Football

Texas spring wrap-up: Offensive success this fall could hinge on Longhorns’ running game

Quarterback play needs to improve, but the running game could make or break the Longhorns' success this fall

Posted April 21st, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Tim Beck: “The first thing we said was we have to run the football better.”
  • QB Sam Ehlinger finished last season as the Longhorns' leading rusher.
  • Offensive line depth also a concerning area after getting beyond the starting five.

This may surprise the burnt-orange hoi polloi, but quarterback play isn’t the biggest issue facing the Longhorns’ offense. It’s the running game.

Earl Campbell, Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson, Jamaal Charles, D’Onta Foreman … these running back names all ring a bell, right? All posted 1,000-yard seasons at some point in their careers. Won a few awards, national acclaim, household name recognition, you get the idea. 

This past season, UT’s leading rusher was a quarterback, Sam Ehlinger. The leading running back, Danny Young, tallied only 373 yards in 13 games. No Power 5 team will ever compete for a conference title, much less a spot in the College Football Playoff, getting so little production from its tailbacks.

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The Texas offense had one singular goal this offseason. “The first thing we said was we have to run the football better,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “That’s probably No. 1 for us to make sure that gets accomplished. There was a variety of 2As all the way down.”

Texas’ inability to line up, blow defenders off the ball and run for critical yards was crippling.

With no running back threat they could trust, the coaching staff altered its play-calling. That’s why Ehlinger tried to punch it in himself against USC. He fumbled it away. That’s why Ehlinger was asked to throw on the goal line against Oklahoma State. It was intercepted. That’s why he was asked to throw on third-and-2 late against Texas Tech. Again, another interception.

“If your running game is working, you open up some things and get some one-on-one matchups because teams will crowd the box more,” Beck said. UT saw multiple defenses drop eight men into pass coverage at times.

This spring hasn’t revealed a ton of answers, it seems. Kyle Porter and Tristan Houston both got hurt. Kirk Johnson’s injury-ravaged body makes him a non-factor. Toniel Carter fumbled too much for coach Tom Herman’s liking. Young hasn’t earned the starting job, either.

Incoming freshman Keaontay Ingram, who arrives this summer, has dynamite credentials, but it’s difficult for newcomers to have an immediate impact in the season’s first month.

The offensive line should be better this fall, although depth is still an issue. The tight ends have escaped the training room, adding more blockers up front. It comes down to whether the Horns can find a play-making ball carrier or not.

None of the quarterbacks or running backs were made available to reporters this spring.

“I think Toneil has a chance to be special for us, and Danny’s had a good spring,” Beck said. “They do certain things really well, and other things they need to continue to work on, like most of our guys.”

A look at where Texas’ offense is after spring workouts:

Texas quarterback Casey Thompson (8) rolls out of the pocket while quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11), Cameron Rising (3) and Shane Buechele (7) watch during a Longhorns football spring practice at the Frank Denius practice fields in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Quarterbacks: Is Sam the man?

Speaking of Ehlinger, Beck said the plucky field general from Westlake has worked on his awareness in late-game situations. However, the coaching staff can everyone into tough spots in practice, but it’s still practice. It’s a far cry from an actual game situation.

Still, there’s a sense that Ehlinger will likely be the starter this fall with Shane Buechele, who will be a junior, ready and waiting.

“At Austin Westlake, he probably got away with doing those things,” Beck said of Ehlinger’s late-game mistakes. “You can’t get away with doing that in college football. You can’t just throw the ball up. Things are going to happen. He’s been very good at taking care of the football this spring.”

Herman has constantly praised the two freshman quarterbacks, Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson. But he’s yet to stack one on top of the other. At this point, they’re likely headed for redshirt seasons.

Patrick Vahe takes hold during the University of Texas at Austin spring practice at the Denius practice fields on Thursday, March 29, 2018 in Austin, TX. AMANDA VOISARD / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Offensive line: Hole at left tackle

Any unit that loses a potential first-round draft pick typically has problems moving forward. But Connor Williams missed half the season with a knee injury, and the Horns got comfortable without him. That’s why there’s no real panic this spring.

That said, left guard Patrick Vahe, center Zach Shackelford and right guard Elijah Rodriguez must be the unit’s backbone. Right tackle Derek Kerstetter should be better with another year in the offseason strength program.

That leaves a question mark at left tackle. Denzel Okafor has been trying to impress new offensive line coach Herb Hand. But this summer, Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson arrives. He’s projected to compete for the same spot.

The real problem is what’s behind the starting five. At this point, there’s not much. Patrick Hudson (knee) is trying to get healthy again. Samuel Cosmi and Tope Imade are developing. Transfer Mikey Grandy suffered a concussion early in spring ball. On a secondary level, the line’s depth might be UT’s biggest problem.

Tight ends: On the mend

This position became a MASH unit last season. Alas, everyone has been patched up. Andrew Beck feels good with his surgically repaired foot. Cade Brewer is bouncing back from torn knee ligaments. Reese Leitao can now participate after redshirting last season. Max Cummins moved from defense over to offense to provide depth.

“It’s great having guys there,” Beck said. “That’s an area that was a weak spot for us last year. It’s actually a strong area for us now.”

Receivers: Mixed bag of production

Texas has several eye-popping threats out wide. Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey have all-world physiques. Early enrollee Brennan Eagles is following those two, copying the veterans’ every move.

Fan favorite Jerrod Heard is holding down an inside receiver position, and there are high hopes for Devin Duvernay and Davion Curtis.

Can the Longhorns simply get these guys the ball? The position group under-performed last season. It speaks volumes when one player was benched for the entire month of October and still led the team in touchdown catches. And he had only four.

Overall, Beck said he’s been impressed with the leadership shown by the upperclassmen. “If guys aren’t running off the field, and we have Lil’Jordan telling one guy, ‘Hey, that’s not what we do. Turn around, go back to the hash and run off the field,’” Beck said. “That would’ve never happened last year.”

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

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