December 8, 2022

FILE - In this Sept. 2, 2017, file photo, Texas quarterback Shane Buechele (7) runs the ball against Maryland linebacker Mbi Tanyi (50) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Austin, Texas. Buechele has been taking most of the snaps with the first team after missing the last two games with a sore shoulder. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas, File)

After a 2017 season filled with inconsistency the Longhorns are expecting big improvements in year two under Tom Herman. True sophomore signal-caller Sam Ehlinger beat out junior Shane Buechele in fall camp and been named the starter for the season-opener against Maryland. That says a lot about the coaches’ confidence in the Austin native. The last thing the Longhorn faithful needs is another embarrassing opening-season loss to a team bombarded with distractions over the past three months. Herman has a lot to prove in year two and needs to show the college football world why he was the right man for the job. The offense returns six starters, including three offensive linemen who combined for 58 career starts. They will have to do a better job of protecting Ehlinger this year because he got banged pretty bad, especially against Oklahoma last season.

Team strengths: The rush defense. One of the few bright spots of last year’s Texas defense. The Longhorns were stingy against the run, ranking second in the Big 12 and eighth nationally. The Longhorns hope to improve on that ranking and 2018 projected starters in the front seven Charles Omenihu, Chris Nelson, Breckyn Hager, Malcolm Roach, Anthony Wheeler and Gary Johnson all combined for 34.5 tackles from behind the line of scrimmage.

Team weaknesses: The offensive running game. Long gone are the days of the Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson and Jamaal Charles. Make no mistakes about it, the Longhorns really struggled to run the ball last season and finished 96th nationally in rush yards per game. Part of the blame could be put on the offensive line, but film don’t lie and last seasons’ games against USC and Oklahoma exposed what Texas was lacking big-time in the backfield. Anytime your starting quarterback leads the team in rushing and he’s not a run-first type of signal-caller, it’s a huge red flag.

Players to watch: Quarterback Ehlinger, wide receiver Collin Johnson and linebacker Anthony Wheeler. Ehlinger gives 100 percent on every play and showed his dual threat capability He passed for nearly 2,000 yards and 11 touchdowns and added another 385 on the ground and two rushing scores. Ehlinger also did a decent job of spreading the wealth and got the ball to multiple receivers. His only problem was holding on the ball too long and he took several unnecessary shots from defenders. Johnson was the playmaker at wideout last season and led the team in catches and receiving yards. He has great hands and a headache to cover in man-to-man. Johnson put on a show against USC that showed he’s the next great Texas receiver. Wheeler tallied 47 tackles, including 5.5 from behind the line of scrimmage and 2.5 sacks last season. His fellow linebackers Malcolm Roach and Gary Johnson helps the Longhorns form one of the best linebacker trios in the league.

The schedule: Tough early on. The September slate is challenging and Texas better be ready from the start having to travel to Maryland, then a cupcake before USC and TCU comes to Austin. Besides the Red River Rivalry every game on the schedule is winnable.

My take: Herman seat isn’t hot, but he’s under a lot of pressure to take Texas to the next level in year two. The offense needs to find a running back to take the attention off of the young Ehlinger. The defense might have to carry this team early on, but expect Texas to become stronger and confident as the 2018 season goes along.