AUSTIN, Texas — Less than two weeks ago, new Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich flexed his recruiting chops, parlaying the relationship that he built with 2022 Southlake Carroll quarterback Quinn Ewers while with the Ohio State Buckeyes last year to land a commitment from the 247Sports No. 1 prospect in his class.
It marked the first major joint recruiting win at the position between Yurcich and head coach Tom Herman since Yurcich arrived in Austin.
“You know Mike and I throughout the interview process... that was a big topic of discussion and we found out very early the things that we value are very much aligned,” Herman said of quarterback recruiting following the monumental commitment.
“There was no no issue with either of us in terms of the things that we feel are extremely important in that position to win at a championship level. We were very much in lockstep. You know there was really no discussion — it was a matter of communication and understanding that we both agreed on the things that are necessary.”
Yurcich is also finally on the practice field with the offense, as the start of preseason camp in August marked his first on-field coaching opportunity since he was hired. Without spring practice to install the tweaked scheme, the offense was rusty enough during the first scrimmage 12 days ago that numerous pre-snap penalties like false starts helped keep the offense behind the chains enough for the defense to win the day.
In fewer plays last Saturday, the offense came out on top as the team reached the three-week mark until it opens the season against UTEP in Austin.
“It’s been a great marriage thus far,” head coach Tom Herman said on Saturday after that second scrimmage. “We’re cut from the same cloth. We found out in the interview process that we value the same things. Mike’s got an excellent track record as a play caller and preparer of game plans.”
Following the regular season finale against Texas Tech last year, Herman opted to move on from former offensive coordinator Tim Beck after three seasons after Beck spent less than one full season calling plays.
The disappointing offensive performance during their first year together in 2017 prompted Herman to take over the play-calling duties during the bowl game against Missouri. When that move produced results, including a resounding victory, Herman maintained that role, relegating Beck to a position as little more than an eye in the sky during games and sounding board during the week.
Led by now-senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, the offense improved from No. 109 in FEI in 2017 to No. 25 in 2018 and then to No. 13 in 2019.
So why did Herman decide to move on from Beck, even through the offense’s trend line was so positive?
In short, Herman felt like the attention that he needed to pay to developing the game plan during the week and then call it during games made him a “jack of all trades and a master of none.”
Even the act of calling plays down on the field is made more difficult without the perspective afforded by the coaches box.
And so while some coaches can handle all those duties — hello, Lincoln Riley — Herman felt that the entire program would benefit from his increased attention to other details.
“I envision it to be being very similar to what it was like at Houston with Coach [Major] Applewhite,” Herman said. “I can give input throughout the game-planning process and then on game day, Mike will call the plays on a play-by-play basis.
With Applewhite running the offense for Herman with the Cougars, Houston jumped from No. 64 in FEI in 2014 to No. 20 in 2015, led by quarterback Greg Ward, Jr., who went over 1,000 yards rushing with 21 touchdowns and was efficient through the air, completing 67 percent of his passes and throwing for 17 more scores against only six interceptions.
Herman will still have some input, however — he said that there aren’t any offensive coordinators in the country that he knows about who are authorized to make decisions about whether to go for it on fourth down.
For instance, in a 3rd and 8 situation from the 20-yard line, Herman might tell his offensive coordinator that he plans to go for it on fourth down if the offense can pick up six yards.
If a playmaker hasn’t touched the ball in two series — Herman used sophomore wide receiver Jake Smith as the example — then he might ask Yurcich to make sure that Smith touches the ball on the following drive.
Herman might take advantage of his field-level view to tell Yurcich that he could exploit a gassed cornerback with a deep shot against him.
It’s the Texas offense, not Yurcich’s offense, so Yurcich adapted to the verbiage used by Herman to aid the installation process that was made more difficult by the lack of spring practice, but there are some new wrinkles put in by the new coordinator.
Herman called it “enhancing the offense,” including new route concepts and some tempo wrinkles. In February, Yurcich told Burnt Orange Nation that he wants to get the best players on the field, which might mean more 10 personnel (one running back, no tight end) and 20 personnel (two running backs, no tight end) after Herman based almost entirely out of 11 personnel during his first three seasons. Perhaps even 21 personnel (two tight ends, one running back) that would take advantage of the two big flex tight ends — redshirt sophomore Malcolm Epps and redshirt freshman Brayden Liebrock.
“He’s done a great job of bringing in some new fresh ideas,” Herman said. “I think they’re going to really jump start our offense and take us from a top-15 offense in the country to hopefully a top-10, top-five offense in the country.”
For the Texas offense to make that jump, Yurcich needed to start developing a play-calling rhythm with Ehlinger in practice. According to Ehlinger, that had already happened by last week.
“He’s a great play caller — in the few live settings that we’ve had where we’re actually moving the ball, I really just get in a great rhythm with him calling plays because he seems to call it really well and it flows really well,” Ehlinger said.
Yurcich’s ability as a quarterback coach will matter, too, especially as Ehlinger works to improve his willingness to stay in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield to make plays, as well as his continued efforts to improve on off-platform throws.
Ultimately, however, Herman hired Yurcich to take pressure off of him as a head coach and help the offense take the next step.
Now the first step in revealing any of that progress is only 16 days away.