“I mean I envy those guys that are head coaches and call plays. I don’t know how they do it. They’ve got a different skill set than me, maybe.”
The early October statement from Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman explaining why he wasn’t willing to take on a bigger role in calling plays from the sidelines mostly got lost in the shuffle of a disappointing season.
It also revealed a potential limitation with Herman as a head coach, a development that was hardly ideal given his sterling reputation as an offensive coordinator and the less-than-inspiring hire of Tim Beck in that role.
“I was always best calling plays from the box, too,” Herman said. “And there were times in my career when a head coach would ask me to be on the field, whether it be a quarterback needs to be down there, the offense needs me. And I was a fish out of water.”
After the offense struggled early in the season, Herman moved wide receivers and passing game coordinator Drew Mehringer into the booth before the Oklahoma State game. The change hardly paid dividends on the field, as Texas scored only 10 points and gained 283 yards.
As quarterbacks Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger alternated as the starters due to injury and the running game struggled to get going without Connor Williams, Elijah Rodriguez, and Andrew Beck, the offensive coordinator and players experienced difficulties.
“I’m pressing,” Beck said after the Oklahoma State. “I’m sure they are. If I am they are. I’m trying to call the perfect play every time.”
The team never got healthy and Beck never truly found his grove. A fateful 3rd and 2 pass play with a lead against Texas Tech late in the game served as a microcosm of the season.
“We weren’t running the ball very well regardless of down and distance,” Herman said after the game. “We felt like in man coverage, ran a little switch route, popped. Hit him, pretty much end the game. If not, felt like Sam [Ehlinger] was doing a really good job scrambling, that he would scramble and try to get us a first.”
Instead, Ehlinger was intercepted when he threw across his body and the Longhorns suffered another crushing defeat, arguably the most frustrating loss in a frustrating season.
In the Texas Bowl, Herman reportedly took a larger role in calling plays, which resulted in a quick lead against Missouri thanks to several big passing plays to Daniel Young out of the backfield and some new wrinkles in the running game.
Having ended the season with the program’s first bowl win since 2012 and some offseason momentum, Herman set out to evaluate his offensive staff’s performance. He’d already gone on record saying that he would retain all of his coaches despite Beck’s unpopularity and poor on-field results.
A new NCAA rule that allowed the addition of a 10th assistant coach afforded Herman some flexibility. In mid-January, Herman hired Herb Hand away from Auburn as his new co-offensive coordinator and offensive line, resulting in former offensive line coach Derek Warehime taking over the tight ends and a new role for Corby Meekins.
Far from providing clarity about the play-calling structure, however, Hand’s hire raised questions about the experienced coach fits into the offensive hierarchy. Last Wednesday, Herman played down Hand’s role as co-coordinator.
“Much like everybody in that room, he’ll have an input in game planning,” Herman said. “None any more great than anybody else in that room.”
The move came about after Herman evaluated the defense, special teams, and recruiting as functioning at a high level, determining instead that adding some “freshness and newness” on offense would make the biggest difference in his program.
And though Herman declined to rule out taking over play-calling duties — “it’s to determined” — he then immediately revealed his candid thoughts (or at least the public party line) on some of the most harsh assessments of Beck’s performance last season.
“I think, again, to judge any kind of coach’s abilities based on the circumstances that surrounded the offense...” mid thought, Herman paused, looking at the camera directly and speaking pointedly into the microphone.
“We got to get better as coaches. We have to get better as coaches, okay, on that side of the ball.”
Having gotten that statement out of the way, he resumed with his previous thought.
“There were a lot of circumstances there that probably didn’t allow for a fair observation,” he said.
So Herman clearly believes that Beck deserves another season to prove himself as a play caller. The Texas head coach was also adamant once again that moving into that role himself would detract from his ability to manage the entire program during spring, if not on game days, too.
“Much like any head coach, even that does call the plays, I’ve researched from Chip Kelly to Scott Frost to Gus Malzahn when he was doing it, in the spring I got to be the head coach,” Herman said. “You’re not going to see me out there in a headset standing on the sideline calling plays. I’m going to be behind the quarterback, watching the play, cheering and coaching both sides of the football. Tim Beck is going to call the scrimmage situation plays.”
After the Orange-White game on April 21, Herman will continue evaluating Beck and decide how much of a role he will play during the fall. Having already answered the play-calling question to his own satisfaction, Herman was done talking about it — his response was curt when asked a follow-up question about whether he would be willing to call plays in 2018.
“If I felt like it helped us win,” he said.
The common comparison is to the 2015 season, when head coach Charlie Strong decided to keep Shawn Watson as the offense’s architect and primary play caller. In effort to keep up with the rest of the Big 12, Watson tried to install an up-tempo, spread offense with the help of former Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell.
The experiment was a disaster in the season opener against Notre Dame, a blowout in South Bend that cost Watson his job.
So what’s the difference now? If Beck struggles early in the season, fan pressure could force Herman to take a bigger role almost immediately. The difference is if Herman has to take a larger role, he wouldn’t have to fire Beck on the spot and the offense wouldn’t change — Texas is already running Herman’s offense.
Since the change didn’t happen after the 2017 season and it’s hard to imagine anything that would seriously alter Herman’s thinking on the matter this offseason, Beck is almost certainly going to be the play caller against Maryland.
For better or worse.