For the first time in school history, the Texas Longhorns will take on the Tulsa Golden Hurricane on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in the home opener as head coach Tom Herman and his staff hope to get the season back on track following last weekend’s disappointing road loss.
To take care of business against the Golden Hurricane, the Longhorns need a better performance from the offense, so here are five keys to getting a more favorable result heading into a big home game against the Trojans next weekend.
Get off to a faster start
When offensive coordinator Tim Beck was asked on Wednesday what he wanted to see from his players on Saturday, the first time that he mentioned was getting off to a faster start.
“I want to see them start faster,” Beck said. “I want to see them play care-free. I think sometimes they’re still afraid to make mistakes.”
On five of the first six possessions against Maryland last weekend, Texas had to punt after five or fewer plays. Four straight drives featured three and outs after sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay.
It wasn’t until the coaches decided to play at tempo that the offense settled down and was able to move the football well enough to get Texas back in the game.
In front of a home crowd and a much weaker opponent, there won’t be any excuses for a slow start against Tulsa.
Create more consistent displacement in the running game
One of the reasons why the Horns got off to such a slow start was the inability of the offensive line to open up significant holes for the running backs. Position coach Herb Hand’s group didn’t suffer the same type of catastrophic breakdowns on each play that often defined past offensive lines, it was more a matter of not getting enough movement.
“You saw it earlier in the game, I don’t know what it was, we were on guys, but we weren’t moving guys,” Beck said on Wednesday. “So we were hats on hats, maybe it was, you know, you go against your defense for a long period of time and then you back off to keep guys healthy, so you’re going against the scout team guys. All of a sudden, you’re playing Maryland and guys can disengage with their hands and make a tackle, whereas the scout team guys don’t.”
Playing at tempo helped, as did the insertion of redshirt freshman Sam Cosmi at right tackle instead of sophomore Derek Kerstetter, who took over that starting role last season when conference play begin.
Cosmi provided steady play in his debut and will remain at that position with Kerstetter sliding in to right guard with center Zach Shackelford out against Tulsa due to a foot sprain. Look for Cosmi to take control of that position, as Beck praised him on Wednesday.
“I thought Sam Cosmi when he got in there did some good stuff,” Beck said, who went on to say that he does expect Cosmi to play more.
When junior running back Kyle Porter scored on a two-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, Cosmi’s ability to move his defender down the line of scrimmage helped open the whole for Porter, along with a strong block from sophomore tight end Cade Brewer.
“That’s one thing about Sam,” Beck said. “We use the word ‘strainer.’ He’s a strainer.”
The issues harkened back to what head coach Tom Herman tried to emphasize for the entire offseason — developing and finishing. While players like Cosmi certainly developed in terms of strength and technique, the five offensive linemen who were playing early simply didn’t finish enough plays.
Beck wants to see more of his offensive linemen approach plays with the physicality and determination that Cosmi and Brewer did on that touchdown run. Even if there are assignment errors and someone blocks the wrong man, Beck trusts the running backs to make plays if linemen create displacement.
Use Keaontay Ingram more often
The freshman running back from Carthage showcased the juice that made him a favorite to eventually take over the starting role on Saturday, as Keaontay Ingram led the team with 6.2 yards per carry after toting the ball six times for 37 yards and a touchdown in his debut.
Ingram left some yards on the field on his first two runs, but quickly found his footing with an 18-yard run in the second quarter that set up his five-yard touchdown.
Expect him to see more playing time moving forward after the coaching staff opted to keep him on the bench in the second half.
“I think you’ll continue to see his role progress and increase,” Herman said of Ingram. “There’s no doubt in my mind. I think in a close game, on the road, after an hour-long rain delay, I made the call.
“I said, you know, we need to — we need to be — we need the experience here in the fourth quarter of a tight ballgame on the road against Power Five opponent,” Herman added. “And so that was why you didn’t see him in the fourth quarter, because coming out of that rain delay, we had 14 minutes to go win the game. We wanted to make sure that the guy with the most experience in our backfield was out there the most.”
So don’t be surprised if Ingram sees a major uptick in his reps this week.
Better work in the short passing game by Sam Ehlinger
Beyond the two late interceptions that stymied a comeback attempt in the fourth quarter, the most disappointing part of sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s game was his work in the short passing game against Maryland. More specifically, he once again struggled with his footwork and accuracy on run-pass options.
Ehlinger struggled in that area so much last season that the coaches didn’t call many of those plays when Ehlinger was in the game, choosing to instead emphasize that element of the playbook when Shane Buechele was the quarterback.
So improving on run-pass options was a major goal for Ehlinger this offseason, but it didn’t happen against the Terrapins.
Beck indicated this week that Ehlinger was a little bit too cautious in that area of the game, opting to make the safe play and hand the ball off instead of throwing the ball out to the perimeter for bigger potential gains.
One reason for his hesitancy was probably the fact that his accuracy suffered in those situations throughout the game and he lost confidence in making those throws. Regardless of why Ehlinger had those issues, he has to be better on run-pass options or the Texas offense will suffer significantly this season as a result — make the right read and get the ball to the receiver with accuracy.
Block better on the perimeter
Another extremely disappointing element of the Maryland game was the poor blocking on the perimeter by Texas players, especially at the wide receiver position.
Junior Collin Johnson was the main culprit, as there were multiple times during the game when wide receiver screens were blown up by the Terrapins defense because Johnson wasn’t able to make good initial contact and then stay on his blocks.
The struggles are particularly frustrating not just because Johnson has the height and strength as a third-year player to make those blocks effectively, it’s frustrating because he spent most of his sophomore season blocking for his older brother Kirk at Trinity Christian in San Jose. The younger Johnson did so willingly and effectively.
So what’s the problem now?
The Longhorns need Johnson on the field because of his ability in one-on-one match ups and don’t really have any reliable options at the X position other than junior Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who often does his best work out of the slot.
But if the coaches — and Ehlinger himself — can’t trust Johnson to make those blocks, it’s a big blow to the offense and a sign that he still isn’t where he needs to be as a player.