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Investment in walk-on program paying off for Texas

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The walk-on program produced a starter, a touchdown, and six tackles for the Longhorns on Saturday against the Miners.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Texas at Kansas Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While the Texas Longhorns program has done a strong job of filling roster holes with late additions like graduate transfers or junior college prospects since head coach Tom Herman arrived on the Forty Acres, scholarship players haven’t been able to fill every need.

Fortunately for the Longhorns, Herman also started emphasizing the need to build a strong walk-on program. On Saturday against UTEP, former walk-on Cort Jaquess started at middle linebacker, his second straight start for Texas, and recorded five tackles. With former tight end Reese Leitao forced into action at defensive end, former walk-on Jett Bush played significant snaps at the Jack position and made one tackle. At wide receiver, Kai Money filled in due to injuries in the slot, making four catches on four targets for 26 yards and a touchdown.

Herman said it was the first touchdown scored by a walk on at Texas in 15 years.

“I mean, it’s extremely important,” Herman said of the walk-on program on Monday. “We invest a ton [in it].”

Herman and his staff had to build the walk-on program from its sorry state when he got to Austin.

“It was one of the things that when we got here, we were surprised, to be honest with you, what kind of shape it was in,” Herman said. “It was not in very good shape.”

There was one notable success from the walk-on program under former head coach Charlie Strong — the development of safety Dylan Haines, who felt he wasn’t given an opportunity under Mack Brown. Haines developed into a three-year starter who recorded 13 career interceptions.

Haines had a chance to contribute because Texas only took one safety in the 2012 class and the three safeties in the 2013 class were never able to contribute. Strong’s transition class in 2014 included two safeties who both became contributors in John Bonney and Jason Hall, but the Longhorns still eventually needed Haines to play a large role.

Strong also took Tarleton State transfer Jarmarquis Durst as a transfer. Durst eventually earned a scholarship under Herman as a senior in 2018 and played in 11 games on special teams.

According to Herman, one of the issues that Texas faces with the walk-on program is the university’s high academic standards. So when Herman arrived at Texas, he went to interim athletics director Mike Perrin for assistance.

“I credit Mike Perrin a lot for for helping us stress to the powers that be how important getting quality walk ons into our program is and at an academic institution with the the academic prowess that the University of Texas has that can be a challenge. I know it was for us at Rice,” Herman said.

When Herman got to Texas, John Michael Jones was serving as a recruiting assistant. Herman made him the assistant director of player personnel in 2018 and put Jones in charge of identifying and recruiting preferred walk ons, an area where Jones has excelled.

Bush, for instance, was an overlooked recruit from Strake Jesuit in Houston who was committed to New Mexico State before flipping to Texas when he received an offer to become a preferred walk on.

The willingness to elevate a larger than usual number of walk ons surely helped during the recruiting process and the Horns followed through by awarding Bush a scholarship prior to the season opener.

Texas also flipped legacy quarterback Sam Saxton from Southern Miss in the 2019 recruiting class. Saxton transferred to Stephen F. Austin after one season on the Forty Acres, but still illustrates some of the success that Jones has experienced targeting FBS-quality players for the walk-on program.

Herman made a significant addition in the personnel department in 2017, luring longtime high school football coach Bob Shipley out of retirement. Shipley previously worked as a football analyst under Mack Brown and now works as the director of high school relations, where he handles the organizational side of the walk-on program.

The deep snapper position presents a notable contrast between what the walk-on program looked like under Strong and how Herman runs his program differently. Following the graduation of Nate Boyer, Strong eventually ended up with 5’11, 205-pound Jak Holbrook, who was good enough on punts to retain the job under Herman, but struggled on extra points and field goals since he was so undersized.

Combined with some poor efforts from graduate transfer kicker Trent Domingue, Holbook’s lack of size contributed to one of the low moments of the Charlie Strong era — having three extra points blocked by Oklahoma State. In a single half.

When Herman arrived in Austin, he added 6’3, 275-pound graduate transfer deep snapper Kaleb Smith from Oklahoma State to allow Holbrook to focus on solely on the punt unit.

Texas then eventually took two commitments at deep snapper in the 2018 recruiting class. Initially, the Longhorns added Kingwood Park’s Grayson Yeager, but didn’t stop doing due diligence at the position. So, shortly after National Signing Day, Texas landed the nation’s No. 2 long snapper, Magnolia’s Justin Mader, a 2018 Under Armour All-American.

Mader quickly earned a scholarship and took over snapping duties on extra points and field goals in 2018 before handling punts as well in 2019. Since arriving on the Forty Acres, Mader has done his job in the best way possible for a deep snapper — by doing nothing to bring attention to himself.

Overall, Texas now has five former walk ons on scholarship, including Bush, Jaquess, and Mader, as well as linebackers Luke Brockermeyer and Russell Hine. Along with Money, that means the Longhorns received contributions from four current or former walk ons against UTEP.

It’s unprecedented over the last 20 years. And while the ideal is obviously to get the program to the point where playing current or former walk ons isn’t necessary, in a year during which Texas has four players who opted out and three more who won’t play, Herman needs contributions from the walk-on program.

Through one game, at least, they’re getting it. Mader will remain the starter deep snapper and Bush and Jaquess will keep playing as long as they’re healthy.

“You know, I think we’re headed in the right direction with that program,” Herman said.