Gameplan: Can Tom Herman match his best season?

Want daily Texas Longhorns content on the latest football and recruiting information from Eric Nahlin, Justin Wells, Ian Boyd, Scipio Tex, and Joe Cook? Sign up for Inside Texas HERE today!

Heading into 2018 there just wasn’t a ton of optimism about the Texas Longhorns. The 2017 team was expected to be pretty good because Tom Herman was inheriting a solid offense from Charlie Strong, albeit one that had depended on departing running back D’Onta Foreman, and a lot of NFL talent across the defense. The first Todd Orlando defense made good but Herman’s offense collapsed after losing starting tackle Elijah Rodriguez and tight end Andrew Beck in fall camp and then losing the star tackle Connor Williams in the third game of the season.

After a 7-6 year, not many were projecting the Longhorns to make much noise in the Big 12 and Tom Herman’s famously long pause at Big 12 media days after being asked how many “championship caliber” players were on the roster triggered a lot of confirmation bias. Instead the 2018 team has proven to be far and away his strongest with a 10-4 record, Big 12 title game appearance, and two victories over top 10 opponents with the Red River Shootout win over Oklahoma and Sugar Bowl win against Georgia.

Looking back at the 2018 team after the fact, you can see the foundation of a strong unit, but not an unapproachably talented squad. After the failure of 2019, Herman needs to at least match if not exceed his performance in 2018. A failure to do so could cost him his job or at least put him on the hot seat for a 2021 season in which he’ll be without Sam Ehlinger.

Sizing up the defenses

I scoffed at the notion that Texas’ 2019 team would fail to match the defensive production of the 2018 squad. The 2018 defense wasn’t outstanding and the rising talent in the defensive backfield appeared to present obvious solutions for the squad. Then they had a series of injuries in the secondary, struggled to leverage talents like Malcolm Roach, Keondre Coburn, and Joseph Ossai up front, and had no developed linebacker to put on the field. So they did regress.

Let’s evaluate the prospective 2020 unit like a true Big 12 defense and start with the back end first.

2018 vs 2020 secondary.jpg

We don’t even mention B.J. Foster here, who might be one of the better players on the team if he comes back healthy and finds a role that could be as the actual dime. I have Anthony Cook listed at dime now but he may platoon with Chris Adimora at nickel or even beat him outright for that position. Foster could also replace Chris Brown or Caden Sterns at safety in the event of an injury or just superior play, or he could become a linebacker.

Overall the 2020 group is considerably deeper, which could make a big difference when you consider how injuries and suspensions badly burned the 2018 and 2019 defenses. On the other hand, the 2020 unit may not have a cornerback that can play on an island like Kris Boyd did, which is the single most valuable piece you can have in a secondary. Heading into 2018 the secondary was a clear strength of the team. While Boyd didn’t quite put it together as hoped, he had some big games and checked David Sills and Hakeem Butler while allowing Todd Orlando to play the “combover defense” that slid Brandon Jones near the box and allowed him to finish with 70 tackles in 10 games.

To match or exceed the 2018 unit, this 2020 group needs one of the cornerbacks to really put it together. The play at safety should be as good as any other season of late and potentially better.

Let’s hit the linebackers next.

2018 vs 2020 linebackers.jpg

In reality, BJ Foster was the fourth linebacker for the 2018 defense and regularly replaced McCulloch on the field in the dime package, most notably in the big Red River Shootout victory over Oklahoma. That should arguably be his role in 2020 as well, perhaps even as a back-up to Joe Ossai or at least a partner for him in the 3rd down package.

Texas is in good shape here overall in comparison. McCulloch was a very solid and dependable player on the edge in the nickel package but he didn’t have a big impact in the pass-rush. The linebacker corps will go from having a solid role player in the most crucial position to having a star that will likely be one of the best defensive players in the conference in Joe Ossai.

In terms of inside linebacker play, the 2018 team had dependable but unspectacular play from Anthony Wheeler while Gary Johnson was occasionally the best player of the bunch but often miscast as a primary pass-rusher rather than a space-eraser.

DeMarvion Overshown is going to get the task in 2020 that should have gone to Gary Johnson and play clean up behind a big defensive line while serving as a secondary pass-rusher behind Ossai. Juwan Mitchell is arguably as instinctual and solid an inside-backer as Anthony Wheeler but is considerably more fluid.

Texas could make a sizable leap here in quality of play.

Now the defensive line:

2018 vs 2020 D-line.jpg

Breckyn Hager had 13.5 TFL and six sacks as a sophomore playing outside linebacker, nine TFL and four sacks as a part-time starter at 4i-technique as a junior, and 7.5 TFL and two sacks in an injury plagued senior season. One of the great unknowns of the last decade of Texas football is what he would have done as a jack linebacker, he might have been a star.

Charles Omenihu was a star in this system, and while he would have been an absolute load as a 4-3 defensive end in the college game, the way Orlando moved him from the B-gap on run downs to the edge on passing downs carried this defensive unit and arguably helped Omenihu develop as a versatile (if not highly drafted) NFL prospect. Even in Chris Ash’s 4-down his deployment would have been similar playing opposite Hager.

This system was best with a highly disruptive nose tackle, which they didn’t have although Chris Nelson was definitely solid.

The 2020 unit is overall pretty comparable. They don’t have a star pass-rusher in this group but they’re more likely to be trouble for opponents in the run game than the 2018 unit and they’re deeper. Run defense should be easier for this group than the 2018 unit, Keondre Coburn is the star of the show and could be to the run defense what Omenihu was for the pass-rush in 2018.

The 2018 defense was a veteran unit that had a lot of guys that knew how to do their job and then a few NFL, impact players in Omenihu and Kris Boyd who were counted on to make it work. Where the 2018 unit would try to get numbers to the box and pass-rush, 2020 will try to have the front four hold down the fort while everyone else keeps the ball in front of them. So things will hinge more on how if Coburn and Ossai can own the line of scrimmage and then whether Sterns and Brown can rally and lead from the back end. Without the benefit of hindsight like we have for the 2018 unit, that formula feels pretty plausible as a solution to matching or exceeding the 2020 unit.

This unit also has a lot more depth than in 2020 and has an interesting make-up. Of the 16 players we mentioned for each unit, the 2018 unit was a bit more diverse with East Texas and DFW producing the most contributors with three apiece. The 2020 unit is lead by Houston, which produced seven of the names on the list.

If Texas matched the 2018 unit on defense while improving on offense, that could be enough to win a Big 12 championship.

Sizing up the offenses

This is unquestionably where the 2018 Texas offense surprised people. They didn’t have a ton of star power but made four major leaps that allowed them to put together a really strong unit. Maybe most importantly, they went from fielding the worst (and that’s saying something) offensive line of the decade to having a unit with a C+ or better player at every position. Another key factor here was they finally had a tight end when Andrew Beck came back healthy for his redshirt senior season and was able to pull together the offensive scheme.

If that wasn’t the biggest key it was the leap made by Sam Ehlinger, who grew as a signal caller and passer. He made their strategy work by refusing to turn the ball over while converting short-yardage and red zone opportunities at a high clip, and scoring 16 touchdowns in the power run game. Normally a team that lacks explosiveness and star power like the 2018 Longhorns would get bogged down, but because they didn’t turn the ball over and excelled at picking up highly challenged yardage, it worked.

Finally, 2017 Lil’Jordan Humphrey with off field issues became a focused slot/flex tight end extraordinaire in 2018. The skill talent for this team was much better because of Humphrey’s leap and we’ll start there for the 2020 unit as the skill group is where some of the biggest questions are.

2018 vs 2010 skill.jpg

Somehow the way to match 2018 is nearly identical in 2020. Texas needs to become effective and healthy at tight end again and they need a receiver to put some immaturity behind him and grow into a dominant weapon as the top target.

Both of those are pretty likely. Even if neither Cade Brewer nor Jared Wiley can quite match Andrew Beck as a blocker they should allow Texas to meet the threshold of tight end play necessary to make Tom Herman’s 11 personnel designs work. While Tre Watson and Keaontay Ingram were pretty solid in 2018, Texas was better at running back in 2019 and will definitely be better still in 2020 with both backs returning and joined by 5-star freshman Bijan Robinson.

Meanwhile Brennan Eagles is likely to have a Lil’Jordan Humphrey-type emphasis in the offense, getting work isolated on the boundary. The Z receiver spot isn’t settled but Tarik Black was a reliable, big target for Michigan that is a no-brainer fit for the role of running posts and post-curl routes on defenses worried about Eagles, the run game, and the slot receivers. Whoever plays Z is going to find a lot of space to work in, so whoever can best be counted on to be in the right spots and then make something after the catch will get the nod.

The main question is what exactly they get from these slot receivers and how Jordan Whittington fits into the equation. J-Whitt and Jake Smith are still both pretty young but they’re also two of the most talented football players on the entire team playing a position that the head coach has tended to heavily emphasize. The 2018 offense had some steady play at the skill positions but it wasn’t obvious heading into the season that their main five guys would be ready to play complementary football in their roles. The 2020 offense needs to check off that box as well but there’s also a lot more talent amongst the rising starters than for the 2018 unit. There’s a high beta for this unit overall.

Speaking of setting the floor for the team, let’s talk offensive line.

2018 vs 2020 O-line.jpg

The offensive line quietly improved from 2018 to 2019, the overall run game was better and the pass protection improved thanks to growth from Sam Cosmi and Derek Kerstetter combined with overall improved chemistry and direction from Sam Ehlinger. Some of the sack numbers stagnated or got worse but the 2019 unit spent a lot more time in five-man protections against tougher defensive fronts than in 2018.

The 2020 offensive line should be better still. Presumably they wouldn’t have moved Derek Kerstetter inside to center unless they feel good about the young players coming up at tackle such as Christian Jones and Tyler Johnson and Denzel Okafor can play guard or tackle.

Sam Cosmi and Junior Angilau are supremely talented players returning from strong 2019 campaigns and will now be paired up to dominate on the left side. The 2018 unit was essentially a bunch of C+/B- players across the five spots. In 2019 they maintained at least a passing grade everywhere with a B+/A- in Cosmi. For 2020 they have a chance to be passable at all five spots with multiple All-B12 caliber players between Cosmi, Angilau, and perhaps Kerstetter now that he’s moving inside. Another decent step of improvement is more than realistic for this group even with the lockdown set back. Sam Cosmi is playing for a contract, Junior Angilau is one of the team’s hardest workers, and Derek Kerstetter and Denzel Okafor are seniors.

Finally, there’s quarterback.

2018 vs 2020 QB.jpg

History major, football theorist.