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Collin Johnson headlines talented group of Texas WRs and TEs

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For the passing game to be effective, the 2019 Longhorns will need more than just Collin Johnson to make plays.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Texas Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

We shift our focus in the 2019 Texas Football Preview to the wide receivers and tight ends. To this point, we’ve covered running backs, linebackers, the offensive line, and the defensive line.

In the past two seasons, Tom Herman’s base offense at Texas has been out of an 11 personnel set (one running back and one tight end with three wide receivers).

This season should bode more of the same though there are also expectations Texas could utilize some two-back looks in 20 and 21 personnel sets to feature both sophomore Keaontay Ingram and true freshman Jordan Whittington.

For the purpose of this preview, we’ll take a look at the wide receivers and tight ends out of the 11 personnel set.

Wide Receivers

Senior: John Burnt (redshirt), Devin Duvernay, Collin Johnson

Junior:

Sophomore: Brennan Eagles, Joshua Moore, Jordan Pouncey (redshirt)

Freshman: Malcolm Epps (redshirt), Kennedy Lewis, Jake Smith, Marcus Washington, Al’Vonte Woodard (redshirt - injured)

Tight Ends

Senior:

Junior: Cade Brewer

Sophomore: Reese Leitao (redshirt),

Freshman: Brayden Liebrock, Jared Wiley

In Herman’s Texas offense, the three wide receiver positions go as follows: An X wide receiver (typically the #1 option outside), a Z wide receiver (typically plays opposite the X at the other outside wide receiver position), and the H wide receiver (typically lined up in the slot). The tight end is considered the “Y” for Texas.

In 2019, the XWR and number one option outside will be Collin Johnson. After deciding to return to Texas for a senior season, Johnson’s goal will be to improve on his 2018 campaign that resulted in 68 receptions for 985 yards and seven touchdowns.

To do so, it’ll likely mean Johnson needs to haul in at least 70-75 receptions to break through the 1,000-yard receiving mark and have a chance to flirt with double digit touchdowns.

Those stat lines are reasonable projections with Lil’Jordan Humphrey, the Longhorns’ 2018 receiving leader, now playing in the NFL for the New Orleans Saints. Humphrey led the 2018 Texas offense with 86 receptions, 1,176 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns, all of which were good for a top-6 finish or better in the Big 12.

The key to projecting how Johnson’s 2019 season may go is to remember that as last season progressed, Texas predominantly targeted Humphrey out of the slot. Johnson will remain outside at X.

That fact, along with an increase in legitimate receiving options on offense combined with how defenses choose to defend Johnson, will all play parts in what type of season Johnson has. If defenses choose to double Johnson on the outside, the ball probably gets thrown elsewhere. Regardless, he’ll be a key factor in 2019, even if by often attracting attention elsewhere.

Even if Johnson sees an uptick in targets on the outside, junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger will still also target the slot receiver position. That’s one reason why senior Devin Duvernay has been working out of the slot in fall camp.

Similar to senior linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch, Duvernay has been able to flash his ability at times and will look to produce more consistently in year four.

With some of the more reliable hands on the team combined with top-end straight line speed, the challenge for Duvernay has been fit and opportunity rather than talent.

After posting a 20/412/3 line in the 2016 Veer and Shoot offense that former Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert deployed, Duvernay saw his production drop to nine receptions and 124 yards in 2017. As the third receiving option last season, he posted career highs across the board and ended with 41 receptions for 546 yards and four scores.

Standing at 5’11” and 210-pounds, Duvernay isn’t the same type of receiver the 6’4”, 225-pound Humphrey was out of the slot. And odds are Duvernay won’t get close to the production Humphrey manufactured. But a move inside to HWR will give the senior an opportunity to set new career highs before his playing time at Texas concludes.

Pushing Duvernay for snaps and targets inside will be true freshman Jake Smith and sophomore Joshua Moore, though the latter will likely push for playing time outside at Z, as well.

Smith, the 2018-2019 Gatorade National Football Athlete of the Year, has already been making his presence felt in fall practices. The 6’0, 200-pound freshman is an electric athlete that Texas can move around the offense to get him the ball in space... and he doesn’t need much.

For Moore, Duvernay’s move inside to slot raises a bigger question around what Moore’s role could be in 2019, as he initially appeared set to push for first-team reps in the slot. If nothing else, he’ll be a key reserve that could provide the speed and versatility to play both inside and outside.

Duvernay’s transition to slot also happened in conjunction with the emergence of sophomore receiver Brennan Eagles at ZWR. Eagles, a 6’4”, 225-pound second year receiver, is a former four-star wide out from Houston. In 2018, he caught just one reception for 35 yards, but played in 11 games.

After earning a starting role at Z at the front end of preseason camp, Texas is expecting Eagles to make plays when targeted. He has impressive athleticism with his size, and he’ll be able to utilize his frame in ways similar to Johnson and Humphrey last year.

Options behind Johnson and Eagles include Malcolm Epps, John Burt, Kennedy Lewis, and Marcus Washington. Epps is a huge 6’7” target that will be another weapon the Texas staff will attempt to work into the offense at X. And Burt is a speedy fifth-year senior who will provide veteran leadership and act as an insurance policy on the outside.

Additional receivers include third-year sophomore Jordan Pouncey, who enters the season as quality depth, and redshirt freshman Al’Vontae Woodard, who is focused on a return from a broken foot before determining how he can contribute.

Overall, the wide receiver position is relatively deep. And if the top options can take grasp of their roles early, Ehlinger should have a plethora of weapons to target.

Unlike the variety at wide receiver, the tight end position in 2019 will most likely be the Cade Brewer show.

The third-year veteran has played in 24 total games in his first two seasons as a Longhorn, including three starts his freshman year. Last season, it was Andrew Beck who started all season long. With Beck now on the New England Patriots roster, the 6’4, 250-pound Brewer is in line to take the majority of the snaps at Y in 2019.

Herman’s offense typically asks the Y position to assume a few key responsibilities and is more similar to a flex TE/FB rather than an inline tight end or a flex TE/WR. A large reason for that is the Y often lines up like an H-back/full back and is called on to make key blocks out of the backfield on run plays.

Despite catching just 11 passes for 99 yards over his first two seasons, Brewer came to Texas as a more natural receiver than blocker. As a senior at Lake Travis High School, Brewer hauled in 64 receptions for 853 yards. Since then, Brewer has added nearly 30 pounds to his frame and will need to be an effective blocker for the Texas offense to perform the way the Longhorns staff wants it to.

As for the receptions, the opportunities will be there. There were occasions last season when Beck was open, And then there were the couple of times when Ehlinger simply overthrew an open Beck by a step or two.

With another year under his belt, Ehlinger will need to make those throws because Brewer has the receiving ability to be yet another weapon for the offense to utilize.

Behind Brewer on the depth chart sits third-year sophomore Reese Leitao. The 6’4, 245-pound tight end has been developing his own blocking techniques and has predominantly played on special teams to this point.

True freshmen Jared Wiley and Brayden Liebrock round out the 2019 tight end position.

At first glance, the Texas receiving corps in 2019 has good depth with a mix of senior leaders and young talent. There’s size, speed, quickness, and weapons all around Ehlinger. In the end, how well each receiving option not named Collin Johnson steps into their new role this fall will factor in to how well the offense performs overall in 2019.