No. 23 Texas opens Herman era by hosting Maryland
AUSTIN, TX - APRIL 15: Head coach Tom Herman of the Texas Longhorns yells to the offense during the Orange-White Spring Game at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on April 15, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, Texas -- Don't think for a minute that No. 23 Texas can afford to take Maryland lightly when the teams square off Saturday to open their seasons at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas.
After all, it was the Terrapins, and not the Longhorns, who played in a bowl game last season.
Texas opens the 2017 campaign trying the wash away the taste of three consecutive losing seasons that resulted a second coaching change in just four years and the hiring of Tom Herman from Houston in November.
The Longhorns have plenty of returning starters -- seven on offense and 10 on defense -- but will have to learn how to win again and be the top-tier program that was once the standard at Texas.
"Relief and excitement are probably the two emotions I'm feeling now that game week is finally here," Herman said. "It's been a long nine months. We've had a lot of things happen to us over the span of those nine months.
"I'm actually relieved a little bit to be back in the offensive meeting room, to be back in the staff room, to be preparing for an opponent, to doing a lot less media things, and to get back to coaching football and preparing to win a game."
Texas' depth chart shows a bent toward youth, with just three seniors and nine underclassmen (eight sophomores and a redshirt freshman) listed as starters.
Sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele, who started all 12 games for the Longhorns last year and set team freshman records, has re-captured the position and will have fellow underclassmen at all of the skill positions on offense.
"If we continue our energy that we have out on the practice field that we've been having, I think it's going to be a lot of fun this year," Buechele said. "It's our first game and everybody's going to have a lot of energy. We expect everybody to be there and have our back and we have their back. It's going to be a lot of fun to play in front of the fans and go play in our season opener."
Maryland ended up 6-7 last season and enters year 2 under coach DJ Durkin. The biggest question of the preseason was answered Monday when Durkin named sophomore Tyrell Pigrome as his starter at quarterback after a four-player battle at the position.
Pigrome saw action in 11 games last season, starting only once, passing for 322 yards and two touchdowns while adding 254 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
It won't matter much who's behind center if the Terrapins' offensive line doesn't block better. Maryland allowed a Big Ten-high 49 sacks last season, but it did well opening holes for Ty Johnson, who averaged 9.1 yards per carry last season in a sophomore campaign in which he gained 1,004 yards. Running back Lorenzo Harrison had runs of 40, 44 and 62 yards last fall as a freshman, when he averaged 7.2 yards per rush.
Defensively, the Terps return seven starters, with 57 career starts coming back to the linebacker corps that should be the unit's strength. Senior middle linebacker Jermaine Carter anchors the defense after leading the team with 110 tackles in 2016.
Playing in defensive coordinator Andy Buh's exotic packages, Maryland averaged 2.9 sacks per game, led by defensive end Jesse Aniebonam and his nine sacks.
The Terrapins face arguably the toughest schedule in the nation, with conference games later in the season against No. 2 Ohio State, No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 11 Michigan and No. 6 Penn State.
But first, it's the Longhorns, who -- despite their recent struggles -- have Maryland's full attention.
"Our players have a great understanding of the tradition, the level of talent on the roster at Texas, and so your focus tightens up a little bit, you sharpen your focus," Durkin said.
"We're really focused on us getting better and improving every day and what we're doing. Playing Texas forces you to be a little bit more on your game and know that you've got to be ready week one. There's no like easing into the season. It's ready to go."
Texas leads the all-time series against Maryland, 3-0. The programs last met in the 1978 Sun Bowl, a 42-0 Longhorns' victory.