Last season, the wide receiver rotation for the Texas Longhorns often appeared to have little rhyme or reason in substitution patterns as players entered and left the field of play on seemingly every play.
Nine wide receivers were targeted 17 or more times, with all nine of those receivers catching nine or more passes. Six of those receivers started three or more games.
As a result, wide receivers coach Drew Mehringer came under significant and deserved criticism for lacking clear substitution patterns and coaching that resulted in numerous penalties like a flag for offensive pass interference seemingly every game.
“The philosophy last year was that they were all on the same level in terms of quality of play, so it was easier to rotate,” head coach Tom Herman said on Monday.
The coaches also sent some clear messages to players about what it takes to earn and keep a starting job under Herman.
The team’s leading receiver last season, Collin Johnson, who was targeted 35 more times than Lil’Jordan Humphrey, was benched for four games after he failed to respond to challenges by the coaches to become a more physical and consistent player. Armanti Foreman, who finished the season with four touchdown catches to lead the team, only started five games when he failed to meet the practice expectations set by the coaching staff.
Departures helped make the decision-making calculus much easier. Foreman graduated, as did Lorenzo Joe and Dorian Leonard, resulting in 20 combined starts between those three players leaving the program. Reggie Hemphill-Mapps, who started three games and tied for second on the team in catches, transferred from the program and eventually landed at Trinity Valley CC.
Once the team got into preseason camp this fall, injuries also played a role in shortening the rotation. Senior John Burt injured his foot, and while the injury wasn’t expected to be significant initially, Burt didn’t make his season debut until the Oklahoma game. Freshman Brennan Eagles suffered a hamstring strain against USC and didn’t return until last weekend.
The biggest factor, however, in the reduced rotation has been the separation by the top three receivers — Johnson, Humphrey, and Devin Duvernay, all juniors.
So far, those three players have accounted for 60 percent of the targets this season, 60 percent of the catches, 74 percent of the receiving yards, and 75 percent of the touchdown catches.
The injury to Eagles has allowed Johnson more playing time since there aren’t any other legitimate options at the X position at this time, but he’s also earned every single one of those snaps due to his substantial improvement in multiple areas.
Getting consistently effective releases off the line of scrimmage was a point of emphasis for the coaching staff with Johnson last season and his inability to consistently do so was part of the reason why he was benched heading into the Oklahoma State game.
Now Johnson has become so difficult to cover that sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger is consistently finding him when opponents choose to defend him with a single defender, forcing defenses to make difficult decisions about how to allocate resources.
Whether he catches the ball against single coverage or double coverage, Johnson has made himself difficult to tackle, as he now consistently picks up yards after the catch by forcing misses by the first defender to arrive.
Johnson’s blocking has also improved tremendously — his efforts downfield against USC and TCU allowed Humphrey to score important touchdowns. There were some struggles early in the season, especially on bubble screens, but he’s fixed those issues and become a reliable contributor in that area of the game.
Against Oklahoma, Johnson set a physical tone throughout the game, scrapping with Sooners defensive back Bookie Radley-Hiles as a blocker early in the game and then refusing to go out of bounds after breaking a tackle later on.
Often paired with Johnson to the boundary, Humphrey is a weapon out of the slot who is also difficult to bring down because of the agility he honed as a running back in high school and the fact that he’s 6’4 and 225 pounds.
On third down, Humphrey has become a favorite target of Ehlinger, catching 12 passes for 202 yards, and two touchdowns, while converting nine of those catches into first downs. On one play he failed to convert, a 19-yard reception on a tunnel screen on 3rd and 21, ultimately resulted in a first down and was described as the play of the game by Herman and a “culture” play.
Duvernay has the lowest catch rate of the three, in part because he’s the designated deep threat due to his elite speed, in part because Ehlinger has struggled with his accuracy on post routes. However, Duvernay has also made himself an asset as a blocker and developed as a route runner, so he’s now a much more complete player.
The question is whether the three standouts in the Texas wide receiver corps can continue to play such a high percentage of snaps as the Longhorns get deep into conference play. Johnson will likely receive the highest percentage of snaps due to his role, but Duvernay has to run so much that Burt may receive more opportunities now that he’s healthy. As freshmen Joshua Moore and D’Shawn Jamison continue to grow with more experience, they could reduce the number of snaps for Humphrey, though they aren’t likely to make a big dent this season.
Following the Baylor game, the team will have a bye week to rest and heal up the bumps and bruises that come from playing seven games in seven weeks, but Herman did note that the coaches will have to manage the playing time for those top three receivers.
“We’ve got a chance to take a deep breath and get our bodies back fresh next week, but up until we get to that point we’re going to empty the chamber and play the best guys.”
Unlike last season, the coaches know who the best guys are, and those guys are now playing winning football each week.