Last year, Texas didn't have a play go for longer than 50 yards. You might say that's bad -- but wait 'til I tell you that the only team they had as company in that shameful bucket was Central Michigan. Now it's worse. A lot worse.
The fault for this dearth of big plays belongs on a lot of shoulders: the coaching staff, the quarterback, the offensive line, the pass-catchers. But fault was 2018's problem -- the solution for 2019 is named Devin Duvernay, the senior wide receiver who took a 4th and 2 slant not quite 50 yards (44, to be exact) to the house against LSU this past Saturday. That was his biggest play in the biggest outing on the biggest stage of his career: 12 receptions, 154 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
Duvernay first caught my eye, not against LSU, but against Maryland, in a 2018 Week 1 loss the Longhorns would love to forget. It's hard to forget plays like these:
That 4-catch, 58 yard game illustrated some promise for the junior receiver, the third fiddle to Lil'Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson, the big NFL Draft names on the Texas' receiving depth chart -- but that was about as good as his production got in 2018. Texas dealt with some ups and downs from QB Sam Ehlinger, sure. But the true culprit wasn't Ehlinger; it was Humphrey.
In a bit of a hybrid WR/TE role, Humphrey was the Longhorns' "big slot" receiver at the H, playing at a healthy 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. Of course, Humphrey would later go on to the 2019 NFL Combine and run a 4.75s 40-yard dash in the WR corps, which really emphasized the TE in his WR/TE designation -- but Lil'Jordan was Texas' leading receiver in the 2018 season despite his speed. They liked the strength of his hands, the box-out technique he could use in the middle of the field, his ability to adjust for contested footballs. Duvernay, accordingly, was relegated to the Z-receiver role, where his speed was used to stretch the defense vertically -- but not much more than that.
Now, the threat of Duvernay's speed is a real one: Duvernay was a 2015 Texas high school state champion in the 100m dash, which is about as difficult a state as you can win a 100m dash in. The attention he received from defenses was far from cursory; and at 210 pounds, Duvernay wasn't just a skinny-legged burner who faded away from contact -- he'll knock your teeth out and live to tell the tale. Just ask Grant Delpit, the LSU safety who sits very, very high on The Draft Network's Prospect Rankings. It's rare, if not otherwise unseen, for Delpit to take a licking like the one Duvernay gave him on Saturday night.
And when you're built like a brick house, you can do more than just absorb a rocket-launched Delpit. Duvernay regularly received WR screen targets for the Longhorns on Saturday night, because his contact balance allows him to extend plays and shed dragdown tackles, creating hidden yardage after contact that most receivers would fail to generate. He's truly built like a running back, and runs like one behind the line of scrimmage accordingly.
So we have a fast Duvernay, and we have at thick Duvernay -- what we don't have is a tall Duvernay, or a long one. At 5-foot-11 and with only modest length, Duvernay's frame is reminiscent of Carolina's D.J. Moore or San Francisco's Deebo Samuel -- two players who recently grabbed high draft slots despite more RB-esque frames than traditional WR builds. Now, both of those players excelled in the air, attacking 50/50 balls with strong vertical leaps and great competitiveness and timing. I haven't seen that from Duvernay yet, and I'm not sure that I will, now that the graduation of Humphrey has moved Duvernay into the slot. From there, Duvernay simply sees fewer downfield targets, and with Yeti-sized receivers like Johnson and sophomore Brennan Eagles on the roster, Texas has better options for their 50/50 balls.
So Duvernay is better suited between the numbers, where he can win with size and physicality, flare out for quick screens, and still maximize his incredible long speed on RAC opportunities. That's where that 44-yard slant on 4th-and-2 -- one of the most important plays of Texas' near comeback effort -- comes into play:
Snaps into his break, gets his head and hands to the quarterback, secures the football, survives contact, and hits the turbo button. Duvernay's a homerun threat any time he gets into the second level, because nobody near him wants to deal with tackling him, and nobody far away from him is gonna catch up to him.
Duvernay's transition to the slot role for Tom Herman's spread offense is worthy of your close attention. He's clearly established himself as a Top-2 target on the 2019 Longhorn offense, and while he may not get the target depth that Johnson does, he's getting the volume and he's maximizing his touches -- that's why Texas keeps scheming up plays his way. They want to feed Duvernay the ball, because they lacked playmaking in 2018, and he's their best shot at getting it in 2019.
Now, the senior receiver is firmly on All-Star game radars, if not a leading horse in the race for conference season awards and the Biletnikoff -- and why not? Texas is gonna sling the pill around the yard, and Duvernay is gonna jailbreak defenses more than a couple times this season. Few players in college football have as clear a path to stock explosion as Duvernay, and he's more than returned on the promise in the early games of 2019. Just wait until that Big 12 schedule hits, folks: the Duvernay Train is leaving the station, whether you're on it or not.