By Steve Habel, Senior Contributing Writer
AUSTIN, Texas — Expectations were high for Texas football last year in the days before it hosted Maryland. Yet they crashed, mightily, when the Terrapins came to Austin and stunned the 23rd-ranked Longhorns in coach Tom Herman’s first game on the 40 Acres.
There are plenty of parallels between the mood last year at this time and the one that has grabbed ahold of Texas and its fanbase this time around. There are plenty of differences, as well.
It remains to be seen just how far the Longhorns have come since that loss to Maryland.
“We went 7-6 last year, and until we step out on the field and play a game, everything from our last game until now says that, you know, we are the last iteration of what you saw from us,” Herman explained.
The first show of dividends from an offseason of work and deposits will be on display Saturday when the two teams square off at 11 a.m. (central time) at FedExField in Landover, Maryland on season-opening weekend.
Herman met with the assembled media Monday in advance of Saturday’s game and explained that he understands why the college football world is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the Longhorns, which enters the contest as the 23rd ranked team in the nation once again.
“Do I feel confident in the fact that we've improved and developed, our kids, our players, our coaches? Do the people in that building feel confident that we have developed? Absolutely," Herman said. "But if I was 'Joe Fan,' I would feel the same way.”
Coping skills sharpened
Herman was stunned last year when his team laid an egg against Maryland in a 51-41 loss, later saying he expected the Longhorns to step up in a big way after being faced with adversity. Then they never fully responded. Herman told the press Monday that there is a big difference in the progress of his team and the program as a whole over the past year.
“There are so many more positive things that you can do in a year and nine months, versus nine months, with the biggest being stability and continuity,” Herman said. “But what are we going to do when we get down 10 points in Washington, D.C., if we do? What are we going to do when, you know, another team decides that they came to play, too? So that's something we constantly talk about.”
One thing’s for sure: don’t expect Texas to take the Terrapins lightly.
“There's a lot of guys on that team at Maryland that know that they've beaten Texas," Herman said, “and they've got 85 guys on scholarship. They've got really, really, really good players. Really good players. That was very evident last year. They've got a lot of team speed. They've got a lot of physicality on defense."
There have been plenty of off the field distractions surrounding the Maryland program in the offseason, including the death of one of its players and the suspension of coach D.J. Durkin as the school concludes its investigation into that tragedy, but those will be left on the sidelines once the game begins.
"To assume that just because they've had some issues in their program that they're not going to show up ... they're going to show up," Herman said. "They're going to show up not just thinking they can beat us, but knowing that they can.”
More news from Monday's Texas press conference
Herman lauded the preseason work of both his quarterbacks.
“I feel extremely good about our quarterback situation,” Herman said. “Sam (Ehlinger) has certainly embraced the starting quarterback (role) and has had a good week of practice.
“Shane Buechele, to his credit ... what a team guy he is. He's gone out and competed every day. He loves his team very, very much and understands that the odds and chances of his number being called at some point, whether it be the first game, second game — whenever — are very high. He's going to be ready if his number is called.”
The coach said part of the Longhorns' confidence for the coming season is based on familiarity.
“It’s the first time, I believe, in five years that we've gone back-to-back seasons with the same offense. It’s the first time in five years, you know, that these kids have been able to take a deep breath and say, 'I know what this is. I know what this means. I'm not learning a new language,” Herman said.
Familiarity and comfort within repetitions helps cement the squad into more and more good habits going into this season.
“So, the element of familiarity, the element of stability and then the element of the confidence in their level of training will allow them to play a lot more loose," Herman said.
Road start a rarity
Beginning their season on the road for just the third time in the last 23 years, the Longhorns will fly to the nation’s capital early Friday and conduct their walkthrough in FedEx Field that afternoon. For Texas, that's a change from the norm, an attempt to get them ready for the differences of playing in an NFL stadium.
“The pro numbers are in a different place and the pro hashes are in a different place,” Herman said. “So you have to adjust ... because all of our splits by our receivers are based off landmarks on the field, and the pro numbers are a lot farther inside than they are the college numbers. Usually they'll have little tick marks where the college numbers should be. So, our receivers got to get adjusted to the spacing and all that.
“Our guys are really excited about playing, and I think they're excited about doing their Friday walkthrough at the stadium as well.”
The Texas depth chart has just three “ors” among the 22 regular positions – all on offense. Tre Watson and Daniel Young are listed as “or” starters at running back, D’Shawn Jamison and Joshua Moore are both listed as the backup at “H” wide receiver, and Derek Kersetter and Samuel Cosmi were named the co-starters at right tackle.
Herman also has not named a starting kicker, saying the competition between incumbent Joshua Rowland and true freshman Cameron Dicker will go down to “who kicks the best in pressure situations in practice this week.”