One might be tempted to say that in a normal season, a non-conference game for the Texas Longhorns against an opponent that went 4-8 last season and is expected to lose eight games again this season isn’t a big deal — a simple tuneup.
Except questioning whether this will be the blowout some might still anticipate while outlining a number of areas where the ‘Horns desperately need to show improvement is now the new normal for Texas.
The baseline expectation is simply to get a win that doesn’t come down to the final minutes. Beyond that, the Longhorns need to stay healthy and begin addressing a few of the notable concerns raised by last weekend’s loss to the Terrapins.
1. If Shane Buechele can’t play, can freshman Sam Ehlinger competently lead the team?
The sophomore starter didn’t practice on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday of this week due to the bruised throwing shoulder he suffered against Maryland last weekend. With only two scholarship quarterbacks available to head coach Tom Herman, losing Buechele early in the season is close to a worst-case scenario.
The only real positive here is that the injury shouldn’t be a long-term concern. It is, however, a short-term concern that highlights the even more major question mark of Buechele’s ability to stay healthy for an entire season.
Most likely, freshman Sam Ehlinger will receive the start on Saturday, backed up by junior Jerrod Heard, the emergency quarterback.
Herman said that Ehlinger isn’t ready yet, but he’s as close as any freshman he’s seen, which speaks to the leadership qualities the Westlake product possesses, as well as his physical talent.
Unfortunately, the running ability that gives Ehlinger an advantage over Buechele because he’s a step faster, in Herman’s estimation, and weighs more than the sophomore, likely won’t play a significant role in the game. With so little depth, the staff simply can’t afford for Ehlinger to suffer an injury on a called run.
So, if Ehlinger plays as expected, he’s going to have to be cognizant of his value to the team, which could in turn reduce his effectiveness.
2. Can the running game show some semblance of life?
Against a slate of strong rushing attacks in the Mountain West last season, San Jose State was one of the worst teams in the country in stopping the run. Going against the triple-option attack of Cal Poly, Brent Brennan’s team fared well and forced turnovers, but struggled mightily in the opener against South Florida, allowing 315 yards and four touchdowns on 74 carries.
So if the ‘Horns can’t get going this week against the Spartans, there isn’t much hope for any of the other opponents on the schedule. Except maybe Texas Tech.
Sophomore Kyle Porter started last week and looked much as he did as a freshman — capable of producing little added value in rushing eight times for 21 yards. The back up, junior Chris Warren III, looked like the player skeptics saw through his first two seasons in faring slightly better than Porter.
For Warren, the continued issue is that he struggles to break tackles or move the pile when he’s forced to change direction to make defenders miss in the backfield. Forced to do so, Warren typically topples like a tree falling in the forest.
Some more diversity in the running game would help, as Texas only ran inside and outside zone last week from conventional sets, while also using Heard and sophomore wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey in Wildcat packages.
No jet sweeps, no power, no counter, just zone plays.
Even against a weak rush defense, the Longhorns will have to incorporate some diversity into the rushing attack.
3. Is there a tight end capable of blocking?
Herman’s characterization of junior tight end Garrett Gray’s performance last week as “okay” was something more than charitable. To put it bluntly, Gray was abysmal as a run blocker and a pass blocker last week, single-handedly allowing his assignment to cause havoc in the backfield on numerous occasions.
Perhaps he’ll improve with a week of practice and an opponent with much less athleticism than Maryland.
More likely, however, is that Texas will have to turn to graduate transfer Kendall Moore, who surprisingly didn’t play at all last week after serving as a glorified blocking surface last season in the veer-and-shoot offense run by Dino Babers at Syracuse. Given Moore’s experience, he should at least represent a credible option as a blocker. One would hope.
Beyond that, the Longhorns aren’t likely to get much help in that area from freshman Cade Brewer, but the return of fellow freshman Reese Leitao against USC next week could provide a boost to the position.
4. Can Todd Orlando protect his cornerbacks?
One of the most shocking elements of the Maryland loss last weekend was seeing two players who were supposed to be the rocks of the Texas pass defense, junior cornerbacks Kris Boyd and PJ Locke III, allow big pass plays to a wide receiver corps that was generally considered average coming into the season.
Most notably, on three long passes the two players gave up, neither one had safety help over the top, as the Texas defensive coordinator often relied on Boyd and Locke to consistently hold up in man coverage. Orlando’s trust wasn’t rewarded, and it led to multiple touchdowns and the back-breaking conversion by Maryland’s back-up quarterback.
With San Jose State running the veer-and-shoot offense and starting quarterback Montel Aaron possessing a remarkably big arm for a middling non-Power Five school, rest assured the Spartans will take plenty of shots downfield.
Given that the pressure packages used by Orlando weren’t effective in getting to the quarterback, it would be wise for him to make some changes to avoid asking so much of his cornerbacks.
5. Can the defense show a higher level of execution overall?
In a story that sounds awfully familiar to Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford, the Longhorns defense struggled to execute basic elements of the game last weekend -- there were missed run fits by the linebackers and leverage mistakes by the safeties that allowed too many opposing ball carriers to get outside the defense.
There were missed tackles. Lots of missed tackles.
Since there are juniors who are still struggling to fulfill basic responsibilities, it’s probably wise to significantly temper the expectations for them, especially in terms of executing complex defenses.
So the hope for this weekend is merely to reduce mistakes and improve on some of those fundamentals in taking on blocks, filling in the right spots against the run, and finishing tackles.