Heading into the 2008 Red River Shootout, Texas was having a very solid season, but hopes weren’t too high yet because the defense was young in the secondary and because the offense seemed to lack star power with Jamaal Charles, JerMichael Finley, and Limas Sweed all departed to the NFL.
What’s more, possible future star Blaine Irby had just been lost for the season against Rice leaving Texas without a credible receiving threat at TE. Then Texas shocked the world by moving Jordan Shipley into this slot position, playing four receivers as the base offense, and establishing an identity as one of the most dangerous quick-passing teams in the history of college football.
They went on to go 12-1 while whipping most of the rest of the Big 12 and coming remarkably close in Lubbock to earning a bid to the national championship.
The identity established by this 2015 Texas team is very different, but it just might allow the Longhorns to smack down most of the rest of the league and salvage the season while pointing towards exciting possibilities for the 2016 squad.
The 2014 Texas defense also had a slow start in building its identity, one that we all tend to forget because by the time they were playing Baylor and Oklahoma, they were putting the fear of God into the rest of the league about what a Charlie Strong-led Texas defense was going to look like.
That identity ended up revolving around two features to the roster. The first was their ability with Duke Thomas, Mykkele Thompson, and Quandre Diggs on the field to lock down opposing’ teams three best receivers in man coverage. With that accomplished Bedford was able to give Dylan Haines and Jason Hall manageable tasks in the middle of the field and drastically reduce the efficiency of opposing passing games.
The other feature of that defense was the ability to rush the passer and control the line of scrimmage with just three players (Cedric Reed, Hassan Ridgeway, and Malcom Brown) while dropping everyone else into coverage.
In the middle, you had Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks, who were equally adept attacking the line of scrimmage on the blitz playing in front of the secondary or else dropping into max zone coverage and shrinking windows.
The 2015 defense, as I wrote before the season, was going to be at its best as an attacking unit that would form 5-2 fronts via the blitz and rely on Peter Jinkens and Hall/Haines to maintain the second level while Ridgeway, Ford, Hughes, and Jefferson ripped through opposing OL and inflicted negative plays.
The problem quickly became that neither Jinkens nor any of the safeties were up the task of ensuring that ball carriers that slipped through the first wave were consistently tackled… until they played Oklahoma.
I wouldn’t say that Jinkens had a brilliant performance at inside linebacker, but he had a very solid one and was reliable at cleaning up plays while freeing up Malik and Naashon Hughes to blitz nearly every single down.
It’s worth noting here that Malik still played middle linebacker in this game, but observe where each position lines up in the 3-3-5 defense that is Texas’ best package in 2015:
In our diagrams this looks like this:
Malik is lined up as the middle linebacker, but the weakside linebacker is the one that is going to end up being the inside linebacker in the box after the sneak when Malik and the Fox both end up blitzing:
Texas could still use a reliable box safety to drop down and be a tackling force but they’re just good enough for now to allow the defense to bring Malik on blitzes regularly without having to worry that no good tacklers will be left in the defensive backfield.
When Texas can regularly bring the Predator, they force offenses to have to worry about blocking him and they create 1-on-1 match-ups for the DL, which means the other team’s interior OL is going to need to be able to block Ridgeway or Ford without a double team.
Most opposing offensive lineman cannot do that, which puts less pressure on the young DBs to hold up in coverage and on Jinkens and the box safety to patrol the underneath zones.
What’s more, this is an identity that can translate in 2016 when UT can put Anthony Wheeler in that inside position while also almost certainly improving at safety, corner, rush-linebacker, and needing only to find one more solid pass-rushing DL.
Texas had no offensive identity in 2014, unless you count Swoopes throwing a limited range of West Coast timing concepts outside the hash marks behind terrible protection. That was probably the best, regular feature of the offense but it feels a stretch to call that the unit’s identity when “plain bad” seems the more apt descriptor for that unit.
Finding an identity for 2015 was a major priority in the offseason and it seemed that Texas was going to need to build it around running the ball with Johnathan Gray and constraining defenses with Daje Johnson. By the time the Longhorns played Oklahoma neither of those were great options as Gray frankly hasn’t been much more than a great 3rd down back and Daje was concussed and unavailable for the shootout.
Instead, Texas has found an alternative identity built almost entirely around either freshmen or players that weren’t expected to be key cogs in 2015. The best formation and group for Texas’ offense this year is the following group:
This is the “spread-I” formation, which pairs the QB in the backfield with a traditional running back and an H-back and offers a wide variety of schematic options including a 2-back run game.
This group is best with Burt in the “Z” position, Heard at QB, D’Onta Foreman at RB, Bluiett at H-back, Armanti Foreman or Marcus at “X,” and Daje at the Y. Against OU they often had Gray out there at RB and Marcus was in the slot with Daje out.
The beauty of this formation is that it is fantastic for executing UT’s best concepts on offense, which now include two additional schemes beyond the “max protection with seven blockers for Heard, three vertical routes, scramble option if no one is open” tactic that was Texas’ best strategy earlier in the Heard era.
Those two schemes that now give Texas a more fleshed out and difficult to defend identity are “lead zone” and “gap left.”
I’m being broad with the term lead zone in this instance and am referring to any variety of inside or outside zone in which Bluiett is used as a lead blocker for the featured runner. The possibilities are extensive as he could lead between the tackles or outside the tackles, trap an unblocked DL, or arc around and lead for the QB on zone-read.
That latter play is the best variety of lead zone in the playbook since it involves Heard as the runner on the edge, but Bluiett + Foreman inside should be a play that finds some success against the Texas Techs of this league. Texas will be able to run zone with for either Heard or the running backs with Bluiett leading the way against whatever the soft spot is against a given opponent.
Bluiett’s emergence as the answer for the loss of Geoff Swaim has an ENORMOUS impact for this team, which desperately needs to be geared around the run game and thus desperately needs different ways to run the football that don’t depend on throwing wide on RPOs or asking Heard to be Superman every Saturday.
Foreman’s emergence as a runner worth featuring is also major because Texas needs to be able to generate explosive plays in the ground game to take down opponents like Iowa State or Kansas without having to risk Heard with more 20-carry games.
The second scheme that is now a major part of the Texas offensive identity is “gap left” by which I mean power or counter runs in which right guard Patrick Vahe pulls over to the left side of the formation. By necessity, Texas is also running this play to the right side with Flowers pulling, but that combination isn’t going to scare anyone whereas gap schemes run to the left side should be effective against most every defense remaining on the schedule.
Much like with zone, the greatness of running these gap schemes with Bluiett in the backfield is that Texas can feature all of its best offensive players with the same basic concept.
Obviously the play can be run as QB Power/Counter with Heard as the ball carrier:
This is an instance of “QB Counter” and the difference between power and counter is simply a matter of how the pulling guard and H-back divvy out the blocking assignments. If the guard is kicking out the end while the H-back leads up to the linebacker, it’s a counter run, if the H-back kicks out the end and the guard leads up to the linebacker, then it’s power.
Both Bluiett and Vahe are very effective in either role, although they’re perhaps at their best on counter. Another advantage to running to the left which isn’t as obvious in this example is that Texas can run behind Connor Williams, who is excellent at caving open a gap for the lead blocker and climbing up to the backside linebacker to cut off his pursuit.
They can also run this play for the running back by either using the slot on a sweep across the formation or as a quick screen option to the outside:
This is power, and Andrew Beck does a good job in place of Bluiett on the kick out block but Flowers fails to control the OU DL after Williams climbs up to the backside linebacker. On this play Oklahoma respected the threat of the bubble screen by having the nickel follow Marcus out wide, you can be absolutely sure that teams will also respect the threat of the screen when Daje is in the game.
Texas can also use this play to get the ball in space to the outside receivers, and not just with play-action but with simple RPOs that Heard has already demonstrated he can read and complete:
Notice that Heard does a good job of not cluing the defense with his eyes on where the ball is going. He completed this ball to both Lorenzo Joe and John Burt, the former of whom is pretty difficult for smaller CBs to tackle and the latter of which is generally going to be working in a lot of space because opponents need to make sure he doesn’t beat them deep. Army Foreman would also probably be effective in this scheme or as the slot catching bubble screens.
Finally, gap left is a big part of the Storm Swooper package…almost the entirety of the package in fact:
You’ll notice that every essential contributor to this play is going to be on the team in 2016 as I expect Bluiett will remain on offense next year as his blocking might actually offer him a chance at making a pro roster. As Eric has noted, it’d be interesting to see how this team would look with Perkins at left guard and Nickelson/Hutchins manning the post at right tackle. I don’t particularly expect that to happen since Flowers seems to be an important leader on this team but I’d like to see it all the same.
Vahe is uniquely gifted at pulling, which is why I noted in my class breakdown that he’d probably end up at guard despite his shorter stature, but if Texas could run gap schemes with efficiency to either side of the formation, that’d be devastating for Big 12 defenses which are already poorly equipped to stop it going to the left. Upgrading left guard would make this running game very difficult to scheme.
In the meantime, the main challenge for the rest of the year will be continuing to find ways to run these plays and generate explosive results without having to frequently utilize Heard. The priority after that point will be expanding the play-action game to punish teams over the top. When all that is accomplished, the offense can start devoting serious reps to the quick passing game that Watson loves so much. Even when he’s gone, it’ll be something that Texas will want to expand upon heading into 2016.
The future is looking bright once more for Texas.