Football

Gameplan: Can Texas find a go-to wide receiver?

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In retrospect, the 2020 season was a wrap when Troy Omeire went down with an injury in fall camp. Texas never found an All-Big 12 caliber, No. 1 receiver to turn to when they needed big plays in 2020. The most promising option in fall camp was a true freshman who ended up spending the season rehabbing his knee.

The team’s breakthrough success in 2018 had been achieved by leaning heavily on Lil’Jordan Humphrey and pairing him with Collin Johnson. In 2019 Texas followed a similar formula with Devin Duvernay in the slot and relied on Duvernay even more than they’d done with Humphrey due to Johnson missing multiple games with injury.

For 2020 Texas desperately needed to find a new go-to receiver. Texas’ wide receiver room arguably produced fewer options with each new season under Tom Herman’s coaching. The 2017 Longhorns were pretty raw at the position but Reggie Hemphill-Mapps was often the best guy on the field, Armanti Foreman flashed, and then future stalwarts Collin Johnson, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and Devin Duvernay were all on campus fighting for snaps.

With each passing year the receivers Herman inherited would develop as players but the replacements would struggle. Herman’s 2017 transition class failed to bring a single wideout who would grow alongside Sam Ehlinger and offer him a No. 1 target in his senior year. The big 2018 class featured Brennan Eagles, Joshua Moore, and Al’Vonte Woodard. The end of the story isn’t written on this group yet but Eagles was the main hope for the 2020 season yet the buzz in fall camp tabbed freshman Troy Omeire as the best outside receiver on campus. The 2019 class brought big time talents Bru McCoy, Jordan Whittington, Jake Smith, Marcus Washington, and Kennedy Lewis. None of them were able to offer early impact at receiver with Ehlinger due to some combination of injuries, transfer, eligibility issues, or position changes.

For 2020 the staff brought in grad transfers Brenden Schooler and Tarik Black, each of whom were coming to Texas from programs which A) didn’t have great use for them as receivers and B) weren’t necessarily stacked with pass game talent themselves. When both Schooler and Black were able to earn snaps in Texas’ rotation it was a good indicator the Longhorn wide receiver room wasn’t a particularly imposing group.

You know the rest of the story, Omeire was unable to be a freshman savior and Sam Ehlinger’s senior year at Texas was wasted due to failures around him in protection, run game maximization, and a lack of open receivers. To have a great year one in Austin, things need to look drastically different here for Steve Sarkisian.

Contending firepower

If you look down a list of Big 12 Champions over the last decade you’re not going to find many teams who lacked firepower at wide receiver. Only two teams have won a Big 12 Championship in the last 10 years without fielding a 1,000-yard receiver. The first was the 2012 K-State Wildcats, whose main guy Chris Harper finished with 857 receiving yards and was flanked by Tyler Lockett (687 yards) and Tramaine Thompson (526 yards). Additionally, the 2012 Wildcat offense featured Collin “Optimus” Klein in the run game picking up 920 rushing yards and a remarkable 23 rushing touchdowns.

The next team to do it was the 2020 Oklahoma Sooners, whose top guy was Marvin Mims with 610 yards. Like Harper, Mims was part of a deeper pool of targets. The Sooners had four total guys with at least 300 yards and played in a shortened season. A glance at the league’s runner-ups reveals a few more teams with a heavier run focus but still six of the 11 runner-up teams had a 1,000-yard receiver and the Breece Hall-dependent 2020 Iowa State Cyclones still had a receiver reach 771 yards (Xavier Hutchinson) in a shortened season.

You can’t win the Big 12 without winning a shootout from time to time, which means you need to be able to score. It’s hard to score without a top wide receiver who can pick up chunk plays for your offense.

The years in which Texas was able to win more often than they lost in the Big 12 conference have typically been those in which they had effective wide receiver play.

Decade of Texas WR play.jpg

Without firepower you’re vulnerable every week.

The league has had a number of contending squads that look a little closer to the 2021 Longhorns, whose most solid and established attributes are running back Bijan Robinson and a solid-looking defense. Last year’s Oklahoma team had a redshirt freshman quarterback and, down the stretch when he was available, a dominant feature running back in Rhamondre Stevenson working alongside a good defense. The 2020 Cyclones also played good defense and gave it to Breece Hall regularly in their path to the title game. The TCU Horned Frogs of 2017 combined steady quarterback play from Kenny Hill with a Kyle Hicks/Darius Anderson running back tandem that turned 267 carries into 1405 yards at 5.3 ypc with 12 touchdowns.

Yet despite their defense and run game focus, all of those teams still had a play-action dimension involving an explosive receiver to help them translate an effective run game into points. The 2020 Sooners threw verticals and leak plays in the slot to Mims, the Cyclones threw RPOs to Hutchinson, and the Frogs involved a young Jalen Reagor in a similar fashion.

Steve Sarkisian wants to bring a similar dynamic to Texas next season but he’s going to need a receiver who can be a reliable target on adjustable RPO routes and/or a legitimate threat to take the top off the coverage running down the field.

Attacking with RPOs

A heavy RPO/play-action offense like Sark will bring to Texas this season will call for a few particular receiver profiles to land major damage. Let’s start in the RPO game with one of the best schemes in the game right now, the zone/man iso scheme.

Most everyone now, including Sark, runs iso as a hybrid scheme from inside zone.

A nice benefit of the RPO game is the offense can either anticipate where the defense will send help from in the run game or else give the quarterback the ability to recognize the defense and signal to his receivers which route combinations to run in order to punish the coverage.

This is the Y-iso play with the tight end and running back aligned to the field with the twin receivers drawn up against the Sooner defense. The quarterback can read the twin side for whether or not they have someone positioned to cover up the double slants, if not then a reliable slot receiver who can win inside and catch the ball through contact can eat well. Texas did a lot of damage with similar concepts in 2019 when they had Duvernay running the inside slant. If Jordan Whittington can win the slot job he could be similarly effective in such a role.

Sark can also flip the tight end and running back to the other side of the formation and have the quarterback throw a glance or an out to the X receiver. What’s more, if someone like Jordan Whittington proved to be the best target on these RPOs, guess who’s lining up at the X when they want to run an RPO there? The answer is not “Malcolm Epps.”

Texas was crushed in a two-game stretch of 2019 when Collin Johnson was out against Iowa State and Baylor in consecutive weeks and the Longhorns basically lost their ability to throw RPOs into the boundary. Both teams could ruthlessly attack the run game or blitz from the boundary without fear of major repercussions. It was a tough look for Texas, who’d just put on a RPO masterclass session against Kansas State when they had both Johnson and Duvernay healthy and on the field together. In 2020 things were worse still as Texas lacked a single go-to receiver who could be trusted to consistently win inside on a slant or glance RPO to either side of the field.

Jordan Whittington is probably the best hope here since he seems to be getting healthier, he’s getting work others are missing this spring, and even as a slimmed down 6-1, 206-pounder he still has some power and size to shrug off contact when going for the ball.

To go back to our earlier example against the Oklahoma defense, the Sooners are going to play a lot of man/match coverage and be very physical with receivers. Texas hasn’t handled it very well either of the last two seasons, but an inside route is theoretically open on RPOs if the receiver can run through a jam and knows how to find space. In the example above a quick hitting slant underneath the nickel to a slot receiver with Whittington’s after the catch ability is trouble.

Play-action over the top

Adding RPOs to the run game and looking to create space for Bijan Robinson and Texas’ growing number of explosive inside receivers is a good exercise for the offense in 2021. However, you put the lesser teams away and hang in against the top teams by landing knockout shots with play-action. For that, you need someone who can run behind the defense.

Texas hasn’t really had a knockout artist in the play-action game since maybe Mike Davis in 2013, and their ability to push it deep to him with Case McCoy was inconsistent to say the least. Devin Duvernay had the potential to bring this dimension to the offense but was typically used underneath. Collin Johnson could win on vertical shots but they’d typically be jump balls. Sam Ehlinger wasn’t hitting him in stride behind defenses too often.

When Texas is establishing outside zone next season with Bijan Robinson and mixing in play-action, they can use common deep shot plays such as this one:

The way this concept works is to leverage multiple dynamics within the offense to create a simple 2-on-1 with the H receiver and X receiver on the free safety. The safety cannot cover both the post route and the deep crossing pattern so the quarterback reads to see whether he has the depth to deny the post and if he doesn’t, he lets it fly. If the safety bails to stay on the post route, there should be a window to throw the crossing route in between him and the linebackers, who have almost certainly been sucked in by the run action to Bijan and the short rollout by Casey Thompson or Hudson Card.

For Texas’ speedy quarterbacks this is the sort of play which could generate a lot of big scrambling yards if the field end gets too far upfield, the backers chase the outside zone action, and the nickel is chasing the H receiver deep in man coverage. To make the play work as designed though the X receiver needs to be winning deep against the corner. If the deep post against a corner isn’t a high percentage play because the quarterback can’t push the ball (not a concern) or the receiver can’t win then things start to break down. The safety can sit on the crossing pattern and the linebackers can get away with selling out to stop Bijan.

This is a simple, common sort of play-action shot play but they all work off similar principles. There will be endless “chuck it to Whittington or Smith on a wide open crosser or scramble to daylight” opportunities for Texas running play-action off outside zone next season if their post receivers can offer a threat to the post safety.

Sark and his staff really need Troy Omeire or Josh Moore to put it together in 2021 to serve in this role. Moore might be up for this but he’s struggled at times if placed on the line where cornerbacks can get physical with him and knock him off his routes. Troy Omeire was shining here last fall and at 6-3, 227 with strong hands and some speed he’s just the man for the job.

The make or break story of the offseason for Texas is less about who plays quarterback or which linemen block for them. The Longhorns have a few options there to sort through which should work out reasonably well. It’s whether Texas can get back to fielding dominant athletes at wide receiver who can break a defense down and bring some excitement back to DKR.

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Cover photo courtesy of OU Athletics

History major, football theorist.