Analyzing why Texas football WR Xavier Worthy is having a down season

Xavier Worthy, Texas football Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
Xavier Worthy, Texas football Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports /

Through the first half of the regular season, one of the Texas football players having a down campaign statistically is star sophomore wide receiver Xavier Worthy. After having a sensational breakout true freshman campaign last fall, Worthy isn’t putting up the same type of numbers so far this season.

Here’s what Worthy was averaging per game last season (we’ve highlighted the leading stat categories for each season in bold):

  • Receptions per game: 5.2
  • Receiving yards per game: 81.2
  • Receiving touchdowns per game: 1.0
  • Yards per catch: 15.8

Here’s what Worthy is averaging this season:

  • Receptions per game: 4.0
  • Receiving yards per game: 60.0
  • Receiving touchdowns per game: 0.7
  • Yards per catch: 15.0

You can see that literally every single major stat category for wide receivers is down for Worthy year-over-year. So, from a numbers perspective, what’s going on with Worthy so far this season to cause this regression in his per-game and total box score stats, and what is the outlook for him the rest of the way?

One obvious stat that shows what happened to Worthy through the first half of the regular season is 44.2 percent. Of the 43 targets for Worthy in total in the passing game this season, 44.2 percent of them came on deep balls. And his average depth of target on deep balls this season (deep balls qualify as passes of 20+ yards) is 39.6 yards.

Among the Power Five wideouts this season, the 44.2 target percentage on deep balls is the second-highest to that spot on the field. The only wide receiver that has a higher frequency of deep targets this season is Oklahoma State’s Braydon Johnson (45.2 percent).

It’s also worth noting that the average depth of target on deep balls of 39.6 yards is good for most in the country among Power Five wide receivers.

This goes to show that head coach Steve Sarkisian and the Longhorns are utilizing Worthy most often to stretch the field. But Sark has mentioned on multiple occasions this fall that Worthy is getting double-covered much more often than last season, especially on deep targets.

Essentially he is helping the rest of the Texas skill players get more open space since Worthy is drawing away so much extra attention from opposing defensive backs.

And has Worthy had some bad drops on deep balls and a couple of short targets in the passing game? Yes.

Are those drops enough for me to declare that as the primary reason for his slower start statistically for the first half of this season?

Definitely not.

The source behind the statistical regression in the first half of the season from Texas football’s Xavier Worthy

Here are a couple of examples of the Oklahoma Sooners’ defense taking to some different methods (i.e. pass interference and locked-on double-coverage) to ensure that Worthy doesn’t beat them over the top. We’ve seen plays like this throughout much of the season.

Really the only opposing defense that didn’t shadow Worthy over the top at all times was the Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama trusted the secondary enough to let Worthy go one-on-one with them.

Moreover, the fact that Texas is targeting Worthy so often on the deep ball compared to other parts of the field on routes that will have a much higher completion percentage obviously is a big reason why his numbers are down so far this season.

Comparing Xavier Worthy’s receiving depth numbers year-over-year

Of Worthy’s 103 targets in the passing game last season, 26.2 percent of them came on deep balls. Meanwhile, Worthy was targeted on intermediate throws 32.0 percent of the time, while he was targeted 28.2 percent of the time behind the line of scrimmage.

The real dip for Worthy in terms of the area of the field where he isn’t getting targeted as much this season compared to last year is on intermediate throws. Worthy is on pace for roughly 18 targets in the intermediate passing game this season, compared to 33 as a true freshman.

This is indicative of the ball getting spread around to other skill weapons that the Longhorns have healthy this season that weren’t on the field for much of Big 12 play in 2021. The main two skill guys I’m talking about in this reference are redshirt junior wide receiver Jordan Whittington and sophomore tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders.

Whittington and Sanders are taking up a lot of the targets on short and intermediate throws that Worthy did last season when he was the only reliable skill guy for this offense. So far this season, Whittington leads Texas in intermediate targets (10) and receptions (seven) in the passing game. Worthy is next up with eight targets and six catches. And then, Sanders has six targets and three catches, good for third on the team.

Meanwhile, Worthy had 33 targets in the intermediate passing game last season, which nearly doubled the second-most targeted player on the team at that level of the field.

The story of Worthy getting fewer targets in the passing game is even more pronounced year-over-year on short throws. Last season, Worthy ranked second on the team with 14 targets in the short passing game and was tied for second with eight short receptions.

Yet, Worthy is way down this season in terms of his targets and catches in the short passing game. He only has four targets in the short passing game and one catch. He’s tied for fourth on the team in short targets with senior running back Roschon Johnson and is tied for a whopping ninth place with that one short reception.

Meanwhile, the combination of Whittington and Sanders has 22 short passing targets and 19 short receptions this season. That duo is taking up what I would assume would be where most of those other short targets would go in the passing game.

A primary cause for the increase in short passing targets for Whittington is the fact that he is taking 60 percent of his snaps on passing plays out of the slot. Whittington’s absence last season caused Worthy to take more snaps in the passing game as a slot receiver, or at least a guy running short routes out of the slot. He took nearly 120 slot snaps in the passing game last season compared to barely over 30 halfway through the 2022 regular season.

Some of these shallow crossers and underneath routes that got to the slot receiver are going to Whittington this season, whereas they might’ve gone to Worthy last year while Jordan was out with an injury.

I’d also be overlooking an obvious factor here if I neglected to mention the role that Sanders is playing in the short passing game this year compared to last season. Sanders didn’t have a single catch last season and he’s almost in the double-digits in short catches only halfway through the 2022 regular season.

Another critical factor in the dip in Worthy’s numbers so far this season is the lack of yards he’s picked up after the catch. Worthy is down in yards after the catch per reception and yards after the catch per game at every level of the field year-over-year.

This largely has to do with the fact that Worthy is rarely running short routes where he is the primary target and he is constantly blanketed in double coverage. All the space in the short and intermediate passing game is getting handed to Whittington and Sanders this season, where it was Worthy last year.

This has caused Whittington and Sanders to have more receptions with space to run after the catch. You can see that illustrated in the sizable difference in yards after the catch per game year-over-year between Whittington and Worthy.

In every single spot on the field in the passing game, Whittington is up year-over-year in yards after the catch per game. Meanwhile, Worthy is declining in every spot of the field in yards after the catch per game year over year.

This leads me to my final point when comparing Worthy’s numbers year-over-year to get a better idea of how and why his box score stats have regressed through the first half of the regular season. While I think it would be nice to see Worthy racking up All-American-caliber numbers in his stat line this season, I do think the value he brings to the table is untold for this offense.

The spacing that Worthy provides for the rest of the skill weapons on this offense is pretty insane. A great example of the spacing that Worthy provides for the rest of the game when he is on the field compared to when he’s not was illustrated in the first and second half in the tough overtime loss to the Texas Tech Red Raiders.

When Worthy was on the field for Texas in the first half, Texas was able to find open receivers in the flats and near the sidelines in the intermediate passing game. The attention that Worthy drew from Texas Tech’s safeties to keep him shadowed over the top opened up room for the Texas running backs along with the duo of Whittington and Sanders.

Yet, Texas Tech was able to devote additional resources to clogging up the middle of the field in the passing game and get at least one extra guy on someone like Sanders or Whittington when Worthy was sidelined in the second half due to a lower-body injury.

As a result, Texas went from putting up 203 passing yards, two touchdown passes, and 24 total points in the first half to just 74 passing yards, no passing touchdowns, and 10 total points in the second half and overtime.

Worthy’s statistical outlook for the second half of the regular season remains challenging

I think it goes without saying that, despite Worthy’s down start to the season, he’s a very valuable commodity for this offense. In fact, he might be the most valuable player on this offense outside of quarterback Quinn Ewers.

Looking forward, I don’t know how much easier it will get for Worthy to pick up his production. While we did see him finally have a breakout game against the West Virginia Mountaineers at home a couple of weeks ago, he got his production off some really difficult catches.

As long as teams are still double-covering Worthy over the top and shadowing him on almost every route he runs on non-screen passing plays, the value that he provides for this offense will continue to come with the spacing that is available for other skill guys such as Whittington and Sanders.

All in all, Worthy will have to play nearly spotless football to even match the production he put up in the back half of last season this fall for the remainder of the schedule. I’m not saying he can’t do that, but the likelihood is that the strategy for opposing defenses in Big 12 play would have to shift dramatically from here on out for him to get more room to operate, and thus have more opportunities to add to his production.

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Texas is currently carrying a record of 4-2 (2-1 Big 12) following the dominant 49-0 win over Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry game on Oct. 8. Next up for Worthy and the Longhorns is a home matchup against the Iowa State Cyclones on Oct. 15.