Before the season began, I pegged the Texas Longhorns as an eight-win team. If they won nine games, I figured it would come in the form of a bowl win.
After glancing at UT's football schedule last night (a few whiskeys deep), figured out the 'Horns will win 8 or 9 games. Oh and A&M - 6 or 7— Wes Crochet (@WesKCrochet) March 3, 2017
With that prediction, I also envisioned Texas heading into conference play with a winning record of 2-1.
Was I drinking the Kool-aid when I made that prediction? Well no, actually it was Basil Hayden’s. But both of those drinks can make anyone a bit overzealous when stirring up a pre-season prediction for your favorite college football team (I definitely nailed the A&M prediction, just wait).
In order for Texas to end the season with a winning record, the Longhorns coaching staff will need to be realistic about the roster it has. That means this staff will need to manage the team’s weaknesses, like the depth across the offensive line, while finding consistency on both sides of the ball.
I may not know exactly what adjustments Herman and his staff will make during this bye week, but here’s some of what I’ve learned about this team through three games and what to make of the season moving forward.
The Longhorns have to find a way to get more from its running backs
For all of us looking from the outside in, this is an obvious point of focus. Yet, I’m not exactly sure how head coach Tom Herman, offensive coordinator Tim Beck, and running backs Coach Stan Drayton decide to tackle this problem.
It was clear after the USC game that as close as Texas was to winning that game, putting the entire offense on the shoulders of a true freshman quarterback in his first road game of his college career was not ideal.
The simple answer is, “just give Chris Warren more carries,” though in Herman and Beck’s world, there may be more to it.
The way I see it, either Beck has no clue how to utilize a big running back like Warren (which I’d say is unlikely given that Herman could trump Beck and force him to ensure Warren gets more carries if this was the case) OR (what I see as more likely) Warren isn’t being trusted or given the privilege to run the ball due to issues at practice and/or during the game, like failing to make key blocks as we saw against USC.
Either way, this team has to get more from the running backs, and the answer is not giving the majority of the carries to Kyle Porter. Thinking of that scenario reminds me of the 2015 season when D’Onta Foreman averaged 7.1 yards per carry on just 94 carries while “starting” running back Johnathan Gray averaged 4.0 yards per carry on 123 carries.
Porter is currently averaging 3.5 yards per carry this season, while Warren sits at 8.2.
Ideally, Warren becomes the clear starter, Porter is used as a true backup and in blocking situations, and we get a sprinkle of Toneil Carter’s speed every game.
Otherwise, relying heavily on either of these young quarterbacks to basically carry the offense without a ground game would put this team in a precarious position the rest of the season.
Shane Buechele may be the more accurate passer right now, but Sam Ehlinger is the guy the coaches want to take the starting job.
Sorry Buechele-truthers, it’s only a matter of time. I just don’t see how Buechele holds onto this job for the entire season. And if he some how does, then I see the offseason as the time when Ehlinger takes over.
The reality here is that both Herman and Beck love to run their quarterbacks. We saw it when Herman had quarterbacks like Braxton Miller at Ohio State, Greg Ward Jr. at Houston, and even Steele Janz and Jared Barnett at Iowa State. And for Beck it was Taylor Martinez and Tommy Armstrong Jr. at Nebraska, and JT Barrett and Cardale Jones at Ohio State.
Buechele isn’t a bad quarterback, he just isn’t a runner on par with Ehlinger. And though Ehlinger has missed some throws in his first two starts of his college career, he’s also shown the ability to extend plays, go through his progressions, and make big-time throws, as well.
Maybe this turns into a two-quarterback system (not including the Heard package), or maybe Buechele gets inserted as the starter again for at least another game or two to prove his worth in this offense.
Either way, as long as Ehlinger keeps coming along, I’m betting he’ll be the starter by the end of the season. And I actually wouldn’t be surprised if that happens by the end of the next game.
The offensive line lost its best player for an extended time. Now what?
It still stings and I’m not sure when the pain will go away. For at least a few games, the already-thin Texas offensive line will be without its best offensive lineman, left tackle Connor Williams, due to surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many options other than coaching up who’s left standing. Tristan Nickelson will flip over from right tackle to left tackle to fill Williams’ void, and it looks like redshirt freshman J.P. Urquidez will be the first guy called upon to anchor the right side.
Did I mention the staff could be leaning towards the quarterback that’s more mobile?
Losing Williams doesn’t put a fork in the offense, but it will likely limit what longer passing plays Beck will feel comfortable calling, and it does no favors for the run game that’s still figuring itself out.
I don’t even want to think about losing another offensive lineman.
The receivers are studs, and we all know that
Whether Ehlinger or Buechele plays, we should at least be able to enjoy the talent on the outside at receiver.
Collin Johnson has potential that is Roy Williams-esque, and then some. Armanti Foreman has athleticism for days, and Reggie Hemphill-Mapps has the speed to break any play wide open.
Texas has to establish some sort of threat on the ground just so defenses don’t completely blanket the Horns’ talented receivers.
Texas defense was respectable, now it has to be consistent
For the first time in what feels like half a decade, the Texas defense hung with a respectable offense and didn’t look like it just rolled out of bed.
Even with the disappointing endings to each half, it was a reassuring performance after a rough start to the season against Maryland, and it sparked hope that the defense may finally be on the road to recovery.
No, I’m not expecting the defense to be stingy against every team; it still has a ways to go. But seeing guys like Malik Jefferson, DeShon Elliott, and Charles Omenihu make plays made me feel better about being excited when they signed as recruits.
Now, Todd Orlando has to build off this effort and get this unit to start playing with consistency. The wrong move here would be to get too cute with the defense, overload what the players can handle mentally, and cause more performances like we saw against Maryland.
I will say I have more faith in Orlando than any other assistant coach on this roster. I mean, he’s getting paid over a million per year for a reason, no?
At 1-2 before conference play begins, is a winning record out of the question for Texas?
No. But if Texas can’t establish a run game, is without its best offensive lineman for an extended amount of time and struggles blocking, and deploys an inconsistent defense, then ending the season with a winning record will become less and less likely until it can’t happen at all.
Luckily for the Horns, this bye week comes at a welcomed time. And for as many challenges as they still need to overcome, there are positives upon which Texas can build.
For now, I may be thinking an eighth win could now come in the form of a bowl game. But if Texas wants to finish with any sort of winning record, finding consistency on defense and figuring out the type of team it wants to be and can be on offense has to have a lot more clarity after this bye week.