Sugar Bowl Football

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) celebrates his second touchdown carry in the first half of the 2019 Sugar Bowl against Georgia in New Orleans.

Editor’s note — This is the fifth installment in a 12-part series previewing the 2019 West Virginia University football opponents.

Every offseason for quite some time now, there has been one consistent question asked every year in the Big 12 — is Texas back?

In 2018, the Longhorns let the world know they were on their way. In 2019, Texas has the chance to answer the question definitively.

On the surface, one could look at Texas’ 2018 and say the Longhorns were, in fact, “back.” UT beat league powerhouse Oklahoma in the regular season, appeared in the Big 12 title game (where it lost the rematch against the Sooners) and then went on to thump Southeastern Conference heavyweight Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. For most programs, that would be an all-time type of season, but Texas is different.

If the Longhorns are really “back” they need to keep that momentum rolling. Texas finished in the top 15 of the final Associated Press poll every season from 2000 through 2011, with two national title game appearances — with one win — in there for good measure. Since then, however, the Longhorns have appeared i the final poll just two times, including finishing 2018 at No. 9.

The good news for UT in 2019? All the pieces appear to be in place on offense for Texas to make another run at a Big 12 title and possibly a spot in the College Football Playoff. The bad news? There is an extreme lack of experience, but not talent, on the defensive side of the ball.

Third-year coach Tom Herman has landed top recruiting classes in each of his seasons in Austin, and that success on the recruiting trail is beginning to pay off on the field. Last season, West Virginia won a wild game against the Longhorns in Austin. Can UT repay the favor in 2019 when it visits Morgantown on Oct. 5? Let’s take a look at the Longhorns’ roster heading into the season:

OFFENSE

Quarterback: Junior Sam Ehlinger had one of the best seasons any Texas quarterback has ever had last season. As a sophomore, Ehlinger established himself as the unquestioned leader of UT offense while throwing for 41 touchdowns — second-best for a single season in program history behind Colt McCoy’s 45 touchdown passes in 2008. If Ehlinger continues to get better like he did between his freshman and sophomore seasons, he should be among the legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates in 2019.

Running backs: Texas should never be hurting for skill position players, but when the Longhorns have been bad this decade that has been the case. Since his arrival at UT, Herman has gone about making sure that isn’t a problem for his teams. Texas has a talented group of running backs going into 2019, led by sophomore Keaontay Ingram, who ran for 708 yards and three touchdowns on 142 attempts last season. Throw in freshman Jordan Whittington, who enrolled early and was a five-star rated recruit according to 247Sports, and the Longhorns should have some solid pieces in the backfield this season.

Receivers: Last year’s leading receiver, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, left Texas early for the NFL Draft (though he, like WVU’s David Sills, would go undrafted). Despite that loss, the Longhorns are still pretty loaded at receiver with 6-foot-6 Collin Johnson joined by senior Devin Duvernay and incoming freshman Jake Smith — a 247Sports four-star recruit.

Offensive line: Zack Shackelford is back at center to anchor the Longhorn line, but there are questions at the other positions. Samuel Cosmi will make the move from right tackle to left tackle, but other than those two there will be three new starters up front for Texas. One of those players could be Georgia Tech graduate transfer Parker Braun, a 2018 first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection at guard. Braun has two years available to play one season, however, and there is some chatter that he could redshirt in 2019 to get up to speed and ease the transition from GT’s triple-option offense to Texas’ more traditional approach.

DEFENSE

Defensive line: Texas’ defense was hit hard by attrition for 2019. Yet the line does have some experience, albeit not much starting experience, returning. Defensive ends Malcolm Roach and Ta’Quom Graham are back for 2019, while redshirt freshman nose tackle Keondre Coburn, who came to Texas as a 247Sports four-star recruit prior to sitting out last season, should be in the mix for playing time this season.

Linebacker: This will be a complete rebuild for Texas in 2019. Ayodele Adeoye, Jeffrey McClloch and Joseph Ossai — all talented but inexperienced players — should see the field for UT this season.

Cornerback: This is another complete rebuild for Texas this season. UT lost both of its starting corners from 2018, with Jalen Green, D’Shawn Jamison and Anthony Cook battling for those spots this spring and into the summer.

Safety: Texas lost nine of its 11 starters on defense from last season, but boast one of the best safety duos in the Big 12 and possibly the country going into 2019. Senior Brandon Jones and sophomore Caden Strens — a no-doubt freshman All-American last season — should be the anchors of the UT defense in 2019, and DeMarvion Overshown and B.J. Foster should provide quality depth for the defensive backs.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Sophomore Cameron Dicker returns as one of the top placekickers in the Big 12. Australian punter Ryan Bujcevski was streaky last season but has another year of experience under his belt. The Texas kick return game is somewhat wide-open, however cornerback D’Shawn Jamison did return a punt for a touchdown last season at Kansas State.

Contact Tom Bragg at tom.bragg@wvgazettemail.com or 304-348-4871. Follow him on Twitter @TomBraggSports. Read Tom’s WVU sports blog at http://blogs.wvgazettemail.com/wvu/