Inside the Gameplan: Herman’s secret ingredient for 2017

Michael Dickson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Michael Dickson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

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We probably haven’t put enough emphasis on how good and how important Texas’ offensive line could be in 2017. This might be a legitimately great unit that could make the competition at running back nearly irrelevant and leaning on their play will unquestionably be a big part of Herman’s strategy.

However, Herman has a secret weapon that could really transform Texas from the losing team that took the field in 2016 to a Big 12 contender in 2017; the special teams. The Longhorns lost five one-score games last season and their special teams didn’t do them many favors in any of them.

You’ll often see special teams are viewed as a way for less talented teams to gain an edge, this has long been a way that Kansas State has sought to tip the scales and it was a clear priority for Matt Campbell at Iowa State last year. But great special teams units are heavily influenced not only by coverage and returns on kicks but simply how good your kickers are.

With access to any kickers they’d want to offer from the high school or transfer ranks plus a student body of 50k people there’s no reason that Texas shouldn’t always have good kickers on campus. After that, then things like coverage and returns start to matter and they are partly a measure of team discipline and partly a measure of athleticism, just like the rest of the game.

Here’s a snapshot, gauged by Football Outsiders’ FEI metric, of how good Texas’ special teams have been this decade juxtaposed with the aforementioned Wildcats:

The last four years of Mack Brown featured pretty lame special teams, but nothing horrendous. Charlie Strong’s special teams were a special kind of stanky, regularly featuring missed PATs and a general lack of ability to provide field position advantages for his struggling young team.

The 2015 surge in successful special teams can be attributed mostly to two factors, Daje Johnson returning punts and kicks and Nick Rose’s solid performance as a placekicker. In 2016 place kicking got shakier and Jacorey Warrick’s elevation to lead returner diminished Texas’ ability to flip field position.

In 2017 the stage is set for the Longhorns to make a leap that could impact the season more than most of us tend to think about.

The importance of special teams

It may be that talented teams like Strong’s Texas prefer to spend practice time nailing down fundamentals and techniques for young, difference-making athletes whereas a squad like Kansas State is always loaded with 4th and 5th year players and can afford to dedicate time and players to the task of mastering special teams.

Within this view highly disciplined special teams are a trade-off for something potentially more valuable, but any view that suggests that Texas doesn’t have the resources to aim higher is probably questionable. Anyways, we know that Strong didn’t put much of an emphasis on special teams and the coach “in charge” of them on his job title was really more of a recruiting coordinator who didn’t have many real, particular responsibilities for special teams in the actual Texas practice structure. The Longhorns could have and should have aimed higher and perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a team that didn’t cover kicks with particularly good team leverage also struggled to fit the run.

That’s all changing with Herman at the helm because Mensa Tom views special teams both as a way to sneak in extra advantages and as a barometer for determining which people on his roster are hardcore football players. Houston ranked 26th in special teams in 2015 and then slipped to 40th in 2016 after losing Demarcus Ayers from the kick return game. They beat Oklahoma in 2016 partly due to special teams and scored four touchdowns in their return game in 2015.

Beyond providing an opportunity to score a few extra points, special teams are immensely important in creating a context where your team is at advantage. Consider Bill Connelly’s five factors to winning college games where he found the following correlations:

Factor 1: The team that wins the explosiveness battle wins 88% of the time.
Factor 2: The team that wins the efficiency battle wins 83% of the time.
Factor 3: The team that wins the drive-finishing battle wins 75% of the time.
Factor 4: The team that wins the turnover battle wins 73% of the time.
Factor 5: The team that wins the field position battle wins 72% of the time.

Special teams can play a part in generating explosive plays, in finishing drives (converted field goals after crossing the 40 are big), and of course with field position. The last point is often a wildly overlooked factor but if one team has to move the ball 500 yards over the course of a game to score four TDs and the other has to move the ball only 300 yards over the course of a game to score four TDs then the latter team is obviously much more likely to win.

Texas was weak in all five factors save for efficiency last year, ranking 99th in explosiveness, 23rd in efficiency, 43rd in field position, 84th in finishing drives, and 54th in turnover margin. As we’ve noted before, 2016 Texas was essentially just D’Onta Foreman running behind Connor Williams and either Jake McMillon or Patrick Vahe. That was the basis for the entire team and how well teams could manage that combination was THE most important factor in whether Texas won or lost a game.

Alternating between handoffs to Foreman into a loaded box and throwing “three yards and a cloud of dust” hitch routes on off-man coverage didn’t make for a very explosive offense, nor was that particularly efficient in the red zone. Meanwhile special teams didn’t do the team many favors in creating short fields.

The one area of Texas’ special teams that were truly elite was the play of punter Michael Dickson, who’s All-American recognition is almost as big of a secret as the importance of special teams. Dickson averaged an absurd 47.37 yards per punt while successfully pinning opponents inside of the 20 on 28 occasions. Imagine if Texas had been great on defense last year? Dickson’s brilliance was unquestionably the reason for Texas’ relatively solid national rank in field position.

There’s a ton of room for improvement here from the Longhorns and some major ROI if they do so.

Texas’ 2017 special teams

When Herman was hired Texas fans eagerly began to eye the recruitment of Texas’ various in-state stars like Walker Little, K’Lavon Chaisson, or Baron Browning. Then Herman missed on all of them while unashamedly securing three-star JUCO placekicker Joshua Rowland as his first commitment.

Rowland was pretty solid as a JUCO, which probably translates a little more cleanly than your average junior college transfer since there aren’t many variables at play in whether a guy can kick the football through the uprights consistently or not. With his addition and RS freshman Chris Naggar providing competition there’s definite potential for Texas to have upper tier placekicking this coming season. At punter Dickson still has two years of eligibility remaining, so everything looks very good here.

Now that Texas has determined that kicking situations are worth some increased practice time there are plenty of burners on the roster that could prove to be pretty effective in that role. Armanti Foreman and Devin Duvernay served in those roles a year ago when Warrick wasn’t the man and both showed the capacity for some playmaking.

Demarco Boyd. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Demarco Boyd. (Will Gallagher/IT)

In the world of return coverage and kick blocking Texas’ plethora of good athletes has long been underutilized. The roster is filled with guys like Demarco Boyd, Breckyn Hager, Chris Brown, and Brandon Jones that could very easily have a big impact, especially in a culture that demands a lot from special teams’ play.

The 2009 Texas Longhorns are a nice example of what could be possible with an elite special teams unit (they ranked 6th that year). That unit was pretty phenomenal in every aspect with the following stats to boast of:

-They scored seven touchdowns on special teams.
-They blocked five kicks.
-The punt team pinned the opponent inside the 20 23 times and four of those came from Colt McCoy pooch kicks. Colt never had a touchback (true MVP).
-Place-kicker Hunter Lawrence was 24-27 on field goals, 10-12 on kicks of 40 yards or more, and combined with Ryan Bailey was 66-67 on PAT attempts.

The Texas offense was similar to the 2016 unit, if you could survive Colt throwing to Shipley you’d be okay and if you couldn’t then you’d get shredded, much like trying to deal with Foreman running behind Williams. But unlike the 2016 Longhorn defense or special teams, 2009’s units contributed significantly to scoring points via takeaways, field position, and even touchdowns.

A remotely similar effort could produce a lot of margin for a young team that’s going to be trying to find their footing on both offense and defense with underclassmen quarterbacks, unproven defenders, and a much improved Big 12. Of course Tom Herman has already thought of that and was setting his plan in place back when Texas fans were still pining after a bigger transition class. It may be that Rowland goes down as a worthy first commitment in this new era of Texas football.

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