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Just plain average: Longhorns’ 3-3 record mirrors the inconsistent offensive play

Posted October 16th, 2017

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Tom Herman can’t stand mediocrity. He inherited a Texas football program that went 46-42 from 2010-16. His Longhorns are 3-3, the definition of average.

What’s worse, six games into the season, the offense can be equally exciting, frustrating and just plain blah at times. Taken on the whole, it’s average.

Where would these Longhorns be without Sam Ehlinger? The freshman quarterback is the team’s second leading rusher (271 yards). He’s only four yards from overtaking Chris Warren III (274 yards) for the team lead.

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Armanti Foreman, the team’s leader with three touchdown catches, got benched against Kansas State. On Monday, UT’s depth chart showed that Collin Johnson, second in receptions, is getting benched for senior Dorian Leonard.

Is this offense simply lacking more firepower or is it an undisciplined mess? The answer may lie somewhere in the middle. Again, average.

Texas wide receiver Collin Johnson (9) just misses a touchdown catch against Oklahoma on Saturday. Johnson leads UT in receiving yards, but he may come off the bench against Oklahoma State. Ricardo B. Brazziel/American-Statesman

“My challenge to our coaches this week was we’ve got to get our guys playing smarter,” Herman said. “That’s the big challenge this week, and if that means we’ve got to simplify some things on both sides of the ball, we will. We’ve got to reduce the amount of self-inflicted wounds.

“There’s never been a perfect game played,” he added, “but we’ve got to get a lot closer to it than where we’re at right now.”

After the first quarter against Oklahoma, the Horns had just 19 total yards. The Sooners had 225. Texas fell into a 20-point hole midway through the second quarter.

UT’s first touchdown was helped along by two OU personal foul penalties. More scores came in the second half when Ehlinger either took off running by himself or used Warren on options or screen passes. Warren scored from 1 yard out with Ehlinger literally pushing him into the end zone.

Ehlinger has now posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing games. No running back has been remotely close to triple digits the past four games. UT’s three primary runners combined for 17 yards on 14 carries against the Sooners.

Herman compared Ehlinger to a wild horse but also cautioned that not every play requires him to take off. “Let’s hang in there a little bit longer, and not at first sight of opposite color jersey, tuck the ball and think we’re Larry Csonka,” Herman said. “And then it turns into, ‘Coach, who is Larry Csonka?’ OK, Jerome Bettis.”

Clinically speaking, how much of that is due to uninspired running back play or the inexperienced offensive line? The Horns have used three different lineup combinations up front in the last three games because of various injuries.

Freshman Derek Kerstetter (6-foot-6, 285 pounds) was recruited to play guard. He wasn’t supposed to play at all this season. He was supposed to redshirt. Now he’s the starting right tackle.

Texas wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey (84) looks for room to run against Oklahoma on Saturday. Ricardo B. Brazziel/American-Statesman

Sophomore Denzel Okafor couldn’t win the starting job at right tackle in August. Now he’s the starting left tackle with All-American Connor Williams out.

Junior Terrell Cuney made cameo appearances in only three games the last two years. He’s started the last two weeks because of injuries to Zach Shackelford and Jake McMillon.

Herman talked up the offensive line on Monday. At this point, he’s got no choice.

“Every rep Denzel Okafor takes in a game, he gets better,” Herman said. “Yeah, I know there were times when he got beat against No. 31 (Oklahoma’s Ogbonnia Okoronkwo). But those 71 plays that he had to block No. 31 in that ballgame made him a better football player.”

The same holds true for Kerstetter, Cuney and Shackelford, Herman said.

“We’re a work in progress there,” the coach said. “I’m pleased with how those guys attack their work and their work ethic and their level of commitment to getting better, and the same with our backs, too.”

No one is questioning Warren’s, Toneil Carter’s and Kyle Porter’s work ethic. Collectively, they simply just haven’t been that good. Neither Warren (45.7 yards per game), Carter (27) nor Porter (26.8) have flashed game-changing speed or elusiveness up the middle.

“Am I surprised we’re not running the ball better with our backs?” Herman said. “I don’t know if surprise … frustrated is probably a better word. Knowing the inexperience of what’s in front of them makes it a little less surprising but still nonetheless equally frustrating.”

What’s surprising is that Johnson is falling out of favor with the coaching staff. There’s no other way to interpret Monday’s depth chart change that had Leonard (38 career receptions, 488 yards) on top of Johnson (55 receptions, 826 yards).

“Collin did not have his best game,” Herman said after a slight pause. “Dorian is playing well, so that’s why.”

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck has made no bones about the unit’s inconsistency. What’s surprising is how much it all hinges on one player — Ehlinger. If Texas can’t find ways to get him some help, the season’s second half may look much like the first. Average.

“Don’t be a jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” Herman said. “Let’s be a master of a couple of things. So that’s my big challenge to our staff this week. Let’s go master something on offense and defense. Let’s be great at it.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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