Preseason 2017

Oozing Optimism

Not since the beginning of the Mack Brown era in 1998 have I seen such widespread optimism about the Longhorns after a losing season—let alone three—across the fan base, talk radio, bloggers, and the press.  I’ve encountered this optimism in conversations at parties, weddings, over a beer, and even at my own dinner table. In the months and weeks leading up to Mack Brown’s first season at Texas, the optimism was of the cautious variety.  Longhorn fans were impressed by Mack Brown’s consecutive 10-2 and 11-1 North Carolina teams before being hired by Texas and were inspired by his embrace and celebration of Texas football tradition. But fans remembered the 4-7 record that included the infamous “Route 66” loss to UCLA at home in 1997. They understood that the starting quarterback—Richard Walton—was a first year starter and an unproven commodity. They knew the defense gave up 33 points a game in 1997, which ranked 96th out of 112 teams nationally.

The current Longhorn optimism is unbridled. When I offered a more cautious optimism at a party a couple weeks ago, pointing out the lack of depth along the offensive and defensive lines, at quarterback, and at running back, I was met with a grudging worst-case scenario prediction of a 9-3 from a couple of 30-something fans. I heard a couple of Austin morning sports talk radio guys check  in with 10-2 predictions despite the Longhorns coming off three straight losing seasons, with a defense in 2016 that gave up 31.5 points a game last year, ranking 91st out of 128 teams nationally.  I heard an afternoon sports talk radio host, who also is the editor of one the most popular Longhorn Football blogs, itemizing 99 reasons why Texas fans should be optimistic.  Drivel, pure drivel.

It’s not hard to understand this 2017 brand of optimism.  Tom Herman oozes competence and confidence from every visible pore in his body.  I can’t think of a more well-spoken coach, including future hall of famers Nick Saban, Urban Myer, or even Mike Krzyzewski.  Similar to Mack Brown’s success before coming to Texas, Herman brings an impressive 22-4 record over the 2015 and 2016 seasons as the head coach at Houston, including a 6-0 record versus ranked opponents. Further, recruiting services inform us that Charlie Strong left Texas with more than its share of top-five-in-the- country talent.

Not to dismiss the above reasons for optimism, but consider that Urban Myer won two national championships at Florida before arriving at Ohio State and Nick Saban won one national championship and two Southeastern Conference titles at LSU before winning four national championships with Alabama. Herman sounds as good as or better than these coaching icons, but in hiring Herman, Texas didn’t hire a coach who is in the same league with Saban and Myer—yet.

Also I remind you that Charlie Strong’s record in his two previous seasons at Louisville prior to coming to Texas was 23-3. As EF Hutton would say, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”  And when EF Hutton talks ….

*********

Realistic Optimism and Causes for Concern

Now that I have you in a realistic state of mind, here is an easy-to-understand list of reasons for optimism and for concern about the Longhorns 2017 season.  I will elaborate on each of these in next week’s Maryland Pregame Column.

Optimism

  1. Quarterback – I understand that Tom Herman says the starting quarterback position is up for grabs, and Herman’s offenses at Ohio State and Houston relied on dual threat quarterbacks. So you might think that Sam Ehlinger, the four-star recruit who is rated the #4 dual threat high school quarterback recruit in the country, could have an edge in the competition in the long run; but I think Buechele’s talent for hitting the likes of Colin Johnson, Devan Duvernay, Jerrod Heard, and Jon Burt in stride 50 yards down the field might outweigh Ehlinger’s running ability.

Some longtime Willie Earl readers may recall that in my 2008 preseason column, I predicted Texas would go 11-1 in the regular season because of the emergence of Colt McCoy as a great quarterback and team leader.  Some readers back then said I was looking at the world through burnt orange glasses. You might say that my optimism was unbridled.  While I’m not predicting an 11-1 record for 2017 because of Shane Buechele, I do think that having Buechele as the starting quarterback is probably the biggest reason for optimism for Texas fans.  As a true freshman in 2016, Buechele performed very well, completing 60 percent of his passes and throwing 21 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions.  I don’t recall any freshman quarterback who was as equal to the moment as Buechele was in his very first game.  His stat line—16 of 26 passes completed for 280 yards, 2 touchdowns and one interception—is impressive on its own. That he posted that line against Notre Dame in a winning effort, in a frenzied environment, on national television, and in front of a home sellout crowd of more than 100,000 with perhaps unrealistic expectations tells me Texas has a star at quarterback in the making.

  1. Talented depth at wide receiver – Colin Johnson, Jerrod Heard, Armanti Foreman, Devan Duvernay, John Burt (sorry Mike Frank, Herman has been singing his praises), Dorian Leonard, and Lorenzo Joe are all capable of starting with Top 25 programs.
  2. Offensive Line – Four of the five starters are proven veterans. Left tackle is generally considered the most important position on the offensive line, protecting a right handed quarterback’s blind side when he drops back to pass, and Texas sports Connor Williams at left tackle. Williams was a consensus first-team All-American in 2016 and is projected to be a first round NFL draft choice in 2018. Three of the four other starters—l eft tackle Patrick Vahe, center Zach Shackelford, and right guard Jake McMillon—are experienced starters. Right tackle is the only big concern as of now, with perennial backup Tristen Nickelson thrust into a starter’s role due to a season-ending injury to Elijah Rodriguez.
  3. Punter Michael Dickson was the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year and is a 2017 preseason All-American. You casual fans should not underestimate the importance of the punter. Having a good one is a big deal, and Dickson is a good one.

Concern

  1. Notice that there isn’t anything about the defense on the Optimism List. I don’t care what you say about Poona Ford, P.J. Locke, Malik Jefferson, Jeffery McCullough, Malcolm Roach, or any other Longhorn Fanboy favorite you want to throw at me. All these players took part in making the 2016 defense the worst in the history of Texas Football. Come talk to me when this defense has stopped somebody …. anybody.
  2. The Horns lack depth everywhere but wide receiver. It’s especially worrisome at offensive line, defensive line, and running back. You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned the offensive line as a reason for both optimism and concern, so I’ll elaborate. The starting offensive line is a strength but one or more serious injuries and things could “go to hell in a handcart” quickly.
  3. Who is Texas’ kicker? Quickly, without looking it up. If you knew, you were ahead of me. After consulting my “2017 Longhorn Football Prospectus: Thinking Texas Football” I now know the Texas Kicker on September 2 will be Joshua Roland, a junior college transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.  He was an All-American in 2015, for whatever that’s worth. He was 25-31 on field goal attempts in 2016. I’ll cut to the chase—starting the season, Texas’ competency on field goals and extra points is an unknown.
  4. Speaking of the Longhorn faithful’s optimism about Tom Herman and his staff, most of the coaches are in their first year at Texas, and this entire staff has never functioned together as unit. Over/under on the first time we hear a mistake was made because the staff is working together for the first time?

Predictions for 2017

Mayor Yorty has just informed me that this column is long enough already, so l’ll close quickly with one prediction and the first Over/Under Contest of the season.

Texas will finish the regular season with an 8-4 record.

Now it’s your turn.

Hook ‘Em,

W.E.

Get your game face on early for 2017 and Play Willie Earl’s 2017 Predictions. The top three finishers will win the kind of prizes that Willie Earl devotees have come to expect. 🙂

2017 Season Predictions

  • Tiebreaker: Pick the team or teams that finish 3rd in the Big 12 in 2017.



4 Comments to “Preseason 2017”

  1. It’s “show-me” time (Missouri reference there for the ill educated). I’ve bought into the improved conditioning, relentless attention to detail and everyday accountability, but I want to know if the current bunch of Longhorns “know” how to win. I want to see Joshua Rowland actually kick, I want to see a punt returner actually catch and return a punt, I want to see a kickoff return past the 22 yard line, I want to see an offensive line that actually blocks. And (I guess I’m alone here since he was named All American) I want to see Conner Williams dominate the line of scrimmage in the manner of Jerry Sizemore. If he’s a first-team All American, I see no reason why not. I want to see offensive play calling that doesn’t make me want to puke. This, I BELIEVE we’ll see, but still, “show me.” There are only four games on the schedule that I believe should be in doubt. If the hype becomes reality, the Horns should win two of them. I’ll leave room for a weird, stub-your-toe loss and say, I want to see 9-3 and a decent bowl game. It’s way yonder past time.

    • I agree mostly but David, the Horns had a 2,000 yard rusher last season so I think we’ve seen this offensive line block.

  2. Since I have moved back to the US, I guess I lose my overseas handicap status, but I’m still out of state! I will be looking for Texas bars in DC to watch some games, looking forward to it after a long hiatus, though I did not miss much! New start for both me and the Horns, great to be back for another season with Willie. Hook ’em!

What Say You?