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Let’s play a game called, “guess that player.” I’m going to give you individual seasons from three Longhorn skill players of the past two decades and you try to sort out who the players are and what season the stats are from.
Player A is a 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore that was a 4-star recruit from Central Texas. He touched the ball 103 times this season for 778 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Player B is a 6-foot-0, 225-pound redshirt senior that was a 3-star recruit from Houston. He touched the ball 120 times this season for 913 yards and seven touchdowns.
Player C is a 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior that was a 4-star recruit from DFW. He touched the ball 116 times this season for 1410 yards and 10 touchdowns.
How many can you guess? Here’s a follow up question, what position did they play?
Alright, here are the answers. Player A is Ramonce Taylor, who ran for 513 yards and 12 touchdowns and added 265 receiving yards and three more scores in 2005. Player B is Chris Ogbonnaya who ran for 373 yards and four scores in 2008 while receiving for 540 more and another three touchdowns. Player C is Devin Duvernay just last season, the better part of his production was the 1386 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns.
Duvernay’s sole rushing touchdown was a really impressive run against West Virginia on an outside zone play. It would have made sense to give him lots of looks in that play but overall the staff sensibly preferred to feed the thick but fast player out in space. Several of his touchdowns and highlight plays were essentially him playing like a running back after short catches, including his famous trucking of Thorpe winner Grant Delpit.
Texas also got him involved now and again on routes in 3×2 empty formations where he had the receiving assignment that would normally go to a running back.
In many senses, as a 210-pound bowling ball that excelled at turning quick passes in space into steady gains, Duvernay was a full time flex running back. I bring all of this up because for the second consecutive season, Texas signed a recruiting class whose best player is a sensational athlete who profiles as a running back. Whatever happens in 2020, Texas’ best outcomes in the future will occur as a result of making the most of 5-star talents Jordan Whittington and Bijan Robinson.
Texas’ recent history with great running backs
An interesting detail of those Duvernay, Taylor, and Ogbonnaya seasons is that, save for Duvernay, they took place as part of all-time great Texas teams. In contrast, here are the greatest seasons by Texas running backs since Mack Brown took over the program in 1998.
There have been some phenomenal years by Texas running backs over the last few decades, but none of them coincided with the team’s greatest seasons. The best Longhorn season of this group was unquestionably the Cedric Benson-lead charge in 2004, which everyone will readily recall included heavy doses of Vince Young running for over 1,000 yards. He ended up carrying the load in the famous Rose Bowl victory over Michigan.
There were also seasons where Texas put a major emphasis on their running backs but relied on a committee. This includes the Jamaal Charles/Selvin Young 2006 team, the Jonathan Gray teams of 2012 and 2013, and really most of Tom Herman’s teams, particularly 2018 and 2019. Here’s how those units added up:
These teams all put a pretty strong emphasis on the run game save perhaps for 2019 which passed more often, albeit often on perimeter screens to part-time flex running back Devin Duvernay. 2001 was the strongest unit and that team famously had Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson, Sloan Thomas, and Bo Scaife involved as well. You could also say that 2001 was less of a committee and more of a slow process in which Benson earned Mack Brown’s trust.
Many of these guys were highly regarded, big time recruits when they came to Texas. Mack Brown always intended for Cedric Benson to be a centerpiece of the Longhorn offense and then intended the same for the Malcolm Brown/Jonathan Gray platoon. All three of those players were 5-star recruits, much like Jordan Whittington and Bijan Robinson.
Yet Mack’s most successful offenses were the units that were oriented more around the skill of their quarterbacks and Herman’s best offense yet in terms of points per game was the 2019 unit for whom the player with the most carries was quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
This is a common theme around the Big 12. The Oklahoma Sooners featured a 1700-yard rusher in Samaje Perine in 2014, but that team went 8-5 and fired their offensive coordinator after the season. The 2019 Oklahoma State Cowboys had a 2,000-yard rusher in Chuba Hubbard and also went 8-5. Wendell Smallwood quietly ran for 1500 yards for West Virginia in 2015 and the Mountaineers’ record that season was…that’s right, 8-5. Even elite running backs can’t propel championship offenses anymore.
When Whittington was signed by Texas I had him pegged as potentially the next dominant H. That’s the best best way to maximize a player who’s a matchup problem for defensive backs because of his size but is also far quicker than linebackers and safeties. Get him in space where his superiority in those 1-on-1 matchups isn’t also contingent on his blockers and the various matchups between offensive and defensive linemen. The “move him to running back” campaign was one I found ridiculous unless they intended to play him there only to flex him back out and throw him the football 40+ times over the year. Of course his injury rendered the issue moot for 2019 and now he’s reportedly moving back to receiver.
Recently a video went viral in which incoming freshman Bijan Robinson makes a one-handed snag on a goal line fade toss from Hudson Card.
These recent 5-star signees are not like the proven high school workhorses of years past. Whittington trained in high school as a receiver. They tried him out at running back in part based off his film running the wildcat at a high level for Cuero. As a champion in his senior season there, Whittington had 31 carries for 512 yards and nine touchdowns and 46 catches for 905 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. As for Robinson, despite rushing for over 2,000 yards three times, he’s never had even 200 carries in a season.
The staff has already moved Whittington wide, but to make the most of this newer tandem so this doesn’t turn out like the last time the Longhorns signed back-to-back 5-stars, they need to view these two players as workhorses who get a large amount of their touches in the passing game.
Ball control passing
The New Orleans Saints star running back Alvin Kamara has never had 1,000 rushing yards in a season and he’s never hit 200 carries. However in 2019 he got 252 touches for 1330 yards at 5.3 yards per touch with six touchdowns in 14 games. He had 81 catches that season and a good number of them were just checkdowns on concepts like this one that we’ll probably see from Texas quite a fair amount next season.
The design of the play is to hit the out to Eagles or else ideally the post-curl to the Z receiver. However, lurking underneath are the quick flat route to the H and the check down to the running back. When those options are highly dangerous you can really get cooking as an offense.
The running back checkdown is quietly one of the best plays in football, particularly if the line is good or the quarterback has a knack for buying time and finding his back if things don’t look good downfield. It doesn’t look good when the quarterback finds the checkdown late and in an obvious fashion but a timely dump off to a running back in space is effective.
Normally the great college quarterbacks will use the scramble as their checkdown, but when you can hit your team’s best, most difficult to tackle athlete moving into open grass that can be the superior option. Tom Brady’s GOAT status is built in part from that understanding.
The vast majority of the 52 catches for 400 yards and four touchdowns by Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson in 2019 came on simple checkdowns. Texas does utilize the wheel route as part of the same mesh concept everyone uses now and they also like to flex their running backs out, though normally to create matchups for the receivers. A good checkdown though is essentially a weakside option route, a “run at the underneath defender and then break open based on his leverage” assignment that guys with great feel and lateral quickness can regularly turn into real gains.
In truth, this sort of route and passing game has always been a part of the Tom Herman offense since he arrived at Texas. For the last two years, a consistent cornerstone in the Texas passing game has been to load up the boundary with the two best receivers, the X receiver and the H.
Texas stays in 11 personnel for these formations and flexes the tight end to the wide side of the field. Defenses then have a choice, do they move their nickel and good cover safety into the boundary? Then they run the risk of Texas just motioning the H over to the field again, forcing the defense to scramble to adjust just before the snap to avoid yielding an even worse matchup.
Another solution is to use a linebacker who’s more like a nickel or safety hybrid as the weakside linebacker. If neither “linebacker” flanking the middle linebacker is easy to attack in coverage with a slot then the defense is less vulnerable to tactics like this, which is why DeMarvion Overshown is now a linebacker.
Most 4-2-5 teams end up staying put and playing cover 2 over the X and the H so that at least the free safety is helping over the top, but for the last two years Texas has still been able to use this set up to throw slants to the X or underneath option routes to the H. Those underneath routes to the H are essentially the same sort of throws as a checkdown to the running back coming out of the backfield. Hermans’ spread is designed to engineer those for the best receivers when the team needs a chain-moving gain.
The ultimate cheat code
Tom Herman has clearly understood the value of voluntarily putting one of your best receivers in limited space so that he has a matchup advantage against an inferior athlete. Texas’ love of 11 personnel under Tom Herman comes from the way that personnel package can allow a team to move the two best receivers inside where they match up with linebackers and to do so at tempo so that the opponent gets caught:
This isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to pile up points on the scoreboard. The easiest way to do that is to mix an effective run game with lots of vertical play-action shots designed to use run/pass conflicts to free up receivers to find open grass down the field. But mixing the run and pass game has diminishing returns against top defense. What doesn’t have diminishing returns is being able to consistently get good 1-on-1 matchups and having savvy and accurate enough play at quarterback to beat teams down the field that way.
We’ve seen this play out at the NFL level multiple times now. First the Sean McVay LA Rams and then the Kyle Shanahan San Francisco 49ers combined some HUNH spread tactics with the classic “wide zone” run game and accompanying play-action to get to the Super Bowl. Then they faced teams who’s defenses focused on eliminating run/pass conflicts and stopping the passing attack and forced them to outscore them with the run game. Those teams’ own offenses went for a different approach, using ball-control spread passing to create matchups and work their way down the field. The Tom Brady New England Patriots and Pat Mahomes Kansas City Chiefs both put more emphasis on throwing to the tight ends and running backs and creating matchups in the passing game to generate consistent advantages. The recent LSU and Clemson championship teams also relied on spread passing and throwing to running backs and tight ends to generate their offense.
Like the wide zone NFL teams (but with inside zone running), Herman has always preferred to rely on the run game to do the heavy-lifting in terms of moving the chains for the offense. He’ll use ball control, spread passing tactics as a solution for passing downs like 2nd-and-9 or 3rd-and-6 but not as much before then. With their recent recruiting classes, Texas is starting to load up with some uniquely gifted hybrid threats that would traditionally be used as running backs. Recent history both for the Longhorns and at the highest levels of play suggest that Texas should take advantage of talents like Jordan Whittington and Bijan Robinson not just as runners but equally often as targets in the passing game.
If future Texas teams can get Whittington and Bijan up to 350 combined touches like they did in the past with Gray and Brown, but do so with 150 or more of those touches coming in the passing game, that will be the trick to unlocking these talents and taking Texas to the next level of offensive play.