Texas wide receiver Collin Johnson (9) celebrates a two-point conversion against Georgia during the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, in New Orleans, Louisiana. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Football

Texas spring storylines: Searching for big plays, hungry linemen and some running backs

Longhorns didn't have a single offensive play go longer than 48 yards last season; Rebuilding the defensive line may be the biggest question on defense

Posted March 10th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • This spring, Texas needs to find more big plays and identify more playmakers.
  • Horns averaged 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, which ranked eighth in the Big 12.
  • Herman's goal for the next month should be 15 quiet practices, nobody gets hurt.

For all the excitement generated during Texas’ 10-4 season, there weren’t many big plays to shout about.

The Longhorns didn’t have a single offensive play longer than 48 yards. In fact, there were only two plays that went more than 50 yards — D’Shawn Jamison’s 90-yard punt return for a touchdown at Kansas State and Jeffrey McCulloch’s key 65-yard interception return at Kansas.

Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay all had receptions in the 40- to 48-yard range. Most of Humphrey’s big plays were of the catch/spin/stiff-arm and run variety. OK, yes, there was a lot to shout about in that respect. Johnson and Duvernay both had memorable, electric touchdown grabs by leaping into the air. See Maryland, TCU and West Virginia.

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Texas wide receiver Collin Johnson (9) catches a touchdown pass during an NCAA college football game against TCU in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

But no home-run throws? The longest run from scrimmage was a 39-yarder by Tre Watson.

“Were those two yards really that significant? Probably not,” Herman said of the difference between 48- and 50-yard plays. “But it is a very unique stat to say whatever 132 Division I teams and there were only two that didn’t have an offensive play over 50 yards.”

This spring, Texas needs to find more big plays and identify more playmakers.

Humphrey is off to the NFL, but Johnson and Duvernay return. Perhaps Jamison, Brennan Eagles or Joshua Moore deserve a longer look. Watson is gone, but running back Keaontay Ingram returns.

RELATED: A position-by-position breakdown of Texas’ spring roster

RELATED: After QB transfers, Casey Thompson steps into role of Ehlinger’s backup

Early enrollee Jordan Whittington, the dynamic athlete from Cuero, will get some chances this spring. Bru McCoy, the national high school player of the year, will be on the field in some capacity, although Texas is still waiting on his eligibility waiver after transferring in from USC.

The Longhorns simply need to squeeze more explosive plays from a roster full of explosive athleticism.

“I think you saw the offensive recruitment kind of gear towards that,” Herman said in February, “and we needed guys with big-play potential that you didn’t need to just chuck the ball down the field to achieve that.”

Here’s a look at five other key areas to watch during Texas’ spring practices, which begin Monday and end with the annual Orange-White scrimmage on April 13:

1. Rebuilding the defensive line

The last two seasons, Texas produced the Big 12’s defensive lineman of the year. Poona Ford won it in 2017, and Charles Omenihu captured that honor last year. That’s as much a credit to defensive line coach Oscar Giles as it is to the players themselves.

Oscar Giles, defensive line coach congratulates Ta’Quon Graham during the The University of Texas at Austin spring practice at the Denius practice fields on Tuesday, March 27, 2018 in Austin, TX. AMANDA VOISARD / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Omenihu, Chris Nelson and Breckyn Hager are all now gone. It’s somewhat of a blank slate up front.

Malcolm Roach is versatile. He played linebacker early, missed five games last season with a fractured foot and then returned as a defensive end for the season’s stretch run. Ta’Quon Graham is a possible breakout star, and Gerald Wilbon and D’Andre Christmas have both seen time in the middle.

2. Trust in Todd Orlando

Outside of the defensive line, the rest of the defense appears solid. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando must keep building on the foundation that has been laid the last two seasons. After all, it’s still a “run-and-hit business,” he believes.

Texas defensive back Brandon Jones (19) tackles Kansas running back Pooka Williams Jr. (1) during an NCAA college football game in Lawrence, Kansas, on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Veteran safety Brandon Jones, who explored leaving for the NFL but returned, alongside Caden Sterns in the defensive backfield makes for a solid pairing. On the surface, losing starting cornerbacks Kris Boyd and Davante Davis seems bad. But backups Kobe Boyce and Anthony Cook got playing time last season and could make the next step.

At linebacker, there’s a lot of excitement internally about McCulloch, Joseph Ossai, Ayodele Adeoye and DeMarvion Overshown. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is legitimately worried about the overall state of the Texas defense for 2019.

3. Find more running backs

Running back simply hasn’t been a position of strength in two seasons under Herman.

Quarterback Sam Ehlinger was the Longhorns’ leading rusher in 2017. If Watson didn’t come to UT as a graduate transfer last season, Texas would have been hamstrung. Ingram and Watson ended up splitting the workload. Texas averaged 3.8 yards per attempt, which ranked eighth in the Big 12.

Texas running back Keaontay Ingram (26) celebrates a first down during the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game against Georgia on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, in New Orleans, Louisiana. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Texas had seven scholarship running backs on the roster when the season began last year. Watson and Ingram appeared to be the only two the coaches trusted. Daniel Young averaged three carries per game. Toneil Carter and Kyle Porter both transferred out for lack of playing time.

Whittington, ranked sixth on the American-Statesman’s Fab 55 list, dazzled as a high school do-it-all athlete. He’ll get a chance at running back just because of the overall numbers. And will this finally be the year Kirk Johnson stays healthy enough to warrant playing time?

4. Hand it to Herb

Ever since Joe Wickline left Texas, the program hasn’t had a quality offensive line coach. That changed last year when Herman hired coaching lifer Herb Hand. The unit has since undergone a remarkable turnaround.

Hand’s blatant exploitation of the Austin-area barbecue scene has sure helped recruiting, too. Big fellas gotta eat, right?

Texas center Zach Shackelford (56) snaps the ball to quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Oct. 6, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Hand was directly involved in landing graduate transfer Calvin Anderson last season. He did it again this offseason in getting a commitment from Parker Braun, considered by some in Atlanta to be perhaps the best overall player on Georgia Tech’s squad.

Zach Shackelford, Derek Kerstetter and Sam Cosmi make a solid core. Now add Braun, a first-team All-ACC pick, to the mix. It’s now or never for Denzel Okafor, and Tope Imade has continued to add strength.

5. Keep flying below the radar

One of the key reasons Texas had such a successful 2018 season was because of what didn’t happen during the offseason. There was no drama. Players fully understood what was expected of them, and there were virtually no complaints.

Herman enters this spring with a rather easy selling point. Sure, the Horns were good in 2018. Do they want to be even better? Do they want to win the Big 12 title?

Texas players celebrate after defeating Georgia 28-21 in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019, in New Orleans. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Texas is competitive again, but the football program on the whole is measured by championships. You can’t win anything in the spring, but teams can lose their way.

Spring football is a raging success only when fans realize that nothing happened. Nobody got hurt, nobody did anything foolish, the coach was happy, the spring game was a success, see you in August, look out for Louisiana Tech on Aug. 31 and LSU on Sept. 7.

This should be Texas’ goal for the next month.

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

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