Linebacker Malik Jefferson was the biggest star on an much-improved Texas defense this season
Things didn’t go quite according to plan in new coach Tom Herman’s first year at Texas. Despite inheriting a talented roster from predecessor Charlie Strong, the Longhorns were short on performers in key spots, including quarterback and offensive line. Injuries wiped out any hope of having the kind of season expected around Austin.
However, Texas did win three of its final four games including a convincing 33-16 victory over Missouri in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl to finish with a winning record (7-6, 5-4 Big 12). Despite the overall disappointment, some standouts did emerge for the Longhorns.
Offensive MVP: Michael Dickson, P
Technically, Dickson isn’t an offensive player. However, the ‘Horns played so poorly on offense this season that it’s tough to make a compelling case that anyone on that side of the ball deserves this award.
On the other hand, their Australian punter might have been one of the 10 best players in the country, all things considered. UT will sorely miss his skills next year.
Defensive MVP: Malik Jefferson, LB
After a promising freshman season in 2015, Jefferson lost his way a year ago. He got back on track as a junior in 2017, splitting defensive player of the year honors in the Big 12 with Oklahoma’s Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.
Jefferson tallied 110 total tackles this season, including 10 behind the line of scrimmage, although he didn’t play in the bowl game because of a toe injury. In a season with a fair number of standouts on defense, he was UT’s best.
Best Freshman: Sam Ehlinger, QB
Somehow Ehlinger (above, right) deserves this award and also might be altogether out of a job soon.
At times, Ehlinger played like Texas’ quarterback of the future, a gutty thrower who could also make plays with his legs. He looked like something closer to a stop-gap measure just about as often over the course of the year
Nevertheless, Ehlinger played a big part in most of the Longhorns’ best performances in 2017. He led the way with 112 passing yards (completing 11 of his 15 attempts) and a TD in the bowl win over Missouri.
Best Newcomer: Gary Johnson, LB
Johnson, who transferred into the program from Dodge City (Kan.) Community College prior to the start of the season, appeared in every game for the Longhorns in 2017 and earned seven starts at linebacker. He saw his playing time grow down the stretch and responded by becoming one of the team’s most productive players, finishing the season fourth on the team in tackles with 60. He had a team- and season-high 10 in the bowl win over Missouri.
Heading into 2018, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will count on Johnson to be one of the rocks of his unit.
Best Play of the Season: Foreman’s Acrobatic Catch Puts Texas on Top of USC
It was billed as a rematch of one of the greatest college football games ever played, the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and the USC Trojans. With a little more than five minutes left to play, the 2017 Longhorns had a chance to capture their own memorable win.
Trailing 14-10, Texas started with the ball inside its own 10 late in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger and the rest of the offense worked the ball down the field in a drive that included a 47-yard completion to wideout Collin Johnson. With 91 seconds remaining, receiver Amanti Foreman snagged an 11-yard pass from Ehlinger up against the sideline in the USC end zone, dragging a toe inbounds to ensure a score that led to a 17-14 UT lead.
The lead didn’t hold up – the ‘Horns eventually lost to the Trojans in double overtime, 27-24. For that minute-and-a-half, however, Texas proved it wouldn’t shy away in competition against one of the nation’s best teams.
Best Performance (Player): DeShon Elliott vs. USC
Texas defenders offered plenty of worth candidates for this recognition. In fact, Elliott deserved consideration for multiple games.
The All-American safety gave his best performance in the third week of the year against USC. Elliott picked off two passes in the game, one of which he took to the house for a TD. For the contest, Elliott also racked up seven total tackles.
Best Game (Team): Double-Overtime Loss to USC in Los Angeles on Sept. 16
It feels strange picking a game in this particular category that the ‘Horns lost. That doesn’t change the reality that Texas played its best game of the season in the Coliseum.
The home team needed some Sam Darnold magic and two overtime sessions to escape with a win in a game in which the Texas D played especially well.
The Longhorns will try to get their revenge at home this September.
Defining Moment: Losing to Texas Tech in the Regular-Season Finale
This game summed up Texas’ season to a T. The Longhorns outplayed the Red Raiders for three quarters and fell apart in the end.
UT took a 10-point lead early in the final period off a field goal from placekicker Joshua Rowland. Tech scored two more touchdowns on passes from QB Nic Shimonek before time ran out and left Austin victorious. The win almost certainly saved Red Raiders head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s job and simultaneously turned up the heat on Tom Herman by a few degrees.
Biggest Surprise: Lil’Jordan Humphrey, WR
Humphrey garnered some attention in the preseason as a potential contributor this year after catching just two passes as a freshman in 2016. Yet, in a crowded group of touted prospects, Humphrey emerged this season as the Longhorns’ second-leading receiver with 37 receptions for 431 yards. If the offense develops consistency in the passing game in 2018, Humphrey will play a big part.
Biggest Disappointment: Offense
Tom Herman made his name as an offensive coordinator at Ohio State and led prolific attacks in his two seasons at Houston. Season one at UT was a disaster on that side of the ball, though. No position group of individual player was noticeably better from the year before.
Herman and coordinator Tim Beck need to find a way to ignite the O in the coming year. Avoiding the rash of injuries that leveled the roster this season would be a good start.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Poona Ford, DL
Ford deserved his honor as the top defensive lineman in the Big 12 in 2017. Guys of his stature with his skill set are hard to find, and we’ve seen how rare they are over time in Big 12 country. Todd Orlando’s defense will feel his absence in the middle next year.
Player to Watch in 2018: Cameron Rising, QB
Is it too soon to put this kind of onus on an incoming freshman? Rising signed with the Longhorns during the newly created early signing period, so he is bound for Austin. The Californian is rated as one of the top high school QBs in the country, and given the state of UT’s depth chart at the moment, he could get a shot at working his way into the starting lineup next fall.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Offensive Line
Quarterback would be an acceptable answer here, but a weak OL has dogged Texas for too long. This year’s group suffered a major blow when Connor Williams went down early in the year with a leg injury. No players really stepped up their game in his absence.
No Texas offensive linemen deserves the benefit of the doubt until proven on the field.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.