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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Longhorns QB Sam Ehlinger at center of Texas run game

Tom Herman makes use of his QB’s legs to supplement the ground attack.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

When the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns met last year in the Cotton Bowl, UT was running something that approximated the offense coach Tom Herman helped Urban Meyer refine at Ohio State.

A facsimile honestly was about the best the ‘Horns could hope for. After all, previous coaching staffs acquired and trained personnel for roughly eight other offensive schemes in five years.

Not surprisingly, the Texas bootleg of the Buckeye offense performed like a knockoff in 2017. UT finished seventh in the Big 12 in scoring at 29.5 points per game. The Longhorns also ranked a pathetic 99th in the country in Offensive S&P+, a reflection of the fact that they couldn’t run or throw the ball particularly well.

Now in year two, the ‘Horns appear to be creeping closer to the offense that Herman wants. You can at least see an identity forming, and a running game that prominently features sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger lies at its core.

Ehlinger’s show

The offensive cohesion in Austin owes much in part to sophomore Ehlinger’s presence behind center – literally. Herman and coordinator Tim Beck toggled back and forth between Ehlinger and Shane Buechele for the entire 2017 season. The QB shuffle between two players with significantly different strengths kept the Longhorns from ever establishing core competencies to form a game-to-game, play-to-play foundation for the offense.

This season has left no doubt as to which QB the coaching staff prefers. Eschewing the Air Raid concepts that best fit Buechele, UT is deploying Ehlinger like a Tim Tebow throwback.

For OU fans who spent the last two years brushing up on the Ohio State offense, the run concepts in Texas’ offense will look familiar because they mirror the staples of the Buckeyes’ playbook: Tight Zone, Split Zone, Bash, Power. In addition to read plays for Ehlinger, UT calls a fair number of designed QB runs. Adjusting for sacks, Ehlinger has run for 208 yards on 46 carries, which works out to roughly 25 percent of the Longhorns’ rushing attempts this season.

Ehlinger (6-3, 235 pounds) can take a licking and dish out some punishment of his own on would-be tacklers. As a result, he has become a brutally effective short-yardage battering ram.

It may sound like damning with faint praise to say that has been his biggest contribution to the UT rushing attack this season, but the reality is that running him in third-and-short scenarios and on fourth down has been money for the ‘Horns. Of Ehlinger’s 10 carries this year on third down with three or fewer yards to go, Texas has converted seven into first downs.

Running backs aren’t all that

It’s fortunate for Herman and Beck that they can count on Ehlinger to help carry the load. Even though they have upped the quality of UT’s running backs compared to a year ago with some new additions, it’s a pedestrian group.

It speaks to the strength of the unit that graduate transfer Tre Watson offers the No. 1 option for the time being. Watson is adequate in just about every sense, gaining four yards per carry and averaging around one catch for five yards on a per-game basis this year. He has little to offer in terms of explosiveness, though; Watson’s longest play from scrimmage this season: 16 yards.

Although Watson won’t make anyone think he’s the next Jamaal Charles, freshman Keaontay Ingram one day might. A big, fluid runner, Ingram is averaging 6.1 yards per rush. He’s not an overly powerful back, but he has a knack for running through contact and adding extra yards at the end of plays.

Given how poorly OU’s defenders tackle, Herman may decide this weekend is the time to elevate Ingram to the role of feature back. A healthy Ingram playing that part would likely concern the Sooners’ coaching staff more than the alternative.

Strength on... not strength

Advanced stats suggest Texas’ running game versus the Sooner run D represents a contrast in strengths.

The Longhorns’ plodding attack grinds on defenses even though their ball carriers rarely break big plays. UT’s offense ranks 42nd in the country in rushing marginal efficiency, but the team is near the bottom, 126th overall, in rushing marginal explosiveness. UT has a grand total of two runs so far this season that have gone for 20 yards or more – the national median is closer to seven.

Meanwhile, OU doesn’t give up big plays on the ground, but opponents have had success making solid gains. The Sooners sit 18th overall in marginal rushing explosiveness, but they fall in the bottom 40 percent of the country in defensive rushing marginal efficiency.

Does that alone warrant some kind of radical game plan for OU’s defense?

Nothing too outside-the-box. Mike Stoops has shown a preference for the three-man front with defensive linemen playing a two-gap technique against teams that utilize the QB run game, so I reckon we’ll see a decent amount of that out of the defensive line.

A smidge more intriguing is how Stoops intends to use Mark Jackson. With Ryan Jones out of commission against Baylor, Jackson ended up playing a sizable number of snaps at SAM linebacker. Even if Jones returns this week, keep an eye out for a look akin to a 3-3-5 (pictured above) with Jackson floating between the JACK spot and lining up to the strong side of the offensive formation.