Early in spring practice, the Texas Longhorns hosted Wake Forest Demon Deacons graduate transfer wide receiver Tabari Hines on an official visit in an effort to bolster the slot receiver position.
Roughly a month later, even though head coach Tom Herman and his staff lost out on Hines to the Oregon Ducks on Monday, Texas made enough progress with the current players on campus to feel positive about the position heading in to the 2018 season.
The transfer of Reggie Hemphill-Mapps and the graduation of Armanti Foreman opened up playing time on the inside and left Herman and wide receivers coaches Drew Mehringer and Corby Meekins looking for replacements at the most demanding wide receiver position.
“I think ideally you would like a guy that can motion in the backfield and do some things out of the backfield, mainly on some speed sweep-type things but also be able to hand the ball off on other things,” Herman said in early April. “You’d like a guy that is quick and fast enough to make plays in space in the RPO game on bubbles and quick hitters, if you will.”
And while Hemphill-Mapps and Foreman were much closer to the prototypical slot receiver than anyone currently on campus, Herman has used a variety of different types of players there in the past.
“We had Linell Bonner at Houston our last year and Linell was phenomenal at that H position,” he said. “We had to adapt because Linell’s a 6’2, 215-pound guy. What Linell Bonner was really good at was working routes off of linebackers, nickels, things like that. We didn’t motion him as much into the backfield.”
Of the three players who saw time at the position during the spring, none fit the mold as well as Hemphill-Mapps, but each of that have more of those ideal attributes than Bonner.
After catching seven passes for 100 yards in the first half and running for another 14 yards with two touchdowns, junior Lil’Jordan Humphrey emerged as the top option after starting the spring behind fellow junior Collin Johnson at the X position.
At 6’4 and 220 pounds, Humphrey is too fast for linebackers and too tall for smaller cornerbacks, allowing quarterbacks to fit the ball into small windows between defenders, as sophomore Sam Ehlinger did in the Orange-White game to set up Humphrey’s first touchdown run.
Late in the first half, Humphrey also showed an ability to create separation against cornerbacks on out routes that picked up big chunks of yards and allowed him to get out of bounds
In the passing game, Humphrey showed a high level of rapport in working with the team’s prospective starting quarterback.
And though Humphrey took his handoffs from the running back position instead of motioning into the backfield, he proved that he can at least serve as a weapon in that area after flashing last season on direct snaps.
Humphrey is clearly one of the team’s top three wide receivers now — and one of the offense’s top players overall — so when Texas isn’t in 10 personnel with Humphrey next to Johnson, he looks like the most likely starter in the slot.
On the White team, senior Jerrod Heard, who mostly worked outside during the last two seasons, received the start and turned in a solid performance with four catches for 89 yards, including a 38-yard reception from junior Shane Buechele on a perfectly-thrown pass.
Heard is also an option on jet sweeps and taking handoffs in the backfield, though he wasn’t as effective last season as Humphrey has been in his Texas career in that role. However, Heard does bring an element that Humphrey doesn’t — the ability to throw passes as a former quarterback.
In the Orange-White game, the most successful trick play was a double pass to Heard that he completed to senior John Burt for 20 yards. It’s also a play that Texas could use off of the jet sweep look.
Finally, redshirt freshman Jordan Pouncey also received a look in the slot behind Humphrey on the Orange team. The 6’2, 195-pounder had a 32-yard reception down the seam from early enrollee Cameron Rising and also carried the ball once for three yards. A part-time running back in high school at Winter Park in Florida, Pouncey averaged 8.9 yards per carry as a senior and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground.
So all three options made plays in the passing game during the Orange-White game and Humphrey showed some significant upside carrying the ball in college as he flashed back to his time as a high school running back at Southlake Carroll.
With Joshua Moore enrolling in several weeks and set to provide a fourth option during the fall, the spring development in the slot rewarded the confidence that Herman verbalized in Heard and Humphrey back in early April.
And though none of the four possess the prototypical build and quickness of Hines, there’s cause for greater optimism now than there was four weeks ago.