“I’ve never been around a receiving core that deep and talented, even at Ohio State.”
Tom Herman’s sentiments last summer certainly weren’t as apparent as expected throughout much of the 2017 season. Of course, it didn’t help that the Texas Longhorns wide receiver corps struggled to find chemistry as the Longhorns rotated injury-plagued quarterbacks on a game-by-game and sometimes drive-by-drive basis, but the fact remains that save for some flashes from Collin Johnson, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Reggie Hemphill-Mapps, the unit as a whole was nothing to write home about.
Place blame where you wish — inconsistency as quarterback, vanilla play calling or the receivers’ inability to routinely make notable plays — but the production simply didn’t match Herman’s praise. Johnson finished as the leading receiver with 765 yards, which ranked 81st nationally, and Humphrey’s 431 yards finished all the way down at 286th nationally, despite being the second-best effort at Texas in 2017.
With another offseason in the system and almost surely some consistency at quarterback with one bona fide starter (barring injury), Johnson and Humphrey should climb the statistical ladder in some form or fashion, but everything beyond that point is a complete mystery.
With Hemphill-Mapps headed for a transfer and Armanti Forman and Lorenzo Joe out of eligibility, Texas is tasked with replacing its third-, fourth- and fifth-leading receivers. Dorian Leonard is now a graduate, as well, leaving Texas with only 61 percent (1,653 yards) of its wide receiver production still in burnt orange, with 72 percent of that (1,196 yards) coming from Johnson and Humphrey.
In short, what Herman praised as the deepest and most talented bunch of pass-catchers not only fell short of expectations in 2017, but will now need to replace much of its previous productivity, and the exodus may not be over just yet.
How can Herman and the ‘Horns address this area of concern?
Common sense says veterans such as senior Jerrod Heard, senior John Burt, and junior Devin Duvernay are the in line to replace the productivity Hemphill-Mapps, Foreman and Joe left behind, but actually doing so is far from a certainty. Throughout the life of their collective careers (excluding Heard’s time as a quarterback), Heard, Burt, and Duvernay have seen action at wide receiver in 82 total games.
Throughout that span, though, the trio has hauled in a mere 131 receptions for 1,796 yards — a collective average of just 21.9 receiving yards per game.
As Herman often emphasizes, the ‘Horns aim to implement a “next man up” motto, but that’s certainly intended to mean more than simply filling spots with bodies. After playing backup to Joe throughout the majority of the 2017 season, Heard, Burt and Duvernay will battle for the opening as the starting flanker/Z receiver, although Duvernay and Heard could see time in the slot alongside Humphrey, as well.
Will more reps reap greater rewards for any of the three after finding fairly little productivity thus far? That’s a question Herman, Drew Mehringer and Corby Meekins have the coming months to figure out, and for an offense that often trots out three and four receivers, doing so is an absolute must.
However, hope isn’t lost if the veterans fail to solidify available roles following spring football.
Enter Brennan Eagles, Joshua Moore, and Al’vonte Woodard — a trio of All-American wide receivers bound for Austin.
In terms of sheer upside and raw talent, there’s much to like about what Texas adds at the receiver position. Per the 247Sports Composite, the Longhorns are the only team in the country to have signed three of the nation’s top 20 wide receiver prospects in Eagles (No. 10), Moore (No. 19), and Woodard (No. 20).
Eagles is already on campus as an early enrollee and is nothing short of an elite deep threat with impressive top-end speed, surprising agility for his size with a 3.99 shuttle, and a catch radius capable of making quarterbacks salivate. Eagles’ skill set points towards a future on the outside, tasking him to compete with the aforementioned trio of returnees, but with Heard yet to prove himself over an extended period of time, Burt’s history of struggling with drops and Duvernay’s future in question, Eagles is a name that will at least keep things interesting throughout the next eight months and on into the season.
The now-immediate need for talent to emerge both on the outside and in the slot points towards Moore contributing as a true freshman, as well.
Joshua Moore is an intriguing prospect because he has elite agility (3.96 shuttle) and athleticism (41.5-inch vertical). Also has experience taking direct snaps, so he's a candidate to make an impact in the jet sweep game. Could even continue to take direct snaps in short yardage— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) February 4, 2018
A true possession pass-catcher who habitually plucks the ball at its highest point, Moore ideally fits the mold of a flanker, but certainly possesses the skill set and short-area quickness to thrive in the slot, where Texas has fewer options in the mix, and thus, a greater need. That same versatility that allowed Moore to play all over the field at Yoakum as a receiver, running back, cornerback, returner, and even some brief stints at quarterback, will be difficult to keep out of the rotation, and potentially, the starting unit at some point in 2018.
Woodard, on the other hand, is a bit of a blend of both. His reputation as a technician with elite footwork, solid speed and the ability to routinely create separation prevents him from any single positional projection, as Woodard can and likely will see time at the X, Y, and Z positions throughout his career. Although Woodard doesn’t quite as easily project as an instant-impact contributor like Woodard and Moore, his deep-threat prowess is remarkable to the point that if a consistent downfield option doesn’t emerge, Woodard will see the field in 2018.
Of course, there’s typically an adjustment period period for true freshmen entering the collegiate ranks, which each newcomer will surely work through, but unlike at a position such as a quarterback, defensive back, or offensive line, wide receiver is a position in which high-level prospects can produce immediately.
Look no further than Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and TCU’s Jalen Reagor, which combined for 79 receptions, 1,383 yards and 15 touchdowns as true freshmen in 2017.
At least from a sheer talent standpoint, Eagles, Moore and Woodard own the potential to replicate the success some in-conference rivals have enjoyed with true freshman.