Inside the Gameplan: Maryland and San Jose State

Connor Williams. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Connor Williams. (Will Gallagher/IT)

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If I were to offer a scouting report on the 2017 Texas Longhorns I’d suggest that they might be vulnerable to a run game supplemented with option elements, pace, motion and multiple formations. Texas’ ability to fit the run consistently and with good fundamentals in their new scheme is far from proven, after all.

I’d also suggest a “bend don’t break” defensive approach paired with aggressive assaults on the right side of the line. That worked out pretty well for opponents in 2016 and while Texas is likely to be improved overall, those weaknesses are still worth probing.

Texas opens their 2017 season with home contests against the Maryland Terrapins and the San Jose State Spartans, both of whom should offer safe challenges for Herman’s Horns. The Terrapins are in year two under new head coach D.J. Durkin, who was Jim Harbaugh’s first DC at Michigan before leaving for the Maryland gig. On his way out he was handed a bruising by Urban Meyer in their rivalry game when he struggled to prepare his guys for the Buckeyes’ option run game. Then last year he got an initiation paddling from most of the Big 10 in his first year as a head coach.

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Maryland should be better in year two but they’re on a long-term plan that involves keeping more of the Maryland and D.C. kids in-state rather than allowing them to get poached by rival Big 10 programs and ACC powers.

San Jose State spent last year as a Mountain West doormat, despite playing in the weaker West division. They went up against Tulsa, Utah, Iowa State, San Diego State, Boise State, and Air Force last year and were pummeled in each game, which gives you an idea of where they’re at these days.

The real value in these games for Texas will be working out the kinks in their system, figuring out who can be counted on before they play USC, and getting everyone their sea legs.

Opening against the Terrapins

This probably would have been an automatic W if the Terrapins didn’t have incoming transfer QB Caleb Henderson from North Carolina to bail them out of what would have been a horrible dilemma choosing between sophomores Tyrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager.

Bortenschlager is a pocket passer that can’t pass very well while Pigrome is a 5’11” 196 pound “dual-threat” who threatens to throw a laser to his receiver or a wounded duck to a safety from snap to snap. Henderson is a better passer than either by a safe margin and transferred to rejoin OC Walt Bell after losing the quarterback battle to now-NFL passer Mitch Trubisky. He may end up wishing he’d stayed.

The system is a variety of smashmouth spread complete with QB option runs and spread-I tactics that include quick passes attached to lead runs. Essentially, all the stuff that has confounded the Texas defense for the last several years.

Here’s an example of the sort of run game they’ll be bringing to DKR, starting with an example of how it looks against a defense that brings an extra man into the box but still features hesitant and unsure linebacker play…

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There’s probably a bubble screen or quick route off screen to the top where the slot receiver is lined up and the QB reads to see if the defense is covering it or not before handing off on a lead play to the opposite end of the formation.

The Terrapin tight ends are a decent bunch, they know how to block and spend most of their time doing it. The OL consists of a bunch of big heavies that look to limit penetration and then release up to the linebackers while leaning on their size to swallow up DL without spending too much time on double teams. None of them are exceptional but they’re a lot better than you might expect, they aren’t the weak spot in this unit.

Here’s another of their run plays, this time their version of “split zone” executed against a defense with a weakside linebacker that loves to fire into the backfield to run plays down from behind but can’t always finish the tackle….

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Their top two backs at Maryland for next season, Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison (in the clip above) averaged 9.1 and 7.2 yards per carry respectively. It’s remarkable that this team found ways to lose so many games running the ball like that but I guess we’ve seen how that can play out, haven’t we?

If Caleb Henderson can give Maryland a credible passing threat then the Texas D MUST be able to fit the various Terrapin spread run schemes properly and keep these backs under wraps or this game could get uncomfortably close.

The Maryland defense is a mostly single-high scheme with a nickel that stays wide and then a strong safety who will drop into the box to give them a numbers advantage or to replace a blitzing linebacker in their pressure package. They play a 4-2-5 most of the time with a hybrid DE/OLB as one of the two defensive ends. That guy, Jesse Aniebonan, had nine sacks a year ago and along with middle linebacker Jermaine Carter (six sacks last year) will probably spend a fair amount of time working off the right side of the Texas OL when the Terrapins are expecting a pass.

Despite those playmaking attributes, the Terrapins are pretty terrible on defense. The challenge of playing single-high is that while it allows the defense to keep both linebackers firmly in the box, it raises the stakes for what can go wrong if they are unsure or late to fill creases. Maryland will surely be improved from a year ago but this is a big, glaring weakness that Texas should hammer.

The challenges in this game will come if Texas’ defenders haven’t mastered the Orlando run defense or haven’t found a running back that’s healthy and ready to run over the Terrapin linebackers behind this OL. If they’ve checked off those boxes in the offseason and fall two-a-days then this game shouldn’t be close.

Checking levels vs San Jose State

This is simply a horrible football team. They just hired a first time head coach after getting swamped by every good team on their schedule in 2016 and he’s searching for a QB from the scrap heap of their roster while trying to convert their defense from a 4-3 into a 3-4.

The new guy, Brent Brennan, is more of a pro-style type coach and while he may eventually find talents in southern California who can execute that vision and will come to San Jose State to do it, they aren’t on the roster yet.

The new defense will be coordinated by a guy deep down the Kyle Whittingham tree who was coaching safeties at Oregon State last year for Gary Andersen. Last year they ran a lot of different stuff at Oregon State and didn’t do any of it particularly well but weren’t terrible either. I’d guess they’d start out simple against Texas and try to play to keep the ball in front of them with something like this:

IB Maryland

Against the tougher opponents on the schedule the Longhorns may get the chance to prove that it’s better to bracket Collin Johnson in cover 2 and play to deny the perimeter passing game rather than loading up the box. But overmatched San Jose State is more likely to give Texas an early exercise in attacking with patience against a team that denies the easy yardage and forces them to work their way down the field with the run game.

Personally I’m already pretty confident that Texas will be lethal throwing quick routes to the field and deep routes down the boundary to Collin Johnson. I suspect the run game will need attention from most teams as well but that seems less sure a thing to provide back breaking gains and points then post routes to Johnson or quick screens to Devin Duvernay or Armanti Foreman.

If the San Jose State staff share my assessment this game could prove a nice test of whether the Texas run game is explosive enough to make Texas competitive against the superior teams that come up after San Jose State. If not, then we’ll probably just see verified what I think we should already know, that the 2017 Texas passing game is going to be pretty potent if they can keep Buechele upright.

It should be very helpful that their new defensive coordinator’s style of attacking protections is something that Texas’ OL is seeing regularly in practice. If San Jose State gets exotic with their blitzes from a 2-4-5 alignment like they’ve used at Oregon State that can also only help the Texas OL in practicing how to recognize and pick up those pressures before taking on the USC Trojans much more deadly varieties.

Unlike in recent seasons when Texas opened with Notre Dame, the first two games on the 2017 schedule probably shouldn’t lead to any overreactions in either this direction…

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Or this one…

…unless Texas loses to San Jose State or something. We can start to make major takeaways after the next game on the slate.