Inside the Gameplan: Can Texas build a championship OL in 2020?

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Going into 2019 there were varying expectations for the Texas offensive line depending on who you asked. Herb Hand had a pair of stalwarts back in LT Sam Cosmi, coming off a brilliant RS freshman season at RT, and four-year starting center Zach Shackelford. Then Texas added Georgia Tech two-time All-ACC Parker Braun to play LG and build potentially the best tackle/guard tandem of the decade.

Sixth man Derek Kerstetter took over RT and RS freshman Junior Angilau emerged at RG to fill out the rotation. Denzel Okafor was the new 6th man, typically sliding into RT while Kerstetter could play any position on the line. Nationally there was some skepticism that Hand could replace Calvin Anderson at LT and four-year starter Patrick Vahe at LG but Texas fans were generally optimistic because most of the top talents were returning and Braun figured to boost the run blocking.

Their results were pretty mixed. At times Texas was overpowering relative to previous seasons. In 2018 the Tre Watson/Keaontay Ingram RB tandem combined for 327 carries that yielded 1494 yards at 4.6 ypc with six TDs. In 2019 Texas had a Keaontay Ingram/Roschon Johnson tandem that had 267 carries for 1502 yards at 5.6 ypc with 14 TDs. The run game was more efficient overall but it also disappeared in key games.

Then there were the results in pass protection, here’s how Texas’ fared there relative to their peers across the league:

2019 B12 sack rates.jpg

It’s a testament to the inconsistency of the run game that a Texas offense that kept a TE on the field at all times nevertheless still ended up having to throw the ball an awful lot. The bad news that will stand out to Texas fans is that the sack rate and total number of times that opposing defenders were able to take Sam Ehlinger down behind the line of scrimmage. No QB in the league was sacked more times than Ehlinger and it’s remarkable how poorly Texas fared in sack rate relative to their opponents given the presence of a star LT and ultra-experienced center making the calls. It’s also notable that one of the areas where Ehlinger’s size and toughness has proven valuable to Texas is in his ability to take this less remarked upon form of punishment and stay on the field all year.

With Sam Ehlinger now entering his senior year and it becoming increasingly clear that only high-powered offense can propel a team to a Big 12 title these days, Texas needs to keep the program’s star player cleaner in 2020.

How was the pass protection so poor?

So how was a team anchored by Sam Cosmi and Zach Shackelford so poor in pass protection? I went back and studied the numbers and the film to get a better sense and settled on a few main factors. Cosmi was certainly not the issue, he played strong football outside and teams weren’t attacking him much and certainly not beating him very often to get to Ehlinger.

One reason for the weak numbers was a few games where the protection was particularly poor. Texas surely doesn’t rank so high, for instance, had they not been eviscerated in the Red River Shootout for nine sacks. They also yielded five sacks to both LSU and Baylor, who were probably the two best defenses on the schedule. The nature of who specifically gave Texas fits is a good clue as to why they were so poor relative to the rest of the league.

Many Big 12 teams will gameplan to avoid asking their OL to hold up for prolonged periods of time while their QB cycles through progressions. Faced with a team like Oklahoma or LSU they’re planning to regularly get the ball out quickly rather than trusting their QB to get the ball out under duress or to survive taking some hits. If they do go through longer progressions they’re using play-action and max protection. Texas on the other hand often executed pro-style dropbacks with five or six in protection and trusted their line to hold up.

On film what showed up time and again (save for against Baylor) was Texas’ penchant for getting beat inside. Oklahoma and LSU piled up sacks with stunts and pressures designed to cross up Texas’ interior OL and get guys running through the A and B gaps. Texas struggled badly to pick up the DE/OLBs that would loop inside and at times they struggled simply to block good interior players. It’s clear from studying the miscues that Texas didn’t get the expected value from having All-ACC Parker Braun at LG and 4-year Shack at center.

Those two were much, much better as run blockers than interior pass defenders. The other two teams to inflict heavy sacks on Texas, West Virginia and Kansas who each had three, also did so by targeting the interior OL with blitzes and some good personnel at DT. It wasn’t shocking that Braun could be had at times in protection, at Georgia Tech he operated a flexbone triple-option offense that wasn’t giving him a ton of reps and instruction in those schemes. It was more surprising to note how much Shackelford struggled in big games, moreso than in 2018. Perhaps it was because he was easier to isolate and attack when flanked by a relatively inexperienced senior LG and a RS freshman RG in Junior Angilau. On the other hand, he got caught multiple times in the two big games against LSU and Oklahoma and Texas surely expected better.

Texas was good on the perimeter, teams didn’t find it easy to get much by Cosmi or Kerstetter and when they did those were easier for Ehlinger to evade by stepping up or to the side. Baylor was the only team to do real damage off the edge (they got Texas inside as well) and they did so on snaps where NFL-bound James Lynch got matched up on freshman TE Jared Wiley and back-up RT Denzel Okafor.

One other issue that you can find on many of Texas’ sacks is the lack of hot routes. They were often asking Ehlinger to work through some deeper progressions from five or six man protections without having a hot read. There were more than a few where he attempted to get through deeper reads against pressure and then didn’t have time to check down, which are the sorts of examples I’m referring to when I say that they gameplanned to be able to hold up in protection. Ehlinger also clearly preferred to try and hang in to land a big shot, he’s just not afraid of getting hit in the pocket, but often he held it just a touch too long or the OL got beat a little early.

Can the pass protection be shored up in 2020?

There are three primary ingredients to avoiding sacks and having a passing attack that’s hard to disrupt with pressure. The most important is a QB that can read defenses and get the ball out quickly and on time. Texas has that in Ehlinger. At times he does clearly hold the ball too long but it’s generally more an issue of him trying to hit a homerun than being unable to process and distribute to hot routes. When Texas used empty sets with hot checks, Ehlinger hit them and often did great damage.

An alternative to this is having a QB that’s hard to catch and tackle, like Iowa State with Brock “pump fake” Purdy. It’s remarkable how many sacks that fellow apparently evaded while chucking the ball around more than anyone else in the league. Ehlinger is pretty good at evading pressure and can scramble, but he’s a bigger guy and preferred to try and hang in and throw it down field.

In either case, Ehlinger has a lot of room to grow in getting the ball out and avoiding sacks but there’s a number of ways that Texas could improve here. They could use more motion and cues to help him read the defense quickly, they could train him to check down faster, they could improve in protecting along the line, they could encourage him to scramble more, they could use more max protection, they could use more hot routes, etc.

The other key ingredient is having an NFL caliber LT that you can trust on his lonesome outside. It’s less common these days to face a lot of star edge-rushers in the Big 12, they’re just not as common and teams often drop eight, but it’s still pretty valuable. Teams still regularly try to overload the edge and will do it by slanting the DE inside and bringing a LB or DB off the edge, which requires a quick tackle to counter. Texas is set here with Sam Cosmi, they may not face a DE/OLB in 2020 that they have to worry about shading help towards when they’re on the left side.

Finally you need cohesion and quality across the other four positions and from your ancillary protectors, the TE and RB. It’s better to have a bunch of average guys that know what they’re doing and communicate well than to have a few superstars but then a few other bald spots that can’t be trusted. This is where Texas was really weak in 2019. While they had a few plus performers they weren’t always rock solid at the guard positions or from the RBs and TEs.

Here’s our current best guess at how the 2020 OL will look:

2020 prospective OL.jpg

Kerstetter goes from offering solid RT play to anchoring the entire unit and making calls from center, where he’s generally been very effective in spot duty. Junior Angilau is considered the rising star of the entire unit while Okafor has long flashed promise but always been asked to play tackle and rarely been able to put it together. With a chance to finally move inside to guard he might show out in surprising fashion, at any rate guard is likely to see an upgrade in protection from Braun to Okafor and first year Angilau to second year Angilau. The TE and RB spots are all a lock to be better than a year ago since it’s the same cast a year older. The biggest question mark in the starting lineup is at RT where Christian Jones is currently ahead of the pack after getting 2nd team snaps and FG duty in 2019.

On the edge it’s more about athleticism whereas inside it pays to be big, mean, and cohesive. It’s always better to have experience but at tackle athleticism is a bigger piece of the puzzle. This group would be really tall and long overall and pretty light on their feet as well, in terms of pure physical talent this is the best group Texas has yet had under Tom Herman. The main question marks concern how well Kerstetter will take to being the full-time snapper, the overall depth, and how much cohesion can be built. On the bright side for Texas, this group will get more time and snaps together than a year ago when Braun missed the spring practices and Kerstetter was being held in reserve based on how various position battles worked out.

There may be a lot of movement but this group will still get a lot of work together. The scariest development would be an injury to either Sam Cosmi or Derek Kerstetter. If Kerstetter went down Texas would be without a center, pending the development of early enrollee Jake Majors or Rafiti Ghirmai, and they’d also be without their second or third best tackle. If Cosmi went down then Texas would have to bump Kerstetter or Okafor out to tackle or else find a third when they already need Jones to make a leap this offseason to count on starting two good tackles. Then they’d also need to find another center if Kerstetter was part of the solution.

The other younger players that will be counted on to fill out the two-deep include Reese Moore, Rafiti Ghirmai, Willie Tyler, and RS freshmen Tyler Johnson and Isaiah Hookfin. There’s also RS senior Tope Imade still around to offer depth at guard. Tackle is the big question mark and if Kerstetter is needed to fill in at center due to a lack of a better option then it becomes an even bigger question. However, like last year the top six for Texas figure to be really solid.

Herb Hand has some experience juggling and moving OL around to get the best five on the field, but his last three offensive lines went as follows:

2017 Auburn: 370 passing attempts, 35 sacks, 8.6% sack rate.
2018 Texas: 425 passing attempts, 26 sacks, 5.7% sack rate.
2019 Texas: 454 passing attempts, 34 sacks, 7.0% sack rate.

His specialty has tended to be building physical rushing attacks based off inside zone. He has some pretty good components to use in building a unit that can protect Ehlinger and allow Texas to make the most of having a four-year starter at QB. He’ll need to put it together with a bigger emphasis on the protection side of things to make the most of the 2020 season.

History major, football theorist.