Texas receiver Jake Smith pulls the ball in as he runs to the end zone for a score against Rice at NRG Stadium in Houston on Saturday. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Football

With Devin Duvernay now in the NFL, who steps up for Texas in the slot?

Posted August 25th, 2020

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This April, 37 wide receivers were taken among the 255 picks in the NFL draft.

Five of those accounted for at least 30% of their college team’s total receptions in 2019. Leading the way was Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson, who grabbed 40.6% of the Golden Gophers’ 212 completions. James Proche was responsible for 35.5% of SMU’s.

Then there was Devin Duvernay.

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The former Texas slot receiver hauled in 106 passes last year. That was the second-best effort in school history.  Texas completed 306 passes in 2019 — two of which were thrown by Duvernay himself — so the senior claimed 34.6% of the receiving work.

Former Texas receiver Devin Duvernay works out during the Baltimore Ravens’ training camp on Aug. 24, 2020 in Owings Mills, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

He also caught nine touchdown passes, and his 1,386 yards fell 99 short of a Longhorns record. The Baltimore Ravens drafted him with a third-round pick.

“Anytime you’ve got to replace a guy that was as coveted as Devin was in the National Football League, that is a tall order,” Texas coach Tom Herman said earlier this month. “But we’re really excited about Jake (Smith) and Jordan Whittington. … I would imagine if the season started today, those guys would be somewhat of a committee there in the slot.”

Both Smith and Whittington were heralded members of UT’s 2019 recruiting class. Smith was a four-star recruit out of Arizona’s Notre Dame Prep and was the Gatorade national player of the year. Whittington, a five-star prospect who was the nation’s No. 2-ranked athlete in the 2019 cycle, ended his Cuero career with a six-touchdown performance in the Class 4A Division II championship game.

Last year, former UT standout Jordan Shipley said of Smith: “You can tell he’s going to be a special player. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.” Smith grabbed 25 passes as a freshman, and only Duvernay bested his six touchdowns. With five receptions over UT’s final six games, though, Smith also sputtered down the stretch.

He’s only a sophomore, but has gained the standing of an upperclassman in the UT locker room. Smith already ranks third among UT’s active receivers and tight ends in career receptions. (Brennan Eagles, a junior, has 33 catches to his name while graduate transfer Tarik Black caught 40 footballs over three years at Michigan). Herman also noted that Smith was recently voted onto the program’s leadership council by his teammates.

“(He) just got here last June,” Herman said. “The kids really look up to him and he’s doing a great job leading.”

Texas running back Jordan Whittington (21) runs against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 31, 2019 in Austin. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Texas intended on using Whittington as a running back in 2019. Whittington, though, was limited to only two catches and one appearance due to a sports hernia injury.

He suffered an undisclosed injury at the beginning of fall camp, but his return has been promising. Last week, quarterback Sam Ehlinger called him an “incredible athlete” who has picked up the offense quickly.

“It’s been great for him to get back in the flow of playing football,” Ehlinger said. “He’s been doing a really good job and I’m really excited to have him back out on the field.”

In four of Herman’s five years as a head coach, his leading receiver has worked primarily out of the slot. While coaching last year at Ohio State, UT offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich got a team-high 57 receptions from inside receiver K.J. Hill.

So, the stock for whoever takes over for Duvernay should immediately rise. If neither Smith or Whittington pans out, Texas has other options. Both sophomore Joshua Moore and Black have run routes out of the slot during their collegiate careers.

“I don’t care if you’re a scholarship guy or you’re a walk-on guy, the best guys are going to play,” UT receiver coach Andre Coleman said this offseason. “The film never lies. My high school coach told me that a long time ago, film never lies. We’ll put on the film and whoever does things the right way and they’re disciplined and do things the right way on and off the field will be the guys that play.”

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