Even though the Texas Longhorns only lost one of four potential early entrants to the NFL, the loss of five starters on offense and eight starters on defense has left head coach Tom Herman’s program near the bottom of the FBS in Bill Connelly’s returning production metric.
In fact, Texas ranks No. 121 nationally, behind Georgia Tech and Wyoming and in front of Middle Tennessee and South Alabama. The reason? The Longhorns return 57 percent of all production on offense (No. 88 nationally), as gauged by the metric, but return only 40 percent of the production defensively (No. 123 nationally).
The returning production metric is one of three factors used to create Connelly’s S&P+ projections, along with recent performance and recruiting. The latter should favor the Horns after elite recruiting efforts in the 2018 and 2019 classes. Recent performance, perhaps not so much, as S&P+ never particularly cared for the Horns last season, ranking Texas No. 30 nationally despite the Sugar Bowl victory over eventual No. 3 Georgia.
Beyond speculation about S&P+ projections, how is this particular metric weighted?
Here’s how it works on offense:
The higher the number, the more likely returning production in these areas is to coincide with strong offense:
Receiving yards correlation: 0.324
Passing yards correlation: 0.234
Rushing yards correlation: 0.168
Offensive line starts correlation: 0.153
So the loss of wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey to the NFL is a big deal here, as he accounted for 32.4 percent of all receiving yards for Texas last season. Lesser impacts result from the departure of graduate transfer running back Tre Watson, the team’s leading rusher, and three starting offensive linemen, including Patrick Vahe, who racked up 45 starts during his career.
Here’s how it works on defense:
On defense, where returning production appears to matter more in general, the correlations are both stronger and more diverse. Since teams use different numbers of defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs, I look at both unit-specific categories and those for defense as a whole.
Defensive back tackles correlation: 0.404
Defensive back passes defensed correlation: 0.377
Overall tackles correlation: 0.325
Overall passes defensed correlation: 0.324
Defensive back tackles for loss correlation: 0.299
Overall tackles for loss correlation: 0.269
Linebacker tackles for loss correlation: 0.250
Linebacker tackles correlation: 0.250
Linebacker passes defensed correlation: 0.228
Remarkably, the low correlation between linebacker production and success given the loss of both starting inside linebackers probably saves Texas from ranking even lower defensively, but the fact that three of the top five metrics to determine returning production come from defensive backs is highly concerning.
After all, Texas lost three longtime starters in the defensive backfield — cornerbacks Kris Boyd and Davante Davis and nickel back PJ Locke III. Together, those three produced 186 tackles just as seniors and 27 of 49 passes defensed (55 percent). The fact that Boyd was the fifth-leading tackler on the team with 67 stops showed just how valuable he was in run support and how solid he was in space. For all of his faults, Boyd was an excellent, physical tackler.
Replacing those players will be a group of relatively inexperienced players. Potential nickel back BJ Foster had 42 tackles by himself as a freshman, but Josh Thompson, Anthony Cook, Kobe Boyce, and Jalen Green only combined for 52 stops in 2018. All together, Thompson’s 12 tackles in 2017 is the only boost that entire group can boast from previous seasons.
Note, with some concern, that Connelly’s numbers indicate that returning production on defense is more important than on offense, where Texas is in much better shape thanks to the presence of second-leading receiver Collin Johnson and breakout quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
Note, as well, that Rice ranks No. 5 nationally in returning production, while LSU ranks No. 15, and Louisiana Tech ranks No. 30. If those programs can translate that returning production into improvement during the offseason and immediate success on the field this fall, the non-conference schedule could be more difficult than anticipated, especially in regards to games against the Owls and Bulldogs.
In particular, the Tigers could be an even more formidable opponent than LSU’s talent level and status as an SEC West powerhouse would otherwise indicate.