Texas wide receiver Devin Duvernay (6) scores a touchdown against West Virginia at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Nov. 3, 2018. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Brian Davis

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Eyes on Texas: On third-and-whatever, just go find slot receiver Devin Duvernay

After moving to the slot position, the soft-spoken Duvernay has become loud as hell for the 11th-ranked Longhorns

Posted October 3rd, 2019

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Story highlights
  • QB Sam Ehlinger: “Don’t let him fool you. He rarely drops them in practice.”
  • Duvernay figures that 25% of his catches this season have come as the "hot" target on blitzes.
  • West Virginia (3-1, 1-0 Big 12) has a middling pass defense, ranking fifth in the Big 12.

The myth far outruns the truth, but it ruins a great campfire story.

Yes, Texas receiver Devin Duvernay has dropped a pass. Maybe just one, though. No more than two.

“Yeah, I dropped some in practice,” Duvernay said this week.

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His quarterback isn’t so sure, though. Sounds like a snipe hunt.

“Rarely, rarely,” Sam Ehlinger said. “Don’t let him fool you. He rarely drops them in practice.”

Duvernay, the quiet receiver with the sure hands, didn’t drop a pass in a game last year. So far this season, he’s been targeted 45 times and has 39 catches, 22 of those resulting in first downs. Four have ended with Duvernay standing in the end zone.

On third-and-whatever, find No. 6.

Soft-spoken around reporters, Duvernay is loud as hell on a football field. If he’s not slicing through defenders, he literally running through them. Just ask LSU’s Grant Delpit, who got trucked trying to make a tackle.

Asked if that play boosted his confidence, Duvernay said, “I already had the utmost confidence in myself and knew what I can do.”

The 5-11 speedster from Garland Sachse leads the nation with 9.8 receptions per game. He’s the only player in UT history to have two games with 12 or more catches. Keep that up, and Duvernay could become UT’s first Biletnikoff semifinalist since Jordan Shipley in 2009. He was just added to the award’s watch list after a scorching-hot start.

“That’s pretty cool seeing that, personally,” Duvernay said. “But I didn’t really pay too much attention to it.”

Shipley, a finalist in ’09, lost out to Notre Dame’s Golden Tate. John Harris (2014) and Lil’Jordan Humphrey (2018) are the only two receivers at Texas to post 1,000-yard seasons this decade. Suffice to say, it’s been slow going for wideouts in recent years in Austin.

In building a weekly game plan, UT coaches typically like to spread the opportunities around. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck warned against trying to force the ball into Duvernay’s hands too much.

“The greatest success in my 30 years of experience is just run the offense,” Beck said. “He’s going to get his touches, they’re all going to get their touches when you just do that.”

Coaches went to Duvernay before preseason practice began and asked him to move to slot receiver, dubbed the H-position in UT’s system.

Duvernay said the offense was “H-friendly” based on how opposing defenses had to double team Collin Johnson out wide. “I’ve seen glimpses of it with like L.J. and stuff, but being in it firsthand, you kind of know for sure seeing how it works,” he said.

Beck said typically the slot receiver is covered by a linebacker, someone who isn’t as fast, or perhaps a nickel back, someone who should be a cornerback but not good enough to be among the top two. “So you got some matchup issues when that happens,” Beck said.

Teams had to shade safety coverage over to help double Johnson the first two games. Johnson didn’t play against Rice and Oklahoma State, though, because of a nagging hamstring issue. It’s unclear how explosive he’ll be when he returns, be it Saturday against West Virginia or next week against Oklahoma.

Now, teams must decide whether to leave Brennan Eagles alone in single coverage on the opposite side. As Eagles has shown, it could result in home runs. He is averaging 27.6 yards per catch.

Freshman slot receiver Jake Smith turned heads the first four games by slicing and dicing his way into the spotlight. The freshman will get plenty more chances this season and the next few years. Duvernay is the star here and now, and he’s become Ehlinger’s security blanket.

Duvernay figures that 25% of his production has come from being the “hot” receiver on a given play. If Ehlinger determines before the snap that the defense will blitz, he knows to throw the football quickly to Duvernay at a specific spot.

“Obviously, he made the transition into slot, but I’m extremely comfortable with the way that he runs routes, where he’s going to be,” Ehlinger said. “There’s something to be said about knowing how your receivers run and how they make cuts, because everybody’s different. Their mobility is different. The way they get out of breaks is different.”

Texas wide receiver Devin Duvernay (6) celebrates his touchdown against Oklahoma State with offensive lineman Zach Shackelford (56) in the first half of an NCAA college football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]
Do Duvernay and Ehlinger speak in code before the snap?

“Not exactly, but kinda,” Duvernay said.

Duvernay said he reads the defense, too. Sometimes, Ehlinger can lock eyes with his “hot” receiver. Other times, the quarterback makes a clear signal, the receiver said. “Just practice it every day, and it’s pretty simple,” Duvernay said.

If Duvernay continues on his current pace, he’ll easily post one of the best receiving seasons in UT history. Shipley holds the school record with 1,485 receiving yards in 2009. Kwame Cavil is second with 1,188 yards in 1999. Shipley also has the record with 13 touchdown receptions in ’09 as well.

Duvernay already has four touchdowns, putting him on pace for as many as 17 in a 13-game season.

West Virginia (3-1, 1-0 Big 12) has a middling pass defense. The Mountaineers rank fifth in the league having allowed 201.5 passing yards per game. No. 11 Texas (3-1, 1-0) will be the best offense that team has faced yet.

No reason to change things now. Ehlinger will keep dialing up Duvernay, who will keep catching it and running as hard as possible.

“He could run around you with the speed or he could lower his shoulder,” Ehlinger said. “So it’s really hard to cover him and it’s really hard to tackle him. Those two combined usually make a really good receiver.”

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

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