Inside the Gameplan: The Horns’ 2016 WRs

John Burt. (Will Gallagher/IT)
John Burt. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Texas’ WR corps is young, talented, and almost totally dependent on major improvements at the QB positions. Since we all understand the last point and it’s depressing to belabor the point, let’s just pause and take a moment to discuss what could be possible for this group in the new offense as it develops over the next few seasons. We can always return to the topic of Texas’ QB dilemma in every other discussion.

Here’s the good news, Texas is installing an offense that is wonderful for WRs and the roster is absolutely loaded with talent that could do wondrous things once unleashed in this scheme.

Hypothetically, a WR group that included John Burt, Kai Locksley, Armanti Foreman, Lorenzo Joe, Collin Johnson, and Jerrod Heard would have more athleticism than any other corps in the entire conference, even Baylor.

So let’s dive into what Texas has on the roster here and how they could be set up to excel in the new passing game assuming eventual competence from the other positions. We’ll just call it the Gilbert Corollary, “assuming Sterlin can teach someone on UT’s campus to play QB at a B12-level….”

John Burt

All Burt needs is space to work in and he will absolutely terrorize opposing defenses. One of my favorite plays from 2015 was this early completion against Kansas.

If you try to cover John Burt on a vertical route with a single defender you can expect to get burned. Guess which style of offense makes a big point of using vertical routes and punishing defenses if they leave dangerous WRs in 1-on-1 match-ups? Hooray!

Burt also showed some explosiveness after the catch last year, as you can see on this bubble screen executed against Baylor.

The ball is not thrown perfectly to allow Burt to easily turn upfield, but hey at least it was completed! Baylor’s nickel Travon Blanchard is in a tough spot here trying to close on Burt while taking away any potential inside track and Burt changes direction and burns both him and the free safety for a nice gain.

Burt is one of the better athletes on the field and his suddenness within a 10-yard radius combined with his coordination and fluidity to adjust to the ball in the air makes him very dangerous in a wide variety of different concepts.

Here’s a Baylor passing game staple where Burt could really shine, drawn up against Oklahoma’s defense:

Giblet shallow cross

This is the Baylor version of “shallow cross” which they of course combine with three different vertical routes. To one side they run a post (or comeback) along with a dig route while the shallow route runs under a vertical that might potentially rub the corner if he’s trying to follow it.

This is a brutal concept to handle in man coverage, which is a common prescribed antidote for the run game, and there are a number of roles that Burt could fill where he’d be devastating. We’ve seen above what he can do on a post route and he’d be sure to get a lot of attention on the dig or the vertical route as well, but Texas could also use him to run the shallow as a way to get him the ball on the run and to beat the blitz.

This is a passing concept that Gilbert is probably emphasizing very heavily this spring as a way to get Texas’ skill athletes in space doing what they do best that includes an easy blitz-beating option for the QB (the shallow).

Collin Johnson

Thanks to his exciting introduction to Texas football this spring practice, Collin Johnson is getting a ton of buzz right now and it’s well deserved. When you are a legit 6’5”, your hands are good enough to take advantage of how big a target you are, and your feet are more than quick and coordinated enough to get you open, you are destined for greatness in modern football.

One of the main features of this new passing system is routes for the outside receivers that often amount to “vertical or not” and include a great deal of comebacks. Normally Baylor has gone with track stars to run these routes, especially since the other main routes include bubble screens and shallow crosses, but Johnson is quick enough to execute those while also presenting terrifying possibilities running go’s, posts, digs, and comebacks.

If you’re a defense and you are determining how to get numbers in the box to stop the run game (and they will thanks to this OL and RB stable) the last consideration you want to have to make is what to do about a formation that includes a 6’2” freak athlete to one side of the field and a 6’5” deep threat on the other. Playing cover 2 with bracket coverage on either side guarantees either that the slot receivers are left in wide open spaces or that there’s only five guys in the box to stop the run.

Baylor vs Texas double threats

The simple geometry and math cannot be denied, if you have to double two different receivers you can’t put up much of a defense against anything else within the offense. This is what Collin Johnson offers, perhaps as soon as 2016.

Armanti Foreman

Foreman is someone who should theoretically benefit from the move to the new offense, but he doesn’t benefit from the addition of talents like Collin Johnson and he doesn’t benefit if this schematic change moves athletes like Locksley or Heard to WR.

Foreman’s play in 2015 often featured mistakes that indicate he doesn’t have a natural feel for the outside receiver position yet. For instance, both in the spring game and later during the year he’d fail to run out slant patterns but instead try to settle in an open window. Whether that’s due to a distaste for going over the middle, a lack of trust in the QB, or simply a misunderstanding of how the play should work.

In general, Texas’ 2015 passing game seemed to feature a lot of moments where you had to wonder “how many times have they even practiced that?” It’s likely that increased reps would lead to greater trust and understanding from Foreman that would lead to more aggressive play.

Foreman doesn’t have the greatest hands on the team but his speed and agility would make him very dangerous in the offense’s vertical routes as well as catching bubble screens on the perimeter. He might be one of the better fits on the team for the slot.

Lorenzo Joe

Joe is often appreciated for his commitment to blocking, which will still be important in a perimeter screen-heavy offense, but Joe also showed some ability to take the top off a defense and go up to get it.

On this example you see him win inside against a Tampa-2 corner for Kansas and bring in a nicely thrown deep lob from Heard. We haven’t really seen what all Joe might be capable of but he’s the kind of athlete that is generally dangerous in space and we know the offense should afford plenty of that for the receivers.

You can expect him to compete for snaps outside thanks to his blocking ability and he may be the main obstacle to Collin Johnson starting.

Jacorey Warrick/Ryan Newsome

Warrick is another possibility in the slot, as is Ryan Newsome. Both are plenty quick and effective with the ball in their hands on screens and quick passes but we haven’t seen either show much as a vertical threat yet.

If Foreman moves inside to the slot it’ll be hard to see these smaller guys carving out much of a role in 2016 unless one of them can demonstrate the ability to take the top off a defense running go routes on the seam or the numbers.

DeAndre McNeal

#Finnesin seems to take his once burgeoning brand rather seriously as he’s now weighing in at around 220 rather than the 230 he carried last season. The question is where he fits in this system if he’s strictly going to be a receiver.

One area where Texas was particularly weak last year and will need to be strong again in 2016 no matter the QB is with a possession receiver who could be a big and reliable target running quick game patterns like the stick route or hitch. Those kinds of catches often have to be made with a defender on your hip, smacking at your hands and getting up in your business. Texas curiously used Daje Johnson for this role some in 2015, McNeal could provide an upgrade here in 2016.

Gilbert still likes to use some of West Coast-style concepts in his passing game, like the y-stick combination, and McNeal may prove to be the best target for plays like that of the available options in the slot. If he proves capable of using his size to present a big target on vertical routes in the middle of the field go ahead and pencil him in as a starter in the three/four-receiver sets.

Ty Templin

It has to be mentioned that Templin is one of the better route runners on the team and thus one of the more reliable targets. If you’ve paid attention to Baylor over the years you’ll notice that they often stick less athletic WRs on the field if they are guys they trust. After all, the spacing of the offense will do a lot of the heavy lifting for these guys. Consider a popular combination like this one, a seven route by a slot with two in routes:

Gilbet 7-in-in

If Foreman or McNeal can’t leverage their speed or athleticism into presenting challenges for opposing defenses from the slot, there’s always Templin.

In summation

That’s likely to be it in terms of WRs on the roster who will play major roles in the 2016 offense, save for Locksley or Heard whom we’ll get to when it becomes relevant. That’s more than enough talent to cause real headaches for defenses trying to deal with the stress that this offense’s spacing can create. Assuming the Gilbert corollary, this group could really make waves in 2016. Otherwise, recall that Burt is the leading returning receiver with 28 receptions a year ago and Foreman comes in second with 11. If Texas doesn’t get these guys the ball, most of the world will continue to not know what they are capable of doing.

History major, football theorist.