The Texas football team kicks off the 2020 season Saturday night in Austin and will face UTEP in its lone non-conference game of the year. Here are three things to watch as the Horns return to action on the gridiron.
Texas taking advantage of UTEP's secondary
Playing against Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponent Stephen F. Austin last week, the Miners went down 14-3 early, due in large part to multiple mistakes made by the secondary. The Lumberjacks easily completed passes in one-on-one matchups and broke several tackles along the way to 133 yards through the air. UT's offense is much better than Stephen F. Austin's and the fact that quarterback Sam Ehlinger is viewed by some as a Heisman Trohpy candidate. So the Horns should be able to take advantage of UTEP's weakest point on defense to put together a good passing performance. Look for two of Ehlinger's main targets to be wide receivers Tarik Black and Jake Smith. Both are experienced, although this will be the first time either has been asked to fill a major role on the offense. Last season, Smith was the Longhorns' punt returner, and Black started five games for Michigan.
When talking to the media about some of the toughest receivers on the team to cover, defensive back Chris Brown said of Smith, "He's so shifty. He can change speeds. He's quick in and out of his cuts."
An RPO Battle
It is no secret both Texas and UTEP like to use the run-pass option (RPO) ... a lot. UT's new offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich, comes from Ohio State, where he helped to build an offense that averaged 529.9 yards and 46.9 points per game in 2019. This was thanks in part to the RPO, in which the quarterback has the option to hand the ball off, or look downfield for a pass depending on the way the defense sets up. While they have worked with it in practice and scrimmages, this will be the first time Ehlinger and the offense play a game under Yurcich's tutelage. While inexperienced, the Horns have a solid backfield with Ehlinger and a running backs group led by Keaontay Ingram. For the RPO to work, the offensive line needs to run-block effectively, which could be the wild card on Saturday.
UTEP has a similar offensive approach, and thanks to the excellent vision of quarterback Gavin Hardison, the Miners climbed back to win Saturday's game, 24-14. UTEP is not at the same level as Texas, but if the Longhorn defense struggles, the Miners certainly could make it a game — at least, for the first half.
Longhorn defensive line vs UTEP's quarterback run game
Herman was the first to note that UTEP will provide a sort of preview for the Longhorns in what they will face in Kansas State, with similar formations to that of the Wildcats and of course, "a heavy dose of the quarterback run game." The Longhorn defensive line with be the first line of defense in countering this sort of offensive attack. While the defense as a whole is a talented and experienced unit, defensive coordinator Chris Ash' new 4-3 defense, which features a JACK (a hybrid between defensive lineman and linebacker), may still have the Horns guessing at some points throughout the game.
Plus, as Herman told the media, "I think we've all been around the game enough at this point to know that the old adage is usually true, that teams make their biggest improvement from game one to game two, and they've already had their game one. We have not."
Hardison had a 4.9 40-yard dash time coming out of high school. Running the run-pass option as often as the Miners do should open up room for Hardison to run, meaning it will be a matter of the Texas defense adapting and reacting in order to make the play.
UTEP head coach Dana Dimel announced Monday that running back Quadraiz Wadley will opt out of the 2020 season. He was sidelined for much of the season opener as he continues to recover from a foot injury that kept him out of the 2019 season. Redshirt freshman Deion Hankins led all rushers against SFA with 17 carries for 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns. With Wadley out, the Miners will rely on Hankins and Harrison to lead the rushing game against Texas.