During a preseason press conference a little more than two months ago, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman stood in front of the assembled media and the greater burnt orange nation and delivered an unequivocal message about the offseason’s hottest topic — play calling on offense.
“Fans, the minute this offense gets a hangnail, blame me and the offensive staff,” Herman said.
After taking a large role in calling plays during the Texas Bowl win over Missouri last December, the Texas head coach said he would take responsibility for the successes or failures on offense this season.
“It’s the same that went into the decision last year,” Herman said. “There is not a play that gets called or suggested that does not have veto power by the head football coach, Tom Herman. I will be in charge of making sure the plays we run are the plays that we, as well as our staff, will be the most successful in said situation. So who’s saying ‘Deuce Right Zone Up Left’ is irrelevant. The responsibility of the offense’s performance ultimately lies with me.”
At the time, it seemed like a clear attempt by Herman to deflect any future blame from offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who arrived in Austin in January of 2017 amid scorn from fans at his previous two stops and his new one.
Forced to toggle between a sophomore quarterback in his first year learning the system run by Herman and Beck and a true freshman quarterback coming off of an injury-plagued senior season, the Longhorns offensive coordinator took considerable criticism while trying to patch together an offense that suffered numerous injuries.
Beck even publicly admitted that he and his players were pressing at times because of the inexperience and injuries.
“I’m trying to call the perfect play every time,” Beck said.
It didn’t work — the Texas offense had its only performances in the 80th percentile within the first five games, then suffered through a 12th percentile performance against Oklahoma State and a 3rd percentile performance against TCU. Even the bowl win over the Tigers featured an offensive percentile performance under 40 percent.
By the time that Herman and his players taunted Missouri quarterback Drew Locke after securing the bag in the Texas Bowl, Texas was headed for a finish as the No. 99 offensive nationally in S&P+. The offense run by Herman and Beck ranked in the 100s in success rate, isolated points per possession, and finishing drives.
In a word, it was bad. Putrid, even. Rancid. Etcetera, etcetera.
This season, the play-calling structure on offense has been a complete afterthought, the result of an offense that found its quarterback in sophomore Sam Ehlinger, added two new running backs, developed junior wide receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey into two of the best in the conference, and solidified the offensive line with the hire of co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Herb Hand.
The results have been impressive — the offense hasn’t had a percentile performance this season lower than 58 percent when Ehlinger has played the entire game and has been at 73 percent or higher in five of nine games so far.
With three games looming in the regular season, Texas is one spot away from climbing into the top 25 nationally in offensive S&P+. Read that again, then stop and marinate about how unusual that level of success has been in the last decade.
The offense isn’t perfect, as evidenced by continued struggles in isolated points per possession and marginal explosiveness, as well as some red-zone struggles, but it has improved significantly in success rate and marginal efficiency.
Multiple elements have contributed to that success, including a lack of major injuries across the board, an effective collaborative play-calling structure, and a more experienced offense that can make the right decisions on the field.
Ehlinger and Herman both predicted the impact that a higher level of experience would have on the program in its second year. So did Beck.
“I just think the biggest thing is we’re coaching football,” Herman said at the start of preseason camp. “We’re coaching individual drills. We’re coaching schemes. We’re coaching techniques and fundamentals, where that was almost a secondary thought, as to ball security and effort, physicality, not turning down hits or shying away from things.”
When I asked Beck about why he clearly feels more comfortable this season and isn’t pressing, he pointed back to that knowledge and how it consistently impacts plays on the field.
Beck told me that when he called pass protections last year, he was merely hoping that the quarterback would get the offense into the right protection. Now he knows that Ehlinger will do that — or at least, only rarely fail to do so — a major reason why Texas is only allowing 1.44 sacks per game this season (tied for No. 30 nationally), compared to 2.62 sacks per game last season (No. 108 nationally).
“Last year, if we didn’t protect it right, it may not have been on the offensive line — it may have been that the quarterback didn’t call the right protection — and we gave up a sack,” Beck said.
And then that drive was buried.
Now the line communicates with Ehlinger and sometimes Ehlinger overrides the offensive line. Sometimes the sophomore lets the line set the protection.
The pre-snap communication between Ehlinger and his wide receivers has improved, too. If a wide receiver isn’t covered, they know that Ehlinger will get them the football based on his pre-snap read and ability to adjust. He’ll just rise up and fire it out to them. So a play that Beck didn’t call can produce a solid gain to keep the offense ahead of the chains.
“It’s really smart football, but we weren’t doing that last season,” Beck said. “It was like, ‘Here’s the play, I gotta run this play.’ So it makes it... you know, there’s a lot more safety valves to it because they understand the game more.”
With Ehlinger and the rest of the offense feeling more comfortable within that scheme, it’s been able to make the coaches calling the plays collaboratively look good.
“It’s by committee — Herb Hand will say stuff, [passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach] Drew Mehringer will say stuff,” Beck said on Wednesday. “‘Hey, I see this, we ought to do this,’ and it’s just kind of that.”
During the week, the staff takes input from each coach offensively and then creates the call sheet for games, which includes the the three plays Texas will carry into a game for 3rd and 1 situations, for instance. It includes the shot plays that the Horns use in between the 40s in attempts to create long touchdown passes like the throw from Ehlinger to junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay late against West Virginia.
“You could call the plays, because it’s on a sheet of paper and all you gotta do is say, ‘This is the one I like,’” Beck told me.
Sign me up, coach. I assume that position would come with a raise. Not as much job security, though.
At halftime, the coaches make adjustments, with Hand and tight ends coach Derek Warehime focusing on the running game and Mehringer and Beck provide input on the passing game. The group tells Herman what they’re seeing throughout the first half and then the head coach provides his own suggestions based on the opinions of his assistants and what he’s been seeing on the field.
The staff also has a better understanding of how each of its players fit in the scheme. Humphrey is playing exclusively in the slot this season after playing outside some last season. Graduate transfer Tre Watson and freshman running back Keaontay Ingram, even though they weren’t at Texas last season, have scored three touchdowns in recent games on wheel routes because they’re extremely effective as receivers. Duvernay moves around in order to get him favorable matchups for those shot plays. Senior tight end Andrew Beck, who missed last season due to a foot injury, has emerged as a threat down the seam on play-action passes.
The combination of all those factors has produced an offense capable of keeping the team in games when the defense struggles, the exact reverse of what happened in 2017.
And so Herman’s plan has worked, while Beck has shown that even if it’s hard to determine just how much he’s influenced the offense’s success, his work developing Ehlinger and his contributions to game plans have resulted in production that most observers didn’t expect when the Texas head coach made that unequivocal statement on the ninth floor of Bellmont less than 75 days ago.
Herman says that it’s irrelevant who is calling Deuce Right Zone Up Left, but maybe — just maybe — all the haters were wrong about Beck.