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College Football Preview 2019: 7. Texas Longhorns

7. Texas Longhorns

Last year's Sugar Bowl dominance gave a clear indication of what this Longhorns team could be in 2019

Sam Ehlinger

Offense: Even though they play in the wide-open Big 12, Texas has been able to find offensive success by playing physical and smart football. The leader of the group is veteran quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who is a great runner and has continued to improve as a passer. Coming off a season where he recorded 3,774 total yards and 41 total touchdowns, there is not much of a question that Ehlinger is the best UT has had at the position since the days of Colt McCoy. A strong showing against LSU early in the season could set up his Heisman candidacy.

With the departure of former Cal transfer Tre Watson, the Longhorns will turn to sophomore Keontay Ingram as their feature guy. Ingram looked the part in 2018, managing 708 yards and three scores despite being in a reserve role. Freshman Jordan Whittington is also sure to see plenty of action from the get-go, as Texas will look to take pressure off Ehlinger by having him run less. Whittington is a five-star recruit and rated the sixth best player coming out of the state of Texas, according to 247 Sports.

Ehlinger will have to move on without his favorite target from last season, Lil'Jordan Humphrey. The big-bodied Humphrey was incredibly reliable whenever the Longhorns needed a big play and he finished '18 with 1,176 yards. It looks like the new No. 1 will almost definitely be senior Collin Johnson, who formed a very effective 1-2 combo with Humphrey a year ago. Johnson is another massive wide out that is a nightmare for opposing defensive backs, as he stands 6'6" with long arms. Being the lead option now, he could emerge as one of the Big 12's best. Another veteran, Devin Duvernay, will also be utilized heavily this year. While not in the mold of either Humprey or Johnson, Duvernay is extremely consistent and is very effective at moving the chains. Beyond those two, there isn't much proven playmakers but ample amounts of talent. Losing Bru McCoy, who transferred in from USC then ended up transferring back, certainly stings. 

There is going to be some moving parts on the Texas offensive line, but it could still be a notable strength for this team. Senior center Zach Shackelford is a real anchor as a proven veteran that has played a lot of Big 12 football. He'll be the leader of the unit, as will Samuel Cosmi, who is likely to make the move from right tackle to the left side. Georgia Tech transfer Parker Braun was a big get for Tom Herman and the 'Horns over the off-season. Braun is likely an instant starter at either guard spot, as a guy who started 32 games during his time with the Yellow Jackets.

Texas' offense was effective last season, but it could get even better in 2019. Watson and Humphrey are the only notable losses to speak of and both of those guys have players ready to step up and take over their roles. If Ehlinger can get even better, which it looks like he can, the Longhorns could be one of the more effective groups in the conference.

Defense: Even though the Longhorns had some notable ups-and-downs defensively in 2018, they ended the year playing very well and should be a strong unit this fall. The front seven was hit hard by graduations over the off-season, so reloading there will be key.

Senior defensive end Malcolm Roach will be expected to be the leader of the defensive line, especially with Charles Omenihu and his 9.5 sacks gone. Roach had 24 tackles last season and has long showed loads of potential, but is still waiting to put it all together. He will be aided by redshirt freshman Keondre Coburn, the likely starter in the middle at nose tackle. Coburn saw the field a little last year but still maintained the redshirt, and coaches have been excited about his growth. The other starting end should be junior Ta'Quon Graham, who also brings experience to the table.

Todd Orlando will have to figure out a way to replace linebackers Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler, who combined for 177 tackles a season ago. That will put a lot of pressure on a linebackers corps that already struggled to stop the run for a big chunk of '18, where they were 110th in the country. Senior Jeffrey McCulloch is a favorite to play the "Rover" position, where he can rush the passer and also drop back in coverage. Joseph Ossai should also take major steps forward in becoming a pass-rushing menace off the edge, while redshirt freshman Ayodele Adeoye ended the spring as the favorite at middle linebacker. There is certainly talent amongst this trio and the personnel fits what Orlando wants to do. With that being said, it will have to mesh quickly if this defense is going to have success.

The Longhorns could certainly make a compelling case for having the best secondary in the Big 12 and one of the best in the entire country. The star of the unit has to be sophomore Caden Sterns, who was extremely impressive as a true freshman and seems like he is only going to get better. Sterns was everywhere, picking off four passes, racking up 62 tackles and swatting away four passes. Also back is senior Brandon Jones, who doesn't quite have Sterns' talent but has proven he can play at a high level. He could really be considered the anchor of the back-end as a veteran who has played years in Orlando's defenses. Sophomore nickelback B.J. Foster was the big name in last year's recruiting class along with Sterns and will be used creatively. He had nine tackles for loss a year ago and has a nose for the football. Texas will have to figure out their cornerback situation, although this is another spot with plenty of younger talent ready to make the jump. Sophomores Jalen Green and D'Shawn Jamison have starting talent, even if they haven't seen much action at the collegiate level.

Rebuilding the front seven could be a tall task for this defense, but having a loaded secondary gives them a little bit of time to adjust. If Sterns can get even better, the Longhorns have a Jim Thorpe Award candidate on their hands, while Jones and Foster offer Orlando more than enough to work with. After some steps backwards in rush defense and third down defense, the Longhorns should improve in 2019.

Special Teams: Having a quality kicker is quite the luxury in the world of college football, and Texas has one in Cameron Dicker. Just as a sophomore, Dicker become a Texas legend with his game-winning field in last year's thrilling Red River Rivalry. He should improve on his 18 of 25 field goals with more big-time action under his belt. The return game has an interesting weapon in D'Shawn Jamison, who returned one to the house against Kansas State.

Bottom Line: Texas has become almost a punchline for being a preseason hype machine and than not living up to the expectations. Yet, that seems to be changing under the guidance of Herman, who continues to recruit and develop elite talent in the Lone Star State. The defense is going to need some tweaks throughout 2019, but the other side of the ball looks to be good enough to get the Longhorns where they want to go. If Ehlinger is indeed able to get even better, it seems completely plausible that Texas could finally put an end to Oklahoma's domination of the Big 12. Of course, if they're able to do that, the 'Horns are a clear Playoff contender, no matter what happens with the LSU game in early September. All in all, it might be too premature to call UT "back", but they seem well on their way to a return to the national stage.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 11-2 (8-1 Big 12, Lose in Big 12 Championship)
Offensive MVP: QB Sam Ehlinger
Defensive MVP: S Caden Sterns
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Keontay Ingram
Impact Freshman: ATH Jordan Whittington

Five-Year Trend
2014: 6-7 (5-4 Big 12)
2015: 5-7 (4-5 Big 12)
2016: 5-7 (3-6 Big 12)
2017: 7-6 (5-4 Big 12)
2018: 10-4 (7-2 Big 12)

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