The 2020 Texas Longhorns take the field for the first time today and even though we don’t know when they will officially kick off the season, we have plenty to look at in the meantime. With the loss of spring practice due to COVID-19, the Longhorns now have a tight window to acclimate to the new offensive and defensive schemes, as well as the six new coaches on the staff.
With Mike Yurcich and two new position coaches stepping in for this season, what are the biggest questions Texas needs to answer heading into fall camp?
1. How do Tom Herman and Mike Yurcich work together?
When former offensive coordinator Tim Beck was reassigned and eventually left the university, part of the conversation was around head coach Tom Herman’s involvement in the offense. During the 2018 season, Herman seemingly took over play-calling duties for his former offensive coordinator, a decision he later said made him worse as both a play caller and a head coach. Part of Herman’s decision to bring in Yurcich was to bring in a play caller he trusted, allowing him to function more fully as a head coach. But Herman, with his offensive background and through the function of his role, will likely have a voice into the offense, but how big will his voice be?
Yurcich served as the offensive coordinator for Oklahoma State for six years, leading the Cowboys offense to four top 25 finishes, including the two top 10 finishes. He has proven that he has what it takes to pilot a high-powered offense, which should give Herman leeway to function as the CEO of the coaching staff.
2. How does Sam Ehlinger’s skill set fit with Yurcich?
For his first three seasons as the Texas quarterback, Ehlinger has seen an improvement from year to year, but that has been with the same offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. For his final campaign, Ehlinger will take charge of an offense with new nuances and wrinkles. Yurcich is used to dual-threat quarterbacks, coaching Justin Fields with the Ohio State Buckeyes a year ago and Taylor Cornelius in his final year with Oklahoma State. Both of those players use their legs in a different way than Ehlinger, and as we saw in 2020, it seemed like Ehlinger was actually at his best when he relied on his arms more than his legs.
If Texas, or anyone in the country, had the luxury of spring football this would be less of a critical question, but Ehlinger and Yurcich have just over a month to find what works for them as a pair. Coaches and players have been able to work together online to coach and implement, but it will be a quick turnaround paring the mental with the physical.
3. Who will replace Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson?
Replacing the playmaker at the inside receiver position is becoming a bit of a tradition for the Longhorns. Unlike last year where Duvernay moved inside to fill the void left by LJ Humphrey, Texas seems to have a few obvious choices for the inside receiver spot in Jake Smith and Jordan Whittington.
Smith saw action early in the season last year, catching four of his six touchdown passes in the first four games of the season. He struggled to find his footing late in the season, but he’s a talented threat when he finds the open field. Whittington had a much different journey a year ago, starting the season at the running back position before a lingering sports hernia ended his season early. If not for Bru McCoy’s brief stay on campus, Whittington would have been the highest-ranked recruit in the 2019 class and the lone five-star player in the group.
On the outside, Brennan Eagles likely has one of the two spots locked up, as he started several games last year, giving Texas a deep threat at the position. But Johnson served as a possession receiver, and oftentimes a safety valve, for Ehlinger when he found himself in a pinch.
Sophomore Marcus Washington saw action in 11 games, including one start in place of Johnson, while Joshua Moore had opportunities before injuries his freshman year and missing the 2019 season due to suspension. Texas also brought in graduate transfer Tarik Black to add experience, taking one final shot at delivering on his immense talent.
4. How good is Bijan Robinson?
There’s a reason why every program in the country wanted Bijan Robinson. In a thinner running back room, Robinson is talented enough to be a Day 1 starter, but Texas has two players who delivered for them a year ago. Keaontay Ingram, even with a few struggles, finished the year with 853 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging nearly six yards per carry. Roschon Johnson made a move from quarterback to running back due to depth issues and finished the year with 649 yards and seven touchdowns.
He comes to campus as the highest-rated recruit Texas has signed in five years and the highest-rated running back since Jonathan Gray in 2012, likely starting the season third on the depth chart. He’s shown the ability to make players miss in space, catch out of the backfield and be a home run threat when he finds a seam. Are his abilities enough to push not one, but two established running backs for playing time as a true freshman?
5. Who will be in the offensive line rotation?
Texas has to replace a four-year starter at center in Zach Shackleford, as well as graduate transfer Parker Braun at guard. Thankfully the Longhorns will have some continuity, returning Sam Cosmi at tackle, Junior Angilau at guard, and Derek Kerstetter, who will likely move inside from tackle to play center. That leaves the final two starting spots for the offensive line up for grabs, as well as the next two or three spots in Herb Hand’s offensive line unit.
Denzel Okafor seems like the likeliest candidate to win a starting spot, possibly at that right tackle spot, a position stepped in to start when Texas dealt with injuries against Iowa State. Redshirt freshman Tyler Johnson, who came into Texas a year ago as the No. 58 recruit in the country, will likely be competitive at either guard or tackle, with Christian Jones and Tope Imade in the mix as well.
The Longhorns are positioned to once again have one of the top offenses in the conference but will need to be at the top of its game to keep up with the high-powered units in Norman and Stillwater. We may not know how the offense takes shape until they take the field for their one non-conference game of the season next month.