Two years after taking over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tim Beck, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman decided that his heavy involvement in game-planning for the offense during the week and calling plays during games was taking away from his other responsibilities.
So, following the regular-season finale against Texas Tech, Beck was demoted to quarterbacks coach for the bowl game and Herman set off on his search to find a new offensive coordinator to take over the offense.
Former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, who spent six seasons in Stillwater under head coach Mike Gundy before becoming the passing coordinator for Ohio State in 2019, eventually emerged as the top contender and officially joined the staff late in December after the Buckeyes lost in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Herman zeroed in on Yurcich after receiving positive reviews from Gundy about his former offensive coordinator.
“Mike was very honest with me and said that he’s one of the best [offensive coordinators], if not the best, he’s ever had,” Herman said.
Yurcich’s ability to develop quarterbacks was also a significant factor in Herman’s decision — under Yurcich, Ohio State’s Justin Fields became the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy despite the fact that he was a true sophomore who spent his freshman year at Georgia playing sparingly in a sub-package. Fields threw for 40 touchdowns (second in Ohio State history and third in the nation) while posting a truly remarkable .85 percent interception rate.
At Oklahoma State, Yurcich successfully managed a two-quarterback system on the way to a Sugar Bowl berth in 2015, then developed Mason Rudolph into a 4,000-yard passer and the 2017 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner. Yurcich’s final act in Stillwater included turning former walk-on Taylor Cornelius into a top-10 quarterback in passing yards, passing touchdowns, total offense, and points responsible for per game.
For Yurcich, the ability to call plays once again as Herman moves into more of a CEO role made the decision a no-brainer for him.
The immediate question following the hire was the extent to which Yurcich is bringing his offense to Austin or whether he’s adjusting his preferred attack to what Herman has run in his three years with the Longhorns.
According to Herman, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
“When you hire a new coordinator on either side of the ball, special teams included, they don’t just come in and dump a binder down on the desk and say this is my offense,” Herman said. “What you do is you work together and find commonalities in what you believe, usually through the interview process — you don’t want to find those out after you’ve already hired a guy.”
Yurcich has already had multiple offensive staff meetings to talk about subjects like the snap count, base running plays, and the increased use of tempo.
In fact, that’s one area where things may change the most. Herman preferred a more deliberate, ball-control approach, but Yurcich wants to install advanced tempo that can wear out opposing defenses and restrict their ability to communicate before the snap.
“Tempo is there to totally disrupt the lines of communications of defense,” Yurcich said. “Defensive coordinators — and Chris [Ash] knows this better than everybody — they want to see what you’re in, they want to see you line up, they want to signal over to their safety, they want to signal to the Mike ‘backer, they want to see where the tailback is lined up, what’s the guard and center spit on the back side, and they want to call all of that out and then call their defense. So what you want to try to do is eliminate that communication. The faster you go, the more you eliminate that.”
Yurcich’s job is to balance the advantages of tempo with disadvantages like running into an extra defender. As a result, it’s his job to reduce the number of plays included in the tempo package and the risks of going three and out quickly that could put a tired Longhorns defense into difficult circumstances.
“If you’re gonna fast, you better be efficient,” Yurcich said.
To avoid the issues inherent in calling plays at tempo, Yurcich will probably put significant trust in senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger not only to get out of bad plays at the line of scrimmage, but also to get the offense from good plays into better plays when necessary.
One of the key areas that won’t change is the terminology already used at Texas — instead of forcing every returning player and the retained assistants to learn new calls, Yurcich is working to learn the language that Herman and Beck already employed.
Since the head coach and former offensive coordinator spent time under Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Yurcich’s year in Columbus with Ryan Day helped spike his learning curve once he arrived.
“There’s a lot familiarity from Ohio State’s offensive system and what’s in place here with Coach Herman. A lot of that stems from Coach (Urban) Meyer and his offensive system and how that’s branched. Every year it’s going to morph, change, and develop as it has each year at Texas. That’s what you have to do — adapt your system as your personnel changes. You have to adapt your system to your personnel. We’ll tweak, add and delete. That’s a process that’ll continue as we get into spring ball.”
At multiple times throughout his introductory press conference, Yurcich emphasized his focus on three key areas of the game.
“Players, formations, plays,” Yurcich said. “That’s the philosophy moving forward and that’s what is most important. We gotta get these guys playing fast so that when they come off the ball, there’s absolutely no hesitation and that they know their offensive schemes better than the defense knows their defensive schemes. That’s how they can play their maximum and play to the best of their ability.”
Throughout his career, Yurcich has a well-earned reputation as an offensive coordinator who is capable of building attacks around the strength of his players instead of trying to rigidly fit them into his preferred schemes — that’s why players come first when discussing his philosophical approach to the game.
And that means that he wants to get his best 11 players on the field to hunt out mismatches through formations and plays. So the Longhorns may move away from Herman’s strict adherence to 11 personnel, potentially even using hybrid players like sophomore Jake Smith and redshirt freshman Jordan Whittington on the field at the same time.
“Who are our best 11? Our best 11 may not be our best 11 players — they’re the 11 that play together the best,” Yurcich said.
“I don’t care if it’s 11 personnel, 12 personnel, 22 personnel. Whatever it takes to move the football — and that may differ from week to week depending on who you’re playing from a scheme standpoint. So, agin, it comes back to players, formations — meaning how to you get your guys lined up and get an advantage — and then plays.”
Yurich also acknowledged that while variety is good in those three areas, there are only two practices days during the season to make changes — one hour on Tuesday and one hour on Wednesday. That’s a significant difference compared to the more unrestricted schedule of the NFL, so Yurcich emphasized the need to rely on installation during the spring before reinstalling those plays with the summer enrollees during preseason camp.
“Limiting and playing with tempo is a key,” Yurcich said. “At the same time, you don’t want to be at a disadvantage and not get your best matchups on the field. So there’s a balance within that.”
Yurcich also considers a 50/50 run-pass balance as ideal, but then quickly noted that it doesn’t matter — his emphasis is on a results-based approach focused on limiting turnovers and putting points on the board. And that may represent a slight change from Herman’s offense due to an increased willingness to rely on the passing game when the rushing attack stagnates.
With the return of Ehlinger — a key factor in Yurcich’s decision to leave Columbus for Austin — and six other starters on offense, Texas is projected to improve, ranking No. 7 nationally in the preseason SP+ projections released last week.
So even outside of Yurcich’s input into the offense, the expectations are high for the group. Given the track record and meteoric rise of the one-time Shippensburg offensive coordinator, there’s a strong chance that he can meet or exceed those expectations by making successful tweaks to personnel, formations, and plays.