AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been 21 months since Tom Herman took over at Texas, nearly two years to gauge the program’s progress since he arrived with the task of reviving an ailing blue blood. So far on the field, the flashy hire has yielded uneven results. Herman has gone 8-7, with a loss to Maryland to open the season and a too-close-for-comfort victory over Tulsa. It has raised a question that’s shrouded Austin for nearly a decade: “What’s wrong with Texas?”
The reality of Texas’ program will always be ultimately judged on the scoreboard. And with No. 22 USC coming to Austin this weekend, there’s a marquee opportunity for Herman to earn a signature victory on a national stage.
With Texas in the spotlight, it’s fair to examine the complicated reality of where Texas is in real time under Herman. Certainly, Texas isn’t yet “back,” a saying that’s turned into a program parody. But there are signs in key areas that Texas is trending toward Mack Brown’s glory days and away from the three straight losing seasons under Charlie Strong from 2014-16. (Texas’ prior three consecutive losing seasons came from 1937-39.) The signs vary from a new athletic director who once reveled in pointing out Texas’ flaws to physical transformations that would make Jenny Craig blush. There’s added staff, $185 million in facilities and a recruiting operation that’s starting to chase the top-10 teams Texas needs to catch.
“We’re light years ahead of where we were,” Herman told Yahoo Sports this week. “Just culturally, there’s a culture of commitment rather than just compliance, I really believe that.”
Herman led the Longhorns to their first winning season since 2013 and first bowl victory since 2012, creating enough juice to land Rivals.com’s No. 4 recruiting class. There are still long-term quarterback questions and a distinct lack of quality depth on both the offensive and defensive line. But there’s also a strong feeling that things are trending right, with an influx of young players providing a peek at the new Texas.
“There is genuine momentum, there is genuine development of relationships, development of continuity, development of just physical attributes and football playing skills,” Herman said. “We’re close. There is an underlying frustration that we haven’t gotten over the hump yet, but it doesn’t discourage us.”
Herman has embarked on a task no one could have envisioned a coach at Texas confronting in this or any recent generation. Here’s a look at tangible changes that have occurred as all of college football wonders: After nearly a lost decade since Texas played for the 2009 national title, will its football program finally show signs of life?
THE WEIGHT ROOM
To see how the Longhorns have overhauled themselves in the weight room, strength coach Yancy McKnight hands a reporter the booklet he gives every NFL scout that goes through Texas. There are striking before-and-after portraits that are both signs of the future and indictments of the past. “A lot of those guys looked like Wednesday night beer-league softball guys,” McKnight told Yahoo Sports.
When McKnight and his staff arrived following the 2016 season, they were surprised how training basics such as power-clean lifting and back squats were either non-existent or neglected. McKnight has a ZZ-Top beard, an affinity for listening to Slayer and a knack for results that resonate just as loudly.
Only 10 players, for example, could squat more than 500 pounds when the staff arrive. That number is up to about 45, according to McKnight. (They didn’t test power clean initially on arrival because the last staff didn’t do it, but there are 55 now. That’s up from 35 at the end of last summer.)
It showed in Texas’ physical profiles, as defensive lineman Breckyn Hager could only squat 365 pounds and bench press 275 pounds. (He’s up to 525 and 330.)
The before and after comparisons in the 18 months since McKnight’s staff arrived are jarring, especially in metrics that quantify explosion. Defensive lineman Charles Omenihu (6-foot-6 and 270 pounds), who projects as a mid-round draft choice, improved his vertical jump from 25.5 to 37.5, his broad jump from 8’3.5″ to 9’4.5″ and his back squat from 405 to 535.
There are other eye-popping leaps. Senior cornerback Kris Boyd, who is considered Texas’ best draft-eligible NFL prospect, improved his squat from 375 to 600, cut his body fat from 8.8 percent to 4.7 and increased his vertical from 35.5 to 39.5. Fifth-year senior Andrew Beck weighs one pound less at 260, but cut his body fat from 20.2 percent to 14.3 percent and increased his squat 125 pounds while nursing a foot injury that kept him off the field for two seasons.
Beck appreciates how the motivation from McKnight and his staff is tied to explanation. Overall, the strength staff has increased from eight to 13 – five are full-time – and that increase includes a sports science expert, Matt Van Dyke, who quantifies every step of every practice and weight-room rep.
“They really explain the process to us,” Beck said. “They have a ton of technology and people a lot smarter than me to make sure we’re not only going to be the biggest, fastest and strongest. But we’re also going to be freshest.”
McKnight said the Longhorns may have a first-rounder emerge this year, but there’s no sure-fire player earmarked there for the 2019 draft. He sees a handful of players on the roster who can develop and get there in the upcoming years, as there’s buzz in the program about true freshman safeties B.J. Foster and Caden Sterns, true freshman tailback Keaontay Ingram and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Sam Cosmi.
Since 2010, there’s only been two first-round NFL draft picks from Texas: tackle Malcolm Brown in 2015 and safety Kenny Vaccaro in 2013. (If Houston’s Ed Oliver goes in the first round as expected in 2019, the Cougars will have three in that span.) The last first-round pick from the Texas offense was Vince Young in 2006, and Texas went on a drought from 2009-17 without a single offensive lineman drafted. (Oklahoma has seven first-round picks from their offense since 2006 and seven overall offense linemen were drafted from 2009-17.)
One of the most tangible signs of progress McKnight saw was Texas holding the ball – and the lead – against Tulsa in the fourth quarter to secure the 28-21 win Saturday night. Texas dominated the clock with 11:06 time of possession, a drive that started in the weight room as they controlled the line of scrimmage and imposed their will. “Anytime you can get the ball back with almost five minutes left and them with two timeouts and you can run the clock out, you feel pretty good about what you just did,” McKnight said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Texas director of recruiting Bryan Carrington bursts into the office of his boss, Longhorns player personnel director Derek Chang. Carrington strikes the pose of a football sitcom office neighbor – carrying a PlayStation, four copies of the new NBA 2K game and one ear bud in his ear as he chatted with a parent of a player. Carrington and Chang are the odd couple who comprise the face of Texas recruiting, a combination of sizzle and steak.
Chang, 36, is a former producer on ESPN’s GameDay and for the Longhorn Network who took an unpaid recruiting assistant job at Ohio State and incrementally climbed to the top of his field. He cops to being a pinch square and constantly in search of a few hours sleep, as he and his wife, Brenda, have a 5-month old son, Bryson, at home.
Carrington, 28, likes to bust his boss’ chops for wearing white longsleeve T-shirts under his regular T-Shirt. (Carrington admits this while wearing skinny jeans.) Carrington has a passion to connect, as he jokes that he met his girlfriend – YouTube personality Shaneice Parkin, who has over a half-million subscribers – with familiar methods. “Like I meet most of our recruits,” Carrington said, flashing a halogen grin. “In them DMs.”
They set the tone for a recruiting department of 16, key cogs in attempting to turn Texas football around. That department includes six students while Texas builds to catch the recruiting machines at places like Alabama, Georgia and Clemson, as there were less than 10 total people in the recruiting department under Strong. (The 16 current folks in recruiting doesn’t include the three full-time and six students in creative media – graphics, video and social media. There were zero under Strong.)
“It’s perfect for what that department needs,” Herman said of the yin-yang of Chang and Carrington. “You need an analytical general manager, need-based, numbers-based, talent-based guy that can tell you exactly what we need to sign right now for 2022. [And there’s Bryan], a guy that can get on the phone with a recruit for an hour and chop it up and sell our vision and be genuine with it. It’s not phony, not fake.”
The results have been real as well. Already, 45 of the 79 recruited scholarship players on the Longhorns roster have been signed by Herman’s staff.
Perhaps most telling is that Texas’ reach spans well beyond Texas. Chang points out that the backbone of their program will always lie local, as they believe the best high school football is played in Texas. But they’ve also been able to leverage the Longhorns’ national brand, as two Rivals.com top-10 overall prospects – No. 6 Trey Sanders (RB) from IMG Academy and No. 7 Bru McCoy (WR) from Mater Dei – have visits scheduled this weekend from Florida and California, respectively. Overall, there are approximately 75 prospects visiting Austin. “I think it will be the biggest weekend we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Carrington said.
The staff learned putting together that initial 2017 class that just showing up and flashing the Hook ‘Em sign wasn’t going to be enough. Texas signed a shotgun class that rated modestly at No. 31. (Texas coaches feel like the class panned out fairly well, as 12 of the 17 players are on the two-deep.) There’s confidence that Texas will follow up the No. 4 class from 2018, which has 11 true freshman contributors already, with a 2019 class that ends up in the top 10.
Texas ranks No. 15 in the Rivals.com rankings for 2019, but the key number may be a star average of 3.67 that’s better than two teams in the top five. The best long-term recruiting news for a program in a near-decade long search for a star quarterback may be that the only 2020 commitment is Hudson Card, a Lake Travis (Austin) prospect who is the No. 3 dual threat in his class. There’s still a lot of work left in the 2019 class, which has a strong foundation. “If we finish this class strong, if we have a good season, which will help us with this class, we’re going to have the foundation,” Chang said, “to do some really special things.”
No one knows the weaknesses of the Texas football program better than athletic director Chris Del Conte. In his prior gig at TCU, Del Conte delighted in pointing out Texas’ deficiencies to recruits who’d visit his office. He had a trove of negative articles, pictures of the empty student section, and facility comparisons. He knows the negative recruiting pitch against Texas because he’d delivered it, as he can still quote ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit’s famous quote about Charlie Strong “being released from the cesspool of being in Austin.”
After spending years asking recruits a pointed question about Texas – “Why would you go there?” – Del Conte is now tasked with rebuilding Austin into a destination. He arrived in December 2017 to find facilities that essentially hadn’t been updated in three decades. He compared asking students to go to Texas under the current conditions as recruiting students to the chemistry department with “a 1950s Bunsen burner.” Del Conte said: “We had set the standard for facilities, everyone was gunning for Texas, and they passed our standard because we had set the standard. Now, we’re just going back and recalibrating the standards.”
Texas is planning a new $185 million facility in the south end zone that will begin construction next season and be complete for the start of the 2021 season. Del Conte’s specialty is raising money, and he’s already raised $110 million.
“If you continue to invest in facilities and your infrastructure, they minimize dips,” he said. “When you don’t do any investing for long periods of times, you can have drastic shifts because everyone else is continuing to do that.”
Del Conte has already significantly impacted Texas’ football gameday. He helped create a “Bevo Blvd.” experience by clearing out San Jacinto Boulevard adjacent to Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium. (Most of the big donors had parked there, and Del Conte fixed that by giving them valet parking nearby).
He’s attempted to turn each gameday into a celebration of Austin, filling the stadium area with local staples – live music, cheap beer and food trucks. Texas also ripped up its student section, creating one giant area for general admission that had the students in early and loud well before the game. There was also in-stadium live music. “You have to create an event that surrounds the game,” he said.
Texas football’s chief of staff, Fernando Lovo, spearheaded a $10 million overhaul of the locker room and team areas soon after Herman’s staff arrived. He cut through the “burnt orange tape” of doing business at Texas, ridding the football offices of wallpaper from “That ’70s Show” that made the office feel like “a hunting lodge.”
The Texas football building’s lightning overhaul in the staff’s first six months – including Lovo FaceTiming with the contractors from a summer vacation in Italy – gave a spark of hope for progress. “This place is an aircraft carrier,” Lovo said. “It’s hard to turn, but when it turns that thing’s rolling and rolling and rolling.”
Herman is fond of saying that teams win games and administrations win championships. And when UT president Greg Fenves told him they were moving on hiring an athletic director and asked for recommendations, Herman passed on Del Conte’s name and then called him with a simple message: “I need you.”
Del Conte has a pragmatic view of the long term. He says it will take Herman two or three strong recruiting classes to compete nationally. (Last year’s was the first.) And he’s going to do his part making sure rival ADs can’t do what he did at TCU.
“I never see it as rebuild, more as restore, because you had a tumultuous time,” Del Conte said. “The foundation and everything that’s been at the University of Texas is on the shoulders of others, and it is great. Now you’re just restoring that.”
During Texas training camp this year, Andrew Beck adjusted his route amid a full sprint and hauled in a long pass. He saw Herman sprint toward him at full speed and hand him a business card. In black letters on a white backdrop, the card simply read: “YOU’RE F’ING AWESOME.” Beck said: “I just started laughing. I was like, ‘That’s sweet!'”
As Herman enters his second season at Texas, the vibe is becoming indicative of his personality – serious yet a pinch goofy, a baseline of hard work complemented by a pinch of brashness. When Herman was offensive coordinator at Ohio State and needed to keep the various quarterbacks – Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones – engaged, he’d have an assistant deliver a joke of the day. After a year of establishing the culture and discipline needed at Texas, the program is starting to reflect his personality more.
“He’s really emphasized that,” Beck said. “It’s a disciplined operation, but you have to loosen up and have fun. The first game [against Maryland] we played so uptight, it just wasn’t fun.”
Beck is a fifth-year senior from Tampa who went nearly two full seasons without playing because of foot injuries. He’s a two-time captain and endured the program going 16-21 in Strong’s three seasons. He’s seen so much change that he jokes the only people left from when he arrived are the sports information employees.
Beck has seen two coaching staffs fight hard to change the ways at Texas and has been impressed by the caliber of progress from the inside.
“To expect a coach in his first, even second or third year, to come in and immediately flip this? That’s extremely unfeasible [or] borderline impossible because he’s fighting an uphill battle against the way things have been here,” Beck said. “And the steps that he’s made between Year 1 and Year 2 are unbelievable, but everybody wants it fixed now and that’s just not how the world works.”
To Beck, the signs of progress came in a 28-14 road victory at No. 24 West Virginia last year and by Texas winning its bowl game against Missouri, 33-16. For Longhorn fans pining for Vince Young to duel with Reggie Bush, those demarcations of progress will elicit eye rolls. But Beck said in previous years the team wouldn’t have approached a road game against a ranked team with an attitude they could win. “It would’ve been all right we’re going to go in and give it our best shot,” he said.
Beck knows that Texas fans want the instant gratification of “winning by 300” against USC this weekend and are frustrated. But what he’s seen over his star-crossed five seasons in Austin is a solid base for the future. “It’ll be interesting to see in five and 10 years how he continues to move things around,” Beck said, “because I do think things will change for the better.”
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