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Inconsistent Texas running game needs to show more improvement

Issues along the offensive line and at running back have put increased pressure on Sam Ehlinger to carry the ground game. That needs to change for the Longhorns to even come close to reaching their goals this season.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Texas Longhorns ranked No. 13 nationally in rushing success rate as part of an offense that largely performed well, but sputtered late in conference play before recovering over the final two games.

Entering the 2020 season, Texas returned three starters along the offensive line, including four-year starter Derek Kerstetter and redshirt junior left tackle Sam Cosmi, considered a potential first-round draft pick before the season. Senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger returned after rushing for 663 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019. Two talented running backs, junior Keaontay Ingram and sophomore Roschon Johnson, returned to a backfield that added consensus No. 1 running back Bijan Robinson.

All the ingredients appeared present for the Longhorns to mount a formidable rushing attack.

Through five games, however, Texas has largely struggled to develop an identity or any consistency on the ground. The offensive line has underperformed with fifth-year senior Denzel Okafor and redshirt sophomore right tackle Christian Jones joining the starting lineup and Kerstetter moving from right tackle to center. For the first time in three years, that means that the Horns opted against adding a graduate transfer with experience to shore up the line.

And that decision is not paying off. Okafor looks like a player who failed to perform at a replacement level in his previous stints on the field and despite showing promise. Jones looks like a player who simply hasn’t played much football. Kerstetter looks like a player with an NFL future outside at right tackle. Cosmi hasn’t played his way into the first round yet and the other starter, redshirt sophomore Junior Angilau, hasn’t taken the next step at left guard in his second season as a starter.

Aside from personnel, some of the issues are a result of the limited practice time entering the season. As new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich tried to install his system after his arrival following the Alamo Bowl, he had to do so in walkthroughs during offseason workouts before players returned home when the pandemic struck. When preseason camp finally started, the staff limited run periods in an effort to reduce injuries since the players missed so much conditioning work over the prior months. Not to mention missing the 15 spring practices.

It wasn’t until the bye week following the Oklahoma game that the staff finally felt comfortable enough to spend several days of practice focusing heavily on run periods to establish the coherency necessary for five or six or seven players to act in concert to successfully execute blocking schemes.

Prior to that bye week, the staff was forced to all but abandon the running game thanks to poor results — against Oklahoma, the running backs only carried the ball 11 times for 30 yards with no runs of 10 yards of more. As a result, the burden fell on Ehlinger, mostly in late-game situations when the Sooners defense was dropping eight in coverage and allowing running lanes as Texas mounted its comeback. Ehlinger finished with 23 carries for 112 and four touchdowns, with most of his success coming in scramble situations and in the red zone.

In the first three games, the offensive line struggled at times picking up line games in long down-and-distance situations, but in the Cotton Bowl, the Sooners used consistent movement along the defensive line to frustrate the Longhorns blocking schemes and flummox the offensive line.

At other times, Texas simply hasn’t executed the necessary blocks against more base defenses.

Issues at running back haven’t helped, either.

Robinson strained his back on an attempted hurdle against Texas Tech and sat out against TCU as he recovered. Over the last two games, Robinson’s snaps have increased, including receiving his first career start against Baylor, but that ascendance is likely related to other factors as much as it is to his own progression.

Since receiving heavy playing time against Texas Tech, a game in which Johnson received 16 carries, but only gained 44 yards while scoring a touchdown, he’s seen his playing time diminish as he’s dealt with multiple injuries. In the last two games, Johnson has only four carries for negative two yards. So while it’s possible that he’ll receive more playing time against Oklahoma State this week, it may still be another week or three until he’s really ready to contribute heavily again.

For the first time in his career, Ingram is actually healthy through the first half of the season without any reported injuries. Instead, it’s been his lack of ball security that has let him down and allowed Robinson more playing time against Oklahoma and Baylor. That’s because of Ingram’s late fumble against TCU that cost Texas a chance to win that game and the fumble on his first carry against Oklahoma that resulted in a long benching.

“I don’t feel like I got down pretty low — I’m just hard on myself,” Ingram said of that experience. “I just hold myself at a certain standard and I know the guys on the team and older guys especially, fifth-year seniors on the team, believe in me. When I made those mistakes, I thought about those guys and took them into consideration and thought that I needed to hit my preparation, get back to the fundamentals just a little bit harder.”

It worked.

Not only did Ingram respond to the fumble against the Sooners with an obvious commitment to better ball security against the Bears, including two hands through contact, Ingram is the team’s leading rusher among the running backs by a significant margin. The Carthage product has nearly twice as many rushing yards as Johnson and Robinson combined, although he has yet to score his first rushing touchdown. Despite Ingram’s inability to find the end zone on the ground, he does also lead the running backs in yards per carry at 4.8.

Two questions surround the running back position and the usage of Ehlinger. The first question regards the extent to which it’s preferable for Ehlinger to lead the team in rushing for the first time since gaining only 381 yards as a freshman. On Monday, Herman wasn’t concerned about Ehlinger paving the way.

“I don’t know that anybody ever said we didn’t want our quarterback to be our leading rusher,” Herman said, citing the nature of playing three running backs.

Texas has reduced the number of called running plays for Ehlinger over the last two seasons in an effort to keep him healthy, but three games that required late comebacks have afforded Ehlinger more opportunities to scramble in those drop-eight situations by opponents. In fact, a full quarter of Ehlinger’s runs through five games, accounting for 35 percent of his rushing yardage, came during the fourth quarters against Texas Tech, TCU, and Oklahoma.

And Ehlinger does remain the team’s best running weapon in the red zone with seven of the team’s nine rushing touchdowns. Six of those came in the red zone, where he’s averaging 4.3 yards per attempt on 18 carries with five first downs — those are tough yards to come by and Ehlinger will almost certainly continue to provide the team’s best rushing threat in that area. Just in overtime periods, the Texas quarterback has 43 yards rushing and two touchdowns. In the six overtime periods played this season, that’s close to 30 percent of all available yards for the Longhorns and 33 percent of the available touchdowns.

The second question dates back to the start of position coach Stan Drayton’s tenure at Texas and regards his consistent preference for a steady rotation at the position. Critics argue that it keeps running backs from gaining the rhythm that is ideal to produce big plays.

In a mature response to that question on Tuesday, Ingram acknowledged that Drayton’s rotation practices do come at a cost, mentioning that it’s difficult to consistently read how linebackers are fitting the run and how safeties are rotating after the snap. Both are elements of defensive strategy that tend to change throughout the game, forcing the running backs to communicate with each other between snaps and between series about what they’re seeing on the field.

Still, Drayton and the rest of the coaching staff believe that keeping the running backs fresh and reducing the chance of injury ultimately provide more benefit than the difficulties of reading a defense provide a high cost. With Yurcich using tempo more consistently this season, it only increases his belief in the need to rotate regularly.

“Everything else being equal, obviously we want to play all three — we feel that all three are capable and when they’re fresh, they’re most effective,” Yurcich said on Wednesday.

Since the tempo plays tend to be the most effective for the Horns in the running game, there’s extra incentive to ensure that the running back in that situation has the stamina available to take advantage of those opportunities.

Now the question is how quickly the offensive line can improve and how quickly the offensive staff can devise the best ways of using each running back’s unique skill sets. The Baylor game did represent a step forward overall, especially for the running backs.

“I thought we took a big step forward on Saturday against Baylor to have two running backs combined for over 100 yards,” Herman said. “I thought it was our best day yet running the football from that position, but we’ve got to be a little bit more consistent.”

The immediate challenge is to reduce costly mistakes that limit gains and put Texas behind the chains while finding some ways to create some explosive plays. Against an excellent Oklahoma State defense, that’s a difficult task on both ends, but failing in those areas means a one-dimensional offense for Yurcich, and that seems like a losing proposition in Stillwater against the nation’s No. 6 team.