AUSTIN — One-third of the way through his first season at Texas, head coach Tom Herman and his offensive staff are having to answer tough questions prior to their first conference home game against Kansas State.
K-State forces teams to play a clean game on the offensive side of the football because of its dedication to controlling the pace and tempo of the game through time of possession.
“We understand offensively (we’re) probably not going to get a lot of possessions,” Herman said on Monday. “I think last year Texas only ran 66 plays against Kansas State, so they’re going to chew up some clock on offense, try to possess the football, and play really, really sound, fundamental defense on that side of the ball.”
With such limited opportunity with the football, the offensive staff will have to make sure several problems are addressed before Saturday’s tilt.
Herman will need to work with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck to make sure that the quarterback, whether it be sophomore Shane Buechele or freshman Sam Ehlinger, is prepared.
Buechele is currently wearing a protective boot away from the field, and a brace on it when he is practicing. Herman mentioned the plan for Buechele to receive a platelet rich plasma injection in his sprained ankle in an attempt to move up his recovery timeline.
Both quarterbacks are having problems with ball security, as both Buechele and Ehlinger have two interceptions to their name, and each has put the ball on the ground. With Buechele nursing an ankle issue, Herman has to make sure both are prepared to take the field on Saturday.
“We’ve got to get better,” Herman said. “Shane has got to get better. Sam has got to get better. We’ve got to get better everywhere, especially on offense, but we feel like you can win with either one of those guys at quarterback.”
Herman was asked about his working relationship with Beck, as the two had never worked together before this year. Beck did follow Herman as offensive coordinator at Ohio State, but that’s as far as their connection goes.
Although that sounds less than ideal, Herman has experienced working with new coaches before. “I didn’t work with Major (Applewhite) prior to (him) calling plays for me, and that was a very seamless transition even when it came to adjustments,” Herman said.
Buechele provides better touch on passing and has more experience. Ehlinger has better mobility and a more durable frame. It’s a two-sided coin that Herman has little experience flipping.
“I don’t know, because I’ve never been in a position where you only have two on scholarship,” Herman said about possibly playing both quarterbacks. “So that always makes me nervous, when the only other one you’ve got, you’re going to throw them in there and run the risk of injury and now you’re down to one.”
Texas quarterbacking problems are partially mitigated by the fact that both Buechele and Ehlinger have experience, and both provide quality options at the position. For some of the other offensive coaches, they have to figure out where to create quality play.
One of the areas that needs major improvement is the run game. Both running backs coach Stan Drayton and offensive line coach Derek Warehime have several instructional and personnel marks they need to meet before the game this week.
For Drayton, he needs to figure out how to get his guys to take yardage rather than accept the yardage given to them.
“To your observation, we’re not making very many people miss,” Herman said. “If it’s blocked for four, we’re going to make four. If it’s blocked for six, we’re going to make six. Where the great backs, if it’s blocked for four they give you eight, and if it’s blocked to one, they give you three or four.”
Sophomore Kyle Porter is only rushing at a 3.0 yards per carry clip. Junior Chris Warren is rushing for 3.5 yards per carry against Power 5 opponents. Against Iowa State, both runners combined for just 2.5 yards per carry on 33 attempts.
“It’s not ‘hit the panic button’ yet, but Chris and Kyle know that — everybody wants to throw — when you don’t run the ball really well, everybody wants to throw the offensive line under the bus,” Herman said. “But it’s a collection of things.”
True freshman Toneil Carter received his first career start at Iowa State, and Herman said he plans to play the springy runner, who can bounce the ball outside in a way Warren and Porter cannot.
It doesn’t totally matter who is behind the line if the line cannot generate holes for the runners, especially against defenses that drop eight men into coverage. After injuries to both starting tackles, juniors Connor Williams and Elijah Rodriguez, Herman said a different approach may be needed to the offensive line.
“I think you’ve got to change your expectations a little bit,” Herman said. “Here’s where there’s a caveat to that, though. The caveat is if they’re dropping eight into coverage, clouding both corners, and not supporting the run with their safeties and only playing a three-man front, you have to run the football. There’s no other alternative.”
With all the issues, Herman made sure to note his assistant had looked at the issue and was doing all he could to address it.
“There’s nobody that’s slept less and pulled more hair out than (offensive line coach) Derek Warehime at this point,” Herman said. “Everything that we’re doing or that he’s doing I’m in full agreement with and we’ve got to do more of it in terms of repetitions at practice.”
One of the tweaks Warehime added was starting true freshman Derek Kerstetter at right tackle in place of sophomore Denzel Okafor, while senior Tristan Nickelson started at left tackle. Nickelson replaced Connor Williams, who Herman announced would receive non-surgical treatment for his MCL in a hope to get him back in a Texas uniform before the end of the season.
Kerstetter played well in his first snaps, but Herman knows he needs to make sure his backup tackles are prepared.
“Denzel Okafor has to play,” Herman said. “I mentioned on the call, you know, that it has nothing to do with talent. It’s a trust issue and I had some long, hard conversations with him and Coach Warehime. We’ve got to coach him to go to the right place with the right technique with the right effort level because he’s a talented guy that we need on the field.”
Summed up simply, “we need to find some more consistency at tackle,” Herman said.
Wide receiver, commonly thought to be the deepest and most talented position, has issues to face as well. Wide receivers coach Drew Mehringer will need to figure out how to get sophomore Collin Johnson the football even when tightly covered in cloud or double coverage.
“We’re running (Johnson) on corner routes,” Herman said. “We were trying to find ways to get him, But to say we aren’t going to throw the ball deep versus that coverage, it’s an impossibility. But he does need to get some touches, and we were trying to ever manufacture them.”
It’s not as simple as moving him to the slot, Herman says, because that doesn’t optimize Johnson’s skill set.
“You’ve got to create opportunities, whether it’s when they are leaving him one-on-one of being able to recognize it prior to snapping the football and get you into a Collin Johnson play,” Herman said. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting him the football, but his skill set, it’s a lot different than saying ‘hey, we’ve got to get Reggie (Hemphill-Mapps) the ball.’ Great, motion him in the back field, run him on some jet sweeps, throw him some bubbles, all that stuff.”
All that presents a long to-do list before one of the most disciplined teams in college football comes to town. K-State head coach Bill Snyder will be coaching this Saturday, which happens to be his 78th birthday.
Herman could not commit to coaching that long, but he does see himself at Texas for some time.
“I’ve got a 13-year old daughter that hasn’t seen her dad very much,” Herman said. “10-year old son and an almost four-year old son now that — it will be a while. 36 more years? No. But if all goes according to plan we’re going to be here quite some time. I would say 36 years might be a little bit long, though.”