11 Mar

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Herman looking for defensive leaders, big-play production as spring drills begin

Texas football head coach Tom Herman said the start of this year's spring workouts is a lot different because his veteran team understands the culture that now is in place around the program (photo courtesy of texassports.com).

By Steve Habel, Senior Contributing Writer

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas football team, seen most recently on the field celebrating an emphatic victory over Georgia in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and fresh off a top-five recruiting class, began its spring practice Monday with the first of two workouts in helmets and shorts.

By all accounts — the media was able to watch just the first 20 or minutes of drills — the Longhorns were rip-roaring-ready to go. Such is the enthusiasm of the young in the spring before the real football (read: contact, in pads) starts Wednesday.

“It felt really good to be back out on the field,” Texas coach Tom Herman said after practice. “There’s lot of new faces and guys that are having to step up in key roles, especially on defense and the offensive line.

“There are a lot of good-looking athletes running around out there. But that’s not football, what we are forced to do the first two days without pads."

The Longhorns will have plenty of questions to answer between now and Aug. 31, when they host Louisiana Tech in the 2019 season opener. For the practices this spring in the run-up April 13, when Texas will play its Orange-White Spring Game, Herman will focus on three specific units of his team and look to build depth all over the field.

“We’ve got to develop leadership, especially on defense, and we have to determine who our six or seven guys are going to be up front,” Herman said when asked about his wish-list for the spring. “We have to settle in on our starting five on the offensive line, and we have to figure out how to get the ball to all these guys we have in skill positions on offense.”

Look for defensive linemen Malcolm Roach and Marquez Bimage and safeties Brandon Jones and Caden Sterns to fill that defensive leadership void.

“We need more leaders on defense because the guys that were in those roles last year aren’t here,” Herman said. “Everybody knows the expectations, and we’ve transferred our belief system to these guys.”

The Longhorns have plenty of experience and size on the offensive line with the return of center Zach Shackelford, and linemen Derek Kerstetter and Sam Cosmi, as well as incoming grad transfer Parker Braun from Georgia Tech.

Texas has big-play athletes in every skilled position, but was the only Power Five team in the nation that didn’t have a single offensive play longer than 48 yards last season. Expect the deep ball to come out early and often for the Longhorns this fall.

“There’s a lot of really good plays that get called, but you’ve got to have guys who can break tackles, make people miss, outrun guys,” Herman said. “We feel like we’re starting to get there at the offensive skill positions. We finished 10-4 because we ran the ball when we needed to, we were efficient on third down and we had only 11 turnovers in 14 games.”

Things are easier for Herman and his staff this spring, in year three, than they were last spring and the spring before.

“It’s cool when you have an established culture in a program where the young guys come in and there’s no place for them to hide,” Herman said. “Either you love football and love to work, or we are going to figure it out really quick. It’s been real nice to see them assimilate as well as they have.”

Mission No. 1 for the Longhorns this spring is to make sure everyone that is healthy will remain healthy. Herman updated the status on a handful of his players after Monday’s practice.

Offensive lineman Patrick Hudson has retired from football after three injuries in three seasons, the last of which was a heat-related illness in practice last season, and defensive lineman Keondre Coburn, is dealing with a non-critical kidney issue that he’s paying through

Brandon Jones, ankle surgery last month, and will return for fall practice, while Caleb Johnson, who suffered a labrum injury two games into his season last year at Fullerton College, is expected back after spring break

Two of Texas’ top returning wide outs and a third deep threat also are nursing injuries: Devin Duvernay has a stress reaction in his pubic bone that bothered him all last season but will be on the field, while Colin Johnson will not be back until last week of spring practice after having minor knee surgery in the weeks after the Sugar Bowl. John Burt, who working out with Texas track team where he’s one of the top hurdlers in the nation, will miss spring football practice.

Steve Habel is a senior contributing writer for Horns Illustrated. He has covered Texas sports since 1989 and was this magazine’s senior editor for 24 years. You can follow him on twitter @stevehabel .