Tom Herman’s list of concerns for his Texas offense is lengthy. No proven, go-to running back … No proven go-to tight end or depth at that position … Two scholarship quarterbacks … Depth concerns on the offensive line.
One position on offense where Herman is not gnashing his teeth is wide receiver. The 2017 Longhorns have plenty of talented pass catchers. Unless there’s a surprise emergence at running back, Texas will probably have to rely on its receivers to provide the bulk of the offensive production.
Six of the top eight receivers from last season return. Armanti Foreman, Devin Duvernay and Dorian Leonard combined for 83 receptions and nine touchdowns. Jerrod Heard, in just his second season after moving from quarterback, is a talented work in progress. Junior John Burt is trying to develop football-catching hands to merge with his track-star speed.
Sophomore Collin Johnson, though, could emerge as the Longhorns’ top target this season. The freshmen finished last season with 28 catches for 315 yards, but over the second half of 2016 he did most of that statistical work with 20 catches for 228 yards. In addition to becoming one of quarterback Shane Buechele’s best friends on the team, Johnson also became a favorite target, especially in the red zone.
A big reason for that: Johnson is every bit of 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds.
“I’ve never had a guy with his height and ball skills and ability to contort his body and have that much body control,” Herman said.
With Herman (and with most coaches), there’s always the “ask” of wanting more.
“Hey, you check a lot of boxes,” Herman asked Johnson over the summer. “Height, ball skills, speed, want-to, all that stuff. It’s can you be physical?”
Texas wide receiver coach Drew Mehringer had already sent a similar message.
“In the spring I told him I didn’t think he had the physical toughness to play this position at an elite level,” Mehringer said. “He’s come out in fall camp, he’s played this game a lot more physical. That’s in the run game, that’s blocking, and that’s in the pass game with balls in the air. He’s done a good job, I think, of developing that side of his game, which I did not think existed in the spring.
“He’s on a mission to prove me wrong. I told him if I was that big, I would try to manhandle every human in my way, and he’s taken more of that approach.”
When a football player has his toughness challenged by his coaching staff, two things might happen. Johnson reacted in a positive manner.
“I’m not scared of a challenge, personally,” Johnson said. “I don’t want someone to lie to me, so if that’s how he feels so be it. I would like him to tell me how he feels so I can just improve as a player because that’s what it’s about each and every day. It’s coming out here and getting better. I appreciate him being honest. I just take it as a challenge and embrace it.”
Johnson’s older brother Kirk is a sophomore running back for UT and is in the mix to earn playing time — the depth chart at that position has yet to jell. Kirk Johnson missed last season with an injury, so this is the first time the brothers Johnson will get to play together at the FBS level.
“Kirk is very motivated,” Johnson said. “He’s just working on taking care of his body and controlling what he can control. It’s been fun practicing with him.”
- Veteran Austin American–Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls wrote this about sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele, who still hasn’t been named the starter for the season opener: “Buechele said he’s worked on being a more vocal leader than he was as the freshman who started all 12 games last season, and he drew confidence from being named the top man among about 50 quarterbacks at the Manning Passing Academy this summer. He’s clearly the starter even if Herman hasn’t named him as such, but Texas should play freshman Sam Ehlinger against Maryland — preferably in the first half — and in other contests to get him college-ready.”
- Senior defensive back Antwuan Davis is wearing a protective cast to protect a broken bone in his hand. He has not missed any practice time and should be able to play in the season opener. He started five games in 2015 and is a backup at safety and nickel back.
- Texas junior Michael Dickson was an All-American, a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, and the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year in 2016. Herman treats him as a stranger and refers to him by his position. “I think it’s funny,” he said. “(Herman) obviously puts a big importance on special teams. When we’re out there he takes everything seriously. In the meeting rooms, he’ll call me ‘punter.’ It’s a bit of fun, but he takes it very seriously.”
- Nagging injuries preventing Lonhorns from answering backfield questions
- Tom Herman wants special teams to get back to being special