Last season, the Texas Longhorns were just hoping for three yards. The cloud of dust was a bonus.
Following the departure of Doak Walker Award winning D’Onta Foreman to the NFL after his junior season, Texas ranked No. 110 nationally with an average of 3.58 yards per carry. Adjusting for the Longhorns opponents didn’t help much, either — head coach Tom Herman’s first offense ranked 86h in rushing S&P+.
The issue wasn’t necessarily suffering plays for negative yardage — Texas managed an average stuff rate — but struggling mightily to create explosive runs. Texas only produced one rushing play of 40 or more yards and only four plays of 30 or more yards.
With Foreman steamrolling opponents behind All-American left tackle Connor Williams, the Horns rumbled to seven runs of 40 or more yards. One run against Texas Tech went for a 74-yard touchdown and Foreman only needed one shoe to finish the effort.
In other words, the dropoff was significant and caused major problems for Texas offense.
The two longest runs of the season — 41 yards by Chris Warren III and 38 yards by Toneil Carter against lowly San Jose State.
With Carter suspended for the Texas Bowl against Missouri, the longest run managed by Texas went for 18 yards to wide receiver Armanti Foreman. None of the running backs recorded a run longer than eight yards.
Several factors influenced the inability to produce big plays on the ground.
Lack of a vertical passing game
While the rushing attack struggled, the passing game wasn’t producing many explosive plays, either — Texas only had 15 passes of 30 or more yards on the season, which ranked tied for 88th nationally. In 2016, the Horns had nine passes that went for 50 or more yards and seven that went for 60 or more yards. By contrast, Oklahoma recorded 43 passes of 30 or more yards last season.
Unfortunately, the passing game struggled so mightily that opposing defenses never had to worry about Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger throwing the football over the top.
Limited use of run-pass options and the quarterback run
When Buechele was starting for Texas, the offense was able to use all of the available run-pass options due to his accuracy and quick release. However, Buechele wasn’t much of a running threat, so defenses didn’t have to pay much attention to him on read option plays. The only notable exception came on a 28-yard touchdown run against Baylor, but that was Buechele’s only run of 20 or more yards on the season.
When Ehlinger was in the game for the Longhorns, the coaches weren’t comfortable with him on run-pass options, so there wasn’t as much opportunity to put defenders in conflict in hopes of creating big plays.
So no matter which quarterback was in the game, there was an important part of the offense missing that in turn made it harder for Texas to run the ball effectively
Poor offensive line play
After the injury to Connor Williams, the offense no longer had a dominant blocker to run behind. Meanwhile, inconsistency and further injuries removed any chance for the Longhorns to run the ball effectively, as ineffective older players or inexperienced younger players were forced into action. Both groups struggled.
Whether it was picking up positive yardage on first down or first downs in short-yardage situations, the offensive failed to find much success, finishing No. 102 nationally in line yards on standard downs and No. 85 nationally in power success rate.
The running backs were untrustworthy or couldn’t create extra yards
When Warren proved ineffective after running through San Jose State for 166 yards, the upside of the Longhorns rushing attack took a huge blow — if Texas was going to be strong in that area of the game, the coaches needed Warren to come through. The other factors contributed, but the bottom line is that Warren’s weaknesses as a runner were finally on full display in 2017. He eventually got moved to H-back.
When Kyle Porter had opportunities, he wasn’t able to make defenders miss or pick up more yards than the offensive line had blocked for him. Toneil Carter struggled with ball security and maturity issues that eventually resulted in his suspension for the Texas Bowl. Daniel Young didn’t receive any significant opportunities until halfway through conference play before emerging as the team’s best running back down the stretch.
With new offensive line coach Herb Hand focused on improving execution across the board, but especially on inside zone, there’s hope that the Longhorns will improve simply because of Hand’s tutelage.
Adding graduate transfer left tackle Calvin Anderson should provide an improvement over the play at that position when Williams was out last season. Swing man Elijah Rodriguez returns after playing in only one game last season, as does tight end Andrew Beck after missing all of the 2017 campaign. From a blocking standpoint, a large group of Texas running backs should have more holes to run through this season.
Is there a running back on campus who can take advantage of those opportunities and make some defenders miss or break tackles to create big plays?
Young still has the best combination of size and speed on the roster, with some significant improvement possible because of his relative inexperience and the coaching acumen of Stan Drayton. Carter is probably the fastest and the most elusive. Graduate transfer Tre Watson will provide experience, quickness, and pass-catching ability out of the backfield. Then there’s freshman Keaontay Ingram, who will have to adjust to working more out of the pistol or the shotgun, but is arguably the most talented player of the bunch.
Texas should get more of the position this season — perhaps enough to boast average play at the position.
At quarterback, the best-case scenario for the running game probably involves Ehlinger taking over the position and providing scrambling ability and a credible threat on read-option plays. Ehlinger should also be more capable on run-pass options than he was as a freshman. As with the two other positions, quarterback play should provide more help to the running game than last season.
There are still some significant question marks surrounding the running game and Herman’s second team in Austin isn’t going to induce flashbacks to Georgia’s offense last season, even in a best-case scenario. Overall, though, Texas should be able to make incremental improvements, at the least, at each position and in each of the areas that limited the running game last season. If that happens, the Longhorns have a chance at achieving functionality.