It starts at QB.
Freshman Shane Buechele’s 2016 Spring game performance is going to go down in history, one way or the other, as a major moment in the Charlie Strong era. If he continues to build on his obvious talent and early success, he could save Strong’s job and everyone will point to this game as the moment when we all knew things would work out. If Shane fails to capitalize on Texas’ Messiah gap due to injuries or any other reason the Orange-White game will go down as the ultimate oasis in the desert mirage.
It was an exciting scrimmage, to be sure.
Some caveats that have to be made are that we didn’t see any 1s vs 1s, so the 1st team OL faced a very uneven front and the whole game was a scripted scrimmage with the coaches working various base packages in a very obvious fashion.
For instance, they’d call a particular passing play twice in a row and have the defense respond in zone, then in man as the QBs would demonstrate their ability to make those fundamental reads. Neither the offense nor the defense was really working to target each other’s soft spots save for who the QBs chose to throw fade routes to on vertical concepts (John Burt, and Armanti Foreman or Collin Johnson).
We did get to see some “good on good” when the 2nd team DEs and secondary were isolated at the point of attack against the 1st team. Breckyn Hager and Quincy Vasser made a lot of good plays on the edges and neither QB ever had an easy time throwing outside the numbers with Sheroid Evans, Kris Boyd, and Antwuan Davis patrolling the skies. That 2nd team group of DBs would be 1st team at many schools in this league.
Here were the main evaluations and schematic revelations I took away from my film study of the Spring game:
Texas has some defensive ends
Since we’ve seen Tristan Nickelson and Elijah Rodriguez in action against Big 12 competition and neither were horrible, I think we can assume that the way Naashon Hughes and Charles Omenihu utterly destroyed them in pass protection is a good indicator for the upcoming season.
It’s fun to note at this point that Kansas State, Baylor, and Texas Tech all fail to return any starting offensive tackles from a year ago. A good four-man rush could do real damage in the 2016 Big 12 that is now without Cody Whitehair, Le’Raven Clark, Spencer Drango, and Hal Vaitai. Notre Dame is also losing a potential first round LT in Ronnie Stanley, so the drop-off in quality from last year’s slate of tackles should be noticeable.
Hughes played well; he always plays solidly, but he may have to fight for his job if Hager continues to take to DE as well as he has thus far. The Westlake product gave Texas a lot of trouble trying to execute power and counter on the edge, even as the 2nd team DTs were washed away by double teams inside of him. His pass-rush is pretty solid as well, Hager just plays very violently and moves with suddenness even in a tight space. Strong even mentioned in his post game presser that “if Hager makes a mistake on one play, he’s getting a sack on the next.”
Amongst his most impressive victories include beating Connor Williams inside on a stunt late in the game and stonewalling a couple of Caleb Bluiett kickout blocks.
Omenihu is really learning to put together his absurd length, quick feet, and long strides together into a nasty pass-rushing arsenal. He sets up OTs, gets them to plant their feet, and then with a step he’s moving by them. I’d be curious to see him work against Williams or Perkins but neither Nickelson nor Rodriguez could handle it.
The best part about the move to the 4-2 front is that Texas has three guys in Omenihu, Hager, and Bryce Cottrell who are talented and natural even front DEs.
Texas’ answer to the spread-I formation
One of the more popular formations right now in spread football is the spread-I, a set where the team uses a FB or H-back to allow them to execute a two-back run game (with power, counter, and iso/lead runs) while still spreading the defense out with three WRs.
This is a Baylor specialty and it makes for a really nasty downhill run game and play-action passing attack when the lead blocker is good and the slot is a threat in the seam. Texas worked a nice look against it designed to keep the ball tightly contained while freeing up the nickel and deep safety to concentrate on negating the threat of play-action.
Here’s an example against power:
The DEs are looking to force the ball inside unless the tackle blocks down, in which case they are looking to take on the kick out block and spill the ball outside. The box safety (DeShon Elliott in this instance) needs to respond by replacing the end and getting outside of the pulling blocker to force the ball inside.
The benefits of playing the scheme this way is that the linebackers can just sit in their gaps and play downhill and the DTs don’t have to be heroes against the double team. On this play Paul Boyette is unable to protect Anthony Wheeler from Nickelson reaching him, but Elliott’s insertion on the edge means no one is there to block the middle linebacker.
This is how a guy like Tim Cole makes seven tackles and looks like a champ all afternoon.
The DEs have to play that kick out block really well or you can get into trouble but as we already covered, Texas’ guys played really well there.
Here’s how this looks against an Iso-style run:
Now the DEs are strictly playing contain, the LBs are still filling their primary gaps, and the box safety is responsible for making the tackle after the LB blows up the lead blocker.
The box safety has to be Johnny on the spot in this scheme, recognizing the blocks and getting himself into the right positions. Elliott was a mixed bag in the Spring game (on one occasion he failed to get outside but then Malik covered for him) but Kevin Vaccaro did well. There’s no doubt Elliott was the most athletic and versatile safety on the field in the scrimmage but you could see places where he’s still working out his role. It’s a shame we couldn’t see how Jason Hall looks in this scheme.
The coverage guys
It’s going to be very interesting to see how Texas makes the most of the absurd abundance of good coverage players on this team. Kris Boyd and Sheroid Evans were both very good on Saturday but Holton Hill and Davante Davis are becoming very well-rounded and aware in man coverage.
You’d think about moving someone inside to nickel but PJ Locke didn’t really show any weaknesses there in this scrimmage, albeit against weaker competition. Safety is still a weaker spot, particularly the “strong safety” position manned by Dylan Haines, but John Bonney demonstrated some range and comfort there when not asked to try and make an open field tackle against a 255-pound freak (Chris Warren III) with poor leverage.
If Texas can get good box play from Hall this year to allow Elliott to make another leap and keep Haines or Bonney well protected to roam the deep field playing over man coverage defenders of this caliber, then the Longhorns are probably going to be very tough on defense in a passing league.
The running game
Texas started the scrimmage by working the base running plays and other than a few schematic details or evals here and there it was hard to glean much from the fact that the 2nd team OL couldn’t run on +1 fronts by the 1st team D or that the 1st team OL was plowing open holes for D’Onta Foreman and Warren working against a pair of walk-on DTs, who had no prayer of withstanding Vahe-Perkins double teams.
The battle for the 3rd guard spot will be an interesting fall battle. They could move Perkins inside if Nickelson proves to be the 6th best OL. Jake McMillon performed well in the running game in the scrimmage and he’s nimble as a puller on power/counter, but it’d also be nice to see what Rodriguez could do inside. There are some good options here and most of the 2016 class should have time to develop.
It’s going to be interesting to see how teams scheme the Texas rushing attack next year given that D’Onta Foreman and Warren are absolute murder at the 2nd level if they have any chance to build momentum (and neither need more than a step or two to do so). Most opponents will have no choice but to bring a safety close to the line to try and prevent Texas from springing its backs into open grass, thus leaving their corners in man to man matchups. Naturally, this sets up the Texas passing game.
The Texas passing game
The Longhorns were pretty vanilla here but this offense’s spacing and run game allows for that in non-scrimmage settings as well. When you’re left playing man-to-man on the receivers outside, there’s not much that the passing has to do except execute a few different route combinations with simple reads. For that reason, there’s hope that Swoopes could be a capable option in the coming season if Buechele goes down (yes, of course the freshman is going to end up starting!).
Amongst the concepts that they ran in the Spring game were some play-action/max protect “you three just go get open” plays, a little bit of West Coast quick game stuff, and tons of slants and hitches.
One play that should be good to Texas next year was with the slant/hitch-in combination to a twins side. Here’s how that looked when Shane was targeting Collin Johnson:
Where Buechele was good on this play (and where Swoopes often struggled) was that he’d throw the WR back to the line of scrimmage where he’d then have more space to make a move on the CB and pick up yards after the catch. If opponents start to play this too tight, there’s always the hitch and go, which Buechele throws really well.
One big difference between the Spring game and the upcoming 2016 Big 12 season is that the Longhorns played their +1 fronts and man coverage, which draws a much different response from the veer and shoot offense than does the quarters-coverage schemes that most of the rest of the league utilizes.
Against a two-deep zone, the veer and shoot makes heavy use of RPOs where the QB punishes zone defenders for their choices to play the run by throwing quick passes or screens. That doesn’t work against single-safety man coverage where none of the defenders are in conflict, so instead either the RB needs to be able to beat the unblocked extra defender or the WRs need to beat coverage.
Texas will probably just opt to let D’Onta Foreman or Warren go to work on the safety against most opponents but Buechele showed a high aptitude for quick game concepts like this one.
How Gilbert plans to beat the blitz remains to be seen but one easy way is just to punish the defense with a deep shot to whichever outside receiver they leave in man coverage. There’s also the shallow cross play, which got two reps in the scrimmage but was smothered because the defense had dropped seven into coverage and the slot couldn’t win deep.
Buechele’s ability to feel and escape pressure and throw accurate balls on the run rolling either left or right will probably get some attention at some point in the 2016 season. That’s one of his many special abilities he showed off in the scrimmage.
The main holes on the team
Texas has a few obvious weaknesses, some of which can be shored up and others that will need creative solutions or mitigation.
The first is pass protection, which doesn’t look like a team strength but may not be that big of an issue. Texas can always run lots of play-action with max protection (seven guys staying in to block) and rely on Burt, Armanti Foreman, or Collin Johnson getting open outside running option routes. Most teams won’t be able to totally stop that on run downs and the fact that Texas has three or four good options outside could make a huge difference this year. On third down, it might be more of a problem.
The next hole is in the slot, where Texas didn’t seem to have any answers in the Spring game. DeAndre McNeal has some promise but he seems like he’s probably a year away and maybe a better fit outside than inside. Armanti Foreman seemed like the obvious answer before the scrimmage but he’s looking more comfortable on the outside.
Texas has three players that could bring some exciting possibilities here but each of them currently play a different position. The first is Kai Locksley, who’s probably a long shot to accept and thrive in a move to the slot right now. The next is that other gifted athlete on the QB depth chart, Jerrod Heard. I don’t know how his hands are but his after the catch ability and route running would probably (eventually) be close to elite.
Then there’s Kris Boyd, who’s a potentially dominant DB but on a roster with as many as three other potentially NFL-worthy cornerbacks. Texas should give these three guys a look in the slot if they’re up for it.
The next hole is at backup TE, where we’ve already discussed how Texas doesn’t have another guy besides Bluiett who can execute all the key blocks. Beck is mobile but he’s just not physically dominant at the point of attack. Perhaps Aucoin can be the answer here but it’s a tough job for a true freshman, if Texas can find some other OL maybe they could slide over the swiss army knife, McMillon.
Finally there’s DT, which has three different guys that should be pretty good in 2016 with Boyette, Poona Ford, and Chris Nelson but none of whom are great against the double team. Here’s an example of how that could be problematic:
That’s the 2nd team OL running zone read on the 1st team defense and getting five yards just from their push inside. Plenty of teams on the schedule have ways of running inside zone where they can get double teams on both DTs and most of those teams have OL as good as this Rodriguez-McMillon-Graf-Anderson-Nickelson unit.
You can see McMillon turn Boyette’s shoulder while Graf and Anderson drive Ford off the ball and reach the playside linebacker. The offense is in a four-wide set so that’s it, there’s no box safety around to clean things up before the offense gets a nice 1st down gain. Weakside runs on the nose tackle could be problematic for Texas to defend next season unless Jordan Elliott or Gerald Wilbon are ready to go. While both of those guys have great promise, consistently eating collegiate double teams is a really tall order for a true freshman.
All told the Spring game revealed a team that is going to have some very nice, complementary features on both sides of the ball that may just come together in a way that causes real problems in the Big 12 and gets Strong to eight or more wins. One thing’s for sure; there’s a lot more reason for optimism than there was in 2015.