Preason camp is officially underway, and though only one practice has been completed, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman already has check list of priorities for his program to address ahead of the 2019 campaign.
Unsurprisingly, filling the voids Kris Boyd and Davante Davis left behind at cornerback was the first priority Herman noted when addressing the media on Friday.
“We’ve got to find two starting corners that are trustworthy,” Herman said.
How well they perform in those roles throughout fall practice remains to be seen, but there’s every reason to believe that the best Texas options to that end are true sophomores Anthony Cook and Jalen Green.
A naturally confident talent with a reputation as a technician, Cook’s skill set seemingly makes him an ideal candidate to replace Boyd as the boundary corner. Despite missing time this spring with a hamstring injury, Cook still appears to be the far-and-away favorite to secure one of the two starting roles Herman is seeking to address.
Green, on the other hand, was good to go throughout the spring, and he made the absolute most of the opportunity. After unseating redshirt sophomore Kobe Boyce to assume duties as the first-team field corner, Green put forth a praiseworthy performance during the spring game. All told during that showing, the Texas quarterbacks targeted Green nine times, and of those nine attempts, only three connected, netting a mere 10 yards.
“We’ve challenged Jalen to get more physical,” Herman said after the Orange-White scrimmage. “He’s a big, long guy that’s got excellent ability. Really, really athletic. That’s something he needs to continue to do. I think he’s taken that to heart. I think he really wants to improve that part of his game, and you saw a little bit of that tonight.”
Long before Green’s spring emergence and Cook essentially solidifying himself as the man to beat at boundary corner, the lone senior in the secondary, safety Brandon Jones, projected that those two would become the Longhorns breakout defenders in 2019.
Herman can only wait, watch, and see whether Jones is correct in that projection — at Big 12 Media Days, he did push back on the assumption that Cook and Green are the frontrunners there.
The secondary is far from the only position group replacing multiple starters, though.
The same is true for both the defensive line and the linebacking corps, so when collectively considered with the secondary, Texas is tasked with replacing eight starters from a unit that ranked 44th in S&P+ in 2018.
The priority to that end?
“Find a way to get best 11 guys on defense out there in different personnel packages,” Herman said.
Given that the most glaring area to address is at linebacker, where the Longhorns are looking to replace Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler, one plausible resolution is replacing a linebacker with one of the numerous physical safeties, as Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando noted at the Texas High School Coaches Convention, per Inside Texas’ Joe Cook.
“We have a whole bunch of dynamic playmakers,” Orlando said. “If this guy at linebacker isn’t as good as this guy at safety, and the guy at safety is one of our better 11 guys, I better and we better do a better job of creating something that has that guy on the field.”
Hard-hitting sophomore DeMarvion Overshown, who was regarded as one of the most imposing tacklers in the 2018 class, certainly appears to be an ideal option there given his competency in coverage, as well as junior Chris Brown, who made two starts in 14 appearances in 2018.
On the other side of the ball, Herman noted the need for Texas to utilize its running backs better, and for obvious reasons.
“We’ve got to make a greater emphasis on running with football with our tailbacks; designing runs that they’re suited for and understanding their skill set,” Herman said. “And then, to take some of those hits off of Sam, we’ve kind of beefed up our [run-pass option] game. So instead of a run-run option, it’s a run-pass option.”
Though Texas largely entrusting Ehlinger with its ground game worked wonders in 2018 as he tallied nearly 500 yards and 16 touchdowns, those marks required 164 carries to reach. For further perspective on just how significant that workload was, Ehlinger’s 164 rush attempts were 22 more than Keaontay Ingram received, and across the entire country, only 10 quarterbacks carried the ball more often.
Of course, it should certainly help that Ingram enters his sophomore season healthy and with considerably high expectations following various flashes throughout his freshman campaign, and his projected backup, true freshman Jordan Whittington, has received nothing short of rave reviews since arriving last winter as an early enrollee.
The other aspect of Herman’s wishes is the increased emphasis placed on RPOs, an approach that Ehlinger likes.
“It’s been awesome,” Ehlinger said during Big 12 Media Days of Texas installing more RPOs into the offense. “I love it because it’s going to be hard for teams to try to take away the run without adding guys in [to the box] because of how physical we are going to be up front and the skill we’re going to have at the running back position without having guys who are runnings 4.5s cutting behind them.”
Defending those RPOs will be more difficult this season, too, and not just because of any projected improvement for the offense as whole — Ehlinger revealed some of the technical changes that will power the run-pass option game in 2019.
“It’s a little bit different,” he said. “Now instead of reading the back side, we’re reading the front side, or maybe we’re reading both sides. It’s more of a full-field type deal and it really puts defenses in a bind.”
Want to produce more explosive plays? Stressing defenses by optioning off defenders without forcing Ehlinger to run the football sounds like a good plan. Especially with the talent that now surroundings the Texas junior at the skill positions.
At least on the surface, Texas enters preseason camp with some semblance of an answer for each area Herman is aiming to address.
Expected learning curves aside, optimism regarding the upside of Cook and Green at cornerback seems justified, while others such as Boyce, sophomore D’Shawn Jamison, and even true freshman Kenyatta Watson II could provide some intriguing competition at the position.
On paper — and even on film in Ingram’s case — a backfield featuring Ingram and Whittington should boast as much explosive potential as any Herman and his staff have had in Austin. And as far as the RPOs are concerned, it’s fairly safe to assume that Ehlinger, now a junior leader and an elite talent nationally, will ensure that the offense as a whole operates as Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck intend.