Maryland football is two days away from starting its season at Texas. After a bowl bid in 2016 and a long offseason filled with optimism, the Terps finally have a real game to play again. The Longhorns present quite the challenge—they’re ranked No. 23 in both major polls—but went just 5-7 last season and enter 2017 with a new head coach in Tom Herman.
To learn a little bit more about a team Maryland hasn’t played since 1978, we brought in Wescott Eberts from our SB Nation friends at Burnt Orange Nation (Wescott is also SBN’s College League Manager, which means he’s basically our boss). You can follow him @SBN_Wescott and the site @BON_SBNation.
Testudo Times: Texas has obviously changed a lot since last fall, with a completely new coaching staff. How are expectations for this season different than they were this time last year?
Burnt Orange Nation: Charlie Strong signed excellent recruiting classes in 2015 and 2016, which led him to declare that he'd already baked the cake at Texas when he departed. No one is really convinced that the 'Horns are that close under Tom Herman, but the young talent is maturing, which increases expectations slightly. Based on the results that Herman got at Houston, improvements in areas like special teams and playing with more physical toughness and attention to detail are expected.
Of course, no one around the program anticipated 5-7 and a loss to Kansas last season, so Herman's concern, and one that is shared at Burnt Orange Nation, is that this is still a 5-7 football team before it proves otherwise. Unfortunately, that's not much of a change from recent seasons, despite whatever offseason optimism existed.
TT: What are you looking to see from Shane Buechele in his second season?
BON: Across the arc of the season, Buechele has to prove that he can stay healthy and that he's more sturdy now after adding some weight. Some of that will manifest itself in doing a bit more with his legs, though that's still a major risk because Texas only has two scholarship quarterbacks and the back up is a true freshman.
During the spring game, he showed better pocket presence and increased arm strength over where he was late last season when he was suffering from a thumb injury, so it will be critical for him to continue showing progress in terms of his poise and when he step up or vacate the pocket. Herman also said that he needs to see fewer mistakes from the sophomore, who is also transitioning into a much more demanding offense than he ran last season.
If he can emerge as a top-tier quarterback in the Big 12 this season instead of providing largely average or below average play, then the upside of this team increases significantly, so that's the hope from a best-case perspective.
TT: D'Onta Foreman rushed for over 2,000 yards last year, but he's in the NFL now. How do you think the Longhorns stack up in the backfield right now?
BON: As position coach Stan Drayton put it a few weeks ago, Texas doesn't have a bell cow at the position like it had last year in Foreman, who was tough and possessed a remarkable combination of size and speed. The offensive line is largely intact from that group and includes left tackle Connor Williams, so Herman considers it a team strength. The expectation is that there will be some holes available for the running backs, but the question is whether they can stay healthy and provide much upside.
The key the staff seems to like the best is sophomore Kyle Porter, who didn't look particularly comfortable or natural in the Texas scheme last season. Drayton is known as one of the best in the business in coaching up running backs -- just ask Ezekiel Elliott -- so there's some hope for Porter, but he's also been banged up this fall, as he was during the spring.
Then there's the massive Chris Warren III, who is listed at a generous 6'4 and more spot-on 250 pounds. He looked headed for a breakout season last year until he suffered a knee injury and missed most of the season. Like Porter, he's also accumulating a significant injury history, which is also the defining career narrative of junior Kirk Johnson, the third-string back.
The unfortunate bottom line for the 'Horns is that Herman isn't going to get the type of play from the position that Strong did from Foreman last season. And that's certainly something of a relief for opponents.
TT: In addition to losing players to graduation and the draft, the Longhorns have several injuries entering this season. Who will be the toughest to replace on Saturday, and who will Texas need to step up?
BON: The two major long-term injuries that the Longhorns suffered in fall camp were both significant hits to the team. Junior offensive lineman Elijah Rodriguez looked poised to move from valuable swing man to the starting right tackle, but his loss to a high ankle sprain and surgery isn't as harmful as losing senior tight end Andrew Beck. A re-fractured foot will keep Beck out all season and he's the only tight end on the roster to catch a pass for the Longhorns.
In the absence of Beck, Texas may turn to graduate transfer Kendall Moore or a better receiving threat like freshman Cade Brewer, who has the ball skills and route-running ability of a wide receiver, or junior Garrett Gray, a former wide receiver who bulked up. At the right tackle position, Herman settled on senior Tristan Nickelson, who gets himself in the right places, but tends to get overextended or struggle with re-directing at 6'10. Nickelson can be a weakness in pass protection, so I expect him to see a lot of Jesse Aniebonam lined up in front of him.
TT: How important is this game for Texas' season?
BON: A loss to Maryland would be something of a shock and cause a major shift in expectations — forget about an upset win in California. So from that perspective it's an important game to win, but in an ideal scenario, Texas would be able to win comfortably and be able to get some young players some game reps to improve depth. To have any hope of an eight-win season or nine-win season (anything more seems highly unlikely), Texas has to win this game and likely needs to do so without too much trouble.
I'll also be watching to see how the team responds to any potential adversity — if there are still bad habits present in terms of mental and physical toughness, that could quickly become an area where the team has to demonstrate in-season growth. And that would also destroy some optimism.
TT: Complete this sentence: _____ will win because _____.
BON: Texas will win because Durkin is still trying to build that program and the 'Horns have more talent and more mature talent than the Terps do in the second year of Durkin's rebuild, which will tell in the trenches.