Texas football WR Xavier Worthy could be a zone-buster in 2022

Xavier Worthy, Texas Football. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports
Xavier Worthy, Texas Football. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports /

Some of the additions that second-year Texas football head coach Steve Sarkisian and new wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator Brennan Marion were able to make at wideout this offseason will take this position to another level in 2022. Texas has multiple NFL-caliber wide receivers on the roster this year, which is a change from the strength at the position last fall.

The highlighting new additions for Sark, Marion, and the Longhorns in the wide receiver room this year include redshirt sophomore Isaiah Neyor, redshirt freshman Agiye Hall, freshman Brenen Thompson, and redshirt senior Tarique Milton.

But Texas still has some returning wideouts that are sure to have big campaigns this fall. Sophomore star Xavier Worthy and redshirt junior Jordan Whittington highlight the returning wideouts for Texas this year.

And the former of those two wideouts should be the best that Texas has to offer in 2022.

Worthy is the do-it-all stud for the Longhorns that sparks this Texas passing game out of the x-wide receiver spot. He proved what he can do for this offense last fall when he was the best freshman wideout in the entire country.

So how will Texas continue to utilize Worthy and expand upon his role from last season?

Sark already found multiple ways to get Worthy involved in the offense besides just targeting him often on his commonly-ran routes in the passing game. Jet sweeps, bubble screens, and reverses, were some of the ways that Sark found to get the ball in Worthy’s hands in space.

I would expect Worthy to get the ball in even more creative ways this fall, along with more frequent jet sweeps and reverses. And depending on how capable the starting wideouts are for the Longhorns this fall in terms of blocking, bubble screens will continue to be an important facet of the way Texas utilizes Worthy.

But in terms of how Texas can continue to more effectively utilize Worthy in the passing game, there is one particular area that sticks out. Worthy was often most effective in space in the passing game when facing zone defensive schemes.

He was also most commonly targeted in the passing game against zone schemes compared to man coverage. Last season, Worthy was targeted 59 times against zone coverage (nearly 60 percent of his targets) compared to 21 times against man (roughly 20 percent of his targets).

Those 59 targets against zone coverage last season for Worthy resulted in 33 catches for 503 yards (15.2 yards per catch), and five touchdowns. Worthy’s production in the receiving game against zone coverage helped to account for more than half of his receiving yards and roughly half of his touchdown catches.

While it seems like Worthy’s production against zone defense is already pretty astounding, there is ample opportunity for him to improve depending on some other circumstances in 2022.

When you dive deeper into some of the numbers for Worthy against zone defense, you find plenty of opportunities for his production to tick up still this fall.

Texas football has one of the most effective zone-busters in the country in Xavier Worthy

Starting off, one glaring issue that came about last season in terms of the targets that went Worthy’s way in the passing game against zone was the number of interceptions. Of the nearly 60 targets that Worthy had last season, more than a dozen were uncatchable balls, and five additional resulted in interceptions.

Worthy only had one drop on targets in zone coverage last season, thus the fact that just over half of the targets to him against this defensive scheme resulted in catches definitely isn’t on him. Inconsistencies in the quarterback-to-wide receiver connection between Worthy and the likes of quarterbacks Casey Thompson and Hudson Card last season is one of the factors driving the low completion rate against zone.

Understanding and going through the proper reads against zone defensive schemes can take a longer time to develop for quarterbacks than breaking down man coverage schemes, especially when getting the ball to a wideout as dynamic as Worthy.

Texas is likely going to have a more capable quarterback getting Worthy the ball this fall, whether it be Card or redshirt freshman Quinn Ewers. If the latter of those two is the starting quarterback this fall, turnovers might still be prevalent given what we’ve heard regarding Ewers’ tendency to trust his arm talent almost too much at times and try to squeeze the ball into too tight of windows.

While the boom-or-bust potential will pick up in the connection in the passing game for Worthy with Ewers throwing him the ball, I believe his production will only pick up from here. I think we saw the floor of Worthy’s production against zone schemes last season, assuming that defenses still use that philosophy against Texas at the same rate this fall.

Moreover, the proof is in the pudding that Worthy should be a real zone-buster for the Longhorns this fall. We’ve already talked about some of the reasons why the floor is high for Worthy in terms of his production in the passing game against zone defense, but we haven’t talked much about why his ceiling is so high from here on out.

It doesn’t take long to realize how potent Worthy is when he finds space against zone defensive schemes when looking at his numbers from last fall.

Worthy led the Big 12 last season in yards after the catch per reception, and ranked second in total yards after the catch, against the zone last season. His 10.9 yards after the catch per reception against the zone last season also ranked second among eligible wideouts in the Power Five.

It goes without saying that when Worthy has a catchable ball thrown his way against some of the softer zone defensive schemes, good things are going to happen. He’s able to exploit opposing zone defenses in so many ways that he should be a game-changer this fall if he has accurate balls thrown his way consistently.

Worthy is able to create so much separation and is so elusive in the open field that he’s able to break plays wide open most of the time he gets the ball in his hands. He essentially created first downs just in terms of yards after the catch on every single reception he had against zone defenses last season.

Why would you not get the ball in his hands early and often if he’s picking up yards after the catch at that rate?

And what makes Worthy even more potent against zone schemes is his ability to take the top off opposing defenses. When opposing defenses aren’t keeping a deep safety over the top, even if the corner is lined up 10 or 15 yards off the line of scrimmage, Worthy is able to scorch DBs on double moves to beat them deep.

That combination of Worthy’s flat-out speed and acceleration with Ewers’ raw arm talent makes for quite the potent quarterback-to-wide receiver connection in the deep passing game.

The same could be said for the deep passing game connection between Ewers and Neyor this fall.

All in all, a good way to quantify the difference that a better quarterback-to-wide receiver connection could have for Worthy in his numbers against zone defenses this year would be by comparing his reception percentage to that against man coverage.

Last season, Worthy hauled in roughly two-thirds of the targets he had against man coverage. Hypothetically, if he were able to catch two-thirds of the targets that went his way against zone schemes last season (all else the same), Worthy would’ve added seven catches for 106 receiving yards and one touchdown catch.

That’s clearly a sizable difference that could be made by a completion rate of just 10 or 15 percent more against one type of defensive scheme.

I would anticipate that Sark and Marion emphasize maximizing the effectiveness of Worthy, especially in areas where his production has room to improve, in a big way this fall. Texas has a relatively simple and viable way to improve Worthy’s production in the passing game this fall just by getting the ball to him at a higher rate (in terms of completions) against zone schemes.

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Texas finished up last season with a record of 5-7 (3-6 Big 12), missing out on bowl season for the first time since 2016. Worthy and the Longhorns will open up the 2022 regular season at home on Sep. 3 against Louisiana-Monroe.