Column: Through 12 games of Herman, progress remains questionable

Trenton Daeschner

From the moment he arrived in Austin, Tom Herman preached that change was coming.

And he had to. That’s what the new coach of a program does, especially when the program he’s taking over has hit rock bottom.

But then the season-opening loss to Maryland happened.

The 51-41 defeat was a humbling moment few expected, and it put Herman and the Longhorns behind the eight ball just one game into 2017.

Since then, Texas has spent the entire season trying to prove to its fan base why things are truly different around here. Herman said week after week that Texas was playing hard and physical, that change was taking root. So did the players.

The Longhorns nearly gave you reason to believe that in close losses against big-time competition in USC, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Any one of those games would have qualified as a breakthrough win.

After beating West Virginia on the road, the Longhorns had people convinced that 8–5 was achievable and that they had real momentum.

They didn’t.

Friday night’s loss to a middling Texas Tech at home was indeed a setback for this program, even if Herman didn’t want to admit it when asked as much after the game.

“No, no,” Herman said. “We’re playing really hard and really physical. We just don’t play really well and really smart at times, but we will.”

But when will the Longhorns start playing smarter? Texas can’t afford to be losing a senior night game against a 5–6 opponent when progress is allegedly being made.

Some would say bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014 is a significant sign of progress, but once the Longhorns took down West Virginia in Morgantown, 28-14, and the path to 8–5 became visible, the expectations shifted.

Entering the offseason after an 8–5 campaign would have given this struggling program some real momentum. Now, Texas could be looking at 6–7, which would mark the Longhorns’ fourth consecutive losing season. That’s not progress.

That’s why, up until this point, despite qualifying for a bowl game for the first time since 2014, Herman’s inaugural year at the helm of this Texas program has mostly been a disappointment — but he can still salvage it with a win in the bowl game.

The simple truth is that not a ton has changed at Texas through 12 games of Herman, at least in the category that matters the most — the record. (6–6, for those who are still counting.)

Yes, Texas has noticeably played more physically and a lot harder than Charlie Strong’s teams did. Yes, the defense has turned around in night-and-day fashion, and give credit to Herman for bringing along defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to fix things after two straight historically bad seasons on that side of the ball.

Sure, the offensive line was battered due to injuries, including one to junior left tackle Connor Williams. On Monday, Williams — a projected first-round pick — announced he’ll enter the NFL Draft and skip the bowl game.

Sure, Texas’ running backs also largely underachieved for most of the year. But a lot of that is on this coaching staff as well.

And sure, Texas could not get a quarterback to stay upright for a full season.

But the Longhorns had multiple opportunities to close out would-be-big wins this year and finish with a better record, but failed to do so. What’s more, Texas is facing major departures that could significantly impact next year’s roster — and the one for the bowl game, too.

Monday was a bit of a wake-up call in that regard for the program and the fan base. Along with Williams declaring for the draft, junior running back Chris Warren III announced he will transfer.

There could be more names on their way out too. Big names.

Junior linebacker Malik Jefferson could be NFL-bound, and so could junior safety and Thorpe Award finalist DeShon Elliott. Junior cornerbacks Holton Hill and Kris Boyd might also flirt with leaving early for the draft.

Fourth-year junior offensive linemen Terrell Cuney and Jake McMillon are both likely to leave the program as well.

Who knows — junior punter Michael Dickson, who seems destined to win the Ray Guy Award after the season he has had, could also leave for the NFL. He’s that good at what he does.

Herman is going to have big holes to fill for next season’s roster — a year in which the Longhorns will have to win more than six games unless Herman wants the temperature of his seat to crank up a few notches.

And once the seat gets hot at Texas, the end result is usually not a pleasant one.