Gameplan: Why Tom Herman failed at Texas

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Tom Herman has failed at Texas.

A 30-18 overall record to this point and 21-13 mark in Big 12 play, while unimpressive, don’t quite tell the story. The failure to win a single Big 12 Championship despite signing 74 blue chips over five years while Oklahoma signed 71, TCU 27, Baylor 21, and everyone else in the conference under 10 gets a little closer to capturing why this wasn’t working.

Perhaps the most deeply felt problem has been Texas’ failure under Heman to secure more 20-point victories in Big 12 play since 2017 than just one team…Kansas. They’re tied with Kansas State currently, each program boasting only two 20-point victories, while Oklahoma paces the league with 13 such wins.

Great teams don’t routinely win close games because great teams don’t routinely PLAY close games, they blow teams out. Watching Texas in the Tom Herman era has meant watching the Longhorns struggle to generate wins on a weekly basis. Rather than reveling in Texas’ status as the most resource-rich program in the league, as the flagship program of the nation’s most football-crazed state, fans and alumni of the University have had to squirm for four quarters every Saturday as their team desperately fends off Texas Tech and Kansas and succumbs to Iowa State and Baylor. This ain’t what being a Longhorn is supposed to feel like.

This was a down year for the Big 12, well illustrated by Oklahoma’s weekly struggle to stay alive while Iowa State has held onto the top spot. Despite this context, Texas will be ending the season not only without any hardware but also without having even played in the league title game.

How did this happen?

The fundamental failure of the Tom Herman era

Tom Herman earned his first head coaching job by coordinating an overpowering run game that propelled Ohio State to the Big 10 and then National Championship in 2014. He chose wisely, landing at Houston with a 7-5 team and Greg Ward Jr. at quarterback. He was also parked just a few hours from Austin where the Longhorns were in the midst of a Charlie Strong era off to a horrible start.

Everything clicked in year one. Herman deployed standard spread tactics with Ward and star receiver Demarcus Ayers to go 13-1 and win the AAC Championship. Ayers had 1221 receiving yards and Ward survived 197 carries to pick up 1114 yards at 5.7 ypc with 21 rushing touchdowns (including sack yardage!). Then Tom Herman signed a 5-star defensive tackle in Ed Oliver who helped the Cougars beat Oklahoma in the season opener, overcome injuries to Ward and the offensive line, and beat Lamar Jackson’s Louisville in primetime.

The penchant for big game performances, high level recruiting, apparently strong defensive hires, and spread offense competence made it all seem obvious Herman was the guy for Texas. The physical victory over Oklahoma really captured everyone’s imagination in Longhorn nation.

Herman’s strategy at Texas, from day one, was to build a power-spread offense to grind down smaller, less talented teams in the Big 12 by running the ball and facilitating great defense. Given the Longhorns were coming off a season in which their main back had rushed for over 2,000 yards behind an offensive line returning four starters, and power running quarterback Sam Ehlinger was enrolling early, things certainly appeared promising on this front.

Instead the 2017 offensive line and tight end were savaged by injuries and became an absolute train wreck. Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele each rotated in at quarterback while the other nursed fresh injuries. Texas’ ability to control games and dominate opponents in the box was off to the worst possible start.

Subsequent seasons saw improvement, but never dominance. Texas has had just two offensive linemen selected to the league’s All-Big 12 team during the Tom Herman era. Zach Shackleford was second team in 2018 and first team in 2019 while Sam Cosmi was second team in 2019 and will likely be first team in 2020. The tight end position has put just one player on the All-Big 12 list when Andrew Beck was named first team fullback in 2018. It’s not a coincidence this was the one truly solid season of the Tom Herman era.

The team has not fielded even one thousand-yard rusher in this period and while Sam Ehlinger has brought fantastic situational power running he’s not an every down, between the tackles runner who can tote the ball for 200 carries per year.

The 2018 season featured significant improvement upon the disastrous 2017 season thanks to the addition of grad transfer left tackle Calvin Anderson and the health of right guard Elijah Rodriguez and tight end Andrew Beck. Things improved further in 2019 as the running back room became more talented, the line grew, and Texas added more RPOs to keep opponents clear out of the box lest they be punished by pass options to Collin Johnson (when healthy) or Devin Duvernay.

In 2020 Texas took a big step back in several regards.

Mike Yurcich tried to emphasize outside zone blocking, which has been a poor fit with an offensive line recruited and developed before 2020 for driving opponents off the ball in tight zone and power schemes. The pandemic-shortened offseason also clearly limited their ability to rep the scheme, which is heavy on timing and chemistry, and it’s not a Herb Hand specialty anyways. Herb Hand is notably the second offensive line coaching hire of the Tom Herman era at Texas, which is only now completing its fourth season.

The RPO game was diminished by the absence of a X receiver who could consistently get to the right spots on glance routes and by Texas having a revolving door at slot receiver due to injuries to Jake Smith and Jordan Whittington.

Finally in recruiting, Texas managed to miss on Longhorn legacies Tommy and James Brockermeyer despite the family’s deep connections to the University which include an older brother Luke who’s on scholarship for the team.

Throughout the Tom Herman era to date, Texas has never established an identity as a dominant rushing team. In fact, their games are generally characterized by an inability to control games with the rushing attack followed up by desperate efforts by Sam Ehlinger to guide the team to victory with passing game heroics. They’ve also tended to lack an explosive dimension to create margins, pairing the power running Ehlinger with other power runners in the backfield, and featuring star receivers such as Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson who excelled at moving the chains but not necessarily breaking away from tacklers in the open field.

So the vision for establishing a power running team that could control games in the Big 12 has never materialized but given way to cringey performances every Saturday in which fans experience heart palpitations watching the team try to manage single-score games in the fourth quarter.

An opportunity squandered

Throughout the Tom Herman era there’s been one positive keeping the team competitive. Sam Ehlinger’s performances in the dropback passing game, particularly when executed from spread sets at tempo.

While his 225-pound frame and 33 career rushing touchdowns have always evoked comparisons to Tim Tebow, it’s been the other dimension to the old Urban Meyer offenses where Texas’ signal caller has truly dominated. Ehlinger’s greatest strength on the football field is his ability to shoulder responsibilities for making audibles and checks to plays and protections on the field, read defenses, make quick decisions in the spread passing game, and then scramble and become a power runner when plays break down.

The reason for the significant uptick of his yards per carry numbers and raw rushing yardage in 2019 was Texas’ increased use of five-wide formations where he’d leverage all of those strengths to dominate opponents in the middle of the field in a fashion similar to an elite power rushing attack. With reliable receivers like Lil’Jordan Humphrey or Devin Duvernay running routes in the seams and over the middle, opponents really struggled to match up and deny seams for quick passing.

Many would simply drop everyone and drop them deep, only to surrender rushing lanes underneath for Ehlinger scrambles. He’s a gifted runner between the tackles but even more effective on scrambles and draws when opponents have to try and rally to tackle him while also covering up his receivers and checkdown options.

Naturally, quarterback draws with pass options attached were absolutely deadly with Ehlinger.

This is the play that turned Johnny Manziel into a thousand-yard rusher and Heisman-winner at Texas A&M. Quarterback draws with pass options are the pinnacle of spread spacing and stress. The passer can be given pass options, even vertical pass options, with little to no risk of incurring “ineligible receiver downfield” penalties because if the play extends then the offensive line are allowed to get downfield to block for the quarterback. The first option is a pass, the second option is a run.

On average, Texas has run something like one quarterback draw per game in the Tom Herman era.

Sam Ehlinger will not be remembered properly for his time at Texas because Tom Herman never adjusted the offense to maximize his senior quarterback. They did come close. Texas could have maximized the Ehlinger era last offseason when Herman had to move on from a significant portion of his offensive staff and hire a new coordinator. Up and coming Air Raid guru Graham Harrell was available, Tom Herman had him on the line, and then ultimately he chose to go in another direction. Herman went to what he knew, hiring Mike Yurcich from familiar Ohio State from which all of his notions of what championship football look like, in order to simply tweak what he was doing rather than embracing wholesale change.

Yurcich has Air Raid influences on his offense but puts greater emphasis on RPOs and play-action over the top, both of which require highly skilled play at outside receiver and effective rushing attacks. Texas hasn’t had the former in 2020 and the latter was undercut by Yurcich’s adjustments to the run game.

Mack Brown built his career and legacy from adjusting his offense to the skill sets of Vince Young and Colt McCoy. When Tom Herman was in a make or break year with a star senior quarterback he failed to adjust, squandered the talent, and went down in flames.

While Sam Ehlinger’s skill set suggested the right solution was to build a power running game with quarterback run option elements, the better path to building a ball control offense to could dominate the league was actually to emphasize HUNH spread passing. Texas came into 2020 with a pair of very solid tackles, a senior quarterback, and a deep stable of speedy but unproven receivers. Rather than swallowing his pride and aiming to build an offense around the strengths of the roster, Herman doubled down once more on the style he used to win at Ohio State and Houston. An understandable error, but an error all the same.

Winning at Texas isn’t necessarily about a specific system or process. It’s about harnessing a large talent pool and base of resources and simply getting it pointing in the right direction. Getting “all the BBs back in the box” isn’t just about coalescing the political support of Texas’ numerous big money donors. It’s about getting the state’s prodigious talents in positions and tactics on the field where they can dominate.

Mack Brown lost his touch for it, Charlie Strong never had it, and Tom Herman never understood it either but could only mime what he’d seen from Urban Meyer at Ohio State in a particular season. Longhorns fans can now only hope the next coach will be able to successfully load, aim, and fire Texas’ considerable resources.

History major, football theorist.