Texas Longhorns offense working to identify playmakers

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Who will step up offensively to make big plays?

As the offensive brain trust continues sharing ideas in their efforts to mold the Texas Longhorns offense, one of the critical tasks in determining the eventual direction of the unit will come after the staff identifies the playmakers on that side of the ball.

Only after that has happened will the staff really know which players the offense needs to highlight. And those players will help direct the staff towards an offense that leans more in a pro-style direction, like some of quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson's previous efforts at multiple stops, or in more of a spread direction, like the offenses that offensive coordinator Joe Wickline worked with at Oklahoma State.

And finding those players is a major priority after the loss of Mike Davis, the big-play threat in the receiving corps.

Overall, Texas finished tied for second in the Big 12 in plays of 40 or more yards with 18 on the season, but sat at No. 6 in plays of 30 yards or more (29) and 20 yards or more (58). Nationally, the Horns finished No. 65 in the country in plays of 20 yards or more.

The running game was of particular concern, as the Horns were decidedly average in that regard compared to the rest of the conference, tying for fifth with only three running plays of 40 or more yards, one of which came from quarterback David Ash in the opener against New Mexico State.

So, which players need to step up in the playmaking role?

Junior running back/wide receiver Daje Johnson

The first name that stands out on that list is Daje Johnson, whose promising start to the 2013 season gave way to his ankle injury against BYU and then his suspension for the Texas Tech game for violating team rules and later the bowl game for his academic issues.

After racking up 129 yards offensively against an admittedly terrible New Mexico State defense (No. 119 in defensive F/+), Johnson managed only one play of more than 20 yards from scrimmage the rest of the season -- a 21-yard run against Baylor in his final game.

Can he be effective as a running back out of the backfield? Former co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite seemed to think so, handing the ball to Johnson out of the Diamond or Pod formation to start both of the first two games. However, Applewhite dropped that personnel grouping as the season went along.

The Pflugerville Hendrickson product also gave a glimpse of his pure running back ability against Baylor in 2012 when he took the first offensive play of the game for Texas 84 yards for a touchdown.

And can Johnson continue to refine his skills as a receiver under the tutelage of Les Koenning? Johnson's elite speed was never enough to make him a vertical threat after the first game and it's not clear if that was a result of Johnson's shortcomings or the shortcomings of Case McCoy's arm. Perhaps both.

Johnson's development as a player and ability to stay in the program could be crucial to the ability of the Texas offense to produce big plays in 2013.

Junior wide receiver Kendall Sanders

The second player is Kendall Sanders, who flashed in the Kansas State game on a post route from David Ash that went for 63 yards and a touchdown to create some early separation against the Wildcats.

However, on the season as a whole, Sanders was hardly as explosive as advertised -- other than the aforementioned catch, only three of his other 36 catches went for 20 or more yards and he averaged less than 10 yards per reception. In the spring game last year, Sanders showcased his short-area athleticism in taking a short throw to the end zone after making several defenders miss, but that ability didn't show up on the field last fall.

Only four other players in the Big 12 last season had 30 or more catches in 2013 and averaged less than 10 yards per catch and all of them were running backs. Will the real Kendall Sanders please step up?

Having Ash back as the quarterback should open up the post route for Sanders once again as he tries to replace Mike Davis in that role and the superior arm strength of Ash should benefit Sanders on shorter passes as well, as the lack of velocity on hitch and screen passes from Case McCoy allowed defenders extra time to close on the football.

It may be that Sanders can show off his elusiveness with better quarterback play. Wickline, Watson, and Koenning are certainly hoping that's the case.

The other wide receivers

Senior Jaxon Shipley saw his yards per catch decrease from 12.5 to 10.5 and his touchdowns from six to one, but he'll still be a reliable option over the middle on critical downs and junior Marcus Johnson should be able to build on his success on wheel routes against Oklahoma and TCU.

Behind them, sophomore Jacorey Warrick was good enough to earn playing time in four games last season, but didn't make a catch. A slot receiver, Warrick has the same type of dynamic ability in small spaces as Kendall Sanders, making him a candidate to take short screen passes or hitches and turn them into big plays.

He's also a player who could get carries in the jet sweep game if something happens with Daje Johnson and the coaching staff decides that the play needs to remain a part of the arsenal, as it is for many teams around the country.

Then there's redshirt freshman Montrel Meander. The 6'3, 185-pounder from Amarillo ran a 10.79 100m in high school, as well as a 21.55 200m, so he has the speed to get vertical in the passing game, a big reason why he received a late offer in the 2013 class.

Known as a relatively rare route-runner, can Meander contribute in such a one-dimensional role without showing a grasp of the entire route tree?

The running back position

Can any of the pure running backs emerge as playmakers? The big plays were noticeably lacking from seniors Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, the only two major contributors at the position who will be healthy during the spring with junior Johnathan Gray working to rehab his Achilles.

Brown may be the better bet there are breaking off the longest run of his career against Oregon in the Alamo Bowl, racing 40 yards in the second quarter. The only other run of his career that went for 30 yards or more came against Kansas on a fourth down when Brown broke through the line of scrimmage and had nothing more to do than run unimpeded to the end zone.

As the Cibolo Steele product and former Rivals five-star recruit continues working in Pat Moorer's strength and conditioning program, there's a chance that he could further hone his athleticism and speed to become a more potent big-play threat, but the odds are that he's simply a running back who lacks the explosiveness to consistency produce png runs.

Bergeron, on the other hand, has a better ability to make defenders miss and similar speed. After earning his way out of the previous coaching staff's doghouse, the physical back had a 27-yard run against Texas Tech among 17 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown, the only real glimpse of his upside in 2013.

*****

Based on the three previous years, there's not a ton of upside between Bergeron and Brown in creating game-breaking plays and sophomore Jalen Overstreet is not a pure running back and could be in line for another position change or a ticket out of the program, putting even more pressure on Daje Johnson and the wide receivers to set up this spring.

Otherwise, the Texas offense could end up looking a lot like the conservative, run-run-play-action pass unit it became let fall after the injury to David Ash.

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