Column: Future bright after bowl clincher

Michael Shapiro

With one game left in the 2017 regular season, former head coach Charlie Strong’s metaphor from a year ago looks to be increasingly prescient. 

“The cake has been baked,” Strong said following Texas’ season finale in 2016, his last game as the team’s head coach. “The only thing you need to do now is put the icing on it and slice it.”

Strong was referencing Texas’ base of talent upon his departure from the program, one stocked with back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes in 2015 and 2016. And while the players from those classes failed to save Strong’s job, the former Longhorns’ leader believed they would serve the next head coach well. With a 16–21 record over three seasons, time ran out on Strong. But the program was far from broken.

Fast forward one year and the proverbial coat of icing has been applied. Yes, the Longhorns straddled .500 for much of 2017, but after Texas’ 28-14 victory over West Virginia on Saturday, the Longhorns are guaranteed a bowl appearance in head coach Tom Herman’s first season. And with a crop of youngsters starting at numerous positions, the burnt orange’s future appears bright. 

Let’s start on the offensive side of the ball. Texas should brace to lose All-American left tackle Connor Williams to the 2018 NFL draft — Williams projects to be a clear first-round pick — but the rest of the line will return. Add in a full offseason of practice for the likes of freshman right tackle Derek Kerstetter and sophomore Zach Shackelford, and an offensive line that spent much of its 2017 in flux could serve as a stout front for the Longhorns’ stable of offensive weapons.

And what a stable of weapons it will be. Texas projects to return all four of its running backs and its top three wide receivers, highlighted by sophomore Collin Johnson. Junior running back Chris Warren III will look to regain his spot atop the depth chart, while facing stiff competition from the pair of freshmen, Daniel Young and Toneil Carter. 

Then there’s the quarterback. Freshman Sam Ehlinger has made his fair share of rookie mistakes in 2017 — look no further than his pick-six against the Mountaineers on Saturday — but displayed an athleticism and talent unseen on the 40 Acres since the days of Colt McCoy. As Ehlinger refines his passing prowess to compliment his aptitude in the running game, he should eventually rise to the top of the Big 12 quarterback ladder.

Herman will most likely forge ahead in 2018 without the central ingredient of Strong’s cake, linebacker Malik Jefferson. The state’s No. 1 recruit in 2015, Jefferson was the top recruiting success of Strong’s tenure. His three seasons in burnt orange have been uneven, though a strong 2017 has vaulted Jefferson to a first-round
projection in the 2018 draft. 

But even with Jefferson’s potential departure, Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando should have no trouble crafting another top tier defense in 2018. The Longhorns featured plenty of underclassmen defensively, led by sophomore defensive back Brandon Jones and defensive lineman Malcolm Roach. If junior safety and Longhorn interception leader DeShon Elliott returns as well, look out. Another year of cohesion in the secondary will wreak havoc on opposing passers.

This may seem like an overly rosy picture for a team just one game over .500, but don’t be fooled. The future of the Longhorn program is as bright as its been since the Mack Brown era. As Texas’ regular season draws to a close on Friday, keep an eye out for the Longhorns’ young talent. The icing on the cake has been applied. Now it’s time to enjoy the dessert.