ARLINGTON, Texas — If you can’t change the quarterback, change the offense.
A year after Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger carried the ball more times than running back Keaontay Ingram and left two games as a result of hits to his shoulder, head coach Tom Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck are putting a larger emphasis on run-pass options this season in an effort to reduce the number of hits that Ehlinger takes every game. The goal is to reduce Ehlinger’s carries by two to five per game, potentially a reduction of about 40 percent.
Since Ehlinger isn’t likely to start sliding to avoid contact any time soon, the best way to keep him healthy is to run a different type of option play — one featuring Ehlinger handing the ball off or throwing it instead of deciding whether to keep the ball or give it up on a zone read or similar running play.
Of Ehlinger’s 164 carries, 46 came in the red zone and 28 were in short yardage. Herman made it clear in Arlington that the team will continue to use Ehlinger in those situations because the offense has an advantage in numbers and Ehlinger is so effective as a battering ram.
On first and second down when the Horns are outside of the red zone, however, look for more run-pass options this season to get the ball in the hands of more explosive players and keep Ehlinger healthy.
The junior quarterback is excited about the new emphasis and the wrinkles the staff has added to those plays.
“It’s been awesome,” Ehlinger said at Big 12 Media Days. “I love it because it’s going to be hard for teams to try to take away the run without adding guys in [to the box] because of how physical we are going to be up front and the skill we’re going to have at the running back position without having guys who are runnings 4.5s cutting behind them.”
In a post-practice media availability on Saturday, Ehlinger expanded on those thoughts, expressing his belief that run-pass options fit well in the Texas offense because of what he called the elite running backs on the team — high praise given that freshman Jordan Whittington hasn’t played a game in his college career yet and senior Kirk Johnson hasn’t received a carry since 2015.
Regardless of how Ehlinger classifies his running backs, the emphasis is having a tangible impact on defenses already. During practice, Ehlinger now sees defenders experience moments of confusion on run-pass options, so when he does hand the ball off, the running backs have an extra step on the defense.
“I’m excited about that because I think it’s going to open things up in the running game and the passing game,” he said.
So how will the run-pass options look different compared to last season? Ehlinger said that instead of just reading a defender on the front side of the play, he’s now reading players on the back side or on both sides of the play, too.
“It’s more of a full-field type deal and it really puts defenses in a bind,” Ehlinger said.
In other words, it’s not necessarily about whether Texas has installed new run-pass options, the Longhorns will threaten defenses by reading different players in different parts of the field. Consider that the next evolution of those concepts.
Now the key is for Ehlinger to become a more effective passer when delivering the type of off-platform throws necessitated by the critically fast timing of run-pass options — the ball has to come out quickly and on target to preserve that timing. Doing so effectively and consistently can be the difference between a two-yard gain and an explosive play. The margins are especially small on run-pass options.
As a result of that reality and struggles in that phase of the game over the last two years, Ehlinger has devoted a substantial amount of time to growing in those areas during the offseason. So he plans on improving through repetition to create the muscle memory he needs to deliver the ball on time and on target.
“I think it’s just consistency,” Ehlinger said in Arlington. “Consistently working on those type of throws because when you first do it, it might not be the most comfortable thing, so when you realize that it’s an area where you need to improve, it’s just consistently working on it and consistently doing it to get that feeling down. So I think just practice, honestly.”
Now that preseason camp has started in Austin, Ehlinger is getting practice reps on those plays, but throughout the offseason he also worked on ways to improve his delivery on those throws. Specifically, he’s worked on getting the ball out quickly to different levels of the field targeted by those plays and having the center snap the ball to different spots in order to work on getting the ball out as fast as possible even if the snap is poor.
At Big 12 Media Days, Herman mentioned how good Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray were at getting those throws out with speed and accuracy from different platforms, as the footwork for run-pass options is different than other throws because the quarterback has to keep the ball at the mesh point with the running back until he can determine whether to throw or pass based on the positioning of the read defender.
It’s often a throw without the typical stride to create power from the base and made at different arm angles and with different throwing motions because the timing demands an abbreviated wind up from a ball positioning outside of the body’s framework instead of the tight, chest-level positioning on other passes. To put it simply, there’s not a lot of carryover between a typical delivery from the pocket and a throw on a run-pass option.
Over the last several seasons, Texas benefited from the accuracy of Shane Buechele on those plays. While Ehlinger struggled through his first two seasons with the pinpoint accuracy required on run-pass options, Buechele’s throws in those situations were one of his greatest strengths as a quarterback.
“I go back to Shane Buechele having one of the prettiest non-conventional arm slot/arm angle ways to get out the ball,” Herman said. “He had that kind of baseball, shortstop, turn-two deal when he was throwing those quick RPOs.”
Ehlinger was also an infielder during his days playing baseball, which ultimately influenced the jump throws that he made in high school, he told Burnt Orange Nation several years ago — and he also ran run-pass options at Westlake — but those experiences just haven’t translated as well for Ehlinger as they have for Buechele and Murray.
With the increased emphasis on run-pass options this season, it’s time for Ehlinger to grow into a more effective passer in one of his greatest areas for growth as the Longhorns offense ramps up the use of those concepts.
If that happens, the ability to threaten defenses and force difficult choices between allocating resources to the box to stop the run, outside to stop the bubble screens typically packaged in these concepts, and deep to keep receivers like senior Devin Duvernay from cuttng the top off the defense should help the Horns become a more explosive and more consistent offense.
As Ehlinger said, it will put defenses in a bind, and should even help keep him healthy for the whole season.