Gameplan: Weighing the upside and downside for the 2020 Longhorns

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There are few more effective methods for evaluating a team in the preseason than to consider everything that needs to go right, everything that could go wrong, and then to balance them on the ledger.

2019 Baylor was a good team for this exercise. I knew they were experimenting with the flyover defense and that Charlie Brewer could be effective if surrounded by a better supporting cast. I wasn’t sure if they’d work out how to execute that defense properly or if Brewer could stay healthy. I ended up overweighing the concerns and missing the mark, partly because I didn’t take seriously enough how favorable the Baylor schedule proved to be in 2019 with home games against Iowa State, Texas, and Oklahoma.

This analysis also tipped me off that the 2016 Texas Longhorns probably wouldn’t have the anticipated breakthrough season. There was too much youth on defense that would have to figure out how to stop Big 12 opponents and too many question marks for the new look offense.

So how do the 2020 Longhorns look? Where are the obvious places where things could go wrong for this team and what is likely to go right? If we balance all the upside and downside on the scale, what’s the most likely outcome for this team?

What can go wrong?

Consider what went wrong in 2019. Heading into the season Texas was struggling to work out their identity on defense and trying to make the most of an exceptionally deep room of athletic defensive backs. Remarkably, they managed to get nearly all of those defensive backs injured. Then, the lack of a clear base defense and identity led to the complete unraveling of the unit.

It wasn’t surprising that Texas lacked an identity on defense, that was easy enough to predict, but what was surprising was the manner in which that worked against Texas. Losing eight different defensive backs for spells due to injuries was more an example of Murphy’s law. This was a nice illustration of how a particularly fragile component to a team might be exacerbated by bad luck (or process) somewhere else. Similar to when the 2017 Texas Longhorns started fall camp with depth concerns but a solid looking core group on offense. What appeared to be a robust enough component to the team completely disintegrated when Elijah Rodriguez, Andrew Beck, and Connor Williams were all injured before conference play.

For the 2020 team one of the biggest concerns is maximizing a senior Sam Ehlinger with the passing game. Mike Yurcich was specifically hired to upgrade Texas’ firepower and make the most of this Ehlinger season. Andre Coleman was promoted to guide the development of the receiving corps to ensure he had good targets, and Tarik Black was welcomed as a transfer to shore up depth concerns. For all of that, true freshman Troy Omeire was looking like an unexpectedly large part of the solution and then he was lost.

It seems unlikely that Texas will fail to find a reliable slot to help Sam Ehlinger continue to be a chain-moving machine, but whether or not they explore their ceiling as an offense with a stronger deep threat is another matter. We’ve yet to see a Sam Ehlinger offense that includes a dominant deep threat. The closest has been the periodic appearances of a healthy Collin Johnson. To finally unlock that dimension is the biggest key to the season.

Here’s another offensive issue that could emerge. Between injuries at wide receiver and the depth at tight end and running back, Texas has ended up heavily emphasizing 12 personnel in fall camp. That could be a very effective way to make the most of a dangerous receiver on RPOs and play-action, or it could be an effective way to mimic the 2018 offensive strategy of grinding out drives by asking Sam Ehlinger to be the solution to both third-and-two as well as third-and-seven.

Texas could win a lot of games that way, but it’d be hard to dominate the league without the capacity for regularly blowing out opponents with 40 point barrages. Once again you can see how problems to one area could expose weaknesses in another. Texas’ uncertainty at wide receiver could be exacerbated by an injury that pushes them to rely on grinding out wins and failing to ever fully maximize the Sam Ehlinger era.

On defense there are three obvious trouble spots and then a lesser one that is probably getting overblown at this point. The lesser issue is at linebacker, where Texas has been remarkably volatile over the offseason and was historically weak in 2019. This new 4-down defensive front is stocked with NFL athletes at defensive tackle which will generate a ton of grace for the linebackers. When combined with Texas’ high floor set by a solid walk-on crew, it’s unlikely that linebacker is a serious problem for the Longhorn defense.

The more serious issues are in space. D’Shawn Jamison, Josh Thompson, and Jalen Green have been bloodied by the stress of battling not only Big 12 offenses but also the 2019 LSU Tigers. It’s reasonable to believe they could make a leap and be a truly steady group, but it also appears that Chris Ash plans to lean on them pretty heavily with press-man coverage. The 2018 Texas Longhorns are a good example of how things can go when you rely on your cornerbacks to hold up in 1-on-1 matchups. Sometimes it works great (Iowa State), other times you’re getting picked apart (West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma in the B12 title game).

On that note, it’s not clear yet how well Chris Ash understands the degree to which his strategies are going to be probed and examined by Big 12 offensive coordinators. They’re going to hunt for the 1-on-1 matchups where they can throw the ball deep and have a lot of ways to find them. How will Ash respond? Is he ready for this?

Finally, the defense really only has one area where depth is a serious concern but it’s a deeply important area. There’s not much behind Joseph Ossai in terms of high impact edge-rushing. If Texas lost him then the 4-down structure they are building around could be compromised. Fortunately, like the even more essential Sam Ehlinger, he’s already proven to be extraordinarily tough and durable.

What can go right?

It really appears as though Texas is aiming to arrive at 2019 Oklahoma in terms of defensive philosophy and effectiveness. The 2019 Sooners had a bedraggled yet athletic and highly experienced defensive backfield and a surprisingly athletic and potent defensive line. Alex Grinch simplified the back end of the defense, incorporating a couple of coverages and disguises, and asked them to play fast and aggressive while using an athletic defensive front to overwhelm opponents before they could execute their sets to attack the backfield.

The Longhorns aren’t running the same scheme, but the philosophy and result may prove to be very similar. They’re starting upperclassmen at every position in the back seven who have been beaten down into the mud by Big 12 offenses and understand what sort of fight this will be. That’s a pretty powerful feature when your defensive line is athletic enough to truly attack the offense.

Right now for much of the Big 12 the primary concern of fall camp is piecing together a strong offensive line from rosters that are generally composed of only one or two players that are both ready to execute and have NFL caliber athleticism. Everyone else across the line is either a maxed out upperclassman relying on experience or a younger guy thrown into the fire. The missing spring practices are often essential for getting the reps teams need to turn big but frequently athletically limited offensive linemen into a cohesive group that can cover for each other.

In other words, Texas is bringing an athletically imposing and fairly experienced defensive line into a Big 12 pool that is particularly vulnerable to resisting it. The fact that the Longhorns’ own offensive line, which includes four returning starters with some skins on the wall, is struggling to control this line is a very positive sign.

Everything is lining up along the same pattern that has defined Texas’ defensive cycles for the last decade.

In 2011 Texas plugged in a defensive line with Alex Okafor, Jackson Jeffcoat, and Kheeston Randall in front of a defensive backfield that included several multi-year veterans such as Manny Acho, Keenan Robinson, Blake Gideon, and Kenny Vaccaro. They climbed from ranking 26th in defensive FEI (it never got too bad under Will Muschamp) to 6th.

In 2012 they graduated many of those players and slowly retooled with younger players up until 2014. Then they hired Charlie Strong and he took charge of a defensive line with Cedric Reed, Malcom Brown, and Hassan Ridgeway backed by veterans such as Jordan Hicks, Steve Edmond, Mykkele Thompson, Quandre Diggs, and Duke Thomas. A combination of a strong defensive line, experienced backfield, and simplified schemes resulted in another top defensive unit. They went from finishing 23rd in defensive FEI in 2013 to 13th.

Texas had to rebuild that group in 2015 and 2016 with young recruits and by the time Todd Orlando took over in 2017 he was inheriting a defensive line with Poona Ford, Charles Omenihu, Malcolm Roach, and Breckyn Hager. The backfield included Malik Jefferson, DeShon Elliott, Kris Boyd, and Holton Hill, all guys who’d been getting their heads kicked in for multiple seasons. They jumped from 51st in defensive FEI all the way to 7th.

Three years later and once more Texas is heading into a season with a deep core of highly talented defensive linemen, a backfield stacked with veterans, and a new defensive coordinator emphasizing simplicity in year one. In 2019 they finished 54th in defensive FEI. Finishing in the top 25 this year would go a long ways toward securing a Big 12 title.

You’ll notice that in 2011, 2014, and 2017 when Texas had positive cycles on defense they didn’t have anything close to a senior Sam Ehlinger to maximize the season with a sturdy offense.

The best thing that could go right for the 2020 Longhorns would be Mike Yurcich working out how to empower Sam Ehlinger to overwhelm opponents with a versatile, tempo attack that generates explosive gains. Even if Texas can’t find a single, dominant deep threat receiver it’s still possible that between Ehlinger and Yurcich they could manufacture regular explosive gains by combining multiple packages, tempo, savvy distribution, and then hitting speed in space.

Josh Moore may or may not be capable of regularly beating man coverage against top defenses. But he may be very capable of housing a now screen or flying open down the seam against a team distracted by other concerns. Texas has lots of speedy skill athletes like Moore now that could be sporadically dangerous playing off more established threats.

On balance, what’s likely to happen in 2020 for Texas?

The upside for this team is really high. If they’re lucky with injuries at key positions and someone flips a switch and becomes a dominant deep threat in the passing game this team has the talent to compete for a national championship. That second factor is not an insignificant hurdle, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Should one of the tight ends prove ready to dominate in the seams as a receiver that would also have a massive impact on the upside.

The downside is probably something close to 2019. That would involve Texas being overly reliant on the run game, losing Ehlinger for some period of time, or failing to maximize on defense. If all or many of the potential bad things happened it’d still be hard for a team with this much talent and experience to crater and drop below .500. But they could fade out of the Big 12 hunt like they did down the stretch last season.

If you balance the concerns and positive trends you end up with a team that will likely be a better version of the 2018 squad that went 10-4 and competed in the Big 12 title game. That was a unit that could pound teams with the run game, play (relatively) good defense, and was lead by a quarterback who put them over the top on the margins with situational play.

Would that be enough to finally win the conference championship? Probably just so.

History major, football theorist.