AUSTIN, Texas -- Tom Herman points to a framed letter on a stand in his office. The purple ink on the page is familiar to anyone who knows the habits of the author.

"Ask any coach, they would tell you Kansas State has been the most physical team in the Big 12 for years," Texas' coach said. "They've won games on physicality and toughness and doing things the right way. From the guy who has kind of had that crown for years, to say your team played really, really hard meant a lot to me."

Bill Snyder and his classy letter-writing campaign had struck again.

The letter is a positive takeaway from Herman's first season with the Longhorns. The 2017 season wasn't the big turnaround many had hoped, but when you're above .500 (7-6) for the first time post-Mack Brown, that qualifies as progress.

Hence, the letter. Snyder basically praised Herman's team for playing hard in a 40-34 Longhorns win.

"I think we masked a lot of deficiencies with effort and physicality," Herman recalled of the season that passed. "… I'm not going to be around here for very long if we keep going 6-6, but my answer is, 'Yeah, but we played hard.' We gotta win. We have to turn playing hard into winning games."

Texas played five games that were decided by six points or fewer. That double-overtime win over K-State was the only victory.

In this Year of Quarterback Battles, Herman has one of his own. Sophomore signal callers Sam Ehlinger and junior Shane Buechele came out of Saturday's spring game taking their own tussle into the fall.

That makes it a second August -- 17 months overall since Herman took the job -- that Texas is looking for a difference-making QB1 to step forward.

Ehlinger as a player is "much better," Herman said. (He got a letter from Snyder, too.)

"He's a great leader. The kids rally around him. He's throwing the ball better with more confidence, mechanically better," Herman said. "… Shane is doing really good, too. His was never really a mechanical issue. His was more confidence and anticipation, ball placement and familiarity with the system. He has developed nicely."

The quarterbacks did not seem to separate in the spring game. Ehlinger completed 13-of-22 passes for 151 yards. Buechele completed 12 of 21 for 130 yards. Neither is going to make anyone forget Colt McCoy or Vince Young just yet.

Herman would settle for a clear No. 1 guy.

"From Day 1 of the spring, I told the quarterbacks, 'Experiment, rip it in there, man. Try to fit in tight windows. I want you to have that confidence when you do,'" he said. "They're never going to get yelled at for an interception in the spring."

Buechele threw 21 touchdowns as a freshman in 2016 but was plagued by knee and shoulder injuries in 2017. 

"At quarterback, when you hold the ball in this game, you have the hopes and dreams, goals, aspirations -- everything -- of your teammates, loved ones in your hands," Herman told the media. "When you think about it that way, you tend to be a lot more cautious with it."

Herman will be 43 entering his fourth season as a head coach when the 2018 campaign kicks off. He still has the 11th-highest winning percentage of any active coach who has spent his entire career in FBS.

Armed with a top-five recruiting class -- including early enrollee QBs Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson -- and a new outlook, Herman will be better and the Big 12 will be better if Texas is better this season.

"I'm a lot better than I was at the end of the year," Herman said. "That was tough, physically and mentally. I've had 14 knee surgeries. I've got a bulging disc in my back. I'm not getting younger.

"I've had a recommitment to working out. That's helped my body incredibly. This team is really fun to coach."

It will be a more fun with a quarterback who steps up in August.