ability of his staff to develop these players once they get on campus. With that being said, I think a lot of the upside for this class will eventually rest on whether the blanket transfer waiver gets approved and Herman can inject some proven contributors from smaller programs or former highly-ranked recruits who are looking for playing time.
Cody — Defensively, there’s a lot to like about what Texas has coming in, but overall, this class was clearly a disappointment in comparison to what was expected. Guys like Alexis, Brooks, and Davis can help alleviate some of those pain points if they become key contributors in the comings years as they’re capable of, but overall, my impression is that Texas whiffed on too many elite talents at key positions and it did them no favors for the future of the program.
Gerald — I am relatively impressed with the defensive group, especially given the struggles Texas faced this year. Missing on guys like Clayton Smith, Landon Jackson and Shemar Turner hurts, but they got help from guys who can contribute early in spots of need. Offensively, there is a TON to be critical of, especially along the offensive line and wide receiver position. I would also be remiss if we didn’t mention the mishandling of the quarterback spot as the offensive staff transitioned, missing on Garrett Nussmeier and Quinn Ewers and losing Jalen Miroe in the process.
Seahorn — Given how things setup for the staff this cycle and what was available I am considerably underwhelmed and disappointed in how this class turned out in several areas. When you take into consideration how the roster is constructed currently, the staff really put themselves in a bind and now they will have to heavily utilize the portal to find some stop gaps. If you have aspirations of winning the Big 12 and being in the hunt for the playoffs then you can’t afford to have classes with this many holes in it.