Inside the Gameplan: Texas QBs by the numbers

Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger (Justin Wells/IT)

Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger (Justin Wells/IT)

If there’s one thing about Texas’ play on offense in 2017 that met preseason expectations it was the prevalence of a season-long quarterback debate over whether Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger represented the brightest future for Texas football. There wasn’t much that was even bright about Texas’ play on offense in 2017 but major improvements in 2018 are going to need to come with one of these two young men at the helm.

It wasn’t terribly hard to suss out the story of 2017 just by watching the games. It was obvious enough in live viewings that Texas’ QBs spent most of the season under duress from shoddy OL play, Texas’ own struggles to execute routes, harsh penalization, and the lack of a go-to receiver.

In the assembly of a run-centric offense like Tom Herman brought to Texas the formula to success goes as follows:

  • Run the ball effectively against an honest front
  • Constrain the defense from sending extra defenders with QB options (run or pass)
  • Develop a go to receiver/plan for beating man coverage on passing downs
  • Use the QB as a trump card for converting short-yardage or turning broken plays into gains.

Texas couldn’t always do 1 and when they could, they couldn’t or didn’t always execute 2 (like in the Tech game). Number 3 was a real struggle as Texas had multiple WRs that flashed promise but lacked go-to route combos or targets for executing on third down. At the end of the day, number 4 was one of the only things that Texas had going for them.

Here’s how things looked with each QB at the helm in the option and direct snap run game:

Ehlinger vs Buechele runs 2017 (2)

There’s a lot to observe from those numbers but having watched every single one of these runs, save for four missing runs from Ehlinger that my breakdowns are missing (which netted 10 positive yards), here’s some context and observation.

Ehlinger had a far greater volume of carries for a few different reasons. One was that he played a few more games than Buechele. Another was that the staff didn’t utilize Buechele as much on direct snap QB runs (split zone, power/counter, stretch). Durability is another factor, Ehlinger sustained two injuries this season during a stretch in which he had 58 carries in three weeks whereas Buechele missed the games that immediately followed from the weeks in which he had 10 carries or more save for the TCU game, where seven of his twelve “carries” were sacks. The 12 extra sacks that Buechele took were another factor as I think we can safely conclude some of those might have become scrambles had Ehlinger been under center.

The sack rate, higher yards per carry on scrambles, and higher volume of overall rushes for Ehlinger all tell the story of a player that was much more comfortable and capable avoiding pressure, avoiding negative plays (save for turnovers on the goal line, perhaps), and did more damage on off-schedule plays.

The coaches didn’t give Buechele downhill carries, the only time that he ran the ball between the tackles was on draws, scrambles, or zone-read plays where he was looking to find a crease when a defender unexpectedly showed up on the perimeter. Conversely, Ehlinger regularly ran downhill on power/counter runs. This isn’t terribly surprising to anyone I’m sure, and Ehlinger’s 230 pound frame and hard running undoubtedly has a lot to do with it.

The reason that the direct snap QB runs look inefficient for either QB is primarily that these were short-yardage calls. Ehlinger was something like 5-7 converting third or fourth down with the QB power/counter runs and the two failed runs (fourth and two vs USC, third and two and against Tech) resulted from missed blocking assignments. When the staff wanted to try and pick up a third or fourth down with a QB run when Buechele was in the game they turned to QB stretch or zone-read and Buechele was 4-5 converting short yardage on QB stretch.

Buechele’s greater effectiveness on zone-read keeper calls is a factor of a few different things. One is that opponents were much less likely to give Ehlinger a “keep” call on the zone-read, so he was normally handing off. Another was that Buechele was given a lead blocker on some of these zone-read calls and picked up a few chunk runs against Iowa State with it and then that nice TD run against Baylor from 28 out.

Whither power-read? Texas rarely used that play this season even though it suits Ehlinger’s strengths and helps the backs run the ball on the perimeter rather than behind the OL. Ehlinger also ran it in high school and is well familiar with the reads involved. Perhaps they didn’t want to base around a play that they didn’t want to utilize with Buechele? Either way this really stands out in review.

The numbers and the film make clear that quickness is not a sizable advantage that Ehlinger holds over Buechele and that was also evident from SPARQ numbers out of high school.

Executing perimeter constraint runs on the option is not an issue for Buechele, it’s simply holding up to the extra punishment that adds on top of eluding pressure and scrambling, like on this successful zone-read keeper:

via GIPHY

Six of Buechele’s rushes this season went for 10 yards or more and four of them were on zone-read keepers that allowed him to get loose on the edge. The other two came from a scramble and a draw. That’s a 16.2% rate of explosive runs.

14 of Ehlinger’s runs went for 10 yards or more, which is a rate of 14.9%. Seven of these were scrambles, two came on QB stretch runs, and five came on draws.

The draw was the best called running play for Texas this season, no matter the QB behind center although obviously Shane didn’t get as many carries there. Ehlinger in particular was a very dangerous player for opponents to turn their backs on in coverage before trying to close and tackle him in space.

via GIPHY

It’d be interesting to learn why the staff didn’t make the draw a bigger component of the offense, it might again have been due to the fact that they didn’t zero in on a particular QB as the starter and didn’t want to count on QB runs as a major part of the offense. You would hope that a Texas offense built specifically for Ehlinger would regularly feature the lead draw RPO play.

So who gets the nod for fitting together the best Texas offense?

I think it’s obvious enough that this season the best QB to have under center was the one that could avoid sacks and disaster more easily, Ehlinger. That’s not the same question though as which QB is the better player to build the offense around in 2018 and an offense built around Ehlinger is going to look different than an offense built around Buechele.

So let’s review our four-step process to Texas building out a strong, Herman-style offense.

  • Run the ball effectively against an honest front

This depends on Texas fielding an OL that can reliably prevent penetration and execute assignments against a given defensive front. It also depends on Texas getting better blocking from the TE position next season so that they can block a six man, nickel front. The RBs matter as well, Texas’ young RBs need to up their game next season.

  • Constrain the defense from sending extra defenders with QB options (run or pass)

Ideally this offense would thrive on both power and zone-read plays, which can allow an offense to get the featured runner on the perimeter or downhill whether he’s the QB or the RB and long-term the goal is for the featured runner to be the RB…at least until Roschon Johnson is around.

via GIPHY

Both of these guys have the quickness to get to the edge and the ability to plant and cut up the field. Power-read is the bigger question since it’s less clear that Texas wants Buechele to potentially hit 10 carries a game as would be necessary if both power and zone read were big components to the offense.

The other question here is RPOs. I haven’t broken down every RPO on the year but at least feel confident saying that Ehlinger is decent but growing in those concepts and Buechele is a well above average trigger-man. Texas could build a good, run-centric offense while continuing to ignore the potential lethality of power-read or draw by continuing to put emphasis on the RPO game.

  • Develop a go to receiver/plan for beating man coverage on passing downs

If/when I try to break down every pass concept and result by Texas this season we’ll try to see where Texas is in regards to realizing this goal. Reggie Hemphill-Mapps is probably the best bet here, naturally he was injured this season because Herman can’t have nice things, but RHM, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and Collin Johnson all have obvious potential here.

Buechele can do damage with the scramble but you can’t really plan on it, Ehlinger regularly converted passing downs with his feet either by scrambling or buying time to find a receiver and a lead draw concept would probably add a good arrow to the staff’s quiver for third and long.

  • Use the QB as a trump card for converting short-yardage or turning broken plays into gains.

For an offense seeking to control the ball in particular, this is a crucial component, but it’s not necessarily the most important. For instance, the last four years of Ohio State football have offered a fantastic window into the nature of this offense and how it works best.

With J.T. Barrett at the helm the Buckeyes have been able to make regular use of option football and direct snap QB runs to execute third and fourth down with high precision. The Buckeyes were fifth nationally in converting third downs this year at 48.6% and having QB power or split zone in their back pocket for third and four or less has been free money for them for four years now. However, their greatest offensive performances came with Cardale Jones at the helm for the 2014 postseason run because Ezekiel Elliott, the OL, and their TEs didn’t really need the QB helping with option reads and the vertical passing he brought to the table made them explosive.

Texas needed QB run game help this season in order to run the ball at all and even then it was dicey, but that may not be the case in 2018 with a better RB group and a deeper, older TE/OL depth chart. By 2019 they should be running the ball effectively in a variety of ways or this whole Tom Herman venture may be in trouble.

Here’s what the third/fourth down offense looked like with Buechele:

Third down: 35-95, 36.8%.

Fourth down: 6-17, 25.3%.

And when Ehlinger was at the helm:

Third down: 45-103, 43.7%.

Fourth down: 8-13, 61.5%.

For the season Texas finished at 38.5% on third down, up considerably from their 31.8% mark in 2016. The 2016 Texas offense was devastating on first and 10 and then hot garbage on third and five, the 2017 Texas offense could flip those traits IF Sam Ehlinger was in the game.

The numbers from the 2017 season suggest that a great Shane Buechele offense is one in which Texas can run the ball with a feature back and has WRs that can consistently get open on passing downs and they’re just looking for a QB that can generate big gains throwing the ball down the field on play-action. A Sam Ehlinger offense could probably include that same dimension but would also likely incorporate the QB more heavily to help the RBs and make situational football an area where Texas could generate separation against opponents.

Right now the two young signal-callers are splitting reps in preparation for the Texas Bowl against Missouri. Looking back at this year and then moving ahead to the spring I think Herman is going to build around Ehlinger and hope to have Buechele around as an above average game manager in the event of an injury. The challenge for the spring will be executing steps 1 and 3.