AUSTIN, Texas — There has been continual change to the world and to the college football landscape over the past month as Texas head coach Tom Herman and his staff have worked to prepare their team for a truncated 2020 season.
Dealing with the ongoing impact of coronavirus, as well as the state of turmoil created by demands for a change in how the country views race and entitlement, have placed plenty of hurdles on the path to the 14th-ranked Longhorns’ preparedness for what was set to be a campaign of high expectations.
So when the UT players and coaches are in need of a little normalcy, they find it in between the lines on the practice field and in the meetings rooms, places where football can drown out the noise from the outside world. The Longhorns are in need of a little escape — the players are just using passes and tackles and blocks and running in drills to find that peace of mind.
“Anytime we're in between the white lines, for those two, three hours a day, four when you include meetings, it feels normal,” Herman said Sunday when he addressed the media after another spirited practice in the Longhorns' run-up to their Sept. 12 season opener against UTEP. “You know that it’s is kind of been our guys’ sanctuary, for lack of a better term.”
Coming into the meeting room, studying football and then going out and honing and physically perfecting their craft on the field has been a saving grace for the Longhorns. These players are young men first, and student-athletes a distant second, and the routine of preparation, developed through a lifetime of repetition and the years of the practice field as a proving ground, can free their minds for a short period of time.
“From start to finish, from the time that the guys walk into our building to the time we blow them up at the end of practice, those feel like the most normal in terms of hours of the day,” Herman said.
Texas is into its next-to-last week of preparations for UTEP, and Herman said Sunday that seeing a different team to play on the distant horizon led to his squad’s “most spirited practices thus far” Saturday and Sunday.
“The players came out ready to get better today,” Herman said. “As we turn the page into this week, they realize, you know, we've got a game in 12 days, and you know when that light, now, is finally at the end of the tunnel. You can definitely see the intensity level of ratchet up a little bit. We can certainly build off of what we've what we accomplished this morning.”
Herman commended the players and coaches for the way they have handled the past week’s challenges in the ongoing nationwide call for better race relations. The Longhorns didn’t practice Thursday or Friday as the players tried to grasp and find ways to be a part of the impact of protests throughout the sports world.
“We're here to provide guidance and mentorship, and ultimately support for the things that are important to the people that we love, which are certainly our players,” Herman said. “I’m really proud of them and their open-mindedness, as well as their ability to be involved in their community and our society as a whole. That makes all of us in our program very proud.”
College football still doesn’t have a threshold for the cancellation or postponement of games, or a set standard for when a team can ask for a game to be moved to a different date because of infection rates and/or injuries among its players. That uncertainty worries Herman.
“I was hoping we would have that blueprint (for the postponement scenario) by now, but we don't,” Herman said, “and I'm sure we will soon. There does need to be some kind of threshold in terms of a percentage of scholarship players. But there's non-COVID-related injuries to add to that, as well, and how are we going to determine who's available and who's unavailable. Is it a guy that's got a sprained ankle or a guy that's quarantined from COVID, and so on.
“My opinion is that there probably needs to be some kind of bar that's set in terms of a percentage of scholarship players that that are available, but I don't think that can be black and white, either. There needs to be some kind of ultimate authority that that reviews each case.”
Other items addressed Sunday by Herman included:
- The progress of the Longhorns’ linebacker unit, which was one of the team’s perceived weaknesses heading into preseason camp. “We're getting better there every day — I saw flashes today. You know, we've got enough bodies that we've got to accelerate the learning process certainly. We’ve got a good three-deep there, and those guys may be pretty inexperienced right now, but I’m definitely pleased with how they practice, how they've attacked, and pleased with their development thus far. I'm glad we don't play UTEP tomorrow, but I do expect at least four of those guys to be very much game-ready by the time Sept. 12 rolls around.”
- An update on the running back position, where Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson are battling with über-talented freshman Bijon Robinson for playing time. “It's pretty irrelevant who jogs out on the very first play. All three of them are going to play and play quite a bit. We have different packages for them and ... certainly as the game goes on, you'll get a feel for, you know, who's seeing the game well and who might be me having an off night maybe here or there. We really don't have a starter at that position. We've got three guys that we feel like we can win with, and they're all going to play.”
- The declaration that Casey Thompson would be the backup quarterback if the season started today. “Casey's certainly much more game-ready right now. We're very excited with Hudson (Card’s) potential. He's got a very bright future ahead of him, and that should be an interesting battle for years to come.”