The state of Texas football ahead of the RRS

Tom Herman (Will Gallagher/IT)

Tom Herman (Will Gallagher/IT)

“Of course I deprecate war, but if it is brought to my door the bringer will find me home.”James A. Garfield

With Texas being the home team I like that quote. We just have to overlook the fact Garfield was assassinated six months into his first term and that Texas is the away team in alternating calendars. I’ll find a sinister and vicious quote from a conqueror for next year. Maybe, “Of course I embrace war, and if it’s brought to my neighbor it’s probably me.” Tom Herman?

In the Mack Brown era showing up was half the battle, or in numerous blowouts, the entire battle. But this current team has shown up every year, even when the team proved to be very poor and even coming off of one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen versus TCU in 2015. Blowouts of bygone years are irrelevant and the juniors who comprise the majority of talent and leadership on this team are 1-1.

I wanted to give my thoughts on the state of Texas football just five games in to the Tom Herman era because by this time next week things will likely be more clear than they currently are.

The main components I’ll address are coaching, offense, defense, and special teams. We’ve seen drastic improvement across the board — save kicking — but with the Maryland game being our first data point there was nowhere to plot but up.

COACHING

Early in the Kansas State game thread it was noted this staff was no different than the previous one. That’s a good reminder that game threads are over-emotional, especially in the early going before a game settles into what it will actually become.

The culture of this program is entirely different. This team is more mentally strong by orders of magnitude than any we’ve seen since before the Mack Brown retirement tour of 2010-2013.

The team is playing with heart but that had to be instilled through rough and tumble practices and overall player accountability. We’ve seen the team begin to fly around like this staff’s Houston team did in its big upset wins of the previous two seasons. Before the players could play fast they had to gain confidence. That confidence — stemming from understanding of their roles and newfound toughness — has led to learning how to win, something even the players have mentioned needed to be taught.

Culture buy-in -> Heart/Toughness -> Confidence -> Playing fast -> Wins -> More Confidence

That’s what this staff has done the best job of and the improvement from Maryland to Kansas State is the proof. Following More Confidence should be More Wins, perhaps even a big one this weekend. A virtuous cycle, as a friend of mine would call it, so closely following a vicious cycle is tough to create. You have to reroute the feedback loop entirely and it appears Herman, with the help of Yancy McKnight and the rest of the staff, has done that.

Before last Saturday’s game, I along with many others, had qualms with Tim Beck. A performance in which the offensive staff finally applied many of the answers commoners discussed only underlines the validity of those concerns. If the offense continues to build upon the identity of the K-State game, which it certainly can and likely will, Tim Beck will have proven his doubters who were correct in the short-term, incorrect in the long-term. That’s a win for everybody.

The improvement of the defense, especially the back seven, has been a potential season-saver. There are still issues to work through with breakdowns leading to big plays in the back end and a couple under-performing players, but overall we’ve seen talent that was obviously there finally begin to play to its capabilities.

Where coaching has failed the greatest is in special teams and I’ll address that below. Obviously it goes beyond kicker Josh Rowland.

Penalties have also been poor. Texas ranks 92nd in that regard at 40 through five games for 364 yards (9.1 yards per penalty).

DEFENSE

Key Stats
Total defense: #42 — U of H finished #53 last year
3rd down defense: #9 (16/64 .250%) — #3 last year
4th down defense: #1 (tied with others but has faced as many as anyone else 0/7) — #50 last year
Defensive touchdowns scored: #1 (tied with three others with four) — #8 last year
1st down defense: #19 — #54 last year
Red zone defense: #24 — #119 last year (yikes)
Rushing defense: #17 (3.35 per carry, 105.2 per game) – #8, though gave up slightly more than UT now
Scoring defense: #50 (23.8 per game) — #20 last year at 20.7
Team pass efficiency defense: #60 — #28 last year
Team sacks: #45 (2.40 per game) — #29 last year at 2.57 per game
Tackles for loss: #91 (5.2 per game) — #67 last year at 6.1 per game

Commentary:
Limited adjusted stats just came out, and they show Texas at #30 in total defense. Houston was #25 overall last year; #5 against the run, #34 against the pass. You can tell Orlando’s scheme seems to yield a certain statistical profile, though the Horns are giving up too much yardage in the passing game.

Malik and Charles line up against ND. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Malik and Charles line up against ND. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Defensive Line: Texas isn’t very deep, but the starting line-up of three-stars (not that I had them as such) has been playing very well. You’d like to see more tackles for loss and sacks but these guys aren’t ideal fits for the scheme, except maybe Poona Ford. They’ve done a good job of setting up the back-seven for tackles near the line of scrimmage and that’s the name of the game in this scheme. They’ve played with a lot of intensity and have been the defense’s most consistent unit. Their quickness and fight have been the best attributes from this group.

Linebackers: Malik Jefferson is having the breakout some questioned he’d ever have. No player better typifies the change in culture of this program than #46. He’s made some of the same insane athletic plays we’ve seen in the past, but they’re even more numerous. His WTF! plays greatly eclipse his WTF? plays, and that’s because he’s become much better at his traditional linebacking duties. He’s playing confidently which means he’s playing fast and physical. He still needs to finish plays behind the line of scrimmage better and wrap-up more consistently, but overall he’s playing at a very high level and his versatility alone allows Todd Orlando to do some unique things.

Anthony Wheeler has played well at times – particularly versus USC – and has been a sure tackler. He’s a bit of a liability in coverage and needs to get the depth on drops Jefferson does, at least within reason. You can win a lot of games with Wheeler at Mac.

Gary Johnson has played well in limited snaps. His greatest effect on the defense has been competition and demeanor. Other players have fed off of him.

Naashon Hughes’ greatest asset has been his schematic versatility which in turn allows his teammates to make plays, but he isn’t making near enough plays on his own.

Hopefully we see Jeffrey McCulloch more as the season goes on. McCulloch isn’t nearly as fluid as Hughes in space, and isn’t as long, but he’s a much more tenacious edge defender and a better playmaker overall.

Secondary: Where to begin? PJ Locke and Kris Boyd seemingly turned the corner versus Iowa State but that didn’t carry-over to the Kansas State game. The difference is Boyd’s head swims with rudimentary duties (he doesn’t lack effort or want-to) while PJ’s struggling with a much heavier course-load. PJ’s poor play has had a negative effect on Brandon Jones at times as the field safety often plays off the nickel, but Jones played easily his best game last week. Jones will likely become Deshon Elliott’s replacement when the time is right. Holton Hill has been mostly sensational. He got grabby on a double move that allowed Kansas State to get off it’s own one-foot line on third down last week (they then hit the deep ball for six) and also uncharacteristically missed an open field tackle, but the coaches will gladly take what he’s given. Finally, Deshon Elliott has been very good since USC and it goes beyond his interceptions. Watch this play. I guarantee you that stuck out to NFL scouts.

OFFENSE

Key stats:
Total offense: #33
Third down offense: #18 (42/87 .483%)
Fourth down offense: #95 (4/10 .400%)
Passing offense: #29 (288.2 yards per game, only 7.24 yards per completion between both quarterbacks)
Yards per completion: #76 (12.01)
Red zone offense: #122 (.696) — can’t hit medium field goals, don’t take short field goals, don’t convert 4th downs, trouble running the ball situationally
Rushing offense: #78 (175.8 per game, 4.05 per carry) — injured o-line, ineffective platooning of backs, but this number will arise with Ehlinger playing more
Sacks allowed: #92 (12 for negative 64 yards)
Scoring offense: #35 (35.6) – two double-overtime games and playing San Jose State inflates this stat
Passing efficiency: #82 (129.37)
Time of possession: #10 (33 minutes on average per game)
Turnover margin: #62 (9 takeaways, 9 giveaways)

Commentary:
UT’s adjusted offensive ranking is #41 which is less than unadjusted, but there’s a good chance the best quarterback for this offense hasn’t been playing the whole time and injuries on the offensive line have taken its toll. The current Longhorn offense is very young in the key spots of quarterback, both offensive tackles, and perhaps the team’s most effective running back. Could we be in store for a second half that yields much better results? Perhaps.

The time of possession is interesting given UT’s woes running the ball, but being #18 on third down conversions helps. Overall the offense has been nicely balanced at a nearly 40 passing attempts and over 43 rushing attempts per game, but you’d like to see the running backs play a bigger, more effective part.

Quarterbacks: Fit-to-scheme is important for every position, but it’s most important at quarterback. When Herman was hired it was obvious Sam Ehlinger was the better fit than Shane Buechele. The question in the minds of many, including the staff, was how long until Ehlinger was ready to show it on the field?

I was pretty confident Sam was ready after the USC second half and overtime, but then became convinced as Texas was flummoxed when Iowa State only rushed three defenders. Ehlinger would have ran them out of that look in a hurry. Kansas State should have put the debate to bed. Some may not like Hero Ball, but it works exceptionally well in college when you have an excellent quarterback which I’m confident the freshman will prove to be.

That written, Sam needs to improve on a few things, notably taking his first-read throw even if it isn’t a big play, and also his mechanics. His mechanics get away from him, often in a clean pocket, and he misses some easy throws, especially on short stuff when the ball is designed to get out of his hands quickly. This will be cleaned up with repetition. At times he appears more accurate when the throw has a higher degree of difficulty. Because of his gunslinger nature he may never have a 65% completion percentage, but he’s always going to be a threat to make a big play and because of that he’s incredibly difficult to defend.

None of this is to say Buechele isn’t a good quarterback — he is — but he isn’t the best fit. He is however, an exceptional QB2. Hopefully he sticks around and keeps fighting because he’s going to have his chance to play and maybe even win his job back.

Running backs: This group is a bit of a grab bag, which is okay when the scheme/play calls are uniquely tailored to what a running back can do. Last week we began to see that for the first time. It’s only a matter of time before the freshmen become versed enough in the finer things to gain the trust of the coaches. This will allow them to do the things they don’t need to be taught how to do; run the dang ball.

Chris Warren — He may not live up to the lofty expectations he had coming out of high school but I don’t think anyone would suggest he doesn’t have talent. Like I wrote in August he has good hands and they’ve used him well on the swing pass, not to mention the throwback touchdown versus Kansas State. His box score in that game didn’t do his effort justice. He was substituted in as a receiver (oddly) the exact play before the Lil’Jordan Humphrey hurdle-fumble. Warren, surrounded by about five Wildcats, came up with the fumble and may have saved UT’s chances at a credible run at the Conference Championship. The game-winning touchdown versus a tired Kansas State team was a rugby at its finest, but it started when Chris turned his back and put that giant lower body of his to work. I’m guessing a guy who can front squat 450 pounds is pretty strong on the backside, too. Warren will probably be best utilized in a platoon, especially versus tired defenses. He needs a varied role because he has unique ability at his size.

Kyle Porter — Some wondered why he was returning kicks but I kind of liked it in real time. On the opening kick Matt McCrane kicks to the five which allows Porter time to get his downhill velocity going. Solid contact is made with him at the 25 but he still gets to the 32, draped in Wildcats. He’ll never house one, but he could provide a steady hand back there. That return is kind of a microcosm. He’s not a twitchy guy, but he does have good vision and runs hard. Goal line/short yardage carries for him are a good idea because he can also hit the cutback. He moves laterally pretty well, he just doesn’t do much afterwards. Porter has been a good blocker as well which is even more important when in 10 personnel.

Toneil Carter — Everyone knows he needs more carries. It was evident he had burst in the Spring game. That was his #1 trait that had to transfer out of high school and it has. He was guaranteed five yards on outside zone versus Kansas State. Inside running will remain a question until he shows otherwise and ball security is a concern of the staff’s. If he answers those two questions he’s going to be very good. He’s a great receiver too.

Daniel Young — Next year when the offensive line is healed you’ll see waves of running backs going at defenses but as of now there just haven’t been enough carries in the eyes of the staff. For this offense I’m probably more excited about Young than anyone else. He gets going downhill in a hurry and has quick feet. Good acceleration for a bigger back. He’s probably the future of inside zone and gap schemes. He needs some carries.

Tight ends: The issues here are well known. Texas lacks talent or experience, but two guys are fighting and giving the team something. The coaches probably aren’t too far from being able to get them out in routes.

Zach Shackelford and Patrick Vahe (Will Gallagher/IT)

Zach Shackelford and Patrick Vahe (Will Gallagher/IT)

Cade Brewer — August reports are playing out before our eyes. The kid is smart and a passable blocker even if nowhere near being as physically ready as he will be in the coming years. He’s a good reminder of the importance of technical blocking. He’s almost always in the correct position. Helping matters with him is his mindset. Texas still utilized Brewer a lot in 11 personnel last week, even if most focused on the offense being in 10.

Kendall Moore — Herman has called the graduate transfer the best blocker so I’ll go with that. He’s been a mixed bag at times but he also missed most of the Summer. He’s been a plus on many plays, including the Porter cutback touchdown. He’s capable of washing out a hanging defender. I wouldn’t mind slipping him or Brewer out in the open on a 3rd or 4th and short.

Offensive line: Injuries have robbed this unit of what it could have been. Had I told you in August that Texas would defeat Kansas State with Denzel Okafor at left tackle, Derek Kerstetter at right tackle, and Terrell Cuney I would have been justifiably bullied into tears.

Last week I mentioned with these two Texas could take another crack at outside zone and lo and behold we saw it work. These are solidly athletic tackles who open up the playbook more so than Texas has been able to since Connor Williams was injured.

The most perplexing thing has been the interior trio of Patrick Vahe, Zach Shackelford, and Jake McMillon.

Shack’s poor snaps are a recurrence from last year and there’s no excuse for them. Cuney looked quite comfortable at center, though the much needed added weight from high school has clearly robbed him of his best trait in high school; athleticism.

With McMillon’s play wanting the Patrick Hudson injury is bigger than I thought it was in real time.

The struggles this year should pay big dividends next year as Texas builds depth.

Wide receivers: Complementary parts are everywhere and at times we’ve seen improved game plans designed to make teams pay for their coverage on Collin Johnson one way or the other. We’ve seen some tough YAC from this group but aren’t seeing enough game-breaking YAC and the perimeter blocking has been inconsistent.

Seniors — The three seniors of Lorenzo Joe, Dorian Leonard, and Armanti Foreman have had their moments. If Collin Johnson wasn’t on this team Leonard would be a household name. Joe keeps getting targets because the staff sees him getting open on tape. He’s had some bad luck with targets. Foreman has made some of the biggest plays of the season but there’s too much competition at his position for him to not go 100% off the field. He has the baller trait but so do others.

Juniors — The staff did a great job of scheming Heard open for the overtime touchdown last Saturday. Ehlinger looked the safety towards Collin Johnson, opening the post for Heard. Beautiful. I’d like to see more of Heard in the quick/screen game. He may be able to break something with his initial quickness. John Burt has one more catch for six more yards this season than you do. I hate that. Hard worker, great kid.

Sophomores — Johnson is a difference maker (25, 485, 19.4, only one touchdown). It was nice to see him with run-after-the-catch ability. That’ll be his biggest question when the NFL comes calling. He hit a cutback in the open field forcing defenders to flip their hips which slowed their pursuit. Good vision. I was encouraged by the concerted effort to get him the ball on the quick tunnel look. It’s guaranteed yardage. Throw him some fades in the end zone, please.

Humphrey is a stud in his own right. His YAC ability at his size is off the charts. He needs more targets on the quick stuff to take advantage of Uncommon Trait #1. This will open up Uncommon Trait #2 (size) downfield. He adds a lot of schematic value even when his number isn’t called and is a good blocker.

Devin Duvernay is lost in the shuffle. He’s not getting separation.

Freshman — “I always knew Reggie Hemphill-Mapps would prove the critics wrong!” – Sir Nobody Ever. Considering he’s missed a full game due to….stuff….he’s put up great numbers (25, 261, 10.4, no touchdowns). RH-M is a smart football player with great acceleration and strength that belies his build. This is ideal for wrecking out of the slot. His hands are good, though he’s missed some that were catchable. As this offense evolves you’ll see him get deep more which will in turn help open him up underneath.

Michael Dickson (Will Gallagher/IT)

Michael Dickson (Will Gallagher/IT)

The staff is privately high on Davion Curtis. Knowing this I’m not sure why he isn’t getting looks at Z. He has speed.

Finally, it’s crazy that CJ9 and RH-M have 50 combined catches but only one touchdown. They’re due. Make it happen.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Key stats:
Kickoff return defense: #118 (26.29 yards per return)
Kickoff returns: #92 (19.20 yards per return)
Net punt: #4 (43.36 per punt) — Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi, imo. Punt coverage has been improving.

Commentary:
S&P+ for special teams is a woeful #86. This is highly disappointing for a staff that prides itself on special teams and hammers home the importance of hidden yards. Herman is a disciple of the theory the better coached team, especially when it has better athletes, can swing games.

In recent weeks we’ve seemingly seen improvement on both kickoff and punt coverage.

Texas has one punt return touchdown by Reggie Hemphill-Mapps. It occurred on a ‘punt safe’ call. Oh.

The biggest issue on special teams has been kicking. Josh Rowland is 4/9 on field goals, one being a miracle 49 yarder that’s trajectory was on a line from the ground to a foot over the crossbar. That kick is not duplicable. He is perfect on extra points, 22/22. Curing anyone of the yips in-season is a tough job, maybe get him some confidence-increasing short kicks that are similar to extra points? Unfortunately for Rowland, The Robot Binder 2000 doesn’t know of his troubles.

TL;DR SUMMATION

Texas is 3-2 heading into the OU game this Saturday.