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Postseason play is always valuable for offering a sense of what the highest level of football looks like in a given year. Texas obviously gave LSU a game earlier this season but it was interesting to watch the Clemson vs LSU finale, which was in some ways an extension of the battle between Ed Orgeron’s new look Tiger offense and Todd Orlando’s sub-packages. There’s a picture emerging of what a modern, National Championship team looks like that you can pretty easily use as a barometer for the Longhorns.
The last several playoff runs have been indicative of the need for every blueblood program to develop a “space force.” Teams need tactics and personnel that can hold up when games are determined on the perimeter with NFL passers and blue chip skill athletes. Four out of the last five Championship games involved Clemson because they were so dominant in that regard. The Joe Burrow LSU TIgers only toppled them because they fielded an even more impressive passing game and DB talent.
When you get to the highest level, teams field big time talent along the DL and you need solutions for how to move the ball while looking to outscore an offense that’s designed to do the same. There’s a checklist you need to be able to get through to win championships against these teams.
High level passing game talent
Executing the kind of pro-spread offense that the best teams are going to be employing from here on out does have some personnel requirements. First, you need a QB that can think and see the game at that level in addition to being able to hit throws all over the field. You essentially need someone with pro ability.
It’s not a minor detail but some people get overly hung up on this point. Mack Brown was nervous about finding another Colt McCoy, even though Garrett Gilbert had nearly just beat Alabama as a freshman. Mack wasted most of the first half trying to protect Gilbert before allowing him to attempt the McCoy gameplan. People cautioned that finding another Deshaun Watson would be hard, or another Tua Tagovailoa, or another Trevor Lawrence, or another Joe Burrow… Meanwhile the most talented QB we’ve ever seen spent his college years on some losing teams out in Lubbock in relative obscurity. The state of Texas produces terrific QBs and even if you miss on more than half the elite guys you can still end up with at least one championship caliber player on campus more often than not. Texas has one with Sam Ehlinger and likely another one between Hudson Card and Jalen Milroe. Quinn Ewers could be the best yet.
You need to give the QB two high level targets, ideally one on the inside and one on the outside although the best guys can move around. Clemson’s ability to move Justyn Ross or Tee Higgins inside took down Alabama while LSU got up to all kinds of tricks to find space for slot Justin Jefferson and vertical threat J’Marr Chase. When Texas nearly beat Alabama they played Jordan Shipley at every receiver position on the field hunting matchups for him. The value of having two is that today’s defenses are struggling to work out how to get help on both at the same time and if they do you can always throw to the other receivers, or even run the ball.
Texas has been cycling in a lot of talent here but they’ll have to find two new ones with Collin Johnson and Devin Devurnay both graduating. Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith are your favorites to hold down the outside and inside respectively but there’s also Marcus Washington, Jordan Whittington, Kennedy Lewis, and even Malcolm Epps or Kobe Boyce that could emerge with a big offseason. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to portal in a grad transfer either.
Finally you want two things from the OL, a stud pass protector at LT and competence everywhere else. Many would argue that it’s most important to be without weak spots that a guy like Brent Venables or Dave Aranda can exploit with pressures. In either event, Texas should be in good shape here in 2020 with Sam Cosmi, Derek Kerstetter, and Junior Angilau all returning. Cosmi is a potential star LT and with Angilau and Kerstter also returning it should be easy to find 3-4 more guys that ensure competence across the unit. Down the road it’s essential that they find more tackles amidst their large group of young OL.
The issue for Texas in 2019 and perhaps 2020 isn’t personnel so much as it is deployment. Herman wants to control games in the trenches rather than overwhelming opponents in space. What’s more, where Orgeron and the 2019 Tigers had repeated opportunities to get conservative on offense to protect leads they always chose to stay aggressive and keep scoring. Conversely, Herman ran twice and threw a screen from his own 15 when up by one point with four minutes left on the road against Iowa State.
LSU would stay in 11 personnel all the time and use tempo to get into sets where they could abuse teams throwing RPOs and slot fades, Texas often limited their quick tempo spread schemes to the “touchdown play” inside zone scheme. It was a different paradigm that Texas would do well to learn from. The touchdown play was great but Texas should install more of them and include the forward pass in the equation.
Strategic defense initiative
Brent Venables ultimately disappointed in the National Championship game. He researched and borrowed from Iowa State’s inverted Tampa 2 only to use it as a shell from which to disguise their normal coverages and blitzes. Against LSU he didn’t even maintain that approach but instead lifted Auburn’s 3-1-7 system. They essentially made the same mistake in the National Championship that Todd Orlando did in his battle against Joe Brady in Austin, using sub-packages to try and attack the Tiger offense with pressure.
Venables cleaned up Orlando’s mistake of trying to use Jeff McCulloch and Joe Ossai as ILBs that could be exploited in coverage by instead spinning down safeties Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Muse to cover the TEs and RBs while turning LB James Skalski into a nearly full-time pass-rusher. But he still tried to handle LSU’s vertical passing game to J’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall by matching up with cornerbacks 1-on-1. On the other side, LSU was also fairly aggressive on D but they got away with it because they had something that Clemson lacked, a true lockdown corner.
Derek Stingley erased his side of the field like a young Darrelle Revis and quietly left a massive impact on the game that was only visible to viewers in the form of Trevor Lawrence forcing multiple throws high and away to the sideline. Players of his caliber at that position are pretty rare and should be valued at their weight in gold. Recruiting and developing some of Texas’ higher end HS talents could allow the Longhorns to be uniquely privileged here but we haven’t seen it in some time. Jalen Green is probably the only guy on the roster with a chance to be anything close to this sort of player. Anthony Cook and D’Shawn Jamison are both guys that can play but they need help over the top against vertical threats to maximize their quickness and aggressive instincts.
Short of having a lockdown corner who can erase the top WR to one side of the field and allow the defense to roll coverage, another valuable player to have is a deep safety with NFL caliber range and ability to prey on tendencies. The guy who can drop 40 yards at the snap and knows your personnel and tendencies well enough to erase all of the deep shots from your passing game is also worth his weight in gold. I’ve seen two guys so far at Texas in my lifetime that could do this: Earl Thomas, who shut down the wide side of the field in 2009, and Quandre Diggs, who didn’t get to show this dimension to his game until he reached the NFL and they moved him to deep safety. Ironically he now serves in Earl Thomas’ role at Seattle since the former deep Longhorn moved to Baltimore to replace the undisputed king of deep safeties, Ed Reed. Michael Griffin may also qualify here as well, I think Matt Leinart would give him the thumbs up.
Caden Sterns has potential here and this has always been the sort of thing that he’s shown the highest aptitude for as a player. He could be Texas’ next great deep safety that could do the job of locking down half the field or erasing deep targets.
Then there’s the possession guy underneath. It’s really valuable to have a defender who can match up on speedy slots and swift-footed tight ends alike in the middle of the field without leaving a glaring hole in run defense. You need guy that can play nickel, outside linebacker, or inside linebacker as needed if that’s where the offense lines up their best possession receiver. B.J. Foster can probably execute this role, maybe DeMarvion Overshown or Kenyatta Watson as well. Kenny Vaccaro was a legend serving in that capacity and Aaron Williams and Michael Huff made names for themselves as well.
Finally, defending pro-style passing attacks will require pro-style defense and high quality players at a few key positions. The defensive line is one such spot, Texas needs DL that can hold the point of attack for a smaller, coverage oriented backfield. Fielding an arc-running pass-rusher and/or a DT that can push the pocket is also a game changing quality. The offseason looms for Joe Ossai at weakside end, he’s the best hope for Texas fielding a game-changing pass-rusher in 2020 and he’ll need to zero in on some pass-rushing skills now that he’s finally focusing on that position.
Texas has a lot of the pieces to play cutting edge football at a high level, the main questions concern whether Tom Herman will be able to oversee the realization of the program’s latent potential to win in the modern game. A challenging offseason looms as Herman will need to attempt to do rocket surgery in order to get the Longhorns on track in the space race.