When senior defensive lineman Malcolm Roach and senior safety Brandon Jones came to the University of Texas in 2016, the program was in shambles. The storied Texas Longhorns were in search for their winning season since 2013, and their freshman season couldn’t have ended any worse. After Texas’ embarrassing, infamous loss to Kansas in November of 2016 — a loss that left Charlie Strong speechless in the postgame press conference — the paperwork had been sorted and the end of the Strong fiasco dawned into the Tom Herman era.
The pair of 18-year-olds pressed on, managing the trials and tribulations brought upon by the Texas brand. The new schemes, the teammates who came and went, the demanding fanbase and the disappointments along the way were a winding and brutal road, but it eventually culminated in a 10-win season, capped off by a Sugar Bowl win against No. 5 Georgia in 2018.
That win in New Orleans, that highlight of the decade for the program, is in the past, though. Texas’ loss to Oklahoma this season ruined the Longhorns’ College Football Playoff chances, and their loss in Ames, Iowa, was the final dagger in their Big 12 hopes. The game ended two minutes before the final whistle when linebacker Joseph Ossai and Roach prematurely jumped over the line of scrimmage, drawing an offsides call, which allowed Iowa State to drain the clock to 0:04 before sending the game-winning kick through the uprights.
“Me and my class (have) been bouncing back from adversity, you know, since the day we stepped on this campus,” Roach said. “People told us not to come here, and people told us, ‘Your coach will be fired within a year’ type of things. So (we’re) just finding ways to stay strong.”
Roach’s voice broke. “Just finding a way to stay strong and be there for one another.”
At every home game in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, fans are shown a cut of “Longhorns in the NFL,” a compilation of legends who once graced the turf in Austin. Many in the class of 2016 won’t be included in that reel, and for many, these next two weeks are the last time they will be under stadium lights.
Baylor and Texas Tech represent more than just the final two games for the seniors — they represent a four-year commitment that will not end in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
“It's tough, I think, because personally it's been pretty hard on just the senior class as a whole,” Jones said. “Just because this is our last time being able to play. I will say this is the last time we will play a lot of these teams, so it's different from that aspect of it.”
Their teammates are equally disappointed, though the 2019 season isn’t over yet, and the Longhorns are determined to dedicate the rest of the season to the seniors.
“We’ve got a lot of seniors that have been through a lot in this program,” Ehlinger said. “And it would be
unfair to them for people to think, ‘Well, we haven't performed to the level that we should, so I'm just gonna give up.’ That'd be unfair to those guys that have worked so hard in this program.”
This college football season is fleeting for players and fans alike. Two games from now, DKR will quietly fade into the campus landscape for nearly 10 months, leaving memories of the 2019 season in what has been a forgetful decade for this program.
This season’s memories will likely peak in a strong outing against No. 1 LSU in Week Two, and valley after the Longhorns’ poor performance against TCU. The beauty of this whole thing is simple: Fans and underclassmen will have another year for redemption, another Sugar Bowl, another Big 12 Championship Game and the belief that Texas will finally return to its former glory.
But for the class of 2016, it will start and end in a similar fashion, and all that will be left are their respective legacies. Even with these detours, their faith in the program is unbroken. And for Jones, there is a constant motivation to finish strong, especially with where this program was when the Class of 2016 found it.
“I think we've been through a lot,” Jones said. “Obviously, our freshman year we were part of the team that didn't make a bowl — from that (to) going to a bowl, and then going to the Sugar Bowl after that. We've been through a lot, we've seen a lot, and I think it has made us a lot stronger at the end. It just gives us a desire and confidence … that fuels us to want to fight.