Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State | No. 11 Oregon | No. 10 Florida | No. 9 Notre Dame
No. 8 Texas
2018 record: 10-4 (7-2 Big 12)
Returning starters: 5 offense, 3 defense
Texas is back ... in the national conversation
It didn’t take too long for Tom Herman to vault Texas back into the national conversation.
From the end of the Mack Brown era and through Charlie Strong’s middling tenure, the Longhorns went through an uncharacteristic down period. After winning 22 games in two seasons at Houston, Herman, the former UT graduate assistant who made his name as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State, headed to Austin in 2017 to revitalize the Longhorns.
Herman’s first season was up-and-down, but ended with a bowl win to get UT back above .500 (7-6) for the first time since 2013. From there, the hype escalated but came to a screeching halt with a Week 1 loss to Maryland to open 2018. But that turned out to be a bump in the road in a resurgent season. Six straight wins followed, including an upset over rival Oklahoma. Eventually the rivals would meet again in the Big 12 title game. That time, however, the Sooners prevailed to win their fourth straight conference crown and advance to another College Football Playoff.
Will Texas halt that streak in 2019? There’s certainly plenty of optimism, especially after an impressive victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
“The results were a bit hit or miss that first year,” Herman said at Big 12 media days. “So for this past season to have those tangible results and, you know, to beat your rival in the Cotton Bowl and to be able to have the Golden Hat in Austin for a year and win a New Year's Six bowl game and all the victories in between definitely makes the ability for a young man to buy in much easier.”
Herman has frequently played up the underdog role as a head coach. But nobody’s buying that anymore, especially after quarterback Sam Ehlinger proclaimed, “Longhorn Nation, we’re back!” before a national audience after the Sugar Bowl. We’ll have to see if Ehlinger’s proclamation rings true in 2019.
Can Sam Ehlinger take another step forward?
Sam Ehlinger took a massive leap forward in 2018.
He split time with Shane Buechele in 2017 and wasn’t assured the starting job entering preseason camp last fall, but he beat out Buechele and put up massive numbers through the air and on the ground. Ehlinger threw for 3,292 yards and 25 touchdowns with just five interceptions while completing 64.7 percent of his passes. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder was often the team’s most reliable rushing threat, too, especially in the red zone and short-yardage situations. He rushed for 482 yards and scored 16 times. Those touchdown runs averaged 4.6 yards with the longest being a 16-yard scamper in the Big 12 title game.
It’s scary to think there’s room for Ehlinger to improve. Ehlinger’s escapability is one of his greatest strengths, but it got him in trouble as a freshman. He limited the turnovers last year, but you have to wonder if the coaching staff will try to limit the number of hits Ehlinger takes, especially with an abundance of talent around him.
The offensive line returns two starters: all-conference center Zach Shackelford and tackle Samuel Cosmi, who started on the right side as a redshirt freshman and will move to left tackle in 2019. Texas also made a key addition in Parker Braun, an all-ACC performer at Georgia Tech who joined the program as a graduate transfer.
Joining Ehlinger in the backfield will be sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram (708 yards), with true freshman Jordan Whittington looking primed for a significant role after making a big impression in spring practice after enrolling early. Ingram suffered a bone bruise in his knee during a recent scrimmage but is expected to be ready for the team’s first game of the season.
The team lost leading receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey to the NFL, but have Collin Johnson (68 catches, 985 yards, seven TDs) and Devin Duvernay (41-546-4) back in the fold. Tight end Andrew Beck had a big role last year, but Herman has spoken positively about Cade Brewer stepping into that spot.
Competing for a Big 12 title with a young defense
Herman and his staff have recruited well, and now it has to translate on the field.
The Longhorns return just three starters on defense and many of the new faces at the top of the depth chart are underclassmen recruited by Herman’s staff.
We’ll start with the strength of the defense, which is undoubtedly the secondary. Caden Sterns and Brandon Jones are big-time talents at safety. Jones, a senior, is the team’s leading returning tackler while Sterns won Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2018. While the safety duo is among the strongest in the country, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will rely mainly on sophomores Anthony Cook and Jalen Green at outside cornerback and B.J. Foster at nickel. Josh Thompson, a junior, should also have a role at nickel.
Up front, Texas is expecting a big year from Malcolm Roach, a senior with 11 career starts on the defensive line. He’s the most experienced of that group, though Ta’Quon Graham has been in the rotation the past two seasons. Like Roach on the line, senior Jeffrey McCulloch needs to step up at linebacker as the other expected contributors are largely unproven.
“We need to make improvements on defense. We have recruited very well on that side of the ball. We have developed in the weight room very well. We're going to be young. There is no secret to that. But young and talented is better than young and not talented,” Herman said at Big 12 Media Days.
Biggest game: vs. Oklahoma (Oct. 12)
The Longhorns have a high-profile non-conference game against LSU in Week 2, a game that will show if UT can battle with an SEC heavyweight. But we all know what the biggest game on the schedule is. Oklahoma is Texas’ biggest rival. And when your biggest rival has dominated the Big 12, the Red River Rivalry becomes elevated to an even more significant level.
DB Caden Sterns
Sterns was the Big 12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2018. A five-star recruit from Cibolo, Texas, Sterns stepped right into the starting lineup as a true freshman and made a big impact. He totaled 62 tackles with three tackles for loss, one sack and four pass breakups. He also led the team with four interceptions. Sterns sat out spring ball after having knee surgery and sprained an ankle during preseason camp, but is expected to be ready for the season opener.
Biggest question mark
From Anwar Richardson of OrangeBloods.com: There are always high expectations prior to a Texas football season. After splitting games with Oklahoma, beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, and finishing with 10 wins for the first time since 2009, this is the first time those preseason expectations are realistic.
When Tom Herman was hired, he stated the Longhorns’ goal was to compete for championships. That meant Big 12 and beyond. This is one of those years where there is no doubt Texas will be in Big 12 title contention, and when a team returns Sam Ehlinger, that is not a bold prediction.
However, there are a few concerns.
Texas faces the tough task of replacing eight starters on defense. The Longhorns have a ton of talent. Most of the younger players are arguably more talented than their predecessors. They do have playing experience. Time will tell how they hold up as starters in contrast to having limited playing time off the bench.
Orange Bloods’ breakout player
RB Jordan Whittington
Keep an eye on Whittington, a freshman. He was the offensive and defensive MVP during a state championship win as a senior, and he set a Texas high school championship game record with 334 yards rushing on 28 carries during that game.
Whittington is currently Keaontay Ingram’s backup, but the early enrollee has been impressive since he arrived in January. He is listed at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, but Whittington’s body is chiseled. He has tremendous speed and change of direction. He has made big plays in practice throughout the preseason. Do not be surprised if Whittington becomes a major offensive contributor this season.
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
WR Collin Johnson
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: The 6-foot-6, 221-pound senior returned to school, which surprised some onlookers who felt Johnson might come out following a 985-yard, seven-TD season in 2018. Forty-seven of his 68 catches went for first downs last year, and he averaged a healthy 14.5 yards per reception.
That size and playmaking ability make him a fascinating prospect, although Johnson has his detractors, too. He can be a clunky, stiff route runner at times and will need to improve his burst off the line of scrimmage. Gearing up and down was an area I thought Johnson needed improvement on based on his tape up to this point, so it will be fascinating to see if he’s made strides this offseason.
The Longhorns have some other fascinating NFL prospects, including S Brandon Jones, OLs Zach Shackelford and Parker Braun and QB Sam Ehlinger. We’re putting Johnson up top right now, but he also has a lot at stake this season — especially with what appears to be stiff competition at one of the best draft crops of receivers we’ve seen in years.
TE Cade Brewer
If you can find a solid tight end in college fantasy, it’s a boon for your lineup. Andrew Beck didn’t put up huge numbers last year, but he was a first-team All-Big 12 player that had a big role for the Longhorns. Cade Brewer steps into that spot in 2019. He has plenty of experience. He started while Beck was injured as a freshman in 2017 and moved into the No. 2 role last fall. Brewer was a high school receiver, so he has natural pass-catching abilities. Perhaps that will translate into some fantasy points.
LSU and Oklahoma are the toughest games on the schedule, but the Big 12 is a deeper league than it gets credit for. Trips to TCU, Iowa State and Baylor won’t be easy, which makes 9.5 a tough number. I’m high on the Longhorns, but I’d probably lean more to 9-3 than 10-2. I like where the program is headed, but some of the losses on defense may just be too much to overcome in 2019.
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