For Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator Tim Beck, a difficult transition year at a new program is hardly unfamiliar — he experienced similar issues in 2015 when he joined Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Now Beck is once again working with a new head coach while trying to implement head coach Tom Herman’s system as he works to align himself with Herman’s culture. This time he’s dealing with an injury-depleted offensive line, a revolving door at quarterback, a lack of game-changing running backs, and a wide receiving corps that features two productive players who have been benched in recent weeks.
Beck even admitted that he’s struggling in Austin as his players press to succeed.
“I'm pressing,” Beck said on Wednesday. “I'm sure they are. If I am they are. I'm trying to call the perfect play every time.”
The candid admission from Beck is just another in a long line of issues for the offense. In trying to be perfect, the players and the play caller are violating one of Herman’s biggest points of emphasis.
“One of the things Coach Herman has always said is that he's never asked anyone to play perfect,” Beck said. “He just asks them to play really hard and trust. Believe in the coaches and believe in the system.”
After struggling in those areas against Maryland, the defense has turned things around under Todd Orlando. On offense, the inexperience and lack of quality depth are hindering that effort.
Almost every play features a breakdown by a different player, which leads to unfavorable down-and-distance situations that increase the pressure on Beck and the players to execute perfectly. Texas is one of the most-penalized teams in the country.
“So, there are things that took place during the course of the game that throws you off schedule and out of rhythm,” Beck said. “It can sometimes throw you off your game plan. As a play caller, you're trying to find that rhythm. It got to the point where sometimes you're not even looking at the score board, you're just trying to make a first down and get positive yards with the guys at times.”
Turnovers haven’t helped, either — freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger has given the ball away twice in overtime games when the ‘Horns were in position to tie the game with a field goal or win it with a touchdown. Win either or both of those two games and the pressure on Beck wouldn’t be nearly as significant.
Faced with all those difficulties in putting together a coherent offensive system, Herman moved wide receivers coach Drew Mehringer into the coaching box with Beck last week.
"Having another set of eyes in the box who’s called plays — the feedback I was getting and Tim Beck was getting is good. And I think that’s something we can build on,” Herman said during the Big 12 conference call in Monday.
As defenses like Iowa State have played defenses that Texas didn’t see on film, Beck thinks that having another set of eyes in the coaching box is helpful. Mehringer can also draw on his experience as the offensive coordinator at Rutgers last season.
Unfortunately, that move didn’t produce much improvement against Oklahoma State, as Texas managed only 10 points and 283 yards of offense.
Constant personnel changes have made establishing a coherent identity difficult, but there are still failures that Beck has to own, like his inability to scheme a running game out of 10 personnel and unwillingness to use run-pass options as a threat, especially to the tight end or a wide receiver over the middle.
Instead, defenders aren’t put into conflict and can safely ignore the running game most of the time while playing conservatively to keep Texas from producing big plays through the air.
Beck has stuck with variants of outside zone that don’t produce positive results and largely ignored more successful plays like inside zone and power.
Lessons learned from the Kansas State game in how to employ a second boundary wide receiver with sophomore Collin Johnson to free up the team’s most talented pass catcher have largely been abandoned in the last two games. Johnson barely even played against the Cowboys after getting benched.
Passing in the red zone has also been a disaster, with multiple penalties trying to run rub routes near the end zone and Ehlinger consistently late delivering the football.
The final play against Oklahoma State was just another example — it was the same play Clemson used to win the national championship. So, good play, right? Unfortunately, Clemson ran it to the right and Texas ran it to the left, forcing Ehlinger to make a more difficult throw rolling to his off hand. The ball didn’t come out on time into a small window and a miscommunication between Ehlinger and junior wide receiver Jerrod Heard produced an ugly interception in the end zone that ended the game.
Since the offense can’t even develop a base identity in any part of the field, it has not had a chance to develop constraint plays that can punish a defense for overplaying to stop successful schemes.
Even the trick plays aren’t working — a reverse toss intended for senior wide receiver Armanti Foreman produced an ugly fumble by junior running back Chris Warren III. A second attempt at that play against Oklahoma State resulted in Warren keeping the ball.
Effectively using the safety net built into those trick plays and checking out of them or not pitching the ball is one of the only successful things the offense is doing. And in doing so, it’s limiting any potential for big plays outside of the base offense and Ehlinger scrambling to make things happen.
All the injuries still loom as the most significant contributor to struggles on offense for Texas, but it’s clear from Beck’s own evaluation and the on-field results that he’s also part of the problem.
The biggest questions now are whether he can turn things around at all and whether he’s coaching for his job over the last five games of the regular season.