If Tom Herman is able to find success throughout his first fall on the Forty Acres, it’s safe to suggest it will be largely due to the services of underclassmen: A sophomore quarterback with a bevy of youthful options to pitch to, a junior running back and a defense laden with significant experience, despite primarily being only a year or two removed from high school. With only 14 seniors on the roster – far and away the fewest total of any class on campus – the pool of potential breakout candidates isn’t the deepest.
This isn’t to say, though, that the senior class can’t have a significant impact and conclude their careers in Austin on a winning note — something no senior has enjoyed at Texas since the 2010 class went 8-5 in 2013.
Here’s a look at a few realistic breakout candidates.
Armanti Foreman - WR
Armanti Foreman spent much of his junior campaign playing his role within an offense centered around his brother, D’Onta. While D’Onte rushed his way into the Longhorns record books and subsequently earning himself the Doak Walker Award and a ticket to the NFL, Armanti quietly led Texas in receptions (34) and receiving yards (420).
It’s quite unlikely the ‘Horns hand the ball off 323 times to a single back as they did with D’Onte in 2016, which in turn makes it unlikely the Texas backs rush a collective 597 times in 2017. That, along with what’s expected to be a more experienced and improved quarterback slinging the pigskin around in Shane Buechele is a recipe for Foreman to take yet another significant step forward as a senior.
After hauling in 21 receptions for a combined 370 yards during his first two seasons, Foreman’s productivity last season more than doubled his first two efforts, and he did so while remaining a fairly non-explosive option — Foreman had only two receptions go for at least 20 yards all season.
The ‘Horns receiving corps will feature no shortage of talented options for Buechele or Sam Ehlinger to target, but Foreman could be in store for another uptick in productivity if he can cement himself as the first or second option in the slot, where the ball will be in his hands in space quite often.
Dorian Leonard - WR
Where would Dorian Leonard be if John Burt hasn’t suffered through a significant sophomore slump?
It’s likely his name wouldn’t be on this list, but when Burt began struggling with drops early on, Leonard took full advantage of his opportunities outside and emerged as a quality deep threat.
After being held off the stat sheet in Texas' season-opening victory over Notre Dame, Leonard burst onto the scene as a surprisingly reliable deep threat, hauling in a 46-yard touchdown reception against UTEP, a 49-yard reception against Oklahoma State and a 45-yard highlight score in the Red River Shootout against Oklahoma.
The following game against Iowa State, Leonard hauled in five receptions — one shy of his previous season total of six — before later exploding with seven catches for 132 yards against West Virginia.
Now entering his final season on the Forty, Leonard is a much more proven commodity after his 397 yards ranked third on the team, behind just Foreman and Devin Duvernay and each will likely play in the slot next season. The big-play prowess is there, as is his tremendous size at 6’5, but he’ll have his hands full earning a starting role opposite of Collin Johnson if Burt bounces back from last season’s struggles, as well as if Lil’Jordan Humphrey’s flashes of brilliance in practice become the norm.
Naashon Hughes - OLB
It’s now or never for senior outside linebacker Naashon Hughes. The edge rusher has remained a consistent contributor throughout his time on the Forty Acres, but is yet to take the expected step forward. Many thought this would be the case last spring after the Harker Heights product recorded 57 total tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks as a sophomore, but rather, much like the entire defense in 2016, Hughes struggled and saw his contributions fall to 27 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss.
With a fresh coaching staff in Austin — the third Hughes will suit up for during his Longhorn career — the senior has one final opportunity to take the long-anticipated leap.
“Communicate more, see if I can make a couple plays here and there and just get the younger guys helped out because they haven’t been out there,” Hughes said of how he’s looking to step into a leadership role. “I set high expectations for myself as well as the defense as a whole. This year I plan to take the next step for myself and for the defense.”
With winter conditioning now in the rear view, Hughes has done his part to impress Herman thus far, prompting the ‘Horns new head coach to praise his leadership in the locker room and deem him the current starting outside linebacker.
With only two spring practices in the books, things can obviously change and it’s worth proceeding with caution when basing praise off of weight lighting and running around cones. But for now, even if just vocally, Hughes appears to be on the right track. To finally breakout as a senior on the field, though, Hughes will be pushed as far as he can handle, as the early reports indicate sophomore Jeffrey McCulloch is rapidly rising and emerging as a leader in his own right.
Jason Hall - DB
It may have sounded much more promising to deem Jason Hall as a potential breakout senior just weeks ago before the physical defensive back suffered a “significant” hamstring injury, which will sideline him for most of, if not all of spring practice.
Much like Hughes, Hall's breakout candidacy is contingent upon his ability, or lack thereof, to hold off underclassman competition. Obviously, a wrench was thrown into Hall's bag with his unfortunately timed hamstring injury, which will allow sophomore Brandon Jones, junior DeShon Elliott, and even junior John Bonney to pursue the two starting safety roles.
Don’t write Hall off just yet, though.
With 26 career starts in 34 games under his belt, Hall’s the most experienced member in the Texas secondary and considering his size (6’3, 220) and aptitude as a blitz option, Hall provides a unique skill set from the safety position, evident in his 52 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks last season.
It’s hard to envision a scenario where Hall won’t get an opportunity to compete for the starting role once he returns, likely following the spring game, but depending on the progress Jones and Elliott make throughout the next 13 practices, the senior may be left playing catchup to a pair of underclassmen. If he can emerge as the starting strong safety, though, the senior may be in store from an impact final season.
Considering the numbers don’t exactly favor Texas’ 14-man senior class and the bulk of the ‘Horns production will likely come by way of underclassmen, projecting a pair of breakout seniors on each side of the ball seems realistic. Anything more may be a bit of a reach
Here’s a few more seniors to keep an eye on throughout the spring summer and fall:
- Poona Ford - DT - I initially planned on including Ford as a major breakout candidate, but have since tapered expectations following Herman’s comments about his defensive line being out of shape and a concern at this point.
- Tristan Nickelson - OT
- Brandon Hodges - OG
- Andrew Beck - TE