(Image: John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports)
by Jeremy Botter
Austin - Our first look at the 2018 University of Texas football team revealed little beyond what we already know: The Horns have a prodigous defense capable of swallowing up nearly any offensive opposition they will face, but the offensive side of the ball is a work in progress.
Coach Tom Herman divided up the starting quarterback duties for this iteration of the program's annual spring game, this time held in front of approximately 35,000 fans. Sam Ehlinger led the charge for the White team, while Shane Buechele was at the helm for the Orange team. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours and 103 plays from scrimmage, we got our first look at the newest iteration of the Longhorn football team, including glimpses at two early-enrollee quarterbacks and a two-man receiving corps that could be one of the Horns’ biggest strengths in 2018.
Let’s take a look at five questions we have coming out of the 2018 Orange-White game.
Who will step up at quarterback?
The Texas offense is much the same as it was in 2017, at least with respect to the QB position. Which is to say: Texas is a team with four talented quarterbacks, but with no player at the position seemingly ready to step up and claim the role and the team as his own. The team only had two scholarship options available at quarterback last year, so Ehlinger and Buechele split the playcalling over the course of the season. This year, depth appears to be less of an issue with early enrollee slingers Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson joining the returning Ehlinger and Buechele.
Rising, the 6-1, 235-pounder from Newbury Park, California, was considered one of the strongest arms in the nation last year and has a world of upside. He was ranked 208th amongst all players overall and was ranked 8th amongst pro-style quarterbacks. He threw for 3,213 yards and 40 touchdowns his sophomore year at Newbury Park, but injuries his junior and senior years prevented Rising from, well, rising to fulfill his potential. His 42.5-foot power throw was the absolute best among all 2018 quarterbacks tested, meaning he's got a cannon that, once developed, could make him a truly special Texas quarterback. He opted to sign with Texas after flipping away from Oklahoma.
Thompson is smaller than Rising, but both in practice and real game execution has proven to be quick in and out of the pocket. He played for Newcastle high school in Oklahoma, where he set a state record by amassing 12,840 total yards of offensive production. He's smaller than Rising, though visibly a good bit faster, but is likely to settle no higher than fourth string while Buechele and Ehlinger are still in school.
On Saturday night, Ehlinger and Buechele both showed plenty of pocket awareness in scrambling away from the ever-present defensive swarm. But outside of a few bright spots, neither player was particularly inspiring in the passing game. Ehlinger went 13-22 for 151 yards and a QB rating of 116.7. Buechele connected on 12 of his 22 pass attempts and added a touchdown pass to Collin Johnson for a rating of 124.9. Ehlinger rushed for 29 yards on 4 attempts, while Buechele fell victim to that swarming defensive unit and lost a total of 22 yards. Buechele also overthrew receiver John Burt two times on long passes that were certain touchdowns had the passing been more accurate.
At times, they appeared to be mirror images of each other, but not in a good way. Both men overthrew wide-open receivers more than once. More importantly, neither man ever gave the impression that they were capable of being the kind of controlling offensive leader a big-time college football program requires.
In the second half, Buechele and Ehlinger were replaced by Casey Thompson and Cameron Rising. Both men put up simliar statistical loglines, but it was Rising who seemed to cement his role as third-string quarterback with his proximity awareness and speed dashing out of the pocket.
Texas has four good quarterback options, but in order for the team to have success in 2018, one of them will have to step up and claim the position as his own. Quarterbacking by committee may not be a good option for Herman's team this year.
Is the defensive corps still the Horns' prime jewel?
In a word, yes. What we saw in the Orange-White game on Saturday night was a repeat performance of the 2017 season, one dominated by the Texas defense and special teams but lacking offensive zip. Jamarquis Durst racked up five solo tackles and six overall to head up the White squad's efforts; on the other side, it was #29 Josh Thompson with 8 tackles, 7 of which were solo efforts.
Neither side scored a single interception, but all aspects of a prized defensive unit were visible from the start. The D-line put constant pressure on the opposing team, rarely offering Ehlinger or Buechele a chance to sit in the pocket and analyze things. And a particular highlight was the defensive back corps, and in particular #25 B.J. Foster, who showed glimpses of incredible short-distance speed bursts and athleticism in breaking up a Buechele pass to Collin Johnson in the first quarter.
Who is the best receiver on the Longhorns?
Lil’Jordan Humphrey was far and away the best and most productive Longhorn player on the field on Saturday night. He caught seven passes for 100 yards on the receiving front, averaging 14.3 yards per reception. But Humphrey was also the go-to rushing option for the White squad in goal-line situations, and he delivered in spades, scoring two touchdowns on four carries.
The only player remotely close to Humphrey’s productivity was his receiving corps partner Collin Johnson. Humphrey was Sam Ehlinger’s favorite receiving target, and Johnson was Buechele’s. Johnson caught six passes for 91 yards and a touchdown, and several of his catches were remarkable in their complexity and execution.
Reports from the Horns spring practices have raved about Humphrey and Johnson’s performances. Observing the Orange-White game alone seems to confirm those insider accounts of the wide receiver’s thrilling potential. Whether it’s Buechele or Ehlinger under center for the Horns in 2018, you can expect Johnson and Humphrey to play a huge role in whatever success the offensive unit finds.
Will Keontay Ingram land the Horns starting RB role?
In a word, yes. Daniel Young, Kyle Porter and Toneil Carter were less than prolific in the 2017 season, combining for 886 yards and 10 touchdowns over the course of the entire season. Sure, it’s just a spring game, but if what we saw was any indication, the reports of Keontay Ingram walking on campus and securing the starting RB role are likely accurate.
Carter fumbled his first carry of the game, and things didn’t get much better from there. He amassed just 25 yards on 10 carries. Porter rushed for four yards on two carries. On the Orange side of the ball, Daniel Young carried the ball three times for 17 yards, which made him third overall on that squad; both Casey Thompson and Tim Yoder outperformed the running back.
Cumulatively, the rushing corps was only able to put together 106 yards on 39 attempts, and nearly half of those yards either came from quarterback rushes or from walk-on Yoder.
Ingram, the All-America, All-State and two-time All-District winner from Carthage, Texas, will arrive this summer, and it is more than likely he’ll walk directly into the starting role. He’ll be a massive improvement over anything we saw in the Orange-White game, and likely from day one.
Has Texas replaced punting wizard Michael Dickson?
Last year, the Longhorns led the nation in net punting due to the prolific leg of Australian boomer Michael Dickson. Dickson was the Longhorn’s first-ever winner of the Ray Guy Award.
This year, punting duties are being handled by Dickson’s cousin Ryan Bujcevski. His performance in the Orange-White game was a strong indicator of where Bujcevksi is at in his career. His first punt of the night was a monstrous 59-yard space rocket that sent the fans at DKR into rapture; his second punt of 38 yards brought everyone back to earth.
It was the perfect illustration of where Bucjevski is at in his career: Capable of incredible punting feats, yet not developed to a point where he’ll be anything other than inconsistent. With time and repetition, though, it appears Bujcevksi has all the tools needed to replace Dickson’s valuable leg on special teams. He averaged 39 yards while punting for the White team and 44.7 yards punting for the Orange side.
Kicker Joshua Rowland crushed a 50-yard field goal during the Orange-White game, much to the delight of fans in attendance. While it’s hard to get a real reading on special team performances in a low-impact spring game setting, it’s clear that Rowland’s leg will be an asset for the team. Backup kicker Chris Nagger missed his only chance at a field goal from 40 yards out; Rowland is far and away the best kicking option the team has.