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Texas offense more comfortable heading into second season under Tim Beck

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Why Jerrod Heard’s winding saga illustrated program illnesses and how that’s finally changing.

Tim Beck
Jeff Howe (247Sports)

Fire the coach! Fire the coach! Fire the coach!

Depending on the particular play or the situation, the call from pitchwork-wielding Texas Longhorns fans could target a coach ranging from the top to the bottom. A handful of failed plays is cause for dismissal. Someone. Anyone. Maybe all of ‘em.

It escalates quickly, you see.

Perhaps it’s understandable after so many losses and so much turnover, especially on the offensive side of the ball in recent years. Since 2009, Texas has run eight different offenses, only one of which survived two full seasons. Since 2010, the Texas offensive staff has featured six offensive coordinators, an in-season change of play callers, and 27 different assistant coaches. Six coaches have been in charge of the offensive line, while seven coaches have now worked with the wide receivers.

Drew Mehringer is the first wide receivers coach to stick with the program for two years since Darrell Wyatt was in Austin from 2012 to 2013. The previous wide receivers coach, Bobby Kennedy, spent seven seasons under Mack Brown.

So let’s take a look at a player like fifth-year senior wide receiver Jerrod Heard, who is perhaps the best poster boy for the coaching turnover. Heard committed to Texas in 2012, when Bryan Harsin was still the offensive coordinator. Then he planned to play in Major Applewhite’s up-tempo spread offense.

By the time Heard signed in 2014, Charlie Strong was the head coach and the play-calling situation was already a mess, as Strong struggled to articulate whether offensive coordinator Joe Wickline or assistant head coach for the offense Shawn Watson had final say in play calls.

The situation only got worse, ultimately culminating in an embarrassing lawsuit that made Strong and his staff look rather incompetent.

When Heard made his debut against Notre Dame in 2015, it was with Watson in the booth attempting to run a spread offense. The blowout in South Bend that evening prompted Strong to demote Watson one game into the season and elevate wide receivers coach Jay Norvell to play caller. Under Norvell, Heard quickly turned in a record-setting performance against Cal.

By the next fall, he’d willingly switched to wide receiver to play for Charlie Williams in the veer-and-shoot offense run by Sterlin Gilbert. Another would-be savior at quarterback, come and gone.

As a junior, a lack of depth at quarterback forced Heard to spend some practice time at wide receiver as he adjusted to Drew Mehringer’s coaching in Tom Herman’s offense, as helmed by Tim Beck. Now Heard has a second wide receivers coach working with him — the third in three years — in former tight ends coach Corby Meekins.

So Heard has now seen five play callers come and go as he’s worked under a handful of position coaches.

This season represents the first year of continuity since he committed to Texas almost six years ago, though perhaps that’s arguable given that he has an extra position coach now. But at least the offense is the same for the first time in six years.

And with the second spring now complete under Herman and Beck, the offense is in a much better place.

Last week, Beck was asked where his offense had improved the most, a question framed for the offensive coordinator to share the position group that made the greatest progress. Instead, Beck went in a different direction.

“As a unit, probably confidence,” he said. “I like the way the quarterbacks are playing right now. I like the way the offensive line’s playing. I think we’ve gotten better at running back and gotten better at wide receiver, as well. Tight end, obviously — I mean, I’ve been real pleased. The development at each of the positions has shown and each group has gotten better.”

Perhaps that sounds like a bit of a cop-out answer, which Beck acknowledged, but the reality is that there’s something deeper going on in the Texas program that represents a seismic shift from the recent past.

“There’s a lot more of teaching how to do things instead of what to do, and our players have been sponges,” Beck said.

As an example, Beck mentioned how a wide receiver in a new offense can get hyper focused on the route they’re supposed to run. A wide receiver in a familiar offense, by contrast, can read the defense and understand how to alter their release or tweak the route to beat that coverage.

“So, they’ve all individually improved, which allows the group the improve, which enables the offense to improve.”

If that seems like something of a foreign concept, it’s because the constant coaching turnover at Texas in recent years hasn’t allowed for that type of growth and continuity. Every year for years there’s been a new offense, new position coaches teaching different technique.

Co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Herb Hand is teaching some new technique and Beck has tweaked some aspects of the offense to help the players, including the quarterbacks, but the system as a whole is the same. On offense, the players are almost entirely hearing the same voices. And this year, the new voices are a result of being able to have more of them, not a dismissal.

For a player like Jerrod Heard, who has been around the program since 2012, that’s an entirely novel concept. This fall, it could be one of the factors that helps the Longhorns improve considerably on offense.

So maybe put those pitchforks away for a little while and see if some continuity, a sign of a healthy program, actually makes some difference.