Through four games, Texas Longhorns senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay has 39 catches for 377 yards and four touchdowns as he’s become junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s security blanket after moving inside from flanker to the slot.
Called the H position in head coach Tom Herman’s offense, a focal point of media availabilities this week was pinning down why the slot receiver gets so many receptions.
And it’s not because the coaches are trying to feed Duvernay the football since he’s been so good on third downs or developed a reputation for running over defenders like All-American LSU safety Grant Delpit, who ended up on the losing end of several exchanges with Duvernay.
In fact, offensive coordinator Tim Beck has a specific philosophical belief developed over decades of coaching — trust the scheme instead of trying to get touches for a specific player.
“Well, honestly, I’ve been in programs before that you worry about that too much, and it works against you, because all you’re worried about is this guy hasn’t touched the ball, and this guy hasn’t touched the ball,” Beck said on Wednesday.
“The greatest success in my 30 years of experience is just run the offense. He’s going to get his touches. They’re all going to get enough touches when you do that. It’s the quarterback’s job to distribute the football on time and to the open guy based on coverage and scheme. Sam’s done a good job of doing that and has been able to execute.”
So if the coaches aren’t intentionally feeding the ball to Duvernay, how is he leading the nation in receptions per game at 9.8?
One of the reasons is because matchups tend to be favorable in the slot.
“It’s definitely an H-friendly offense, meaning that’s your matchups,” Beck said. “You either have a walk-out linebacker guarding you, you have a nickel back, potentially, which some nickel backs are your third corner because he’s he’s not good enough to be the one or the two, correct? Or it’s a safety, and there’s a reason they’re a safety and not a corner. There’s some matchups issues when that happens.”
The challenges of defending slot receivers helps explain why defenses started using the nickel as a base defense, but there are also specific challenges that make finding good nickel backs so difficult.
In the modern game, a nickel back has to be strong in block separation and block destruction to set the edge against the run or defend against the ubiquitous screen passes that are so often paired with running plays now. The nickel back must also be fast and fluid enough to hold up in man coverage without the benefit of the sideline as an extra defender. Because there’s no sideline, slot receivers have a two-way go against defenders.
The real truth, then, is that Beck’s assessment of matchups may be a little bit archaic — it’s a favorable matchup because the wide receiver is working into so much space and it’s difficult to find a nickel back who can excel in the diverse set of tasks required of the position.
Take Texas sophomore safety BJ Foster, for instance. Foster was excellent last season playing at safety and in the Joker position as a true freshman, flashing playmaking skills, hard-hitting ability, and emerging as an elite blitzer. When asked to move into the nickel position during the offseason, however, he encountered a significant challenge, admitting during preseason camp that he needed to improve in block separation, block destruction, and man coverage.
Senior Brandon Jones has been able to slide down into that role without much of an adjustment period, but he also has unique athleticism and functional strength developed over years in the Texas strength and conditioning program. Adjusting so quickly is the exception, not the norm.
For his part, Duvernay believes that the other pieces around him help make things easier, too.
When senior wide receiver Collin Johnson was healthy, the first two opponents, including LSU, often devoted a safety over the top in bracket coverage or shaded coverage in his direction, limiting resources to stop other players.
Outside at Duvernay’s old position, sophomore wide receiver Brennan Eagles has provided some of the missing explosiveness for an offense that memorably failed to create any plays or 50 or more yards last season. Eagles has four touchdown catches this season, tied for the team lead with Duvernay, and is averaging 27.6 yards per catch thanks to two catches of 50 or more yards.
Then there’s the Texas offensive line, which several veterans said on Tuesday is the best group they’ve played on in Austin and is on track to become the best Longhorns offensive line in years.
There are also practical considerations that make the H receiver a frequent target in blitz situations — the slot is the closest receiver to the football and is often the hot receiver. Those blitzers have to come from somewhere and often leave open space behind them.
Still, that doesn’t mean that catching nearly 10 passes per game or converting on 10 third downs is easy, especially on hot routes. On Tuesday, Duvernay said about a quarter of his catches have come on hot routes, plays when the H receiver has to read the defense, make quick decisions, and be on the same page with the quarterback, an area where Duvernay and Ehlinger put in the time to make major strides this season.
So expect Duvernay’s production to continue and for the next Texas H receiver, freshman standout Jake Smith, to also benefit from those same positional advantages, as he’s already doing.