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BON Round Table: 2018 expectations, does Texas finally have its QB, and more

Members of the BON staff talk Texas’ expectations entering Tom Herman’s second season, can Sam Ehlinger run away with the starting job, and more.

Academy Sports & Outdoors Bowl - Texas v Missouri Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Texas Longhorns 2018 season is set to get underway on the road on Saturday as Tom Herman’s program aims to avenge last season’s opening loss to Maryland.

The weeks that follow will present Texas with plenty of stiff competition, so members of the Burnt Orange Nation staff discussed realistic expectations, players who could emerge by the end of the season, and how confident should Longhorns fans be against the Terps.

Tom Herman’s debut capped with Texas Texas celebrating its its first winning season since 2013 and first bowl win since 2012. Per usual, plenty of hype has carried over into the offseason. How significant of a step forward will Texas take in 2018, if at all?

Cody Daniel - Co-Editor: I think Texas will win a game or two that is fell just short in last season (USC, Oklahoma State), and avoid losing to teams that ultimately kept the Horns from nine wins (Maryland, Texas Tech). I think you’ll see flashes of what Texas is becoming under Tom Herman, but you’ll also have reminders that Texas isn’t among the elite just yet.

Curry Shoff - Columnist: Texas takes a massive step forward in 2018. Improved offensive line play will be key — allowing for time in the pocket for more experienced quarterbacks and creating space for Texas RBs to finally gain yards. If Tre Watson can stay healthy and Daniel Young can be a competent back while allowing Keaontay Ingram to adjust to the speed of college football without having to be relied on as the featured back, the Texas offense will be dangerous.

A lot of people think Texas marginally improves, but I think Texas can compete for a conference championship right away.

Gerald Goodridge - Contributor: Even though there is a ton of disappointment to go around about last year, when you think about it, Texas had four games that were decided by five or less points. With the experience Texas brings to the table, the anticipated improvement at offensive line and quarterback, coupled with the fact that several teams on the schedule lost major pieces, I think a nine-win season is a fair expectation. With that being said, I still think this is a team that will win a game that they shouldn’t and lose a game that they shouldn’t.

Evan Kirschner - Contributor: I’m lukewarm on a huge improvement, but I see an improvement over last year nonetheless. I think an eight-win season is a very generous and reasonable expectation for this team this season. The Big 12 is down as a whole from last year, and Texas either hung in late games they had no business being in (USC, OU) or stayed in the game long enough to shoot themselves in the foot (OSU, Tech). If the expected growth, maturation, and discipline many are predicting to take place come to fruition, this will be a much cleaner, better coached, and more efficient unit on all sides of the ball.

Anthony Rizzo - Contributor: Texas was probably a couple plays away from being a 9-10 win team last season. With that being said, an improved offensive line and more experience at the quarterback position should help the Horns take that next step. If the offense can show consistency and make big plays down the stretch of games, this should be a 9-10 win team this season, which would be a major success considering Texas hasn’t won nine games since 2012.

The most talked about topic at Texas this season was once again the quarterback competition. Sam Ehlinger, of course, edged Shane Buechele out for the starting job. Does he take the position and run with it or are we in for the same discussion in four months?

Cody Daniel: I think Sam should benefit from just how close of a race this was. If he falls into a slump, in goes Buechele, so I think he’ll play like his job is on the line each game because, well, it basically will be. Whether or not that pressure pushes him to the next level or forces him to fall back into making costly mistakes while trying to be perfect will be key. I think we see Buechele at times, but unlike in 2017, I think it will be clear Ehlinger is QB1.

Curry Shoff: Sam takes the position and runs with it.

Ehlinger’s attitude is one we haven’t seen from a Texas quarterback in the last decade. Someone who commands respect and has the confidence of a natural leader. As Tim Beck said in LHN All-Access, the team will take the shape of its quarterback. Ehlinger reminds me — in ways — of Baker Mayfield and Johnny Manziel. He’s not going to back down. The mistakes he makes are correctable, but it’s his intangibles that make him the standout quarterback in 2018.

Ehlinger is what happens when a massive lifelong Texas fan gets a chance to lead the Longhorns. He’s not letting that opportunity slip.

Gerald Goodridge: I think if Ehlinger won the job, it means one thing: the coaches have faith in his ability to make the necessary throws to keep the offense moving. This really isn’t an offense where you need a guy that can sling it all around the yard, but you need a guy can make the right reads and hit an open man in rhythm. If Texas comes out of non-conference with a winning record, it will be because Ehlinger was able to make the required throws, without making the costly mistakes he did a year ago. And if that is the case, barring a catastrophe, I don’t see the coaching staff making a change.

Evan Kirschner: Ideally, you’d hope that Sam takes the job and runs with it. If that happens, it can only mean that either the offense is playing at an above average level, or Texas is winning football games. I think there’s a chance early in the year for this discussion, with a tough stretch in USC, TCU, @ K-State, and OU coming in the first half the year. And even though last year showed us that while Buechele was the better pure passer, the athleticism and play calling creativity Ehlinger brought to the table provided a higher ceiling on offense for the Horns. I expect an offseason learning the offense and working with Herman and co. should give Sam the boost he needs to iron out some of the wrinkles in his game.

Anthony Rizzo: Considering Buechele’s passing ability and the struggles of Big 12 secondaries, the job may not be decided until midway through the season. While Ehlinger brings a different edge of toughness at the quarterback position, his passing game is still a question mark. Either way, I feel confident in both quarterbacks moving forward.

Whether it be through experience or adding talent, Texas has improved in key areas (QB, RB, OL) and on the surface, regressed in others (DB, LB). Which position has you the most excited, and which are you most concerned with?

Cody Daniel: I’m probably in the minority, but I really like what Texas has at running back. That doesn’t mean I think it will be an elite group, but I’m intrigued with Tre Watson’s versatility, Daniel Young’s development, and how well Keaontay Ingram — the future of the position at Texas, in my opinion — progresses. For obvious reasons, depth at linebacker is an issue and could prove problematic pretty early on.

Curry Shoff: Most excited to see what Tre Watson and Keaontay Ingram can bring to this offense. It can’t get worse from the RB room than it did last year.

Conversely, I am most concerned about the linebackers. The first team is fine, but there isn’t a lot of depth behind them.

Gerald Goodridge: Even though it’s not one of the choices, I think this group of wide receivers has a chance to be special. You’ve got Collin Johnson who has the size and skills to be one of the best receivers in the nation, Devin Duvernay who is an absolute burner, and Lil’Jordan Humphrey starting at the slot, who may be the best all-around athlete on the team. Then at the twos you have Jerrod Heard and three ridiculously talented freshmen. I think I’m most concerned about the linebacker spot, simply because of depth issues. I think the three starters are as talented as any linebacking group in the nation, but behind those three you have one guy, Jeffrey McCulloch, that has seen any playing time for the Longhorns.

Evan Kirschner: I’m definitely excited to see improved play from the offensive line this year. If Texas is going to have any kind of success in a Tom Herman offense, the running game has to establish itself – something the Horns really struggled to do consistently last year. An improved O-Line should help get the run game going, and besides, we can all agree there’s not a more exciting play in sports than a firm, clean block from an interior lineman.

I’m most concerned with the DBs, not from a lack of excitement for who’s back there, or even for new guys like Caden Sterns. I’m concerned because this was, without a doubt in my mind, the driving force behind why Texas had such an imposing defensive unit last season. The losses of Holton Hill and DeShon Elliott to the NFL may hurt this defense, especially playing in a conference loaded with teams that can pass at will.

Anthony Rizzo: I’m most excited about the wide receivers group this season. With big body guys like Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey returning and newcomers Brennan Eagles and D’Shawn Jamison emerging, Texas has plenty of talent at the position. It’d be nice to see seniors Jerrod Heard and John Burt end their careers on a good note as well. The big question is, can the offense find a way to utilize Devin Duvernay correctly?

The depth at the linebacker position concerns me a bit as week one approaches. With Adeoye and Overshown out right now, they cannot afford anymore injuries at that position.

Kris Boyd, Breckyn Hager, Gary Johnson, Collin Johnson, etc… You’ve heard the names of guys expected to have a big season for the Horns. By the end of the season, who are some names everyone will know who may not be getting much praise entering 2018?

Cody Daniel: I think Keaontay Ingram will have fans excited about his future by the end of the season, and the same could be said for several other freshmen such as Caden Sterns, Joshua Moore, Anthony Cook, and Ayodele Adeoye if he can get healthy in time. As far as returning guys are concerned, Ta’Quon Graham has received plenty of praise behind the scenes and I still believe that Jeffery McCulloch could be effective if he saw the field.

Curry Shoff: Total guess — but what I am hoping is that the list includes some combination of the following: Malcolm Roach, Ta’Quon Graham, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Tre Watson, Devin Duvernay and Derek Kerstetter. MAYBE even a tight end like Reese Leitao.

Not including the freshmen DBs because everyone is already talking about the freshmen DBs.

Gerald Goodridge: I think D’Shawn Jamison is in a perfect position to be that guy who becomes legendary based upon a few flashes of brilliance either at slot or coming in to return a few punts. I also think Caden Sterns is going to be a household name for the foreseeable future. He’s a complete package at safety, showing off great ball skills, his ability to make open-field tackles and can lay a big hit on someone if the situation calls for it.

Evan Kirschner: I think Lil’Jordan Humphrey is set to have a great year as the No. 2 wideout option and return specialist. Aside from already having a name that belongs in a Chris Berman highlight reel, he showed promise in short bursts last year, and with Texas reportedly more committed to running less receiver rotations this year, LJ should put some numbers up that will make his name stand out a little bit more than it already does. Honorable mention – Tre Watson.

Anthony Rizzo: Watch out for freshman wide receiver Joshua Moore as he develops at the H-WR position. Standing at 6’1 with long arms and speed, Moore possesses some traits you want out of a receiver.

After underperforming to his five-star rating his first two seasons, this is Brandon Jones’ year to break out. Jones has a major role this season leading a young group of safeties.

The front end of Texas’ schedule is loaded — Maryland, which obviously beat UT in 2017, No. 15 USC, No. 16 TCU, @ Kansas State, and No. 7 Oklahoma. Knowing how difficult this stretch is, should fans panic if Texas sits at 2-4 or 3-3 through six games?

Cody Daniel: Even at 3-3, assuming wins came over teams like Maryland, Tulsa, and Kansas State, it would mean Texas is still struggling to beat nationally relevant teams. The circumstances surrounding those loses would dictate whether or not it’s time to panic, but at the least, it would signify that Texas ins’t ready to be relevant on a national stage. 2-4, on the other hand, would not be good. I’ll just leave it at that.

Curry Shoff: Texas will be undefeated through six games -- so the only panicking I expect halfway through the season is reserving a reasonable Bay Area AirBNB.

Gerald Goodridge: I think if Texas is 2-4 fans may riot, and rightfully so, because that means they only managed to beat one team not named Tulsa. If Texas goes 3-3 it’s disappointing, but how the losses happened will also color the conversation. If Texas looks completely outclassed against ranked teams, I don’t think panic is in order, but I do think that there need to be some serious conversations about why a more experienced team cannot progress.

Evan Kirschner: Texas fans WILL panic if the Longhorns are sitting at 2-4 or 3-3. That’s the coldest of takes you’ll see today. But are the ensuing riots and calling for Herman’s head at Longhorn City Limits ™ warranted? The context of those losses will matter – were there unforeseeable injuries? Close losses? Outmatched by the ranked teams? Bad calls in pivotal moments? Without any context it’s hard to say. Ultimately though, I think those fans have reason to panic if UT comes out of the first half of the season at an under .500 clip, if only because it means Texas isn’t capable of winning at home, outplaying ranked teams, or beating anyone not named Tulsa or Maryland.

Anthony Rizzo: Of course. Another 2-4 or 3-3 start to the season would be déjà vu for this program.

Remember ‘Texas is back, folks?’ Of course, that was wrong and Texas is still fighting to be back. Again, knowing how difficult the first half of the season is, what would you need to see to finally feel confident that Texas is, in fact, back? 6-0? 5-1?

Cody Daniel: To actually be back, I’d say 5-1. Few Texas fans would complain about 4-2, but 5-1 through six with ranked wins on its resume would have Texas being mentioned as one of the nation’s top 10-15 teams entering a more favorable stretch of its schedule.

Curry Shoff: I don’t predict losses. 6-0 is what I expect but I won’t complain about 5-1.

Gerald Goodridge: For Texas to be “back” in my book, it means that they’ve managed to come out of this stretch at 4-2, because that means they could conceivably end the season with nine or 10 wins. A 10-win season would be their highest win total since the 2009 team that played for a National Championship.

Evan Kirschner: I’d need at least 5-1 to be BACK, FOLKS. For Texas to be back, they can’t lose more than 1 game at home, or lose games on the road against teams they have historically been better than. Anything less than that just means we’re on our way back. It’s as simple as that.

Anthony Rizzo: Finishing the regular season with nine or more wins and competing atop the Big 12 would fully convince me that Texas is back.

What’s your 2018 prediction, and if everything falls into form — QB play improves dramatically, the defense stays stout, the O-Line and RBs progress, and the team stays healthy — what is the Longhorns most optimistic ceiling?

Cody Daniel: My prediction is 9-3 with losses coming to Kansas State, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. If the stars aligned perfectly and Texas caught some breaks in key games, I could see 10-2 with losses to Kansas State and West Virginia since the Red River Showdown is almost always a toss-up.

Curry Shoff: As mentioned above, I don’t make predictions that include losses. The most optimistic season is the CFB Playoff. Texas always has the talent on campus to compete. I hope this is the year it happens.

Gerald Goodridge: I’m not known for optimism when it comes to sports, but if Texas gets its best-case scenario and other teams get their worst, 11 or 12 wins could be in the conversation. Getting USC, TCU, West Virginia, and Iowa State at home could prove to be a massive advantage if the team plays well and fans show up. Normally I would be terrified of traveling to Manhattan or Lubbock, and both places are still like playing on the Moon, both of those could be significantly worse than they were a year ago.

Evan Kirschner: My prediction is 8-4. I think the Big 12 is going to shuffle around with teams beating each other up all season, with no clear frontrunner outside of maybe OU as of right now. I think Texas finishes third in the Big 12, and the Horns improve on last season by taking a bid to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

My most optimistic prediction is a 10-11 win campaign that would put Texas in the Big 12 Championship game, and potentially even the CFP picture. In this timeline, the offense soars with Ehlinger developing into a deadly RPO threat. The defensive side of the ball shows that Todd Orlando is one of the best DC’s in the country, and utilizes the Sunday talents of Gary Johnson, Kris Boyd, and Breckyn Hager. The schedule is tough, but the toughest opponents (outside of Oklahoma) all have to come play in Austin. Road games at K-State, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech are worrisome, but all three of those teams have their own question marks and are very beatable on paper. While it may be unrealistic and premature to call for an 11-1 season (and no one outside of Alabama and Clemson should be calling for 12-0), it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility. And that’s pretty fun.

Anthony Rizzo: I’ll go with 9-3 with losses to Kansas State, Oklahoma and Iowa State. But, if Buechele ends up taking over as the starting quarterback, 10-2. 11 wins can be the ceiling for this team if everything works out.

As Tom Herman said, Maryland knows it can beat Texas because it did last season. How confident are you that this time around, Texas returns to Austin at 1-0?

Cody Daniel: On a scale from 1-10, I’m at like a 6.5. Just like last year, Texas is the more talented team and it could stand to benefit from the uncertainty surrounding the coaching staff, but as we saw in 2017, Maryland has plenty of weapons and if Texas thinks it’s going to win by simply showing up, it will once again be 0-1.

Curry Shoff: Texas will beat Maryland. I will eat a live turtle if they lose.

Gerald Goodridge: I struggle with being confident, because I was confident a year ago and that turned out as poorly as it could have. Playing on the road, in a pro stadium, on the east coast, against a team with a crazy-talented offense as your first game should make you a bit nervous. To hedge my bet though, I do think the offense is better than it was a year ago, and I think the defense won’t have the adjustment period that it did a year ago.

Evan Kirschner: Last year, I feel like almost every Longhorn fan spent the off-season drinking the burnt orange kool-aid, and so it’s hard to be extremely confident in a game that burned us so terribly last year. Texas was way too confident going into last year’s game, and the 1-0 tagline Herman gave for the team motto last year was bound to blow up in our faces playing against an underdog with nothing to lose. But every Yellow Rose has its thorns, and I predict Herman and co. avenge last year’s opening defeat with a three-score victory in favor of the orange and white. 34-17, Longhorns.

Anthony Rizzo: With all that Herman’s said throughout this past month, I’m firmly confident Texas will walk out of Maryland with a win. 38-17, good guys.