By Steve Lansdale
AUSTIN, Texas — Player turnover is an annual ritual for every team. Some leave, either via graduation or transfer, and newcomers arrive, either as freshmen or as transfers. Less common, but also not infrequent, is the turnover on coaching staffs. Some retire, get fired or are offered jobs elsewhere that are too good to reject, and then are replaced by new faces.
Other than the replacement of a head coach or an entire coaching staff, the Texas Longhorns face the biggest adjustment this summer that a team can face, in terms of a shift in leadership, as head coach Tom Herman brought in Mike Yurcich as the Longhorns’ new offensive coordinator and Chris Ash to take over the UT defense. Herman is bringing back a roster that is deep with both talent and experience after a 2019 season in which the Longhorns went 8-5. Neither Yurcich nor Ash is expected to completely overhaul the systems taught before their arrival, but as is the case with any new coaches, there will be a learning curve as the players get their new coaches and their terminology, play calling and tendencies.
Two of the Longhorns’ veteran leaders, quarterback Sam Ehlinger and safety Caden Sterns, said that despite the limited time spent with their new coaches because of the coronavirus pandemic that abbreviated the offseason program of every team in the country, the get-to-know-you process has gone well.
“It’s been great,” Ehlinger said during a recent media session of his relationship with Yurcich. “Obviously, we got a little bit of time to be together in January and February, and so we got to start our relationship there … and through Zoom meetings, nothing has dropped off.”
Ehlinger said that the technological shift from in-person sit-downs in a coach’s office to the video chat meetings that have taken over so many schools and businesses has allowed the learning curve to continue, adding that the accelerated comfort level offers encouragement that the familiarity should carry over to the field during the season.
“We’ve been able to meet a lot,” Ehlinger said. “I know if I ever call him and want to meet, virtually, he’s always available, and we have done that multiple times, just meeting individually. I think that he’s an incredible coach, and a great teacher, and I’m really, really excited for the relationship that we’ll have on the field.”
Sterns echoed his quarterback’s sentiments.
“I feel the exact same way,” Sterns said. “Coach Ash is really elite at what he does. Just, obviously, the way we meet … he’s detail-oriented, and I felt like, through virtual meetings, on the mental aspect, when we get back, we’re going to be able to slow the game down.
“Outside of that, he’s calling us a lot, checking in, and if I wanted to meet, had any questions about film, he’s responding within 10 minutes. So the relationship is there, and it’s continuing to grow, regardless of interaction in person … but the relationship is there.”
The relationship is key, whether it’s a quarterback and his offensive coordinator, or a defensive leader like Sterns and his defensive coordinator. Players have to understand what the coaches expect of them, and the coordinators need to trust that their veteran leaders can relay the messages to their teammates, get everyone lined up correctly and execute the plans as they are called. Ehlinger said that the relationships between the Longhorns and their new coordinators are part of the reason he is so optimistic about the team’s chances in 2020.
“My confidence (for the potential for a strong season) is through the roof,” he said. “I’m very, very excited with the experience and talent that we have returning … and then add in the expertise and the eliteness of the coaching that we’re getting right now…
“I feel like this team is a little bit older than we were last year, and guys have a lot of experience. My confidence is through the roof, and I can’t wait — it’s going to be a really fun year.”
(photos courtesy of texassports.com / graphics from Horns Illustrated)