Gameplan: Four years of dissipation

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It was a little bit difficult to enjoy Texas’ 55-23 thrashing of a bad Colorado team in the Alamo Bowl. It would have been harder for the Longhorns to draw an easier matchup than a team from a league that barely put together a season and who barely even played anyone from said league. No disrespect to Colorado, who honorably made the most they could of their season, but if you thought the 11-2, 2019 Utah Utes or the 9-3, 2012 Oregon State Beavers were a bit overmatched athletically…

Overwhelmed opponent aside, it’s frustrating to watch Texas figure out key identity pieces in concept and personnel with the season’s goals already lost. In retrospect, the story of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes perhaps should have been less about Tom Herman’s expertise in adjusting to a “third string quarterback” and more about a failure to use the deep threats at receiver to open rushing lanes for Ezekiel Elliott until forced to when an injury to J.T. Barrett scuttled Herman’s preferred zone-option attack.

For the 2020 Longhorns the biggest frustration was in watching the offensive line, which struggled all year, come alive despite losing some of the best players on the team because those injuries forced the coaching staff to rethink and ultimately optimize the lineup. For four years this has been the story in Austin for Tom Herman regardless of staff changes.

With the season resolved in resounding fashion, I thought it’d be a nice time to overview the many personnel catastrophes of the Tom Herman era.

2017: Year “zero”

Herman and the staff justifiably got a mulligan for the 2017 season. Crucial mistakes diminished the possibilities for the team but Texas also dealt with a rash of injuries at key positions which would have made life hard on any staff. They lost prospective right tackle Elijah Rodriguez and tight end Andrew Beck just before the season started when they were already counting on both. They lost left tackle Connor Williams during the USC game in week three to complete the crippling of their offensive edges. They had to shuffle back and forth between Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger at quarterback as they took turns missing time with injuries playing behind a bad offensive line.

However, we can still nitpick at a mistake here and there. An obvious one is the tight end problem, which has been a recurring issue for the Longhorns. When it’s essential to your scheme that you can block a six-man box in your run game with a movable tight end you need to make sure you have some options there on your roster. They inherited Andrew Beck, who’d been well developed for the role by Charlie Strong’s staff in the “veer and shoot” offense which sprung D’Onta Foreman for over 2k rushing yards. They supplemented him by moving 6-4 wide receiver Garrett Gray over and taking Syracuse transfer Kendall Moore. They also had two freshman tight ends in the recruiting class in Reese Leitao, who took to the position like a fish to the desert, and Cade Brewer, who came in at around 215 pounds with a background as a receiver in Lake Travis’ spread offense.

Cade Brewer (Will Gallagher/IT)

None of these people aside from Beck could block, which made the situation untenable when the tackles were taken out by injury.

On defense it’s been long forgotten that Breckyn Hager was a really strong edge-rusher who’d had 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks the year before Herman arrived operating as an outside linebacker. Todd Orlando observed his lack of lateral agility combined with fierceness in the box and endless motor and determined his optimal spot was middle linebacker. The position most routinely attacked with run/pass conflicts by Big 12 spread offenses. This experiment didn’t last long and Hager was reduced to sulking on the sideline most of the year until finding a role as a pass-rusher from defensive end in the dime package.

When the dime package proved to be not only Texas’ best defense on third down but every down, Hager ended up getting the starting nod as a 3-4 defensive end. The problem? He was 6-3, 245 pounds and survived inside mostly due to sheer will rather than natural fit. Hager still forced his way into the backfield enough to pick up four sacks in 2017 and 2.5 more in 2018, but Texas was robbed of a good jack linebacker over those two seasons.

2018: Maybe things are coming together?

With Hager established as a 4i defensive end alongside Charles Omenihu, it was time to determine how to best utilize high energy, 6-2, 270 pound Malcolm Roach and smart, physical, but not super explosive 6-3, 250 pound Jeffrey McCulloch.

Roach started at middle linebacker, to replace Hager I suppose, before giving way and getting injured. Todd Orlando then spent the rest of the year infuriatingly leaving big Anthony Wheeler out to dry as the middle linebacker isolated in space while 4.4 sprinter Gary Johnson (weakside linebacker) would be left in the box to try and bullrush offensive guards. To the credit of Orlando, this all worked out well enough because while he did a disservice to Hager’s skill set, Orlando did make good use of Omenihu off the edge on passing downs and utilized some concepts I called “the combover package” to drop safety Brandon Jones around the box where he could serve as an extra linebacker.

They’d end up rotating McCulloch in and out while making good use of freshman safety B.J. Foster as a dime linebacker in the 3-2-6 “lightning package.”

On offense Texas had their best season under Herman, points per game totals be damned, due to some precise roles and fits for the starters. Lil’Jordan Humphrey was moved inside to be a full-time flex tight end and lead the team in catches and yardage. Collin Johnson commanded safety attention in the boundary. Devin Duvernay did occasional damage flexed wide. Andrew Beck was a terrific ancillary blocker. Sam Ehlinger thrived at protecting the ball and picking up third downs throwing to Humphrey or bowling over defenders. They also made good use of the grad transfer market, adding Rice’s three-year starter Calvin Anderson to solidify left tackle.

Calvin Anderson (Will Gallagher/IT)

You won’t find another season in the Tom Herman era where the pieces all fit together this well, even though natural 3-technique and jack linebacker Malcolm Roach and Breckyn Hager were never effectively paired.

2019: Texas is BAAAAC….wait. Oh not again….

The 2019 season is when it all came crashing down for Tom Herman. The continuity and patience from 2017 that paid off in 2018 didn’t leave anything at all in the bank for 2019.

One of my favorite pet theories on 2019 comes from our own Coach Venables, who pondered whether the well coordinated, sticky-fingered, and physically tough Jeff McCulloch was the tight end Texas needed. Two of Texas’ best tight ends over the last half-decade were converted linebackers/ends, Andrew Beck and Caleb Bluiett. But the staff had a hole at middle linebacker and an impulsive need to try and fill it with the heaviest, stiffest defender they could find with Hager graduating and Roach now established back on the defensive line. So McCulloch got the tryout there and then was quickly moved when he inevitably couldn’t handle the space.

Roach was finally on the defensive line again and poised for a long-expected breakout year, he needed only to play as a 3-technique or 4i with a really good edge rusher outside of him to run stunts and games with in order to wreak havoc. Texas had just the guy! Joseph Ossai was an obvious natural as a pass-rusher at 6-4, 240 who’d already flashed the year before. But Orlando’s insistence on using weakside linebacker for speedy pass-rushers rather than outside linebacker meant Ossai moved there and eventually out to nickel when injuries crippled the Longhorn linebacker corps and secondary.

While Ossai played inside linebacker and nickel, obvious linebacker transition candidates B.J. Foster and DeMarvion Overshown took turns playing the edge/outside linebacker position Ossai was born for. Defense didn’t go well in 2019 and Orlando was terminated at the end of the year.

On offense, they couldn’t figure out that McCulloch-shaped hole at tight end. Devin Duvernay benefited considerably from moving inside to the slot but Collin Johnson’s regular injuries left them short of reliable outside receivers. They tried to address this by playing obvious tight end Malcolm Epps as a full-time X receiver but remarkably failed to teach the 6-7, 240 pounder how to beat press coverage.

Additionally, the move of Duvernay to the slot along with poor roster management at running back forced the team to first move twitchy and highly skilled 5-star freshmen Jordan Whittington to running back and then, when he was inevitably injured, do the same with 4-star freshman quarterback Roschon Johnson.

They went back to the grad transfer offensive line well but this time misplayed things by emphasizing run blocking with Georgia Tech’s Parker Braun. Braun was a boost in run blocking but coming from Georgia Tech’s flexbone, triple-option offense was a novice in pass protection who occasionally combined with redshirt freshman right guard Junior Angilau to turn the middle of Texas’ pass protections into a sieve.

Despite all those issues, things went okay (aside from humiliating pass protection breakdowns against Oklahoma) until solid if unspectacular Cade Brewer was injured and the team was left without a decent tight end against the best defenses on the schedule (Iowa State and Baylor). Back to back losses by scores of 23-21 and 24-10 knocked the Longhorns out of the Big 12 title hunt and effectively ended the season.

2020: Prove it year?

On a normal Tom Herman timeline the team would presumably be due for a solid bounce back in 2020 but a few more bizarre personnel decisions thwarted the season.

Herman hired his old colleague Chris Ash of 2014 Ohio State fame to come fix the defense and Ash did a credible job. He moved big safety DeMarvion Overshown to linebacker and cleared up the “how do we play all these blue chips?” questions in the secondary. He also played Ossai as the boundary edge playing off 3-technique Ta’Quon Graham and nose tackle Keondre Coburn (with meaningful contributions from Alfred Collins and T’Vondre Sweat). The team finished the year still needing to make strides at linebacker and playing sound defense but Ash at least got everyone in natural roles and positions and emphasized fundamentals. They could be due for another leap in 2021.

On offense things got ugly. Tom Herman had the chance to hire Graham Harrell and unleash Sam Ehlinger’s ability to run a spread passing attack and supplement with scrambles and power runs with the Air Raid but Herman wasn’t comfortable with the philosophical change. So instead he hired Mike Yurcich to bring some fresh ideas to the existing offense to spruce up the Longhorns’ often stagnant approach.

Samuel Cosmi (Will Gallagher/IT)

The two big changes Yurcich brought were to emphasize the outside receivers in the passing game and to change the dependable if unspectacular inside zone running game to feature more outside zone. The obvious lack of reliable outside receivers had two potential answers, the addition of outside receivers who couldn’t start at their old schools in Tarik Black (Michigan) and Brenden Schooler (Oregon) and then freshman Troy Omeire who looked like the answer until tearing his knee in fall camp.

They didn’t work the transfer wire for the offensive line, which will now go down in infamy along with another move we’ll get to in a moment. With Sam Cosmi and Derek Kerstetter back, Texas could have had the best tackle tandem in the Big 12 but instead they moved Kerstetter to meet the need at center none of the older interior linemen could meet. Finding a solid center in the transfer wire isn’t terribly difficult and it was revealed during the Alamo Bowl broadcast that Sam Ehlinger was very capable of helping the center make all the right calls when Texas had to play true freshman Jake Majors.

The result of this offseason decision-making was a complete disaster. Many of us assumed Kerstetter’s move to center meant the young tackles on the roster were ready to go on the right side but this proved wildly inaccurate when Christian Jones was routinely whipped off the edge in big game after big game.

All of this came to light when Texas was forced to move Kerstetter back to tackle because Sam Cosmi quit and declared for the NFL and freshman center Jake Majors was thrust into action. A demonstration…

Bijan Robinson is obviously more fluid and explosive than Keaontay Ingram but check out here and elsewhere how Texas blocks this scheme with Majors at center. The shorter, quicker freshman can reach tackles Kerstetter can’t reach and seal them back inside without requiring a long double team, which frees up the guard to go cause problems down field.

Texas looked more natural running outside zone with Majors at center than with Kerstetter. Then there’s Andrej Karic, who barely worked into the rotation only to show athleticism and ability as a pass protector beyond perhaps even Kerstetter and certainly anyone else not named Sam Cosmi. What if Texas had played Majors at center earlier, perhaps a few weeks into the year if not the onset? Or what if Karic had received snaps at right tackle over struggling kick-stepper Christian Jones?

The emphasis on throwing to the outside receivers, who were not strong, and running outside zone made for a tough time on offense this season and a lot of wear and tear on Sam Ehlinger. Texas misused Ehlinger quite a bit over the years, particularly in 2020. His main weaknesses are inconsistency pushing the ball down the field (sometimes he’s throwing NFL darts, other times he’s missing) and a tendency to hold onto the ball and take sacks while trying to bring Texas “back” on every other play-action call. Rather than focusing him on his strengths in reading defenses and distributing underneath in the spread, they often played into his penchant for heroic attempts.

For year after year the staff has struggled to find the right personnel and lineups with Texas’ talent to create a strong identity and get the best players in position to dominate. The Alamo Bowl was ultimately just further evidence of the untapped potential of the program.

History major, football theorist.