AUSTIN, Texas — Philosophically, the Texas Longhorns have based almost exclusively out of 11 personnel — one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers — during head coach Tom Herman’s time in Austin.
But that might finally be changing in his fourth season with the addition of new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, who was brought to Austin as the replacement for Tim Beck as Herman decided to move away from his responsibilities as the primary game planner and play caller.
“Well, 11 personnel certainly gives you the most versatility to run what we want to run, both from tight ends in the core of the formation, out of the core formation,” Herman said on Sunday.
That’s changing, however, during recent practices in preseason camp. Citing health and production issues at the wide receiver position, Herman said that Texas is playing more frequently in 12 personnel with two tight ends.
In the zero-sum game of preseason camp, the move away from a wide receiver group that is talented but inexperienced is a distressing development for Andre Coleman’s position group in his first season as the wide receivers coach. Alternatively, given the recent history for the Longhorns at the tight end position, the fact that Herman feels like all four players can contribute this season is a luxury Texas hasn’t had at any point in the last eight years.
Consider that arguably the most productive season for the tight ends at Texas in the last decade came from post-injury DJ Grant and Blaine Irby in 2011 when they combined for 337 yards receiving and six touchdowns. Dominique Jones and Barrett Matthews also contributed that year for Bryan Harsin.
The group this year is more athletic and possesses better receiving ability than 2011. In fact, senior Cade Brewer, redshirt sophomore Malcolm Epps, and redshirt freshman Brayden Liebrock all have significant resumes at receiver.
Brewer was a standout receiver in high school at Lake Travis — technically, he was considered a tight end — catching 115 passes for 1,664 yards and 29 touchdowns over his final two seasons. Two significant injuries have limited his production at Texas, but don’t fully explain why he only had 11 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown last season during the nine games that he was healthy.
In fact, perceptions about Brewer’s potential to make an impact for the Longhorns in the passing game are largely a relic of what he showed in high school and a few plays from practice.
But with Yurcich in control of the offense, will Brewer see more targets this season or will he simply remain a decoy to get favorable matchups for wide receivers?
That remains an open question.
There are reasons to feel more confident about the receiving ability of Epps and Liebrock.
Epps moved from wide receiver last season, where he recorded 20 catches for 232 yards and two touchdowns, primarily as the replacement for Collin Johnson at the X position. Matched up against linebackers inside, Epps could find more success against bigger, slower players, but there are still questions marks about his blocking ability.
Look for him to spend most of his time flexed out rather than trying to block defensive ends.
Liebrock came to Texas as one of the best route runners at the position that Texas has recruited in more than a decade. As he tried to gain weight to improve his own blocking ability, he redshirted last season and while there hasn’t been a lot of buzz surrounding his performances in preseason camp, it’s notable that Herman believes he can contribute this season.
Expect Liebrock to also spend most of his time as a receiver, too, including the possibility that he could line up at the X position.
That leaves Wiley, the former high school quarterback who is now serving as a backup place kicker for the Longhorns. The Temple product clearly took full advantage of his first offseason at Texas by gaining good muscle and flashing in practice with this catch.
Of the tight ends recruited by Herman at Texas, Wiley has the most prototypical NFL size for the position, so he’s a potential breakout players to watch this season.
Herman said that Texas has “majored” in 12 personnel at times during preseason camp because of the versatility at the position — Jay Boulware’s four players can line up at fullback, in line, and in the slot as a flex tight end.
It’s been an effective personnel package for Oklahoma in recent years, as head coach Lincoln Riley has taken advantage of versatile blockers like Dimitri Flowers and oversized wide receivers Mark Andrews and Grant Calcaterra to produce explosive offenses featuring strong running games, dangerous play-action passes, and effective run-pass options.
Asked by Burnt Orange Nation at his introductory press conference about his personnel philosophy, Yurcich said that he simply wants to use the players with the best chemistry together.
“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.”
Right now, it’s possible that the 11 players who play together the best could include two tight ends at times for the Longhorns, which would mark a significant change from the rest of the Tom Herman era and substantial improvement at a position that has long remained a wasteland at Texas.