Now that Texas has hired Tom Herman to succeed Charlie Strong, what should Longhorn fans expect in 2017 and subsequent years?
Texas has its man. So what should Longhorn fans expect in 2017?
Tom Herman was this year’s Justin Fuente, the “it” Group of Five coach so coveted by Power Five programs that he’d presumably have his choice of destinations. But before a bidding war for his services could break out, the Longhorn brass made certain he wouldn’t have to relocate his family outside the Lone Star State.
Herman already has one critical advantage over his predecessor, Charlie Strong, in that he doesn’t have to succeed Mack Brown. Brown, for all the good he did in Austin, left Strong with myriad of messes to clean up, both in terms of personnel and overall culture. Strong, for all of his shortcomings on the field, did a solid job of raising the talent level on Signing Day and cleaning house to remove any bad seeds. And Herman is going to be the beneficiary, with a great shot to hit the ground running in 2017, much the way he did at Houston in 2015.
Any new staff deserves patience, though Herman might not need it. The Longhorns are tailor-made for instant success next fall.
Just about everyone who contributed to this year’s dismal 5-7 campaign has remaining eligibility. On offense, true freshman quarterback Shane Buechele started the entire season, and will be even better as a seasoned sophomore with Herman managing his development. All-American candidate Connor Williams headlines an O-line that used just one senior, guard Kent Perkins, and nearly everyone who caught a pass in 2016 returns. And while it’d be a huge bonus if 2,000-yard rusher D’Onta Foreman came back for his senior year, Chris Warren III and Kyle Porter are poised to pick up the slack if the lure of the NFL Draft creates a backfield opening.
That’s the number of seniors the Horns started on defense in Saturday’s loss to TCU. Texas ought to be a fortress up the middle next fall, led by middle linebacker Malik Jefferson and interior linemen Chris Nelson and Poona Ford. One of Herman’s top priorities as he assembles his new cabinet will be to pay special attention to his secondary coach, since the 2016 Longhorns really struggled in pass defense. However, there’s ample young talent on the back end, like free safety Jason Hall and sophomore corners Davante Davis, John Bonney, Kris Boyd and Holton Hill, who desperately need to be coached up at this stage of their careers.
Herman is inheriting a well-stocked cupboard of former blue-chippers. And the foundation is solid, thanks to the sweat equity invested by Strong and his assistants over the last three years. Plus, Herman will now be coaching in the Big 12, which will not be confused with the SEC West or the Big Ten East in terms of barriers to contention.
The Big 12 is down. Way down outside of the state of Oklahoma. The Sooners and the Cowboys will be contenders as long as Bob Stoops and Mike Gundy, respectively, are on the payroll. But TCU has been exposed this year, and Baylor is in transition as it adapts to life after Art Briles. The balance of the league? Shouldn’t be able to perennially compete with Texas, in terms of recruiting, budgets or facilities. If there’s a league where a struggling national power can make up lost real estate in a hurry, it’s right here in the worst of the Power Five conferences.
In the short term, like between now and Signing Day, Herman has four defined goals:
1) Assemble a winning staff that blends assistants with Big 12 experience with those not remaining at Houston, ideally former Longhorn Major Applewhite and Oscar Giles and Corby Meekins, who were instrumental in signing five-star D-lineman Ed Oliver.
2) Keep the 2017 class intact, and then build upon it now that staff instability is no longer a concern for recruits.
3) Develop a connection with all of the holdovers before mapping out a plan to make each one better beginning in the spring.
4) Create so much palpable excitement around the program that Foreman elects to be a part of it rather than turning pro early.
Long term? If Herman gets out of the blocks quickly, the short term is going to take care of the long term virtually overnight. Austin is still where the majority of young kids in the region want to play when they grow up, and it’s certainly not as if Texas operates at any kind of inherent disadvantage compared to the competition. Quite the contrary. The Horns are so prominent, they have their own TV network. Plus, Herman and his staff will already have deep roots in the state, so it’s not as if there has to be some kind of concerted outreach effort to local high school coaches.
With all due respect to P.J. Fleck, Texas has landed the best available young coach on the market. Yes, even after his Cougars lost three games in a season it was supposed to run the table following an opening day upset of Oklahoma. And Longhorn fans shouldn’t have to wait long to reap the benefits from a change in leadership. While not quite turnkey, Herman is walking into a very promising situation in Austin. He has the returning talent and relative cushiness of the Big 12 to both soar past the bar set in recent years and contend for a spot in next December’s revival of the Big 12 Championship Game.
Chin up, Longhorn faithful. This current decade of football is one you’ll want to delete from the memory bank, but your new coach is a rising young star, and your old coach will deserve an assist when the 2017 squad finally begins living up to your expectations.