AUSTIN (AP) — Texas is headed to its first bowl game since the 2014 season, yet some of the Longhorns’ top players aren’t sticking around to play in it.
Three of the team’s top underclassmen said this week they will enter the NFL draft or transfer. None will play in the bowl game and the Longhorns are waiting to hear if more will follow.
Junior safety DeShon Elliott on Thursday announced will enter the draft and skip the bowl. The Thorpe Award finalist’s decision came after top junior offensive junior Connor Williams opted to do the same. The player who’s transferring, Chris Warren, led Texas in touchdowns, although his role in the offense dropped as the season wore on.
Their departures raise new questions and new pressures for first-year coach Tom Herman, who needs a bowl win to avoid a losing record and send Texas into 2018 with some momentum. If Texas loses the bowl game, the Longhorns will be 6-7, the same record predecessor Charlie Strong had his first year.
“We are dead set in making it our mission in life to make sure that these seniors go out with a positive experience, with a win in the bowl game, wherever that may be,” Herman said after Texas lost its final game to Texas Tech.
Herman was off campus recruiting this week when the player decisions were announced. More junior departures could be coming.
Texas is waiting to hear from linebacker Malik Jefferson, who had a breakout year under new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. The Big 12 co-defensive player of the year said on social media this week he hasn’t decided whether he will return or leave for the NFL.
Other juniors who may consider leaving include cornerback Holton Hill and Kris Boyd, and even punter Michael Dickson, an Australian who is a Ray Guy Award finalist. Junior offensive linemen Terrell Cuney and Jake McMillon, starters in the last game, both took part in the team’s “Senior Night” ceremonies, indicating they aren’t coming back.
Williams and Elliott skipping the bowl game mimics decisions made last season by Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette, who were projected as first-round draft picks and skipped their bowl games to avoid injury.
Statements by Williams and Elliott both thanked Herman and Strong and said they wanted to start their pro careers.
“I know that Longhorn football is in good hands,” Elliott said.
Williams was projected as one of top left tackles in the country and a sure-fire first-round draft pick when the season began. A knee injury in the third game caused him to miss the next seven games. He opted not to have surgery and he returned for the final two games.
“One of the reasons I worked so hard to come back from my injury was to help the team reach its goal of playing in a bowl game, and I’m proud we were able to accomplish that,” Williams said.
Elliott’s stock as a pro rose rapidly this season and his team-high six interceptions ranked third nationally.
Warren is transferring after his role was drastically reduced during the season and he ultimately switched from running back to tight end for the final two games. At 250 pounds, Warren was a battering ram as a running back who rushed for 1,150 yards in his Texas career, including a 276-yard effort as a freshman against Texas Tech.
He ran for 166 yards in the season’s second game against San Jose State, but his carries dropped dramatically a week later. What frustrated the player and Texas fans was that Herman didn’t use him in key goal-line and third-down situations in losses to Southern California and Texas Tech.
Warren didn’t say where he planned to transfer.
“Texas is a special place, and I’m appreciative to have had the opportunity to grow as a person and a student-athlete here,” Warren said.
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