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Fan-friendly Orange-White game format contributed to some Texas struggles

The offensive line faced the toughest challenge.

NCAA Football: Texas Spring Game John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

With new athletics director Chris Del Conte focused on improving the fan experience for the Orange-White game, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman made some sacrifices.

“I do like the way that we did it last year a little bit better because I feel like we’ve got some really, really good work,” Herman said. “I do understand if we’re going to ask our fans to come to the game, we need to also make it enjoyable for them, too.”

In 2017, for instance, Herman split up the offense and defense and used a complicated scoring system for fans that wasn’t easy to follow. Early on in the game, the ones went against the ones and the twos went against the twos.

This year, when players like cornerback Anthony Cook and offensive guard Patrick Hudson ended up missing the game in addition to 11 other players ruled out on Friday, the Horns were without a significant number of scholarship players when Herman split up the Orange and White teams.

Walk-on running back Tim Yoder had to play for both squads, as did punter Ryan Bujcevksi. And the eight healthy scholarship offensive linemen.

“When we had the one offensive line in there playing together, we did some really good things offensively,” Herman said after the scrimmage. “It’s really hard with this format. I get why people wanted us to split teams up and go Orange and White, and make it a little bit easier to keep score, especially for those O-line guys.”

As position coach Herb Hand tried to get a look at offensive linemen in new positions, like Derek Kerstetter at center instead of right tackle, some players ended up playing at new position they hadn’t practice at. Many of them were also in the game for an unusually large number of snaps, finishing a series with one team and then going back in the game after the change of possession.

The format also led to some tough match ups, like back-up right tackle JP Urquidez going against starting defensive end Breckyn Hager. Showing off his increased strength, Hager’s initial punch against Urquidez was so violent that the redshirt sophomore was nearly knocked back into the quarterback. At another point, fellow starting defensive end Charles Omenihu walked back-up offensive guard Tope Imade deep into the backfield with his leverage and strength.

Some of the breakdowns were more concerning, however, like left guard Patrick Vahe failing to pick up a blitzing walk-on linebacker who got to the mesh point between the quarterback and running back as the exchange was happening. As a result, Toneil Carter fumbled the ball on his first carry. Given the emphasis on ball security for Carter, it wasn’t a good sign, but Herman wasn’t too worried about it.

“I’m not concerned about that,” he said. “I hate it for Toneil, but I think if you watched that play closely, you’ll see it got batted out of there right as the exchange was happening.”

Herman was also asked about taking Carter out of the game after two failed short-yardage carries. Former high school running back Lil’Jordan Humphrey, now one of the team’s best wide receivers, was able to score on third down.

Animated by the question, Herman noted that Texas was in base 11 personnel all game and only called inside zone and power. There weren’t any goal-line packages or plays.

“Do we really think that those three plays are indicative of what we can and can’t do on offense? I’m asking a follow-up question,” Herman said. “Do we all think that in here? Three plays in a spring game is indicative of what we can and can’t do? I’m asking you. No comment? Okay.”

So, it’s clearly worth remembering that the Orange-White game was a snapshot of one particular practice limited in scope by the format and the fact that opponents will watch the game film. Herman definitely wants you to remember that and will ask a follow-up question about it if necessary.

And the game was truly set up for the fans.

“To be honest with you, I wanted to make our fans happy,” Herman said. “It’s a shame we’re not deep enough right now and that we did get a little bit banged up. Because we split the squad up, you’ve got walk-ons starting for some units, and stuff, you’ve got guys in there in the second half that just joined the team in February. So I didn’t like that part of it.”

All that context matters when evaluating the team’s development. Even within that context, there were some concerning moments with the offensive line in pass protection. From the wider angle, though, Herman is still satisfied with where the Longhorns are heading into the summer.

“We still need improvement,” Herman admitted. “But how do I feel? I feel a lot better than I did this time last year, and a lot better than I did in December.”