The dreaded transition class has now finally come together for Tom Herman and includes several players that were obviously chosen for their fit and the staff’s comfort level with making the most of their talent. As Herman himself noted, their first class at Ohio State was ranked 5th nationally but only produced three contributors because of lack of fit.
Herman and his staff clearly didn’t have established relationships with some of the higher ranked players in the state, ironically resulting in many of them leaving for Ohio State, so they took a bunch of kids that they were excited to have at Houston with the belief that players they could have built into contributors at Houston would also be valuable in the Big 12.
The reality of college football is that teams are comprised mostly of role players with a few stars and the skills and talents of everyone involved need to fit together for the team to be successful and for the talent of the stars to be evident. Everyone loves the Mack Brown “recruit 22 guys that can win their individual matchup in every game” but that’s not really how things play out on the field.
If you can recruit mostly kids with superstar upside that can be great, but most of them are going to have to learn how to be role players or you might as well have taken kids with lower ceilings but more self awareness.
Ultimately the hope is that Herman will know how to land the best athletes in the state and then develop them into a culture that stresses teamwork and role awareness effectively. In the meantime, here’s how his staff has done in putting together a first class that can fit together and provide some infrastructure for the future.
The Herman smashmouth spread is designed to dominate opponents between the tackles with physical, downhill running. After that, he’ll use perimeter RPOs (run/pass options) and play-action to keep defenses from overloading the middle. Finally, there’s the dropback passing game which is included to help control the ball and provide additional ways to attack defenses with good athletes.
The QB needs to be able to manage the offense and distribute the ball in all of the option concepts that exist in the playbook. Any signal-caller that can do that will find success in this system if surrounded by the right athletes at the skill positions.
If the QB can add the ability to run between the tackles in the run game with his own legs to the distribution skills mentioned above, it takes the offense to a whole other level. There’s few safe defensive tactics for stopping QB runs if the offense is lined up in a spread formation with a signal caller that can murder you outside if you cheat numbers to the box.
With the ability to run sometimes comes the ability to improvise and make things happen when passing plays break down. In college ball, those kinds of breakdowns occur regularly because the modern passing game is a skill-intensive art form. However, college ball also struggles mightily with defending QBs that excel at improvisation. The QB who can overcome a protection breakdown or a lack of open receivers by moving out of the pocket and scrambling for yardage or hitting a receiver on the move is the great equalizer in college football.
In Sam Ehlinger, Texas got a player that is not only competent but excellent in all three of these dimensions of QB play. If they’d managed to pull Bryson Smith they might have had two such players but to find even one is pretty exciting. They can always add numbers later, Herman inherited a cornerstone here.
Ehlinger is the perfect fit for most any spread offense but especially the Herman system. It would have been hard to do better here.
Texas really needs a guy here that can excel at hitting the A and B gaps on power and inside zone runs. Even if the QB can excel in that role as Ehlinger does, you don’t want to have to give your QB 10+ carries every game to execute the base strategy of your offense.
Beyond that, Herman has shown willingness to use his RBs in a variety of different ways to attack the perimeter or in the passing game depending on the value-add they bring outside of execution of the base runs.
Herman took two very different backs, both out of Houston, in Toneil Carter and Daniel Young. Running between the tackles effectively often isn’t about size but about the ability to make sharp cuts on a dime in order to hit creases within a narrow window of time before they close, and that’s where Carter excelled in high school. At about 5’11” and 195, Carter is built to cut upfield in a hurry and his acceleration in his first few steps allow him to maximize narrow windows of opportunity into big runs.
Young is more the type that you think of when it comes to pounding interior gaps, he’s built like a fireplug but while he has the burst to hit holes between the tackles he doesn’t have Carter’s breakaway speed to turn a crease into an explosive play. For Herman he could be a change of pace back or potentially grow into a very versatile fullback that does some lead blocking and short-yardage work. His skill set pairs nicely with Carter who could be freed to get out on the perimeter while Young does some inside running and lead blocking for either Carter or the QB.
Herman found both explosive talent and versatility in this group, he probably didn’t stockpile a pair of future NFL backs but he did get value and numbers.
Normally I like to use the term ancillaries to describe fullbacks, h-backs, and tight ends who serve largely as support players for the other skill players, moving around to create different blocking angles. In that respect, Daniel Young could potentially count as an ancillary depending on where his development takes him over the next four years. Both Reese Leitao and Cade Brewer have similarly ambiguous futures because both have figurative growth plates that could see them develop a wide variety of skills.
Leitao is fluid as a runner and very skilled in getting open on routes and blocking out defenders like a basketball post (incidentally, his dad is a roundball coach) to make catches, but he’s also a physical and willing blocker in the box. He seems very likely to grow into a blocking tight end/hammer-back at Texas but he also already has skill running routes in the middle of the field that would be foolish to waste.
Brewer is fluid like Leitao, but much more sudden and capable of creating separation even when facing tighter man coverage whereas Leitao does his work settling in soft spots in zone. Brewer’s film at Lake Travis is replete with examples of double moves, high point catches, and bringing down back shoulder fades against coverage. We’ll probably see Brewer spend most of his time at Texas flexed out wide as a receiver where he can block on screens or serve as a chain-mover in the passing game. If he fills out and proves an effective blocker in the box as well then he’ll open up a wide world of devastating possibilities for Herman.
Tight end is very much a developmental position and Herman just secured some clay that has the right consistency to be molded into the fearsome blocker and multi-use big target to make his offense a matchup nightmare for Big 12 defenses.
Texas is absurdly loaded at WR right now to the extent that they could lose a potential star in Kai Locksley to transfer and perhaps another in John Burt if he can’t get back on track and still be in better shape than most of the other teams in the conference.
Herman’s asks of his WRs include physical blocking, the ability to make route adjustments based off coverage reads, and then the athleticism to hurt people when they have the ball.
Damion Miller is going to find a lot of opportunities running deep verticals on play-action and adjustable routes on isolated corners if Herman can get the rest of the offense humming. In addition to his elite speed (4.49) Miller is also highly coordinated with strong hands when it’s time to go up and bring the ball down. You can throw it up to him matched up on a corner with a jump ball or back shoulder fade and expect him to win the battle.
It’s ironic that Texas should miss out on so much of the abundant in-state talent at WR yet benefit from Florida being similarly overflowing with skill and athleticism. Jordan Pouncey probably fits inside where Herman likes to place guys with good short speed and acceleration to target on quick option routes, screens, and seam routes. If you hit Pouncey in enough space that he can take a step or two, he’s going to generate a lot of explosive plays and he has enough quickness to be a nightmare running in the space between the safeties and linebackers.
There’s two perspectives here to consider. One is the need to keep the roster stocked with athletes that can punish defenses in the passing game, which Herman successfully did here despite low numbers because of all the depth already on campus. Another is the desire to lock down the state’s best talent, which Herman did not do. I worry less about that at this position though because Texas is routinely loaded with far more receivers that can wreak havoc in a spread offense then the Longhorns can allocate scholarships for. There’s just no stopping the rest of the league from filling up on receivers you’d rather not face.
Charlie Strong arguably set Herman up on the OL better than at any other position in the program. With Connor Williams, Patrick Vahe, Jake McMillon, Zack Shackelford, Jean Delance, Tope Imade, Buck Major, J.P. Urquidez, Denzel Okafor, Garrett Thomas, Elijah Rodriguez, and Patrick Hudson…there’s a lot of talent on campus that will be around for a while. More importantly, it’s talent chosen for athleticism at tackle and a willingness to get low and get dirty inside, both of which are essential in Herman’s offense.
With all of that talent in the underclassmen ranks and four returning starters, Herman was really set up to go after players with bigger development curves.
Sam Cosmi has very quick feet and a lot of examples on film of performing difficult tasks like finding linebackers in space. At 6’5”, 260 pounds he’ll need to spend a lot of time in the weight room before his clips of getting low and driving DL off the ball in high school could translate to the Texas inside zone run game. He might be a tackle prospect but he also projects better to guard then some other tall, underweight HS tackles because he plays with good pad level.
Derek Kerstetter is also something of a project, partly because he might end up moving inside to center where his quickness off the ball and size would be useful for anchoring the A-gaps in Texas’ run game. He played tackle in high school and was very effective reaching DEs and LBs on outside zone or covering up DTs on inside zone. With increased strength and repetitions in handling DTs with angles and double teams he might become Texas’ long-term heir to Shackelford.
Both of these players fit the immediate goal, which is to stash guys with upside in the S&C program and in the OL meeting room that can become valuable contributors three years or so down the line. There aren’t good numbers here but don’t be shocked if Herman rectifies that by moving some of Strong’s extra DTs over.
Ostensibly the move from Strong’s 3-3-5 heavy defense to Orlando’s 3-4 shouldn’t be that extreme but Orlando’s fronts put a greater emphasis on DEs that can work in either the B-gap or the A-gap from snap to snap. That requires skilled use of the hands and either length and strength or an excellent first step, ideally both. The nose tackle position is still what it’s been the last few years, a place for a strong anchor that can hold up to a double team in the A-gap and move well enough to stunt.
This development is hardly a bad thing for Taquon Graham, who at 6-3, 255 has abnormal length and speed for his position yet seems likely to end up in the 270-290 range after college strength and conditioning. He’s a great candidate for the 4i-technique DE position in this defense that needs some explosiveness off the ball but also the strength to contend with offensive tackles.
Max Cummins is an ideal fit for the position thanks to his length at 6-5, his athleticism (they moved him up and down the line in high school to cause disruption), and his high ceiling as a still growing and developing player. Graham’s high ranking is thanks to his early eval as a likely pass-rushing DE while Cummins’ low ranking is due to his tweener-nature and the fact that he was a late bloomer. Both are valuable projects for Oscar Giles and Yancy McKnight to tackle in upcoming offseasons.
With a couple of long-term fits in the calculator, Texas made a late addition with Jamari Chisholm. At 6-5, 280 with a knack for engaging blockers and and moving laterally, Chisholm can fit in the 4i-tech spot if Texas’ young DTs struggle with the adjustment. He’s not a major disruptor but he’s big and sound enough to do the job and occupy blockers while Orlando fires LBs into the backfield off either hip.
There are no nose tackles in this class but Charlie signed tons of DTs in previous classes that will inevitably produce a few prospects for that position. Texas helped shore up the 3-4 DE position to provide insurance that the new scheme will translate without major hiccups and got potential game-changers for the future in Cummins and Graham.
This position is the heart of the Orlando defense. One of the goals here was certainly to keep bringing aboard explosive athletes that could be fired into the backfield on stunts and blitzes but who had the versatility to learn how to make coverage drops or play the run as well. Additionally, Texas had great need for a player or two that already knows how to play the inside-backer position as the current roster is long on explosive athletes but short on know-how at that cerebral spot.
Gary Johnson is the potential solution at the inside-backer spot and his JUCO film reveals a player that can read flow, scrape into the right gaps, and then generate power up from the hips to stonewall blockers or runners. He’s a bit undersized but in a league where players that aren’t undersized are often overwhelmed by the athletic requirements of the position when facing spread offenses. Johnson has a good chance to play immediately and help create wonderful problems for the staff in finding a place for Malik Jefferson.
Marqez Bimage is a versatile “attack-backer” whose major qualification for receiving a Texas offer is his outstanding capacity for winning violent contests with OL. He takes choppy initial steps and loves to engage OL with his hands before downshifting again to blow by them. He’s explosive, but he’s already developed in using his explosiveness to set himself up with leverage to win battles rather than trying to run by everyone. His nose for the ball and the joy he takes in colliding with people could translate to inside-backer if he master the coverage drops and key reading, otherwise he makes a great deal of sense as a rush-backer on the edge.
Texas got two very violent and athletic football players for a defense that’s designed to feature the linebacker position. The numbers are low but the fits make a good deal of sense and neither are a reach or really even much of a question mark.
Defensive back is an essential spot in the Big 12 where teams often have to play six of them at a time, real depth is essential, and versatility and cross-training are standard practices. Charlie put a premium on finding guys outside that could play without deep help so that he could load the middle of the field with tacklers. Orlando’s defense will emphasize more teamwork and versatility from the DBs, but the lockdown corner that can play on an island is as essential as ever.
Kobe Boyce played a lot of cover 3 in high school, which undoubtedly made him a great option to Strong and his staff, but Texas is now a base quarters defense with cover 3 as a change-up when Orlando wants to blitz. His skill should translate in this scheme as well though, particularly at field corner where he’d have more leeway to play off and jump routes.
Josh Thompson played mostly field safety as a senior and he dominated from the middle of the field in a role that allowed him to attack offenses in a variety of different ways. He’s a tremendous athlete and could project to any position in the secondary but he’ll probably play inside at either field safety or nickel. Orlando will want to find a few more like him that combine real acceleration and range in the open field with natural aggression.
I was shocked when examining Montrell Estell’s senior film to discover an athletic destroyer of worlds who played every conceivable position in high school and totally dominated his competition. He might be the next Mykkele Thompson and hopefully Herman’s culture will allow him to find his bite faster than Thompson, who frustrated fans until Charlie arrived before finally becoming a multi-positional dog.
Like Thompson, Estell could project to a lot of different positions but we can probably expect to find him at field safety using his length and range to cover ground on the back end and occasionally to come up and lock down a slot.
There don’t seem to be any lockdown corners in this group and the overall numbers are somewhat low, but each of these guys are liable to make real noise after a few years of development. Orlando was lucky that Strong landed such versatile athletes here as that will play well in his coverages.
Herman inherited a player in Sam Ehlinger that could very easily make this class look much better in four years time than it looks currently. A QB with a well rounded skill set, some elite abilities, and an easy fit into the scheme can unlock an entire offensive roster. Beyond Sam, Herman filled needs and landed enough talent to maintain Texas’ standing as one of the two most talented programs in the league while saving room for a loaded 2018 in-state crop that might provide more blue-chip, impact players.
While he missed on some of the state’s most obvious talents, this class still features a lot of big time athletes of a caliber that you don’t generally find in this quantity at other schools in the Big 12. If they fit together well and players like Ehlinger, Miller, or Estell pan out then this class will be remembered more fondly then it’s being received now.