In the third year under Tom Herman, the expectations for the Texas Longhorns are higher than they have been in years. Texas came in at No. 10 in the preseason coaches poll and ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit even mentioned Texas’ 20-1 odds for a National Championship as an interesting bet.
It’s nearly impossible to predict where the season will end up, but looking back at the differences between the 2018 College Football Playoff teams and the 2018 Longhorns sheds light on a major area in which they need to improve.
Texas was terrible at generating explosive plays on offense.
Texas finished tied for No. 46, alongside Vanderbilt, Buffalo, Mississippi State, and Oregon State, which were a collective 26-26 last year — a number buoyed by the Bisons’ 10 wins.
The chasm becomes more stark when you compare Texas’ 66 explosive plays to the Sooners’ 111, the Tigers’ 104, and the Crimson Tide’s 101.
That trend continues up the ladder, going in 10-yard increments, where Clemson, Oklahoma and Alabama all rank in the top 5 schools in 30, 40, and 50-yard plays. In that same span, Texas completely drops out of the top-100 schools, with just six plays longer than 40 yards and none longer than 50.
Part of the problem for Texas was its inability to generate explosiveness through the ground game, averaging just 3.77 yards per rush.
The Longhorns had just 54 rushes longer than 10 yards. Oklahoma and Clemson more than doubled Texas with 114 and 111, respectively, while Alabama came in with 105. That number drops off precipitously as you go beyond 20 yards, with Texas turning in just nine runs of 20 yards or longer.
However, as Texas continues into preseason camp, the good news is that a large chunk of their explosive plays, both through the air and on the ground, return from a year ago.
Senior wide receiver Collin Johnson was responsible for 20 of Texas’ 66 plays longer than 20 yards, while Keaontay Ingram managed six; five of which came on the ground. In total, 35 of Texas’ 66 plays of longer than 20 yards were made by players who are on the 2019 squad.
The majority of the lost production comes from the loss of of Lil’Jordan Humphrey, with 22 of the 31 departing explosive plays, while Tre Watson chipped in another five.
Schematically, Texas is looking to add a new emphasis to its playbook in the form of the Run-Pass option, which could help generate both more balance and explosive plays. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger was excited by the change and the install following Texas’ first practice.
“It’s been awesome,” Ehlinger said. “I love it because it’s going to be hard for teams to try to take away the run without adding guys in [to the box] because of how physical we are going to be up front and the skill we’re going to have at the running back position without having guys who are runnings 4.5s cutting behind them.”
Those guys Ehlinger is referring to are players like Devin Duvernay, who was responsible for six of Texas’ explosive plays a year ago; half of which went for touchdowns. He was also on the receiving end of a few overthrows that would have added to both his total count and his touchdown numbers from a year ago.
Heading into preseason camp, Herman and the offensive coaches decided to work Duvernay inside to the H-receiver, the spot from which Humphrey recorded his 22 explosive plays. Brennan Eagles, another “4.5” guy that can cut behind defenses, had an explosive play on his own while backing up Johnson during the 2018 campaign, and boasts a combination of size and skills that may allow him to make the most of the new options in the offense.
Add in players like sophomore Joshua Moore, who scored a 27-yard touchdown against USC, and incoming freshman speedster Jake Smith, and the options are plentiful for Texas.
So as Texas enters its second week of practice, clearly trying to manufacture more explosive plays, the problem may not be how to manufacture more explosive plays, but instead how to get as much of its receiving talent on the field and let them work it out.