Last spring, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman singled out the wide receivers as the position group in which he had the most confidence.
“It’s nice to be able to roll six, seven guys in there and not feel like there’s a massive drop-off,” Herman said in early April.
The problem was that the lack of a coherent rotation and inconsistencies led to a disappointing season in which the only wide receiver with more than two touchdown catches — Armanti Foreman — was benched for long stretches for poor practice performance.
Foreman is gone now, as well as four of the team’s other top-10 pass catchers in reciving yards. Of those departures, the loss of promising sophomore Reggie Hemphill-Maps stings the most because the slot position he played last season isn’t particularly deep and Hemphill-Mapps showed unique flashes of after-the-catch ability in the short passing game.
So new receivers coach Corby Meekins is now helping passing game coordinator Drew Mehringer coach the position as the staff shuffles players around to find the best fits.
Junior Lil’Jordan Humphrey is playing behind fellow junior Collin Johnson at the X position instead of in the slot, while senior Jerrod Heard and redshirt freshman Jordan Pouncey work at Humprey’s old spot.
“We haven’t introduced any of our 10 personnel stuff,” Herman said last week. “When we go four wide receivers, LJ will be in the slot and it just makes sense from a rotation standpoint so we can see a little bit what Jordan Pouncey and Jerrod Heard can do in the slot. LJ is so smart that if he’s one of our best three, we’re going to find a way to get him on the field. When we introduce our four wide receiver package, he’ll definitely be out there.”
After a suspension for the Texas Bowl, simply having Humphrey in the program still is a victory for the staff. A former high school running back at Southlake Carroll, the 6’4, 220-pounder possesses uncommon agility for his size and finished second on the team in catches (37) and receiving yards (431). Humphrey also made some cameos in the backfield, carrying the ball six times for 41 yards and a touchdown on direct snaps.
Now the coaches have to ensure that he’s engaged and properly utilized, which could mean playing him next to Johnson at times in 10 personnel. The formula worked well against Kansas State in freeing up Johnson for seven catches and 92 yards, his last big performance of the season.
Then, inexplicably, the staff went away from that look despite its success.
Speaking of Johnson, he’s one of a number of wide receivers who need to improve their consistency.
“That’s the word, consistency,” Herman said. “He had some unbelievable plays today and then some plays that a junior shouldn’t be making. I have no issues with Collin’s buy-in level. I have no issues with Collin’s want-to, desire. He’s a great teammate, he’s a great player for a coach to coach. I think it’s got to be a constant, whether it’s self-talk, mental focus, whatever you want to call it, dialed into that 1-0 mentality each and every play. I think Coach Mehringer, Coach Meekins, myself, we’re constantly reminding him of that. He’ll get there. I’m very confident he’ll get there.”
If the issue isn’t buy in or physical skills, the question is what’s holding Johnson back. Experience and maturity could help him make the jump this season, but the coaches have also been on him to become more physical to beat press coverage.
Improved play by the quarterbacks and offensive line would certainly help, too.
In the slot, Heard is working there to replace Foreman and Hemphill-Mapps after splitting time last season between playing emergency quarterback in practice and wide receivers. Perhaps as a result, his production numbers dropped across the board. With a full quarterback room, he should be better positioned for success during his final season on the Forty Acres.
As for Pouncey, he has running back experience from high school, which could make him an appealing option on jet sweeps or motioning into the backfield, significant requirements of the position in this offense. He also drew the positive attention of the staff during his redshirt season.
“He’s got good enough length to be an outside [receiver] and he’s (shifty),” offense coordinator Tim Beck said in December. “He’s very natural at breaking. Getting out of breaks he doesn’t have to slow down to do that or chop his feet.”
So there are some positive signs early with the Florida product, who played a lower level of high school football and wasn’t ranked among the nation’s top 100 wide receivers, though his offer list was impressive.
Perhaps the fastest of all the wide receivers, junior Devin Duvernay is a question mark after he disappeared during the 2017 season. Better suited for Sterlin Gilbert’s veer-and-shoot offense that consistently gave him chances down the field on go routes, it’s now worth wondering whether Beck’s offense will provide those opportunities and if he can do anything else.
The blocking effort was there last season, but he only caught nine passes for 124 yards last season despite scoring three touchdowns and recording 70 or more receiving yards in four games as a freshman.
The staff is probably lucky to still have his elite speed in the room. Now it’s time to put him in a position to succeed.
Herman did have some positive things to say about the start to spring practice for Duvernay.
“Great,” Herman said when asked about how he’s doing. “Made some standout plays in both days of practice. He’s got a smile on his face. He’s doing really good.”
Meanwhile, senior John Burt is once again running track, though he’s not expected to miss much practice time.
“John hasn’t missed anything from a football standpoint, yet,” Herman said. “Now, he might have done it at different times because of his training schedule for track. But that’s kind of our deal, is that we want our guys to play as many sports as they can.”
After running track following his freshman season, Burt gave it up last year following a disappointing sophomore campaign on the gridiron. Despite the increased dedication to football, more than three quarters of his receiving yardage last season came on a 90-yard catch and run against Oklahoma State.
After the disappointments of last season, hope doesn’t spring quite as eternal as normal this time of year, so there’s some pressure on Mehringer and Meekins to coax some significant development out of their charges over the coming weeks.
There’s certainly still enough talent to succeed.