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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Slowing big Texas receivers key to beating Longhorns

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It will be a long day in the Cotton Bowl if OU can’t limit Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey.

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NCAA Football: Southern California at Texas Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As the clock ticks down toward the annual showdown between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Texas Longhorns, we’ve already reviewed the UT running game. Now let’s take a look at what Texas is doing through the air.

Tebow comparisons continue

The Sam Ehlinger-as-Tim Tebow theme with the Texas rushing attack also applies when assessing UT’s passing game. Much like the minor leaguer, analyzing Ehlinger’s skill set feels as though you’re observing a fullback trying to play quarterback.

Notably, Ehlinger’s throwing motion looks awkward, and he seems to struggle to find the right amount of touch to put on his throws. He definitely doesn’t throw the prettiest ball in college football.

Even though he’s improving as a mid-range passer, Ehlinger’s not going to stand in the pocket and burn defenses by throwing his receivers open – that’s just not his deal. Instead, Ehlinger throws well on the move (especially when rolling to his right).

Arguably the biggest conundrum about Ehlinger as a thrower is his deep ball. It’s hard to argue against the results when he goes downfield. Texas already has nine passing plays of 30 yards or more this year; the ‘Horns had 15 in 13 games in 2017.

However, completing those throws often involves the intended targets making adjustments and pulling off acrobatic aerial maneuvers. Ehlinger hitting a receiver in stride on a long throw just doesn’t seem to happen very often. Frequently, you’ll see Texas receivers pulling up as passes fly over their heads.

All in all, Ehlinger is actually giving the Longhorns some of the best quarterback play they’ve had in years. Pro Football Focus, for instance, currently has the sophomore graded significantly higher than any other UT QB of the past five seasons. Similarly, if Ehlinger’s passer rating of 139.66 through five games holds up, it would mark the best season in Austin since David Ash’s 2012 campaign.

Admittedly, that does say something about the performance of the QB position at Texas of late. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be ignored that Ehlinger has raised the quality of play at the position this season. The Longhorns have beaten OU recently with much worse behind center.

Big bodies at WR

Texas’ scary receivers help mitigate some of Ehlinger’s limitations as a passer. This is a big, physical group of wideouts, and UT works to exploit their size versus defensive backs.

While Collin Johnson receives the bulk of the national attention, Lil’Jordan Humphrey is growing into UT’s most effective weapon out wide. Humphrey arrived in Austin as a raw prospect in 2016, but in the past two years, he has polished his skill set. Tacklers have a tendency to slide off Humphrey’s 6-4, 225 pound frame, and he knows how to use his body to shield defenders when the ball is in the air.

Working out of the slot, Humphrey creates a serious dilemma for defensive coordinators: His size makes him a tough matchup for defensive backs, but he moves too well for linebackers in coverage. Those matchup advantages have turned him into one of Ehlinger’s most reliable outlets on money downs. Eight of his nine catches on third down this year have gone for first downs.

Whereas Humphrey seems to do his best work between five and 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, Johnson presents more of a classic downfield receiving threat. This year, he has probably made one catch per game that showcases his extraordinary body control and concentration.

Factor in Johnson’s length at 6’6” and it goes a long way towards papering over Ehlinger’s erratic deep shots.

Speedster Devin Duvernay completes the Longhorns’ receiving trio. Ehlinger doesn’t look for him as often as Humphrey and Johnson, but Duvernay has proved that he can do plenty of damage on his own with the ball in his hands.

Don’t get Butler-ed

With visions of Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler dancing in their heads, Sooner fans are undoubtedly sweating the prospect of OU defensive backs trying to check big receivers like Johnson and Humphrey. In these kinds of scenarios, Mike Stoops generally seems inclined to try to limit the big passing plays, which would mean to expect loose coverage from the cornerbacks and plenty of help from the safeties. Yes, that could also involve plenty of the dreaded three-man rush.

In light of Humphrey’s ability to turn shorter receptions into big plays, OU’s safeties absolutely have to rally to the ball to finish off tackles. They have been caught on film too often this season hanging around the edges of plays, leaving them flat-footed when receivers and ball carriers break initial tackles.

Ultimately, Texas can’t win this game without hitting on some big plays in the passing game. What the Sooners do with their coverage schemes in the secondary to prevent that will play a big role in snuffing out UT’s hopes of an upset.