In his inaugural season as the head coach of the Texas Longhorns, Tom Herman’s team has struggled mightily on offense. Those struggles have played a large part in why the Longhorns are currently a .500 football team, and need addressing sooner rather than later.
Herman, who won the Broyles Award as an offensive coordinator at Ohio State, was thought to be bringing quality offense with him to Austin. He’s been praised as a brilliant offensive mind, and the struggles Texas has had this season offensively are surprising to say the least.
In all of their five losses this season, though, the Longhorns failed to score more than 27 points on offense. In the Big 12, that’s a formula for mediocrity. Despite a very good defense, 27 points simply will not get it done against the big 12’s elite.
A lot of discussion has centered on where to place the responsibility for the poor offensive performance and what Herman should do about it.
Fans and media have called for a shakeup along the offensive staff. Much of the ire from fans has been directed at offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who also received criticism as offensive coordinator at Ohio State under Urban Meyer. Beck is notorious for questionable play calls and quarterback struggles, even dating back to his time at Nebraska under Bo Pelini.
Below, I take a look at some of the more compelling reasons for and against coaching staff changes for the Longhorns.
THREE POINTS IN FAVOR OF THE CURRENT STAFF
The Program Needs Coaching Stability
After years of having a revolving door at the offensive coordinator position, Texas needs stability in their offensive staff. Since 2010, Texas has had seven different play callers, one of whom was demoted in season.
If you look at other Big 12 schools like Oklahoma State, West Virginia or Texas Tech, find a consistent offensive identity over the last several years.
The Longhorns have struggled because they have been able to stick with the same schemes and – probably more importantly – coaches over a prolonged period of time.
There’s nothing this program needs more than to have a coaching staff that stays over a long period of time. This was a huge problem for Charlie Strong, and can sink any program.
Depleted Depth Charts Are Hard To Overcome
With so many key injuries sustained on offense, it’s unfair to judge this staff on the performance of this season. These kinds of injuries would be hard for most coaches to overcome.
Projected starter Elijah Rodriguez was injured before the season even began and then All-American tackle Connor Williams suffered a knee injury in the game against USC.
In addition, Texas saw two offensive lineman transfer before the season even began, one of whom had starting experience in 2016. The tight end position that plays a key role in Herman’s preferred style also saw veteran Andrew Beck go out at the beginning of the year.
With those kinds of blows to the depth chart (not to mention the early exit of one of the best Texas running backs of all time to the 2017 NFL Draft), the offense was always going to be a work in progress.
Patience Is A Virtue
It was always going to take time for Tom Herman to install the kind of offensive system he wants to run with the personnel he prefers.
The offense that Herman himself has sometimes referred to as a “pro-style spread” relies primarily on the kinds of players that Texas is noticeably lacking right now, either because of holes in recruiting or youth.
The physical quarterback Sam Ehlinger, currently out because of a head injury, is a prime example. He’s a much better fit than the smaller pocket passer Shane Buechele, the guy who is currently taking snaps.
There have been glimpses of how energized the offense looks with Ehlinger. Give the staff time to develop young talent like him.
The Longhorns need only look at the example of the Washington Huskies to see that this philosophy works – it took Chris Petersen at Washington a couple of years to get his offense where he wanted it, but his offensive squad was CFP-ready in Year Three.
With quarterbacks Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson both set to sign with Texas in the 2018 class, help may be on the way, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
THREE KNOCKS AGAINST THE CURRENT STAFF
Performance vs Level of Expectation
Despite having a team full of highly recruited players and lauded veterans, the Longhorns offensive coaching staff have put a middling product on the field. In the Big 12, Texas currently ranks sixth in passing offense, seventh in rushing offense and sixth in scoring offense.
Almost all of the players on the offensive two-deep had starts or significant playing experience in 2016. In that season, Texas finished ranked 30th in offensive S&P+. This year? The Longhorns sit at 97th in offensive S&P+. Some growing pains were expected in a new system, but that kind of drop-off is unacceptable.
The loss of D’Onta Foreman predictably led to some loss in production, but with a roster full of players recruited by other, more successful Power 5 programs, how is such an underperformance possible?
After seeing them make big plays last year, Longhorn fans were looking for big things from guys like Collin Johnson, Devin Duvernay and Shane Buechele. Despite expectations, Johnson and Duvernay have spent significant time on the bench, and Buechele has looked more like a true freshman this year than he did as an actual true freshman.
Odd Play Calling and Personnel Decisions
Fans and media alike questioned Tom Herman’s decision to not move wide receiver Jerrod Heard back to the quarterback position in the offseason. Heard started eleven games a redshirt freshman quarterback in 2015 and his athleticism would seem to fit many of Herman’s schemes well. Herman had immense success with scramblers like Braxton Miller and Greg Ward, after all.
Since last spring, however, Herman has been reluctant to move him from wide receiver in spite of all the depth Texas has at that position.
Offensive play calling has also been questionable. The Texas offense has repeatedly struggled to execute outside zone runs, but those plays continue to get called. Other packages and plays that have been successful, like Lil’ Jordan Humphrey running the Wildcat, seem to get called once or twice then tossed into the wastebasket, after little to no success.
Much of this would seem to fall on coordinator Tim Beck, who calls play in-game and is responsible for designing a game plan. At times it seems like he’s just trying things for the sake of trying, which is what practice and tune up games are for. Jet sweeps and gadget plays have no place in close games against great teams.
The Running Game Struggled Before In Season Injuries
Even before the major injury to All-American Connor Williams, the Longhorns were looking dreadful on the ground. Against Maryland, Texas managed to get an unimpressive 3.2 yards per carry. Multiple teams have since put up better per-carry numbers on the ground against the Terrapins, including UCF (5.9), Northwestern (5.4) and Rutgers (5.2).
The only real spark for the running game has been true freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who is currently the second leading rusher on the team. Even at that, many of Ehlinger’s long runs are scrambles on busted plays.
Junior Chris Warren, who was on the Maxwell Award watch list coming into the season, has struggled to get many long runs and may not even crack 500 yards rushing this season. Tom Herman once coordinated an offense that ran for 281 yards on Alabama. The only time the Longhorns cracked that number this year was against San Jose State, a team that currently has one win on the year.
The lack of a running game has arguably been the only constant in 2017. Who’s to say it will get better with another year with the same staff? The 2018 recruiting class holds a very talented playmaker at running back in Keaontay Ingram, but he likely won’t much playing time as a freshman.
With coaching changes unlikely to happen during the season, fans may have to wait until 2018 to find out whether Herman will make any moves. At the end of the day, no matter what coaches he assigns to do different tasks, the buck stops with the head coach.
In front of him, Herman will have a full offseason and twelve games of evidence to evaluate. Plenty of coaches will probably be dusting off their resumes come December, and it will be interesting to see where Texas fits in the inevitable job shuffle.