AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The frustration at Texas is visible in — of all places — the flowing golden curls of senior defensive end Breckyn Hager.
Hager was a freshman when he vowed he wouldn’t cut his hair until Texas won the Big 12 Conference. His hair now stretches down to his sternum.
Yep, it’s been that long — much longer, really — since Texas mattered in the Big 12.
“I wanted something tangible that could always remind me to go after such a simple goal,” Hager said. “And now I’m realizing, wait, it’s not that simple.”
Coach Tom Herman is facing higher expectations in his second year at Texas. His first season got the Longhorns back on the winning side of the ledger as Texas went 7-6 and got its first bowl win since 2012.
“It was a promising feeling,” said senior wide receiver Jerrod Heard. “Winning the Texas Bowl was a huge step … Winning, finishing the season out with a win, what a good feeling that was.”
Now it’s time to see if Texas can be a Big 12 contender again. The Longhorns have been full of promise before, with big-time recruiting classes and recommitted and refocused veterans full of “buy in” for the storied program. Yet Texas has been the Big 12’s biggest disappointment for a decade now.
Herman must navigate those expectations with a team that lost a ton of NFL-caliber defensive talent, is still shaky on offense and faces a front-loaded schedule. Four of the first six opponents beat the Longhorns last season. Texas opens the 2018 season at Maryland on Sept. 2.
“We had a tremendous amount of growth last season,” Herman said. ” I think that anybody that has watched us play, anybody that’s been around our program, understands that we’re playing harder, we’re playing more physical, we’re playing more cohesive than our program has in quite some time.”
Hager, meanwhile, would like to end all the upkeep it takes for his epic curls.
“I hate it,” he said. “Do you know how many tears have soaked into this after losses? … I’m ready to get this off.”
Another season means yet another quarterback question. Sophomore Sam Ehlinger was raw as a freshman, erratic as a thrower and prone to costly late turnovers that figured big in three losses. He’s also a bruising runner who led the Longhorns in rushing, but also missed a game with a concussion. Junior Shane Buechele, the starter in 2016, would probably benefit the most if Texas improves a poor running game because the offense would rely less on Ehlinger to run for first downs. Buechele’s toughest job is convincing Herman he’s the “alpha male” the coach craves at the position.
Texas’ lackluster offense has Herman facing regular questions on why he doesn’t take over play calling from offensive coordinator Tim Beck. Herman was a national championship winning-coordinator at Ohio State but he’s been reluctant to call plays as a head coach at Texas. If he has to do it, it will likely mean Texas’ season has gone south and fans will wonder why he waited.
Texas has no time to ease into its schedule. The first month includes the opener at Maryland and a Sept. 15 home matchup with Southern California. Then comes TCU, which has won five of the last six games against Texas before a trip to Kansas State, where the Longhorns haven’t won since 2002. And up next? Big 12 favorite Oklahoma. A 3-3 start and another 7-6 finish are a real possibility.
The Longhorns defense was among the Big 12’s best last season and kept Texas in every game. It also surrendered fourth-quarter leads in four losses. The Longhorns must replace a bunch of departed talent at nearly every position. Pass rush should be a strength with Hager and Charles Omenihu on the edges. Nose tackle Chris Nelson should be a disruptive force in the middle.
A woeful offensive line has been the biggest problem for Texas for several seasons and Herman has his work cut out trying to solve this puzzle again. Tackle and coveted Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson once solved a Rubik’s Cube behind his back and he’ll be performing similar wizardry if he can shore up the line to protect the Texas quarterback this season.