Among the many changes taking place surrounding the Texas Longhorns football program is actual position changes with spring practice set to kick off on Tuesday, March 7.
As expected under the guidance of an entirely new coaching staff and a defensive coordinator in Todd Orlando who’s implementing his version of the 3-4 defense, which requires physical and versatile athletes, many of the key names Tom Herman mentioned during Monday’s press conference are on the defensive side of the ball.
Herman opened his press conference making note of two things he demands: Effort and offensively, ball security. In the case of Breckyn Hager, whom Herman said will now get looks at inside linebacker, as well as what the staff calls a ‘B-Backer’ or boundary linebacker, the first-year Texas head coach is already well aware of Hager’s intense nature.
“Intensity,” Herman said of what Hager brings. “You know, the guy goes really hard, which is probably not a surprise to any of us who’s ever seen his dad play. So I’m excited for Breckyn. I think this will be — it’s an important spring for everybody, but I think it’s important for him to solidify a major role.”
As Herman reiterated throughout the press conference, it’s difficult and far too early to discern exactly where guys will be lined up even a month from now, noting that you can’t judge a player by cone drills alone. But considering the array of athletes Texas linebacker corps features, sliding Hager from his primary 2016 role as an edge rusher to more of a run stopping inside linebacker makes plenty of sense, not just for Hager, but for those around him.
With Orlando inheriting a stocked cupboard featuring guys like Malik Jefferson, Anthony Wheeler, Jeffrey McCulloch and JUCO transfer Gary Johnson, Hager can potentially satisfy a middle linebacker role and allow Orlando to get creative with more physically imposing options on the edges.
To that end, Herman said senior Naashon Hughes will be making the transition from what was a Fox end in Charlie Strong’s defense to a the starting outside linebacker role. On the field, this likely won't look much different than what Hughes did in 2016 en route to 4.5 sacks.
After failing to take the expected on-field steps forward last season, Herman did praise Hughes for emerging as a vocal leader throughout winter conditioning. But as Herman repeatedly noted, though, we’ll see what difference players like Hughes can make now that it’s time to actually play football. With no shortage of talent at linebacker, what Herman deemed as Hughes’ ‘starting’ role is anything but cemented.
After playing a similar role to that of Hager and Hughes last season during a standout true freshman campaign, Herman said Malcolm Roach will enter spring practice as a defensive end.
Though Herman did partially backtrack on his statement regarding Roach’s move to defensive end, saying, “I don’t want to make that statement until I’m sure, so we’ve got to figure out where he’s going,” the move makes sense. Last season, Roach was something of a Swiss Army knife edge rusher, spending time as a defensive end, a Fox end rushing off the edge, and even dropping back into zone coverage at times.
While Herman ranted about his defensive linemen being out of shape and overweight, Roach adding 15 pounds this offseason to reach 270 can prove beneficial as a true defensive end, especially if it’s primarily muscle mass. With a bit of added size, replicating the tenacity and toughness Roach played with off the edge as a freshman going forward could become a scary thought for offensive tackles and quarterbacks, alike.
On the offensive side of the ball, the lone change Herman did mention is one that likely won’t have much of an on-field impact next season, if any, with junior Garrett Gray transitioning from wide receiver to tight end in the wake of Texas’ lack of depth at the position.
Now up to 230 pounds, Herman said Gray is still a bit too undersized to play the position, at least for the upcoming season, despite gaining 10 pounds throughout winter conditioning.
“He’s probably a year away just from a mass standpoint, to be big enough at that position,” Herman said.
As Herman noted when discussing positions of concern, offenses can scheme to avoid putting a tight end on the field, which may become the case quite often next season dending on health and the pending situation with signee Reese Leitao.
Gray played five games on special teams last season.
Something else Herman discussed, which has been a question for many considering Herman’s history of success with dual-threat quarterbacks, is that the plan in place at the moment isn’t for Jerrod Heard to make a move back to quarterback, but to simply have 8-10 package plays just to close a game if necessary.
Moving Heard back to quarterback for depth is a possibility, but Herman said that move will be contingent upon Matthew Merrick and walk-on Josh Covey and if they’re able to secure the third string quarterback job.
“With Covey being a guy that’s actually somewhat impressive running around the cones, he’s an athletic dude, which is kind of what you want from your third quarterback is,” Herman said. “He’s your third quarterback for a reason, so maybe he can add a dimension or get you out of a game running around a little bit back there, which hopefully he can provide.”
“But if Merrick and Covey can’t be that third guy then in training camp, we’ll start introducing a few things for Jerrod. But we want him to focus on being the best wide receiver he can be and worry about the third-team quarterback stuff when we need to.”
Of course, an unforeseen injury to Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger would also likely force Heard to slide back to his original role in the backfield, but for now, it appears we’ll only see him for a handful of designed plays.
Herman didn’t make note of sophomore Lil’Jordan Humphrey during Monday’s press conference, but for what it’s worth, Humphrey is again listed at his original position at wide receiver.
After catching two passes for 15 yards last season as a sizable option outside at 6’4, 222 pounds, Humphrey was briefly listed as a running back late last season, largely due to depth concerns because of injuries. With guys like Chris Warren III and Kirk Johnson returning to the field and being joined by a pair of freshmen in Toneil Carter and Daniel Young, the same depth concerns are less likely to persist in 2017.