Football

Inside the Gameplan: Top 10 for Herman

Malik Jefferson and Breckyn Hager team up on the tackle. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Malik Jefferson and Breckyn Hager team up on the tackle. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Houston was the perfect job for Tom Herman to take for three reasons.

The first was that it allowed him to get back to work in the familiar grounds at Texas, recruiting and developing in a state he already knew well thanks to previous stops at Texas, Sam Houston State, Texas State, and Rice.

The second was that he got to work with a then junior, dual-threat QB in Greg Ward Jr., so the most important question of who he was going to build the offense around was already settled. Finally, it was the ideal launching pad for the Texas job thanks to increased investment across the AAC and from Houston boosters into a program with a lot of untapped potential just a few hours southwest of the flagship.

Now he’s at Texas, once again, just in time to take over a skilled cast of talented players that have plenty of eligibility remaining and are ready to be fashioned into a powerhouse. In fact, there’s so many different players currently at UT that it’ll be interesting to see which ones Herman deems most worthy to use as the vanguard for his #TexasTakeover. If he were to draft 10 players from the current roster as the “these guys are essential to my plan,” here’s my stab at guessing which 10 he’d choose first.

10). Edwin Freeman

If Todd Orlando sticks with his base 4-0-4 (two 4i-technique DEs and a 0-tech nose) 3-4 defensive front, he’s going to need inside linebackers that can take advantage of being covered up and flow to the football or blitz from different directions with speed. Edwin Freeman is arguably a candidate one for that role and came on so strong at the end of 2016 that he ended up leading the inside linebackers in tackles for loss while adding three sacks and two interceptions to boot.

If Orlando ends up adjusting his front to get Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach on the field together, he’ll need inside linebackers that can fit into different roles across the front and be as adept beating blocks as they are scraping to the edge with speed. Currently Freeman is the furthest along of the Texas LBs in these duties as well.

Herman’s Houston defense made great use of inside LBs like Steven Taylor and Elandon Roberts that were both athletic and versatile. He’s going to find Freeman to be a delightfully athletic upgrade over those two who’s just starting to figure out how to play confident up in the box.

9). DeShon Elliott

There were times down the stretch in which Elliott flashed true brilliance at the safety position. Orlando’s defensive schemes will require that his secondary know what they’re doing in a few different coverages and will still require that the safety spots are stocked by guys that can quarterback the defense, but they’ll also simplify things a bit at a time when Elliott will be naturally starting to grasp the college game at a higher level as a third-year player.

In particular, Orlando’s scheme at Houston always made great use of safeties that could cover ground and loved to hit, which is exactly who DeShon Elliott is as a player.

In particular, the field safety needs to be able to credibly cover down on a slot receiver in order to unleash the field blitzes Orlando loves to send as well as cover ground and match vertical routes from deep alignments. It’s a spot that requires a player that can think quickly, cover a lot of grass, but still loves to administer punishment when he arrives to the ball. Elliott is perfect for this role and is now in position to put it all together.

8). Malcolm Roach

This defense is designed to make the most of versatile, violent football players and Malcolm Roach is exactly that. His final destination in this defense is somewhat unclear because of his current size (6-foot-3, 260 as a true freshman) and he might end up with his hand in the dirt down the road but in the meantime his ability to serve as a credible coverage dropper will probably see him line up at outside linebacker. In fact, his ability to play in the box and grapple with OL combined with the heavy frequency in which Texas will face Air Raid teams may push Orlando to consider downsizing his 3-4 defense to a 2-4-5 nickel package that features Roach as more of a true DE/OLB hybrid.

Either way, Roach’s versatility and the violence with which he plays the game will ensure that he figures prominently in Herman’s plans for fielding an aggressive defense.

7). Jerrod Heard

In 2015, Jerrod Heard ran the ball 111 times for 736 yards at 6.6 yards per carry and his ability to make hay on concepts like “QB counter” was the best feature of the offense. Unfortunately the QB position has some other requirements, like reading defenses and throwing the football, that caused some problems for Heard. In fact he was sacked 28 times in 2015 for a loss of 180 yards in the Texas offense, yards they could not afford to lose.

Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)

In 2016, he moved to WR to help complete the Texas offense and present more vertical constraints to free up D’Onta Foreman to run wild. That resulted in him netting 24 catches for 266 yards, decent production for a first-year starter at his new position but something less than what his athleticism had been able to offer the team in 2015.

The main issues were that Texas was in Year 1 of the install in a newfangled, triple-option style offense with underclassmen at key positions and that this particular system somewhat narrow casts the ways in which athletic wideouts are supposed to punish defenses. Herman’s offensive structure is less rigid in how it chooses to attack defenses and can easily incorporate a player that just needs to get the ball in his hands in space in simple ways. You can expect Heard to get involved on bubble screens, tunnel screens, quick passing concepts, the odd vertical route, and also sweeps. Herman is going to want to force opponents to regularly prove they can tackle Heard before he picks up positive yardage because most teams have not proven they’re up for it.

6). Devin Duvernay

At Houston, the main weapon that Herman inherited and put to use on the perimeter to start was WR Demarcus Ayers, a shifty little speedster with good hands they loved to get the ball to in space. At Texas, Herman is going to immediately inherit two such players in Jerrod Heard and Devin Duvernay, either of whom could potentially be even better than Ayers. Duvernay is probably the best prospect for this role that Texas has ever signed as he combines the “sudden in all directions” attributes of players like Ayers with good hands and long speed that put him in the highest percentile of NFL WRs.

Just as Herman will look to involve Heard in a few different ways, he’ll do the same with Duvernay who’s even shiftier and more explosive. Between these two, Armanti Foreman, and the lack of great TEs on the roster Herman may choose to use more four-WR sets to get all of that speed on the field where it can burn opponents.

5). Breckyn Hager

Hager is a more obvious fit as an outside linebacker in Orlando’s 3-4 defense then Roach and probably won’t be a down linemen in that front save perhaps for third and long packages. Like Roach, Hager plays the game without restraint and with the sort of violent intentions that can allow a player with less than elite athleticism to punch well above his weight. Hager finished second on the team in tackles and only one below leader Anthony Wheeler, despite starting the season as a sub-package player. He’s relentless in his pursuit of the football, and when he’s playing a rush-OLB position that allows him to hang out on the perimeter, he can be a wrecking ball on the edge or a guy who quickly finds his way to the football even when teams are running away from him.

All that said, he’s a better athlete than he often gets credit for and a very credible pure, pass-rusher. Beyond his willingness to violent crash into blockers, Hager is also pretty capable of winning the edge and turning the corner on people in the pass-rush and he also became an absolute demon down against the run when he learned to aggressively play the zone-read without yielding a soft corner. Hager fits the boundary OLB position that Tyus Bowser played in Houston the last few years like a glove, the only question is how high his ceiling might be with two more years of eligibility remaining.

4). Collin Johnson

The nature of Herman’s “smashmouth spread” is that it creates multiple “running back” positions that regularly get the ball behind the line of scrimmage and then need to be able to turn upfield and gain yardage behind blockers. The outside WR position is generally used as a blocker in those instances, but he has an additional role that can make him foundational to the entire offense.

The biggest problem that can happen for a spread team is when opponents can cancel out receivers in man coverage and zero in their remaining DBs and LBs on stuffing the run and controlling the middle of the field. By doing so, they can shrink the field back down and limit the space the offense has to work in. The best way to counter this is with an outside receiver that can’t be canceled out in man coverage.

Collin Johnson. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Collin Johnson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

At 6-foot-6, 212 with good hands, legit quickness, and a tremendous catch radius, Collin Johnson can’t really be cancelled out with man coverage. If Texas can develop the chemistry between him and the starting QB to have CJ run choice routes outside based on the coverage and alignment of the DB, particularly with concepts like the back shoulder fade, they can force double teams over Johnson that frees up everyone else to wreck shop in the middle of the field. A player like Johnson is nitrous oxide for a spread offense.

3). Malik Jefferson

Malik Jefferson may be a somewhat controversial entry at this point, particularly this high on the list, because in two years as a starter he hasn’t fully put it together and demonstrated the ability to dominate games. The sole exception was against Texas Tech, when Charlie used a 3-2-6 defense to rush three, play cover 2, and use Malik to corral Patrick Mahomes. In a contest of sheer quickness in the open field, Jefferson has few equals but creating a position where that’s his primary job description has been difficult.

There are a number of places that Jefferson might end up in Orlando’s defense and hopefully he’ll master the package well enough to serve in a few different spots, but one area where he could be particularly dominant is as the field outside linebacker spot where Orlando used nickel DBs in Houston.

In the base 3-4 set, this position needed to be able to get his eyes and potentially his hands on the slot, deny a quick pass, but then still be able to arrive to defend the edge against the run. To do this at a level that can thwart the best spread offenses requires a level of acceleration you don’t typically find in a linebacker, but Jefferson has it in spades. If he’s athletic enough to handle to space (he is) then this spot also makes optimal use of him as a blitzer, looking to take the edge and often to do so as part of a disguised pressure. If you can regularly blitz Jefferson into opposing backfields without the OL realizing what’s happening you’re going to create some major messes.

It’s also possible that Herman and Orlando finally get the hate flowing through Malik at such a level that he can be embrace the dark side and rule the space between the tackles as a sith lord/inside-backer. I think his athleticism is better suited to playing outside but it’s likely that he’ll spend at least some if not all of his time next year on the inside. At any rate, in a defensive scheme that prizes versatility and blitzing people from all over the field, a linebacker that can cover ground with the best safeties is sure to be prized as a key weapon.

2). Kris Boyd

Just as Collin Johnson could allow Texas to ruin plots by opponents to lock down the sidelines without safety help, Kris Boyd could help them achieve the even more important goal of locking down at least one Texas sideline against all of the potent, spread offenses in the Big 12. Herman is inheriting several cornerbacks with a lot of promise but Kris Boyd is the best athlete of the bunch and one with enough mental toughness to nail down a major role and earn Charlie Strong’s trust in the midst of a tumultuous 2016 campaign.

He still has a ways to go as a corner in terms of technique but he was probably the best on the team playing cover-2 last year and that will be closer to the style that Texas will now employ with new DC, Orlando. Playing on the boundary, Boyd could allow Orlando to play classic cover-2 and know that he’ll get well above average run support on the edge with Boyd roving the flat. Orlando could also be aggressive with “sky” or “robber” cover-4 on the boundary with Boyd taking away the deep routes to allow the D to gain a safety like Jason Hall as an extra man in the box. It’d be pretty easy to make plays as a safety next to a more fully developed Boyd in this scheme. Finally, Orlando loves to blitz the boundary corner and God knows it’d be fun to watch Boyd do some more of that.

There’s lots of players on the roster that Orlando will be able to use to get pressure on Big 12 QBs but Boyd could be the glue that allows the pressures and coverages to come together without the defense getting roasted outside with the passing game. The Big 12 will feature a lot of good passers coming back and the usual assortment of terrifying wide receivers running post routes on isolated cornerbacks, there’s not really a more valuable player to have then a versatile, lockdown corner. Well, maybe one position…

1). Sam Ehlinger

I’d say the most likely outcome for 2017 is that Shane Buechele holds down the starting job, but Sam Ehlinger is the ideal QB for Tom Herman’s offense and he’ll get the keys to the car at some point. Texas can set themselves apart within the Big 12 by playing great defense, that’s a task safely beyond much of the league particularly given how challenging it is with the styles that have to be countered in this conference.

Sam Ehlinger. (Justin Wells/IT)
Sam Ehlinger. (Justin Wells/IT)

But at the end of the day, the QB generally sets the tone for a program. The tone that Ehlinger seems poised to set for Texas is “we’re just as skilled as you but also willing to bash skulls until you quit.”

Herman wants to threaten the middle of the field with a physical, downhill running game while still featuring the skill to burn teams by accurately throwing the ball to speed on the perimeter. The ultimate way to create this kind of stress is with a QB that’s big and tough enough to run between the tackles and skilled enough to throw outside, which is Ehlinger.

With these ten players and their extensive remaining eligibility, Herman will look to finally execute the #TexasTakeover that Longhorn coaches have been promising for this whole, lost decade.

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History major, football theorist.