From a hospital bed in Austin, Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator Tim Beck watched the throw from sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger fall incomplete in Manhattan more than 675 miles away.
Intended for junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay, the shot play on the sixth play against the Kansas State Wildcats from the Texas 45-yard yard line was a post route from a look that isolated Duvernay against a safety.
The kind of play coaches put at the top of the call sheet before the game because they know that they have a potential touchdown.
“Just a bad ball by Sam, I think,” Beck told me on Wednesday.
For the first time in 30 years, Beck had not only missed practice that week, but also missed the game. His wife, Tamara, took the brunt of Beck’s anger as he was kept in the hospital, he said upon his return, though the frustration was about much more than that play.
Still, a missed shot play in what ended up being a close game is a legitimate cause for frustration, though the coaches tend to view those misses with some equanimity.
“When we come out and have some plays in mind that we want to open up the game with, sure, you’d like to hit those, and you take those shots on downs where it makes sense,” offensive line coach Herb Hand told me after that game.
“When we miss a shot play, we tell our guys before the game, ‘Hey, we’re going to throw the ball down the field; we’re going to press them vertically.’ We’re not going to be able to hit them all.”
Unfortunately, Texas simply hasn’t been able to hit many of those plays to Duvernay at all. Ehlinger was able to connect with his speedster against Maryland for an early touchdown, but that was the only touchdown catch on the season for Duvernay. His catch rate is only 51.4 percent, the lowest on the team other than senior Jerrod Heard, who has only eight targets on the season.
With the Texas wide receiver rotation shortened to three players who receive any significant amount of playing time and the skill sets of juniors Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey leaning in other directions, those post routes to Duvernay are the primary way that the Horns attack the middle of the field in search of big plays.
Even with junior Shane Buechele replacing Ehlinger at quarterback against Baylor following the AC sprain suffered by the starter, head coach Tom Herman and his staff kept calling those post routes for Duvernay. One was nearly intercepted in the end zone and another was intercepted early in the second half — the first interception thrown by a Longhorns quarterback since Ehlinger’s two interceptions in the fourth quarter against the Terps resulted in the season’s only loss to this point.
So, what’s going on here? Why can’t the quarterbacks more consistently take advantage of the separation that Duvernay creates on those routes? One supposition is that Duvernay is taking the wrong angles out of his breaks and not helping his quarterbacks.
“You know, the angle, it’s kind of weird,” Beck told me. “The quarterback sees the big picture, right? So he can see the backside safety or the backside corner, how far I need to throw him across the field, how far I don’t.”
The receiver, on the other hand, just sees the defender on top of him. He’s trying to win inside at all costs. Winning outside is a recipe for an interception.
The quarterback is trying to throw the ball into an open area to allow the wide receiver to go get it, but sometimes a backside safety might cause that throw to come out at a higher angle. If the defender flattens out the wide receiver, the angle of the throw has to flatten out in response.
It’s a difficult throw that requires the quarterback to anticipate it quickly and get the ball out on time — the alternatives are risking a sack or taking a sack by holding it too long. On Ehlinger’s throw against Kansas State, he didn’t throw in rhythm or put the right trajectory on the ball to allow Duvernay the opportunity to run under it.
“That’s why they’re called shot plays,” Beck said. “Sometimes you hit them, sometimes you don’t, but we keep working on those areas. We’re probably better throwing the verticals — the seams, the gos, because of the angles. I think our quarterbacks are extremely accurate on those deep balls and our guys have been extremely good going up and getting them. But that’s an area where we continue to try to work.”
Indeed, Buechele showed a high level of proficiency on those seam routes and go routes as a freshman; a handful of them went to Duvernay during the most productive period of his career through two and a half seasons. And Ehlinger has emerged as a more accurate passer on throws down the sideline to Johnson, who has often eviscerated single coverage.
Consider the target area for those throws, however — the job of the wide receiver on a go route down the sideline is to create enough space between himself and the sideline to give the quarterback a window. Wide receivers can’t afford to let cornerbacks body them towards that sideline to reduce that window.
Johnson isn’t nearly as fast as Duvernay, either, so it’s easier for the quarterback to judge where he needs to put the ball in terms of vertical depth. On top of it all, Johnson has an extraordinary ability to bring down 50-50 balls, aided by his 6’6 frame, leaping ability, and overall body control.
An underthrown pass in those situations is more likely to result in a pass interference penalty than an interception if the target is a wide receiver like Johnson. The sideline itself reduces the risk of an interception. Overthrows are less likely to result in an interception like the one thrown by Buechele against Baylor.
What about a pre-snap read by the wide receiver? Beck likes to talk about his players understanding the hows and the whys instead of the whats in his second season.
Still, that pre-snap read might not help Duvernay that much. He still can’t see the backside safety and whether they will rotate over or even bite on the run fake Texas typically uses on shot plays.
Even the pre-snap read by the quarterback doesn’t particularly help solve accuracy issues. He’s often trying to hold the backside safety, then coming back to Duvernay and instantly calculating whether the wide receiver is going to be open. At that point, it’s a matter of calculating the angle of the throw, the speed of the wide receiver, and the target area of the green grass in front of that receiver moving both vertically and horizontally away from the quarterback. All in an instant.
So, it’s not the easy throw that it might appear, even if Duvernay has created significant separation, but connecting on it more consistently will unlock an explosive element of the passing game that just hasn’t clicked much this season.
What’s clear is that the schemes devised by Herman and Beck on those shot plays have largely worked — now it’s on the quarterback to execute.