History tends to repeat itself and the Texas Longhorns find themselves in a familiar position with redshirt freshman quarterback Quinn Ewers and redshirt sophomore quarterback Hudson Card potentially unavailable for Saturday’s home game against the UTSA Roadrunners.
Last November, Texas needed a contingency plan against Kansas State with both quarterbacks banged up, so Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian installed a Wildcat package for running back Roschon Johnson, who was recruited as a quarterback out of high school before changing positions due to need in 2019.
“Roschon Johnson was a warrior today,” Sarkisian said after the 22-17 win. “Clearly there were a few different wrinkles, Wildcat and different things going on to try to offset some of our some of the situations that we’re in.”
The necessity of developing the package for Johnson became apparent the previous week.
“I had a pretty good feeling flying back from Morgantown,” Sarkisian said. “We knew how that game ended from a quarterback situation. I didn’t know which quarterback… or both of them, would be available to us. Casey [Thompson] kind of got back in the fold a little quicker. Hudson [Card] wasn’t able to [play]. We just felt like we had to have contingency plans available.
“Even if Casey was available, knock on wood, if he were to re-injure that thumb, what were we going to do? So we had to invest some real time in the Wildcat stuff, and then Casey was able to play, but we had already invested that time early in the week on a short week. So those were the plays we were running and it was pretty effective.”
With Johnson in the game behind center, the first Wildcat play early in the first quarter was Power with running back Keilan Robinson in jet sweep motion and produced four yards. The second play in the formation was a push pass to Robinson on the jet sweep, but the play stretched a little bit too wide and the perimeter players weren’t able to hold their blocks as the Wildcats limited Robinson to two yards. Sarkisian went back to the formation with a Counter read on 3rd and 2 and much better blocking allowed Johnson to pick up five yards. With Robinson motioning out to the field on the next Wildcat play, Johnson faked the screen pass and followed tight end Cade Brewer on a draw play for a nine-yard touchdown run thanks to a nice cut in the open field by the former quarterback.
Later in the first quarter, Robinson lined up next to Johnson in the shotgun on a Power read — Robinson was stretching the play laterally, while Johnson ran inside, opting to press the hole vacated by the pulling guard and gaining seven yards. As the second quarter started, Johnson faked the handoff and followed the running back and a tight end coming across the formation on 3rd and 2 for a 16-yard gain on slice zone.
With time running out in the first half, Sarkisian called the Power read again for Johnson in the red zone on first down, but the Texas running back was only able to pick up two yards as Kansa State started to adjust and crashed a defender off the edge who was able to make the play.
Sarkisian came back to the formation in the second half, dialing up a slice zone for Johnson that did not appear to have a read on a 1st and 10 in Kansas State territory that picked six yards as Johnson followed the slice block from the tight end on the edge that was aided by a chip block from Robinson — an adjustment to the adjustment made by the Wildcats in the first half. The following play was Power with the jet motion fake handoff and Johnson gained seven yards, receiving some major help from a handful of offensive linemen helping to push the pile. Later in the drive, Sarkisian called Counter read on 2nd and 5, but Johnson was only able to gain three yards as Cade Brewer lost his block at the second level.
In the fourth quarter, Sarkisian called Power read and Johnson ran for four yards, once again benefitting from the push off his offensive linemen on the pile. Sticking with the formation, the draw with the fake screen included a Kansas State defender slicing through the line of scrimmage and evading Brewer’s block. Right tackle Derek Kerstetter also missed his block, resulting in the play being stopped at the line of scrimmage. On a 3rd and 14 trying to ice the clock, Johnson received his final Wildcat carry on the team’s final offensive play, taking a Counter read two yards as tight end Jared Wiley missed his play-side block and another missed block resulted in the read defender stopping Johnson for a two-yard gain.
All told, Johnson’s runs in the Wildcat represented 12 of his 31 carries for 65 of his 171 rushing yards on 5.4 yards per carry. In that formation, Texas called six different plays — Power with jet motion (two), jet sweep (one), Counter read (four), draw with fake screen (two), slice zone (two), and Power read (two).
So the Longhorns did have some variety installed last season and a week of practice to refresh those plays if they were installed again some point in the offseason. As a former quarterback, Johnson should also be able to throw the screen pass to Robinson as a constraint play on the draw.
There’s also more potential versatility to the formation with redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Andrej Karic playing as a tight end at times in the first two games to provide some extra beef along the line of the scrimmage — he would fit in nicely on Power and Counter read, for instance.
And Saturday’s game against Alabama featured a formation tweak courtesy of wide receivers coach Brennan Marion and his Go-Go offense with two running backs lined up to the right of Johnson in the Wildcat.
Adding a new play with the zone read handoff to junior running back Bijan Robinson, who was injured for the Kansas State game, Alabama called a slant with one defensive lineman and a twist by the other, who arrived in the whole to stop the Texas star for no gain.
One potential variation on this play could use tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders as an arc blocker on the edge player that Johnson reads on this play, having Johnson run a speed option with Keilan Robinson in the pitch relationship — Texas might have scored a touchdown on it with such favorable numbers to the field.
With Marion’s background creating the Go-Go offense, this is the type of play that he surely used at Howard. At the least, this formation should force the UTSA staff to go back and watch some Bison film.
If Robinson misses Saturday’s game or is limited with his minor shoulder injury, Johnson proved against the Wildcats that he can carry the load:
From early on in his tenure at Texas, Sarkisian praised Johnson as a leader on the team and in a must-win game Sarkisian leaned on Johnson’s ability and toughness to get a win. For his efforts, the former quarterback set a career high in carries and yards while serving as the primary trigger man in the offense. He carried the ball on 31 of the 68 offensive plays and even managed to complete one pass for two yards. He also managed to eclipse Bijan Robinson’s 2020 outing against the Wildcats for the top performance from a Longhorn against Kansas State. Johnson accounted for five of nine explosive plays on the day, amassing 90 of his 171 yards on rushes longer than 10 yards.
With Johnson gaining 106 yards on his 19 carries from more traditional formations against the Wildcats, the senior proved that even with a limited quarterback, the Longhorns can trust him to produce, including four of his five explosive plays.
But if Wright does need to start or see game action, mixing in the Wildcat formation would reduce pressure on the young quarterback and allow Texas to gain a numerical advantage in the box against a UTSA team that would in any case want to stop the run first with Wright in the game.