Texas is back ... to being confident, and that's good enough for Tom Herman right now
The Longhorns are primed for a big Year 3 under Herman, if all comes together as expected
Tom Herman won't quite call it "annoying," but he's still struggling to categorize his quarterback's shout out to the world 4 ½ months ago.
"Longhorn Nation," Sam Ehlinger proclaimed after a dominating Sugar Bowl win over Georgia, "we're back."
Whether Ehlinger's youthful, exuberant declaration turns out to be true does not matter. It's that Texas' coach -- and Longhorn Nation by extension -- can finally entertain the thought of a realistic return to prominence.
For now, it's just a case of choosing the right reaction to Ehlinger's boast that will live in the sport's ether until at least the 2019 kickoff.
"I don't know that 'annoyed' is the right word," Herman said. "I don't get it. I don't understand the definition because it's defined by other people. We define our success internally."
Herman went on say the usual: Nobody outside the program has higher expectations than the Longhorns themselves.
What went unsaid: Gosh darn, it feels good.
The season that included victories over Oklahoma and Georgia was Texas' first 10-win campaign since 2009. Ehlinger is the consistent quarterback the program has longed for since Colt McCoy. There have been back-to-back recruiting classes ranked in the top three nationally.
Texas is at least back to being considered the Texas of old. It will be expected to challenge Oklahoma once again for the Big 12 with a College Football Playoff berth at stake given recent developments. Back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray have led OU to consecutive CFPs.
Ehlinger seems to be that "it" quarterback in the Big 12 this year. After a season that included 41 total touchdowns, Texas director of football operations Fernando Lovo dug up a juicy stat regarding his QB.
Ehlinger became the sixth Power Five quarterback in the last 20 years to pass for at least 25 touchdowns and run for at least 15 more. The previous five won the Heisman: Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota and Lamar Jackson.
Ehlinger went for 25 and 16 in those respective categories last season. So when the junior from Austin, Texas, speaks (out), people tend to listen, if not cringe.
"Oh jeez," Herman described his reaction after hearing Ehlinger on the podium with ESPN's Holly Rowe.
"That's why you love him," Herman added. "He loves this place. He takes tremendous pride not just in his job but in his place in the history of this program. He wants so badly to win a championship not just for him but for his teammates and university. In that moment of jubilation, [there] may have been an outburst."
In the middle of his third offseason, it feels like a jumping off point for Texas and Herman, who just had a a two-year contract extension with the Longhorns announced Thursday. When he arrived, Herman remembers having to spend 30 minutes just teaching his team how to … stretch.
"One of the big things we talked about leaving spring game was understanding the 'why' of the offense and defense," Herman said. "… Why? Why? Why? That's the big picture.
"As a coach, you never take your foot of the gas when it comes to enforcement of your culture. But to know that players are familiar with it, players have the most part bought into it, it allows you to coach more football than to coach how to practice and how to go hard."
Texas has seldom overachieved because it's … Texas. Mack Brown once said the expectations are the best -- and worst -- aspects of the job. But the 'Horns may have exceeded them in 2018.
Ehlinger's ceiling was a bit of an unknown until he torched Oklahoma for five total touchdowns (three rushing). He had a built-in advantage with 6-foot-6 Collin Johnson and 6-foot-4 Lil'Jordan Humphrey.
There were eyebrows raised around college football when the 'Horns outhit and may have intimidated thee Dawgs in the Sugar Bowl.
Whether Humphrey, who was not selected in the 2019 NFL Draft but signed with the Saints as a free agent, made a wise decision in leaving early remains to be seen. In fact, only two Texas players were drafted.
"The NFL didn't value them as much as we did, [but it] says a lot about their ability to play hard, play smart," Herman said.
Herman must have replacements for three offensive line starters. Texas must run the ball better. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has to rebuild the front.
But in the middle of the offseason, it's OK to bask a little bit. That means turning a split with OU into a positive.
Texas lost the Oklahoma rematch in the Big 12 Championship Game. There are still only three Big 12 titles since the league formed in 1996. However …
"That game in the Cotton Bowl, that's special," Herman said.
Herman remains outstanding at three aspects that got him to Austin in the first place: recruiting, coaching quarterbacks and calling plays.
"You do know that you're target audience is 16- and 17-year-old high school juniors and seniors," Herman said. "I think [the Sugar Bowl] showed them we're a program that is capable of winning on the biggest of stages. A program that, in just our second year, is able to compete for a conference title. We did win a New Year's Six championship.
"Internally, the mantra we had all year was: Prove Us Right. Let's prove to the world that our way of doing things is the right way. We proved that to ourselves more than anybody."
Texas may not be "back," whatever that means at the moment, but it is certainly back to being confident. And that's a hell of a start to Herman's third season.
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