Texas coach Tom Herman's first season ends as a winner

    NCAAF -  
    Texas coach Tom Herman walks on the field as players warm up for the Texas Bowl NCAA college football game between Texas and Missouri, Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

    AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Tom Herman's first season at Texas started with a dud that had Longhorns fans fuming, and ended with an on-field shimmy that had them defending him.

    Now, Herman looks to turn that shimmy into the full-blown Texas swagger that's been missing for so long.

    At 7-6, there are signs it could be coming. At the very least, Herman's first team can be called a winner.

    That's what made beating Missouri in the Texas Bowl so important. The Longhorns avoided a fourth consecutive losing season and Herman can legitimately say a rebuilding project is heading in the right direction.

    "You can't overstate it." Herman said. "It's really important for these guys to call themselves winners."

    That's a far different feeling from when Texas got thumped at home by Maryland in the season opener. And just a few weeks ago, Texas fans were wondering if Herman's locker room was in disarray after running back Chris Warren transferred and standout offensive lineman Connor Williams and Thorpe Award winner safety DeShon Elliott decided to skip the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft.

    "I think tonight, coach Herman won the locker room, 100 percent," said linebacker Breckyn Hager said after Wednesday night's 33-16 victory over the Tigers.

    "He now has our hearts as a team. These past three weeks, it really felt like a whole new team, a whole new atmosphere. We all bought in," Hager said. "It's like you hit the light switch and everything has changed. It's definitely up from here. I know I've said that before but for real this time. This was big time."

    Texas brought in Herman after firing Charlie Strong following three straight losing seasons. The program is starved to return to contending for Big 12 championships — Longhorns fans will want national titles too, but first things first — and gave Herman a contract that guarantees him more than $25 million.

    Herman's first nine months were full of tough talk about molding a tough team, recruiting and a $10 million locker room redesign.

    The Maryland loss staggered everyone and caused the entire program to re-evaluate what would be possible this season.

    "If we all thought we were going to come in here and in nine months sprinkle some fairy dust on this team and think that we've arrived, then we were wrong," Herman said after the first game.

    Texas fought back behind a much-improved defense under coordinator Todd Orlando while the offense stalled more often than it started and had Herman defending coordinator Tim Beck most of the season. And frustration built over what might have been.

    The defense kept the Longhorns in every game. Texas led Southern California, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in the fourth quarter, only to lose each one. The defense will lose some of its best players in 2018. Defensive tackle Poona Ford was a force in the middle of the line as a senior and Elliott and cornerback Holton Hill are leaving for the NFL as underclassmen. Linebacker and leading tackler Malik Jefferson, a second-team Associated Press All-American, has yet to announce whether he will return for his senior season.

    Offensively, the Longhorns have work to do.

    Quarterbacks Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger rotated starting duties because of injury and because neither seemed to satisfy Herman with his play.

    Ehlinger's head-first running style delivered a key win against Kansas State and had Texas threatening to beat Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but he also got a concussion injury.

    Buechele started the first game, went out with a leg injury and struggled to truly command the offense when given the chance despite a record-setting passing season as a freshman in 2016.

    What develops at quarterback between those two and standout recruits Casey Thompson and Cameron Rising in the spring will be the story of the offseason for the Longhorns.

    Herman closed out the 2017 season with an on-field shimmy caught by TV cameras as the Texas Bowl win over Missouri ended. His moves appeared to mock an earlier celebration by Missouri quarterback Drew Lock.

    The Texas fans who were quick to defend their coach on social media didn't see ridicule. They saw swagger.

    They liked it. And they want more.