Texas receiver Devin Duvernay (6) sprints down the field during a game against LSU on Sept. 7, 2019 in Austin. [LOLA GOMEZ/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]


Whys of Texas: The return game has ‘not been good,’ but starting shy of the 25 is even worse

Fans continue to ask about defensive coordinator Todd Orlando's status heading into TCU matchup

Posted October 23rd, 2019


Texas’ Cameron Dicker, the kicker, is the toast of the town for his game-winning field goal against Kansas.

In fact, it was UT’s first game-ending field goal since Justin Tucker drove a spike — not to mention a 40-yard field goal — through Texas A&M’s heart in College Station in 2011. Cue Craig Way.

But this is not an ode to the greatness of the Longhorns’ special teams. Quite the opposite, actually.


Texas’ punt and kick return teams have been awful this season.

Texas ranks 130th nationally out of 130 teams in punt return yardage. UT is the only team nationally with negative punt return yardage (minus-5). The kickoff return unit ranks 16th nationally, a figure inflated by D’Shawn Jamison’s 98-yard return for a touchdown against Rice in garbage time.

“Yeah, the return game has not been good,” UT coach Tom Herman said. “And my charge this week, much like last week in terms of getting back to our roots, we’ve got we got play more starters on special teams.”

Herman was known for using starters on special teams at Houston and in his early tenure at UT. The coaches pulled back slightly on that this season to get younger players game experience. Coaches have also been putting younger players on special teams as something of a reward, too.

“If we’ve got a talent advantage,” Herman said, “we should be using it in the special teams as well and hopefully we can get some of those returns cranked up.”

UT fans everywhere saw the two dropped punts against Oklahoma State. No need to rehash those miscues again. Let’s focus more on kick return, where UT has been giving away free yards the last two games.

In a move designed to enhance player safety, the NCAA changed the rule before the 2018 season on kickoffs. A kickoff can now be ruled a touchback if there’s a fair catch inside the 25-yard line. Basically, just catch the ball and your offense starts at the 25.

In 2018, there were 3,834 total kick returns in college football. There were only 38 kick return touchdowns last season. So your team has about a 0.99% chance of taking one to the house.

“In the day and age of now, touchbacks being at the 25-yard line, returning a kickoff — even from one or two yards deep in the end zone, even if you’re Devin Duvernay — is probably not statistically the right move,” Herman said. “Because there’s 10 other guys that have to do their job perfectly for you to have a chance.”

Duvernay hurt UT’s offense with his decision making on kick returns against Oklahoma. He opened the game with a 31-yard return to the Texas 32. OK, good start. But the Horns started drives at the 21-, 13-, 5- and 16-yard lines on later drives. All in on seven kickoffs, UT’s average starting field position was its own 19.

To Duvernay’s credit, he didn’t shy away from special teams questions after the game. “Just trying to make a play,” he said. And could you blame him? No. But again, all you have to do is make a fair catch and you start at the 25.

Against Kansas, D’Shawn Jamison actually made the perfect move as the ball sailed out of bounds. Herman pointed out that Jamison is taught to straddle the sideline, with one foot out of bounds, when catching the kickoff. That’s an automatic penalty against the kickoff team, and UT started at the 35.

“He did exactly what we were coaching them to do and we were really proud of that,” Herman said. “And you know, I made sure when we scored that first touchdown on the opening drive, I said, ‘That was because of you, man.’”

On the next kick return, Jamison couldn’t get past the 13. The next kickoff after that was downed at the 17. The rest of the night, the Horns started at either the 25- or 35-yard lines via touchbacks and/or out-of-bounds penalties.

Herman, who loves analytics, understands that it’s better to start consistently at the 25. Other coaches are coming around, if NCAA statistics are any indication. In 2013, 60.5% of kickoffs were returned. That number has dropped steadily each year and got down to 42.3% in 2018.

Herman has said previously that it’s his belief the kickoff return will be eliminated from the game entirely at some point.

“So in just evaluating that, I think you’ll see us keep the ball in more just from a statistical point of reference,” Herman said.

On to this week’s mailbag …

I saw my first UT game in 1956. DKR came in 1957. I played the defensive game for six years before wiping out my knee in 1965. The youngsters on this defense are being over-coached. It’s like combat. You can’t think your way through, you rely on training and instinct. — Dan

It’s clear that coaches are battling somewhat of a player confidence issue at the moment. Too much hesitation, they say. Too much thinking. If that’s the case, you do have to simplify the scheme somewhat. Don’t put players in a position where they have to think too much, as odd as that sounds to the football layman.

Kansas running back Pooka Williams Jr. (1) tries to avoid a tackle by Texas safety Brandon Jones (19) and linebacker Joseph Ossai (46) in the first half of last Saturday’s game. [Stephen Spillman/For Statesman]

DKR once had a season once full of injuries like this one. He described in one word, “Locusts.” Injuries and inexperience and new youngsters are not a recipe for greatness. A coach just has to survive such luck and that is what it is — bad luck. This is a new UT team, not a matured and seasoned one, and therefore not great and not BACK, just yet. I don’t care if a coach makes a million dollars a game, you can’t fix bad luck with money. The cry babies don’t offer any suggestions as who they would hire to replace the young coaches. I wish they would go away. — Moore

Here’s my issue with the injuries. Yes, the secondary has been torn apart by injuries, no question. But Texas has started the same three players on the defensive line all season. That unit has produced only two sacks in seven games. The linebackers unit has remained relatively healthy. Outside of Joseph Ossai, that group has been inconsistent. Texas isn’t getting much pass rush unless it comes via blitz. That’s just not winning football.

Will the UT win be overturned due to Les Miles’ clock protest? — Larry1914

Man, talk about a weird story. For those who missed it, Kansas coach Les Miles mentioned in his Monday press conference that the school would submit game film to the Big 12 office for review about the clock. Apparently, he thought the Royal-Memorial Stadium clock was running on UT’s final drive when it shouldn’t have been. “We’ll turn it in,” Miles said. “We’ll see what they say.”

Kansas coach Les Miles, center, watches a replay with his team during the second half last Saturday. (Chuck Burton/The Associated Press)

I love a good conspiracy theory like anybody else. But the Big 12 assigns clock operators as part of the officiating crew. So the league office controls the clock operator in every Big 12 stadium. Gone are the days when a UT employee could have a slow finger on the switch.

Do you think we will win more than 2 games out of the 5 with this missing offense or Sam getting sacked over 20+ times? — Mitymouse

I’m already on record as saying Texas’ offensive line will see more blitzes, including that looper blitz, this season. Kansas had three sacks and Sam Ehlinger was running from pressure probably a little more than UT coaches would’ve liked. Still, the Horns had 239 rushing yards, so somebody was doing some blocking up front.

Something that may interest only me: Reporters have yet to talk with graduate transfer Parker Braun (left guard) since he arrived at UT or Junior Angilau (right guard) this season.

What time is the Kansas State game on Nov. 9 and the Baylor game on Nov. 23? — Sky S

Each Big 12 kickoff is typically announced the Monday two weeks prior to the game. So we should know the K-State kickoff time this coming Monday and we’ll likely get the Baylor kickoff time on Nov. 4.

The league is actually starting to go on the offensive to let fans know the TV networks make these decisions, not the Big 12 office itself. League officials have taken a lot of grief from Oklahoma fans for a slew of 11 a.m. kickoffs, for example.

So far this season, Texas has played in two of the five most-watched games of the year, according to ratings released by ESPN and Fox. Those two games were against LSU and OU.

The whole “DBU” nonsense needs to be banished forever. Arrogance has lost more games than won. — Leo

Can they still wear the shirts? I think “DBU” is a mentality more than anything else. Obviously, LSU thought the same thing. Texas’ pass defense currently ranks last in the Big 12. The Horns allow a league-high 310 passing yards per game, a figure on pace to be the highest in school history. It would also be the first time any UT defense has allowed more than 300 yards per game in a season.

I feel the same way with the “Texas is back” notion. I almost wish we lost that game to Notre Dame so that infamous call was never made. — Ryan

Whoa. Harsh.

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando calls out a play to his defense against Kansas Jayhawks during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Austin, Texas. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Will Todd Orlando be on the staff come national signing day in December? February? — Austin

Honestly, the only person who knows that answer with certainty is Herman. The head coach must get to the end of the season and ask himself whether UT’s problems were solely due to injuries or was it something else? If the answer is something else, then you must take a long, hard look at the coaching staff. Herman’s doing the program a disservice if he doesn’t.

Javonne Shepherd going in the portal have anything to do with the past few weeks of Texas O-line underperforming? — Shawn

First off, it’s totally normal for a freshman offensive lineman to redshirt. Most linemen who enter college aren’t physically ready for the demands of this level. They need time in the weight room to get bigger and stronger. There’s no telling what goes through a young man’s head when they aren’t playing. The NCAA transfer portal is a way of life now.

Four-star offensive tackle Javonne Shepherd signed with Texas for the 2019 recruiting class, but has entered the NCAA transfer portal. (Mike Craven/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Should Texas play a 4-3 defense to get more pressure on QBs? Should they find a rush end from the LB position? — David

It’s funny, because back in August, the secondary was being touted as the deepest unit on the team. Maybe the best overall, too. We were asking Orlando about his “Cowboy” package with eight defensive backs and whether that left UT too thin up front. That’s how badly coaches wanted to get all these defensive backs onto the field.

Texas can’t just switch to a 4-3 alignment during the season because that’s not how the roster is built. Now, if you want to take a linebacker and use him as a rush defensive end, that’s theoretically possible. But it might leave you exposed somewhere else.

What is Chris Ash’s current involvement with the defense, and what is your projection for his involvement in the coming weeks/months? — Sean

From what I can tell, Ash was in Austin only during OU week. He was the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State and safeties coach from 2014-15. Ash was the Rutgers head coach from 2016 until being fired in late September. Here’s the issue now: If something happens to Orlando, Ash will immediately rocket to the top of the speculation list as a possible replacement, whether it’s true or not.

Former Rutgers head coach Chris Ash has helped Tom Herman as a defensive consultant this season. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)

It seems like every one of our DBs never turn their head to look for the ball when covering downfield. Is that not stressed by Orlando and defensive coaches? — HawkeyePierce

Here’s what I do know: I wouldn’t want to be a defensive back at any level of football these days. Nobody knows what is or isn’t pass interference. And you’re on an island, so everybody knows if you screwed up. A few weeks ago, OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch basically copped to teaching his players to hold and grab and force the official to call pass interference. Frankly, based on what I’ve seen, I don’t have any problem with that thinking at all. See what you can get away with.

Does the Chris Del Conte rumor about Todd Orlando have any truth or traction to it? — cFbFacts

Message boards are awesome, aren’t they? To my knowledge, there is no truth to the Internet rumor that Del Conte has “demanded” that Herman fire Orlando if the defense doesn’t get better. That’s just not how Del Conte operates, and anyone who suggests otherwise should be ignored.

Del Conte subscribes to the DeLoss Dodds school of athletic director-ing, if you’ll pardon my phrasing. Del Conte hires/fires the head coach, and the head coach hires/fires the assistants. Full stop.

Texas head coach Tom Herman and Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte embrace on the sideline before an NCAA college football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Is the defensive scheme too difficult for the players to understand? Or do they just not have the right personnel for what they’re trying to do? They have 3 recruiting classes under them, that shouldn’t be the case, one would think. — Getitrite1

This is why Herman can’t, and won’t, say the Horns don’t have talented players. It flies in the face of all those recruiting rankings from recent years. To recap, Texas’ recruiting class was ranked 25th nationally in the transition year of 2017, third in 2018 and third in 2019. This program has talented players.

“Obviously we know we’ve got to play better defensively,” Herman said Monday. “Everybody associated with that side of the ball — coaches, players, leaders — we all get it. We’re committed to figuring it out. And I think we can and will.”

Have a question for the Whys of Texas mailbag? Send them to bdavis@statesman.com or via Twitter (@BDavisAAS).