By Steve Habel, Senior Contributing Writer
The 2018 college football campaign is upon us, with the Texas Longhorns – ranked 23rd in the preseason Associated Press poll – turning away from the rigors of camp and toward preparation for their upcoming season opener Sept. 1 against Maryland at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
The Longhorn team that will travel north and east to begin coach Tom Herman’s second year on the 40 Acres is a lot like the one that finished 2017 at 7-6 and with a win over Missouri in the Texas Bowl in Houston. But, without sounding duplicitous, Texas is also different in many ways.
Like last year, there is still no proven quarterback on the team or a clear-cut No. 1 running back, and questions aplenty surround the offensive line — one that now is coached by Herb Hand. Herman pulled Hand away from Auburn, where he solidified his reputation as one of the best in the business.
On defense, Texas is without four players that made many of the benchmark plays of last season: linebacker Malik Jefferson, defensive tackle Poona Ford, safety DeShon Elliott and cornerback Holton Hill.
Yes, coordinator Todd Orlando can coach defense better than just about anyone on the college level, and, yes, the Longhorns have considerable talent across the board to take the place of the players who have moved on to the next level. How quickly this defense comes together will be an important aspect for Texas’ success.
But Texas is set to take a step forward as the players have adjusted and accepted the demands of Herman and his staff.
With those issues in mind, here’s a look at five key players for the Longhorns as they enter the season:
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger
Ehlinger, a sophomore, has been given the starting quarterback nod over junior Shane Buechele after the two signal callers split the starting role last season. Ehlinger played in nine games with six starts (against San Jose State, USC, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech) and became the first Longhorn since Colt McCoy in 2008 to lead the program in both passing and rushing in a season. He completed 158 of 275 (57.5 percent) of his passes for 1,915 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions, including two that cost the Longhorns potential wins.
Ehlinger has moxie in bunches, and is the type of player who can carry a team on his shoulders. But that’s part of the problem: sometimes he tries to do too much. Last year Ehlinger freewheeled a lot of plays because they either broke down or he did not recognize other options in the speed of the game quickly enough to make the needed adjustments. From all reports, Ehlinger has improved in recognition and execution across the board; now he just has to prove that when the lights go on for real.
Wide receiver Collin Johnson
Johnson is the huge, fast downfield target Ehlinger needs to help open up the offense. The Longhorn junior is due for a breakout season. He had 54 catches for 765 yards and two touchdowns in 2017 but the second half of his season was sub-par — just ask him. Over the final six weeks of the year, Johnson had just 24 receptions for 230 yards (38.3 yards per game) and one touchdown — pedestrian numbers for a 6-foot-6 receiver than can go over or through most of the defensive backs covering him.
Expect Johnson to be a 1,000-yard receiver this season, and part of that success will be predicated on the rest of the receiving corps. If the other guys play well and get their touches, the opposition’s defense won’t be able to focus on Johnson, giving him more chances to make big plays.
Tight end Andrew Beck
Beck, who was named one of the Longhorns’ 2018 captains Friday, is coming off a series of injuries over the past two years. Herman has been quick to say that the Texas offense needs great play from the tight end to be successful. The senior Beck is the man in the middle of that strategy.
Beck has played in 37 games with 16 starts for the Longhorns. He has caught 12 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns and is on the watch list for the John Mackey Award in 2018. Texas needs him to be the latest of its standouts at the position, to be this season’s Bo Schaife or Blaine Irby, two other tight ends who rebounded from injuries to have great senior seasons. A realistic goal for Beck is to catch five passes a game and rack up a half-dozen touchdown catches this season.
Linebacker Gary Johnson
Johnson, a senior who came to Texas last year after playing in junior college, is set to step into the role of do-everything linebacker occupied by Jefferson last year. The 6-foot, 230-pound Johnson might be a little undersized to be a constant run-stuffer, but he plays bigger than his size and hits as hard as anyone in college football. Johnson has sideline-to-sideline speed and will make some plays this season where he will come from the far side of the field to force a turnover.
Last year, Johnson played in all 13 games, starting seven, and finished with 60 tackles and two sacks. Six of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage. He led the team with 10 tackles in the bowl win over Missouri and cemented himself as the leader of the linebackers group heading into this year. Johnson’s Twitter handle, “I Hate QB’s & RB’s,” kind of says it all. Expect to see him around the ball a lot, become the Longhorns’ top tackler and make a run for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year kudos.
Cornerback Kris Boyd
No player on the Longhorns has been harder to predict over the past three seasons than Boyd. The senior defensive back comes into his senior season with the ability to be a true shutdown corner – as long as he can keep his emotions in check. At 6-foot and 195 pounds, Boyd has the size to take on and stop most of the receivers who line up across from him on the right side, his preferred station.
Boyd has started 20 of UT's last 21 games, and racked up 57 tackles, recorded two interceptions and tallied 15 pass breakups last season, the most by Texas player since 2011.
Being volatile and playing with his hair on fire can be a good thing for a cornerback, especially when he will be left alone in space like Boyd will often be. It’s time for him to grow up and take the next step forward, and he’s focused on those goals this year as well as helping Texas return to its place among college football’s best teams.
Expect Boyd’s numbers to go down some from last year, just because he’s so good that opponents won’t dare challenge him as much as in the past — and that’s a good thing.