Entering last Saturday’s game against the Kansas State Wildcats, the Texas Longhorns offensive staff had a problem — head coach Tom Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck prefer to play with a tight end capable of filling the most diverse role on offense.
That role requires being able to serve a lead blocker from the H-back position, acquire defenders in space in the perimeter passing game, and serve as a credible enough receiving threat to split out wide. Ideally, that player also has the capability of blocking a defensive end one on one as an in-line tight end.
Fortunately for Texas, the Horns entered the season with a player capable of accomplishing all of those tasks but the latter — junior Cade Brewer.
Unfortunately, Brewer went down with an ankle injury against TCU that resulted in torn ligaments and required surgery, so Texas may not even have him back for the bowl game.
Entering the Kansas State game, and moving forward, the issue facing the coaching staff is that backup tight end Reese Leitao, a redshirt sophomore, may be an upgrade over Brewer as a blocking H-back, but isn’t as good in space as a blocker or a receiver. In those situations, he tends to look like the player many programs thought had a higher upside as a defensive end coming out of high school.
The solution? Use a personnel package that the staff worked to develop during preseason camp employing redshirt freshman Malcolm Epps as the fourth wide receiver, along with senior Collin Johnson, senior Devin Duvernay, and sophomore Brennan Eagles.
“I think you will see more of that going forward,” Herman predicted on Monday.
So even though Leitao graded out as a champion in the role fashioned for him, Texas wanted to have a fourth receiver on the field, especially on third down. In an offense that prefers to remain in 11 personnel and not substitute on drives unless players need a breather, that’s a significant capitulation given how stubborn Herman has been in the past maintaining his base personnel package.
The ancillary benefit is that it allows the coaches more opportunity to manipulate the matchups against Johnson, the team’s best big receiver.
“Technically, in that personnel grouping Collin plays the ‘Y’ and Malcolm plays the ‘X’ so it’s, again, a way for us to get Collin some snaps in the slot, and in the pass game, but also have some better athletes out there for the perimeter blocking, too, on some of the perimeter -- the bubble screens, the speed option we ran, stuff like that.”
Epps wasn’t always at the X position to the boundary, however — on sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram’s 34-yard touchdown run on a speed option to open the second half, it was Epps who made the key block as the inside receiver to the field.
Horns get a big-play score from Keaontay Ingram. Nobody loves it more than Fozzy Whittaker, who had a front-row view. pic.twitter.com/wApGXwACoS— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) November 9, 2019
At 6’6 and 245 pounds, Epps had an advantage of five inches and 48 pounds on his opponent. Not a winning proposition for the Wildcats on that play.
Epps was only targeted once, hauling in that pass for an 11-yard gain to set up an easier field-goal attempt for sophomore kicker Cameron Dicker, but made an impact on the game with his ability to free up Johnson to play at different spots on the field and with his perimeter blocking.
With Johnson once again suffering from a hamstring injury, his availability is in doubt for the Iowa State game. So will Texas continue using that personnel package without the benefit of the senior wide receiver creating matchup problems when he’s at the Y position?
On Wednesday, Beck said that the coaches have confidence in the rest of the wide receivers group to step up in that package and contribute, even though his replacements don’t have as much experience.
Beck wasn’t sure who would replace Johnson if he can’t play — or wasn’t willing to share that information publicly — but the top possibilities are redshirt freshman Al’Vonte Woodard, the third-string X receiver, senior John Burt, and freshman Jake Smith. The most dynamic and productive option is Smith, who still working hard after hitting the freshman wall recently. However, he hasn’t caught a pass in the last two games and has had some difficulties getting on the same page as junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
So the 10 personnel package that was so effective against Kansas State would almost certainly decrease in effectiveness if Johnson can’t play on Saturday in Ames. At that point, the question for the coaches is whether it still has value compared to a base personnel package that is much less versatile with Leitao playing.