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Texas needs better decision making on special teams

A lack of effective in-game coaching has contributed to turnovers and loss of field position in recent weeks.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman admitted that one key area his staff has to address is decision making on special teams after numerous mental mistakes in recent weeks.

Against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl last Saturday, senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay contributed to the 12 Texas drives starting at the 19-yard line on average due to Duvernay continually pressing to make a play.

The game started off with a relatively rare positive play on kickoff return — Duvernay returned the ball 31 yards from the Texas one-yard line, one of his best of the season. He entered the game averaging only 22 yards per return.

After that, however, Duvernay kept trying to make plays against odds stacked against him, as Texas entered the game knowing that the directional kicking by Oklahoma would make returns difficult. Nonetheless, on the next three kickoffs, Duvernay eschewed fair catches and only gained 46 yards total, a loss of 27 yards of total field position. On one of those kickoffs, Duvernay nearly stepped out of bounds fielding the ball, a decision that might have cost Texas even more yardage and almost resulted in a disaster near the goal line.

When Duvernay finally did call for a fair catch, he dropped it. Because of the new fair catch rules, the ball was ruled dead at the spot of his recovery at the 5-yard line. Add in another 20 yards for 47 total yards of lost field position after the opening kickoff to Texas.

By the time that Duvernay did successfully call for a fair catch in the fourth quarter, he drew a derisive cheer from the Longhorn fans on that end of the stadium.

“Yeah, we should have instructed our returners probably to fair catch. They do a good job spreading the ball to different sides of the field, and it makes it difficult for the return schemes,” Herman said after the game.

“We adjusted, we certainly did, but it was too little, too late at that point.”

So Herman and the Texas staff knew that it was going to be difficult to produce plus yardage on kickoff returns, but didn’t effectively convey that reality to Duvernay during the most critical points of the game.

Sometimes trusting experienced players to make the right decisions isn’t the right move.

“There’s not a guy back there that we would rather have than Devin Duvernay, in terms of his trust level,” Herman said on Monday. “I think he would admittedly say he got caught up in the moment and was trying to make a play. I think the fact that he was so close on the first or second one that we got out to the 35-yard line or something, kind of gave him some confidence. But, obviously, when you field the balls where he fielded them, you’re not giving your return team a chance.”

And yet, it still took losing nearly 30 yards of field position before the coaches explicitly instructed Duvernay to call for a fair catch.

Trying to make a play is an admirable goal, but Herman admitted that it’s important to rein in those emotions, especially in a rivalry game.

The overarching concern is that special teams nearly cost the Longhorns a victory against the Cowboys several weeks ago when freshman Jake Smith fumbled a punt, punt-safe returner Brandon Jones gave the ball away when aggressively trying to field another, and had to recover a loose ball earlier when it hit a player on the punt-return unit.

After the game, Herman had to express similar culpability for not communicating to Jones that letting the ball bounce in front of him and losing field position was preferable to turning the ball over.

Herman taking immediate responsibility is the necessary first step in addressing those issues during the game instead of after, but if he’s too busy during games worrying about upcoming offensive drives — or whatever else is keeping him from having those critical conversations — then it should be up to special teams coordinator Derek Warehime to communicate with the return men.

The bottom line is that Texas is hurting itself because the coaches aren’t providing the necessary instruction during games and that has to stop.