Last Monday, before the start of spring practice for the Texas Longhorns, head coach Tom Herman had to admit that he’d never seen anything like it before, even as an assistant — the majority of his wide receivers had graded out as champions during offseason conditioning.
With the year split up into four quarters — offseason conditioning, spring practice, summer conditioning, and the football season — “each one of those quarters is an opportunity for a kid to kind of grade a champion,” Herman noted.
And the wide receivers are taking advantage of that opportunity.
“I said that leading to your question about the wide receivers, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a wide receiver group have over 50 percent of their position group as champions in the first quarter of a season,” said the Texas head coach. “So that’s telling. That means they’re buying in. How good a football players they are, I don’t know, but I like the fact that there is some experience in that room, and it seems to be some decent kids, too, that are willing to work hard.”
Competition certainly helps, as there are 10 scholarship wide receivers on campus prior to the anticipated summer arrivals of signees Damion Miller and Jordan Pouncey. Seven of the nine leading receivers return from last season, including senior Armanti Foreman, who topped the team in catches and receiving yardage.
However, Foreman is in a battle for the starting role in the slot position with sophomore Devin Duvernay, who is likely one of those champions due to his noted work ethic. Not only explosive enough to record long touchdown catches in three consecutive games last season, Duvernay’s dedication in the weight room is apparent — he’s gained 10 pounds from his listed weight as a freshman.
There’s been some other positional movement on the team in addition to Foreman moving inside from flanker, as he’s changed positions with junior Jerrod Heard. There was plenty of speculation that Herman might use Heard in a package of plays at quarterback, but right now that’s not in the plans unless there are significant struggles in the battle for the third-string quarterback role.
Heard is competing for playing time with junior John Burt, whose commitment to football over track has helped his gain more than 10 pounds of muscle himself. Nagged by several injuries, dropped passes, and overall cratered confidence last season, Burt has so far looked more consistent with his hands in limited clips in practice. While it’s difficult to speculate about whether that is translating on a larger level, it is a small, positive sign for the talented pass-catcher.
The most intriguing competition is happening at the X position, where sophomore Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey are competing with senior Dorian Leonard for playing time.
The 6’5, 210-pound Leonard flashed after Burt got benched last season, ultimately finishing third on the team in receptions and showing some big-play ability that hadn’t been present during his first two seasons in Austin.
However, it’s Johnson and Humphrey who are appear to be excelling with their big frames and work ethic.
In building off a solid freshman campaign, Johnson is continuing to translate his hard work from the offseason into the reliable hands that made him a favorite of sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele last spring. In practice, Johnson has been hard to stop on double moves.
And Humphrey appears that he may be ready for a breakout season after playing sparingly as a freshman. He spent much of his offseason working out in the Dallas area with a trainer, along with Heard.
At 6’6 and 220 pounds, Humphrey combines elite size and the lateral agility that allowed him to play running back in high school. In showing more physicality as a route runner, he has also made plays in practice.
“Had a really good winter,” Herman said of Humphrey last Thursday. “Out here, he’s big, so he gets winded pretty fast — we’ve got to get him in football shape, but he’s a big guy that you can tell loves football and wants to get better.”
Judging by the unusually high number of wide receivers who have already earned “champion” status, the refrain of wanting to get better is a familiar one for assistant Drew Mehringer’s position group.
And that’s good news for the quarterbacks and the offense as a whole.