Football

Block better, run better, find a new kicker: Five keys to Texas’ season

Posted August 29th, 2018

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Texas coach Tom Herman has deflected almost every question this offseason about his primary offensive play-caller. When you look at the totality of last season’s offensive performance, was Tim Beck really the problem?

The Longhorns had subpar quarterback production, a lackluster running game and inconsistent play at receiver. It’d be difficult for any play-caller to muddle through all that. That’s why Herman took over the play-calling duties for the Texas Bowl. He wanted to see how difficult Beck and the offensive staff really had it.

In Austin, blaming the Longhorns’ play-caller is a rite of passage. At least Texas is going into a second season running the same system. Players have said that fact alone has been terrific.

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If the offense improves, the Longhorns’ chances of victory may go up exponentially. That said, here’s a look at five keys to the 2018 season:

New Texas offensive line coach Herb Hand talks to quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) during a spring practice  on April 3, 2018. Hand joined the UT staff after leaving Auburn. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

1. Better blocking is a must

The Longhorns have gone through four offensive line coaches in the last four seasons. Herb Hand may stick long-term, though. He’s brought new ideas and schemes to the room, “things I’ve never even heard of before. So many things,” center Zach Shackelford said.

Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson gets only one season in burnt orange, so he must take full advantage. This will be the final year for left guard Patrick Vahe and right guard Elijah Rodriguez. If quarterbacks Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele have some time, they’ve proved they can find receivers.

It’s the “giving them time” part that’s been a problem.

Texas running back Daniel Young (left) practices picking up a rushing defender during a spring practice on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

2. Young, Watson & Ingram: A firm you can trust?

There’s no clear-cut starter at running back heading into the season opener. But it is clear which backs are the coaching staff’s favorites: Sophomore Daniel Young, Cal graduate transfer Tre Watson and freshman Keaontay Ingram.

Young likely will get the starting nod against Maryland due to his experience. But Watson didn’t transfer here to sit the bench. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry at Cal but suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament last September. Can he be effective? Ingram is the shining star of the 2018 recruiting class. He’ll get every chance imaginable — as long as he protects the football.

Texas’ inability to run the ball last year was a killer. The Horns’ 139.6 yards-per-game average ranked seventh in the Big 12. That number must improve.

Collin Johnson takes part in a Texas spring practice on April 10, 2018. (Amanda Voisard/American-Statesman)

3. Will someone — anyone — emerge at receiver?

Will this receiving corps step up and make some plays or not? Last season, one player got benched for the month of October and still led the team with four touchdown catches.

Collin Johnson needs to have a big year. Same goes for Lil’Jordan Humphrey, an athlete the coaches love. Fan favorite Jerrod Heard needs to make an impact. Devin Duvernay needs to hit some home runs, too. Freshman Brennan Eagles has wowed just about everyone this month with his physical frame. How many chances will he get?

If the offensive line can block and the running backs can produce, it should be easy pickings for this receiving corps, considering its overall athleticism. Making it happen is something totally different.

Texas defensive tackle Chris Nelson (97) breaks into the backfield against Iowa State in the second quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Oct. 15, 2016. (Stephen Spillman/for American-Statesman)

4. Is this defense truly a worry-free unit?

Fans and media could be putting too much faith in defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. Granted, he turned around a subpar defense last season. That was a rock-’em, sock-’em bunch that knocked out Missouri in the Texas Bowl without a slew of starters, too.

But Orlando is working with some less experienced players at tackle, linebacker and safety. Chris Nelson doesn’t need to be the next Poona Ford in the middle. He simply needs to clog things up and rely on his teammates. Gary Johnson doesn’t need to be Malik Jefferson. He just needs to do what he does best, which is run and hit people.

Freshman safeties Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster don’t need to be DeShon Elliott, either. They simply need to operate in the confines of the system and communicate, an absolute must.

Breckyn Hager and Charles Omenihu have waited for their time in the spotlight, and it’s arrived. Same goes for Kris Boyd. It’s time to shine.

5. What, Michael Dickson’s … gone? Oh dear.

You never know how much you’ll miss a Ray Guy Award-winning punter until he’s gone. Dickson is off booming punts for the Seattle Seahawks. His cousin, Australian-born Ryan Bujcevski, will take over at punter. The Horns also have a new kicker, Lake Travis’ Cameron Dicker.

Nobody cares about special teams until the ball sails over someone’s head or an extra point boinks off the upright. But Herman had to go for it on fourth downs more last season because he simply didn’t trust the kicker. In these first few games, both Bujcevski and Dicker need to prove their worth. Or it could be a long season.

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

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