Gameplan: How can Texas win with the 2021 roster?

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What is the head coach of Texas in 2021 inheriting in terms of the roster?

This is always a hotly debated topic after a new coach is hired. Charlie Strong was perceived to have inherited a bad situation, in reality it wasn’t great but he made it a lot worse with the (understandable) decision to run off much of the offensive line and to try and run an offensive system perfectly calibrated to expose his quarterbacks’ shortcomings.

Tom Herman was perceived to be inheriting a better situation due to Strong’s solid recruiting. It wasn’t an awful one, but he struggled to make the most of it. What initially appeared to be a physical run blocking front proved to be depthless and without a feature back after a series of early injuries and the team quickly cratered.

We can talk all day about what tactics and formations are best in the modern game, and Lord knows I do, but in the modern era of coaching it’s all about getting results quickly. You can’t wait around until the roster has been optimized for your system, you need to generate immediate results to placate the people paying your salary and to generate recruiting enthusiasm.

Herman bombed spectacularly in this regard, deploying obvious jack linebacker Breckyn Hager first at middle linebacker and then as a 4i defensive end in year one. Then he tried to turn obvious 3-technique tackle Malcolm Roach into a middle linebacker before settling on 4i and finally 5-tech defensive end. On offense he’s insisted on recruiting lankier, athletic pass catchers such as Cade Brewer, Reese Leitao, Jared Wiley, and Brayden Liebrock only to use them as de-facto fullbacks. Not a single one of those players was rated highly in high school for their blocking, but that’s been the most important dimension to their role at Texas. When the power run game is your base strategy, it’s odd to exclusively recruit skill.

The 2021 Texas roster is going to have some obvious strengths and shortcomings and whoever is coaching will have to make the best of it. Ideally they’d have a knack for deploying schemes and formations to suit the strengths of the existing roster and an eye for evaluating and pursuing transfers to shore up weak spots and fill roles.

The obvious direction for Texas in 2021 on offense

Bijan Robinson is probably the best skill player on the roster heading into 2021. You could make a case for Jake Smith after this next offseason but there are other mitigating factors. It’s harder to nail down a high level passing game with as many young offensive linemen as Texas will probably start in 2021 and the starting quarterback will either be an older player who struggles throwing accurately past the first read (Casey Thompson) or a redshirt freshman (probably Hudson Card, maybe Ja’Quinden Jackson).

The starting offensive line at the end of the Kansas State game went:

LT: Andrej Karic (true freshman)
LG: Junior Angilau (redshirt sophomore)
C: Jake Majors (true freshman)
RG: Denzel Okafor (redshirt senior)
RT: Christian Jones (redshirt sophomore)

However the line shakes out in 2021, it’ll probably feature most of those names and be both athletic and young.

While down the line it would be good and right for Texas to develop a fantastic dropback passing game, the proper way to set up a young offensive line, young quarterback, and explosive wide receiver corps is with play-action. The path to maximizing 2021 and competing for a Big 12 Championship lies in developing an offense that makes it very difficult for defenses to focus on stopping Bijan Robinson.

Meaning play-action and spread-option schemes that leverage Texas’ speed at wide receiver and the speed and running ability of all three quarterbacks.

There should be flexibility for Texas in what they need at tight end. For play-action or spread-option you want guys who can block alright but do their best work releasing down the field as blockers or targets in the middle of the field, of which Texas has an abundance, namely Jared Wiley and Brayden Liebrock. For power and RPOs it’s best to have a fullback/tight end hybrid.

I’m not sure the 2021 coaching staff will need to work the transfer portal too hard on offense, although they might as well because it’s going to be wild in there this offseason and they’ll probably have guys exiting through it. If they can find a starting tackle in there that’d be great, perhaps not terribly likely. A center would be invaluable but they’re finally restocked there with Majors and then young Michael Myslinski coming up the pipeline. Ideally they’d aim to get a player who can play multiple positions along the line and provide some experience, flexibility, and depth.

If Texas runs the ball even better in 2021 than they did against Kansas State and attach backside options for the quarterback and play-action, they should be able to do some real damage next season. Their plethora of speedy receivers who would benefit from the run/pass conflicts all make this a potentially dangerous offense. No excuses here.

The obvious direction for Texas in 2021 on defense

Texas has more to figure out on this side of the ball. Heading into 2020 things were much more straightforward, above all else save for better basic fundamentals the Longhorns needed to play in a four-down system that allowed superstar Joseph Ossai to major in playing on the edge.

The problem moving forward is what happens without Ossai, who was backed up in 2020 by Jett Bush, a walk-on arguably playing out of position at defensive end. Should Ossai choose to head to the NFL, which would appear to be a sensible choice, he’d leave a massive hole. The edge-rushing position Ossai manned is typically a featured spot in a 4-down system but Texas may or may not have anyone else on the roster worth featuring in the position.

Options for the “jack” position include Jacoby Jones (if he returns), Marqez Bimage, Prince Dorbah, Vernon Broughton, Reese Leitao, and Jett Bush from the returning group. The incoming class could include 5-star DE/TE Ja’Tavion Sanders, Derrick Harris, Jordon Thomas, and anyone they might find in the transfer portal.

There’s talent but if anyone was close to ready to play in Ossai’s role he wouldn’t have been spelled so regularly by Jett Bush.

The defensive line is otherwise stocked with tremendous talents including Alfred Collins, T’Vondre Sweat, Moro Ojomo, and potentially Keondre Coburn for one more year. There’s a lot to work with up front but also a number of directions they could go in terms of formations and styles.

On the back end this team is in a similarly interesting place. This team took some lumps with DeMarvion Overshown and Juwan Mitchell at linebacker in 2020, for 2021 they may return Mitchell, both, or none. Behind them are talented young players like David Gbenda who fit the league but lack experience…

At the spur Texas will be in good shape with Chris Adimora back along with his understudies Anthony Cook and Xavion Alford. Starting safeties Chris Brown and Caden Sterns are likely to move on and potentially even B.J. Foster as well. Beyond those three the team has rising senior Montrell Estell, young Jerrin Thompson, and then whatever the portal might yield. Cornerback is in strong, sticky hands with Josh Thompson, D’Shawn Jamison, and Jalen Green all likely to return.

There’s a lot of athleticism on the back end and a lot more know how than was possessed heading into the 2020 season. It should be a relatively straightforward matter to find seven guys and get them playing with greater cohesion but it may also be essential to make a leap if they can’t replace Ossai’s pass-rush. Texas’ defensive backfield sans Coburn and Ossai in 2020 would have been an ugly mess. Treading water won’t save this unit from drowning in the storms the Big 12 will cook up after a real offseason.

Texas’ overall situation in 2021 with a horde of increasingly experienced defensive backs and tremendous depth of true D-linemen may present an opportunity for 3-down schemes as the best way to optimize the lineup. Such a notion might trigger headaches from Longhorn fans but there’s a reason the roster sets up well for 3-down, Todd Orlando was recruiting to that scheme for years before he was removed for 4-down Chris Ash.

A 3-down scheme with athletes like Broughton and Collins would need to be an attacking system designed to feature the D-linemen as weapons in their own right and not pieces to be moved around in order to set up linebackers. If the 2021 Longhorns can’t work out how to make the most of Collins, Broughton, and Ojomo as pass-rushers and disruptors they won’t get too far.

It’s worth noting West Virginia has fielded a defense stocked with great interior D-line but lacking great edge rushers for the last two seasons. Initially they’d bring lots of five-man pressures to generate 1-on-1s for the star defensive tackles and while it generated some sacks, it didn’t serve the greater goal of point prevention. Eventually they found it was best to lean on their big boys up front to generate pressure steadily while freeing up the backfield to cover up receivers with seven or even eight dropping back. Ditto the 2019 Baylor Bears and the Matt Campbell Iowa State Cyclones.

If Texas doesn’t have a great edge rusher to play in Joseph Ossai’s role for 2021, they shouldn’t build their defensive strategy around rushing the edge. Similarly, if they do have a great edge rusher but it’s a guy who looks like a defensive tackle (glances at Vernon Broughton) just let him stay on the edge.

How good will the roster be in 2021?

This question will be settled in part by the 2021 head coach himself. How he manages the transfer portal, both as a liability and an asset, will be one factor. How well he scouts and evaluates his own roster will be another major one.

A coach who’s been around the Big 12 would see the following on the roster.

On offense, a great potential for spreading opponents out in order to run Bijan Robinson and creating run/pass conflicts to spring all the speedy receivers on the roster.

On defense, some truly rare and shockingly numerous athletes along the defensive line, athletes at safety and linebacker with need for further instruction, and a treasure trove of good cornerbacks with multiple years of experience facing Big 12 offenses.

Hard as it may be to believe it, many a Big 12 squad has won 10 games with less. It could be argued what Chris Del Conte should see in this offseason is an opportunity. While the dream of replacing Tom Herman with a “sure thing” may be gone, there’s an opportunity for a flexible coach to come in and engineer a strong initial season that builds goodwill and major momentum for recruiting and ticket sales in 2022 and beyond.

Cover photo courtesy of Texas Athletics

History major, football theorist.