Gameplan: What to watch for from the Longhorns against UTEP

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The Texas game with UTEP is almost more of a glorified scrimmage than a game, but at least it’s still a game and one which the Miners will try to win. The season opener is usually against a useful patsy, but will still often reveal underlying realities. The 2003 opener against New Mexico State revealed Vince Young to be a freak of nature who would be hard to keep off the field. The 2010 opener demonstrated Texas’ initial stab at developing a post-Colt identity might not have much traction.

The 2017 and 2018 openers were nightmares for Texas, although not necessarily exactly as bad as they appeared. Both did have some clues as to the season-long problems the Longhorns would have. The lack of a tight end was a glaring problem in the 2017 Maryland disaster while the defensive inconsistency in the 2018 game would be a recurring theme. Texas’ 2019 opener against Louisiana Tech revealed a few real problems including the secondary’s inability to completely lock down good receivers as well as the struggles from some of the receivers to get a good release against man coverage.

It’s hard to know what UTEP will reveal to be true about Texas, but here’s a sense of what to be looking for in this game.

Who is UTEP?

You should read Scipio’s scouting piece on the Miners. He gave a comprehensive review of the team based off their victory over a Stephen F. Austin squad in week one of college football. I’m just going to add some notes on the team’s big picture strategy and personnel composition.

Dana Dimel seems to be having success in completely overhauling the roster from the perennially bad units Sean Kugler was fielding for most of the decade. A pair of 1-11 seasons may now be rewarded with something respectable in 2020 of all years.

After a few years of mixing in some K-State style, quarterback run game offense, the Miners of 2020 appear to be more of a legitimate pro-spread squad. There’s still some quarterback run game but new signal-caller Gavin Hardison isn’t that kind of guy. UTEP’s new preference involved playing three different ancillaries (tight end/fullback hybrids) against SFA and using RPOs and spread play-action as well as flexing out into spread formations to run true dropback concepts.

Surprisingly enough, they actually have some size and experience across the offensive line and Hardison knows what he’s doing as a trigger-man. He can see the field and get the ball out on time. Once they established Deion Hankins as their main back, their spread dynamics took off against SFA as his 215-pound frame proved adept at running through arm tackles in their power run concepts. Their young star receiver Jacob Cowing also showed some legitimate speed and ball skills. Hardison, Hankins, and Cowing are all young with at least two years of eligibility remaining apiece so things are looking better out in El Paso.

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The defense was solid as well. They have some actual size in the defensive front and played a few varieties of cover 3 from 4-2-5 Under and from a 3-down, flyover defensive look. They want to dare you to throw outside against soft corners and work your way down the field the hard way. Runs and throws to the middle are swarmed by their safeties patrolling the curl-flat zones.

Of course this team is hopelessly overmatched against the Longhorns. Even if their line is able to run tight zone with double teams and get movement downhill against the Texas defensive tackles, there’s not much to stop the Longhorns from swarming with the safeties to pack the box. Hardison is a solid passer but only when he has a set base and he tends to lock in on Cowing. If he’s moved off his spots his arm becomes below average in a hurry. If Texas’ safeties are aware of Cowing’s place on the field they could find some opportunities to pad their end of year interception numbers.

The UTEP defense has little hope of matching Texas’ receivers on the perimeter and there will be opportunities to take 1-on-1 shots with both the outside receivers and the slots if the Miners try to crowd the middle of the field as they did against SFA. If they instead play everyone off then there’s a chance Texas gets off to a slow start before mixing in some tempo and eventually wearing down the defensive line to allow a barrage of big runs to break the game open.

What is Chris Ash’s defense?

Chris Ash has been intentionally vague about what they’re planning to run on defense this season. He’s aiming to emphasize a narrative about having the defense play fast, fundamentals-based football that’s simple but not too simple. Of course Ash also has little reason to give opponents much to work with in terms of preparation.

One of the big questions for me is what sorts of coverages Chris Ash intends to employ against the Big 12 this season. Traditional quarters coverages have begun to fall out of favor across the league, at least as a solution to trips formations that send receivers vertical against nickels or safeties left 1-on-1 on deep routes. Teams often need to be more conservative with how the safeties respond to route combinations to make sure the offense doesn’t have a chance to hit an easier throw such as a slot post or fade, or a boundary post or fade, without worrying about the safety.

UTEP isn’t quite the best test of what Ash has in store but it’s not as useless as if they were running the Jesse Ertz version of the Dana Dimel offense at Kansas State. The Miners want to take shots with Cowing and they’ll move him around to different alignments in order to try and get him isolated deep on the right defensive back. How’s Ash going to handle him? There are three ways it could shake out and each one would be interesting to observe.

First, Ash could just run the most basic versions of the defense and not concern himself with denying 1-on-1 matchups down the field for Cowing. In that event, and assuming UTEP was able to protect Hardison well enough to take some shots, this game could be illustrative of whether guys like Jamison, Thompson, Brown, or even Adimora are ready to hold up chasing good receivers down the sideline or hash.

Second, Ash could play bracket coverages to ensure UTEP’s favorite big play threat could never find any open grass past the chains. It’d be nice to know Texas has that capability and willingness because it’s absolutely the path they should take against some of the Big 12’s better receivers. The Big 12 is a matchups league and the best coordinators should be aiming to carefully control the key Space Force matchups every week.

Finally, Ash could just scheme up pressure either by alignment, assignment (Ossai, just get him), or blitzing. If Texas heats up Hardison regularly and they blow by this offensive line as easily as we might expect, Cowing could have a quiet day regardless of what Ash is doing on the back end of the defense.

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It’s possible Hardison won’t be able to get clearance for liftoff even in scenarios in which Texas plays press-quarters almost every snap and trusts Jamison or whomever to hold up against Cowing. If Texas’ base rush, or the threat of it, scares UTEP away from trying to throw deep we won’t learn much.

All in all it may be hard to glean much about the Texas defense from this contest. Hopefully at the very least we’ll see if Texas’ defensive tackles can stonewall a downhill run game and if Jamison can lock up a Big 12-caliber receiver.

The Mike Yurcich offense

Tom Herman noted in his game week presser the offense would probably look similar to the average fan but with tempo utilized more often and differently, and with a few new route concepts we haven’t seen from Texas in the last few years.

Having read through a Yurcich Oklahoma State playbook, I’m guessing the normal Air Raid staples that weren’t already in the playbook will make an appearance. Concepts like shallow cross, maybe Y-cross, and more curl-flat combinations. Presumably some of these will make an appearance in this game and there’s no reason not to involve some tempo.

On the tempo note, while breaking down the league’s left tackles and offensive lines at Flyover Football I’ve noticed an interesting trend for 2020.

Left side, big side.jpg

The vast majority of the league is employing massive people along the left sides of their line. Why? Their biggest tackles are often their best. An easy way to make hay in a RPO/play-action spread offense is to weight one side of your line with the strongest members so your inside zone game can always get a push there, draw in defenses, and create space to throw outside.

Texas is a notable exception. Not only do they have one of the tallest lineups from left tackle to center (although I don’t know if Cosmi is really 6-foot-7), but it’s also one of the lightest groups. Why, exactly? Did workouts change? Did strength training goals change? Will they be aiming to execute more wide zone blocking this season like Yurcich’s teams at Oklahoma State and Ohio State did and cut some weight to increase agility? Is this part of an increased emphasis on tempo? Or did some naturally svelte guys just lose a little weight during the COVID offseason? It’ll be interesting to see if any of those hypotheses look stronger after a few games.

The other interesting change to track will be how Texas uses personnel packages. Yurcich is familiar with the idea of doing everything from 11 personnel, and Herman has plenty of experience there if he wasn’t. But he’s also shown a preference for building packages to emphasize different parts of the roster. Whereas 11 personnel is about having multiple hybrids performing in multiple roles, Yurcich has often embraced having players with narrower skill sets and substituting.

Texas could go play 11 personnel the entire game against UTEP and it might not mean much about their plan for the rest of the year, but perhaps we’ll see them dabble with 10 personnel, mix in 12 personnel as expected, or show some other wrinkles. Yurcich’s philosophy is to run a few basic play concepts from a wide variety of formations and packages. How many of those are we likely to see in week one and which players are the featured weapons? At the very least you’d hope and expect to see Texas build a lead and ride it out by giving Bijan Robinson carries in 12 personnel.

This game may have some sloppiness or a slow start, but the Longhorns should be winning by a comfortable margin at the end or there will be apparent flaws in the team. The Longhorns have the better athletes and deeper team by far. It’d be nice to see them gameplan the life from UTEP but crisp execution would be a good start to the year.

History major, football theorist.