Inside the Gameplan: the Wide Receivers

Marcus Johnson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Marcus Johnson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

In our continuing series, Ian Boyd goes position-by-position with the Gameplan leading up to August. To this point: Tight Ends, Running Backs

So far our examination of the Texas roster has led to the revelation that Charlie Strong’s 2014 offense maybe more experienced but the talent isn’t necessarily overwhelming. In the backfield, the TEs are limited and best utilized as fullbacks or H-backs in a run-heavy scheme while the running backs, particularly Johnathan Gray, are the players that the 2015 Texas offense needs to build around.

With many Big 12 teams, the top two wide receivers are often the main focus of the offense and the players that actually carry the most responsibility for moving the chains. The 2008 Texas offense is the ultimate local example as that team moved the ball mostly through Colt McCoy throwing the ball to Quan Cosby (92 catches, 1123 yards, 10 TDs) and Jordan Shipley (89 catches, 1060 yards, 11 TDs).

Texas had a pair of seniors in 2014 that were capable of carrying a large burden for the offense in John Harris (68 catches, 1051 yards, seven TDs) and Jaxon Shipley (59 catches, 577 yards, one TD) but not only are both gone, the most experienced returning receiver, Marcus Johnson, has only caught 49 balls for 663 yards and three TDs in the last two seasons combined.

As we’ve also covered in previous posts, Texas has two offensive directions available to them for the 2015 season. One in which the spread formations simply aid in the development of a good, quick passing game like they did for Greg Davis’ West Coast offenses back in the 2000’s or another in which the Longhorns focus their efforts on run/pass option plays (RPOs), play-action, and just a sprinkling of traditional West Coast quick game concepts.

Both quarterbacks, Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard, are probably more suited for Option 2 but because Swoopes has some comfort and ability in the quick passing game, if he were to win the starting job then it might mean a push in that direction.

Whether Texas attempts to build the offense around a pro-style passing game or not, ultimately the main goal of the WR corps is going to be in offering constraints for the running game. Accomplishing anything more than that would likely be overly ambitious for a group that will be relying on inexperienced and unproven players at multiple spots.

Texas has a decent amount of receiver talent on the roster, but it will probably be 2016 before those players are ready to carry a major load in the offense. In the current Texas offense, there are really three main positional archetypes where WR coach Jay Norvell will need to find players.

The possession receiver

The timing routes that comprise the West Coast passing game rely heavily on receivers that can beat man or zone-matching coverage underneath and consistently be in the right places in the right leverage.

For instance, on the Y-stick/dragon concept that Texas went to repeatedly in the Spring game:

The goal on packaged route concepts like this one is to give the QB options to either side of the field for beating either two-deep or single-deep safety coverages. The first read is to the deep middle to check and see how many safeties are sitting there, if both are sitting deep then the Y-stick concept to the field side should be able to out-leverage the underneath coverage by forcing the middle linebacker to cover a slot receiver in space.

stick-dragon vs C2

If there’s a single deep safety than the defense has enough numbers to cover the y-stick concept without yielding a lot of leverage but they are vulnerable to the “dragon” slant-flat combo on the weakside. If he sees only one deep safety, the QB reads the flat defender and throws the quick flare to the running back if the flat is left open or the slant if the flat defender chases the RB.

Stick-dragon vs C3

However, the receiver has to be in the right spot and not allow the corner to get between him and the ball as Bryson Echols did in the clip above. Although Armanti Foreman showed a lot in the Spring game, this is still the kind of young mistake that leads to turnovers and problems for an offense. It was a similar mistake that led to the near pick-6 against Oklahoma in 2009 that was prevented from being a game-changer by McCoy’s touchdown-saving diving tackle.

For all the consternation about the 2014 Texas receivers’ inability to do much damage after the catch, they were at least very reliable on these types of concepts and Swoopes could always count on Harris and Shipley to be open and to get their hands on the ball. These are necessary growth steps for a possession receiver.

Texas doesn’t have a ton of players they can trust to execute these schemes consistently, particularly against the better DBs in the league. Marcus Johnson is the best hope here as he has fantastic quickness in and out of his breaks and has been getting reps in these types of concepts for the last few seasons.

Dorian Leonard. (Justin Wells/IT)

Dorian Leonard. (Justin Wells/IT)

Dorian Leonard, Armanti Foreman, Jacorey Warrick, and Lorenzo Joe all have potential here as they each have the athleticism and/or size to be reliable targets but they need to also demonstrate the route running and the hands.

DeAndre McNeal, John Burt, Gilbert Johnson, Devonaire Clarington, and Kai Locksley (just sayin’!) all have athleticism that would be useful here as well but again, not in time to take down the Irish in South Bend.

The pro-style passing game is a great tool for unleashing athletic players with speed in space but it does take time to actually develop the skills to perform efficiently. Either the WRs need to be consistently good or the QB very accurate to make a lot of headway with this system. Texas can’t rely on either before 2016 at the earliest.

The flexed-out running back

Part of the problem with combining the West Coast offense with a spread-option/RPO system is how imprecise the latter is in comparison with how precise the former has to be.

The spread-option offense is all about learning to use the space that comes from the formations and option concepts and adapting on the fly after the snap. There’s a different mind-set and a different skill set involved although the ultimate goal is essentially the same: to create leverage that allows great athletes to get open in space and then do damage with the ball in their hands.

It’s easier to get players going in this system since it’s more intuitive and affords the receiver more space so that he doesn’t have to use his speed to win his way to a particular spot on the field. Many of the talented young guys like Foreman and Lo-Jo are likely to thrive if put in these situations regularly.

Within the RPO system, there’s another breed of players that are easier to utilize that I often like to call “pitch-men” as their role in the classic triple-option systems of yesterday would be to receive the ball on the edge via the pitch.

You’ve heard them go by other monikers such as “Percy Harvin-types” and “RB/WR hybrids” but what they really are are flexed out running backs. A receiver is a skill player that uses his athleticism to present an open target to the QB but these players are skill players that are defined by what they do after the ball is in their hands.

Daje Johnson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Daje Johnson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Texas has several players that could excellent in this role, starting of course with Daje Johnson. In a true spread-option system there would have been no question of Daje’s talent over the last several years, even amidst all of his off field struggles. It’s not that hard to get the ball to players like this if much of the playbook is oriented around quick tosses, pitches, and hand-offs designed to put flexed-out running backs in space.

Texas’ offense has not really been designed to feature such players under Texas OC Shawn Watson with sweeps, flare screens, slip screens, and other such tools largely superfluous within the self-contained West Coast offense that has other means for accomplishing similar aims.

After Daje Johnson there’s already an entirely new generation of flex RBs waiting for their chance to get on the field including Roderick Bernard and Ryan Newsome.Texas also has more skilled players like Jacorey Warrick and Foreman that can accomplish some of the same things thanks to their explosiveness but are generally utilized more as true receivers.

It’s all too easy to open up the run game by simply packaging quick screens and passes to these players with base runs. If Texas can do this consistently well, they actually have some game-breakers here that could play a huge role in making the offense work in 2015.

The punishers

Against many of the teams in the Big 12, a combination of quick passing to explosive athletes on the perimeter with a strong interior run game is going to be enough to score some points and keep Texas in ball games.

Against the defenses that really know what they are doing and have the athletes to blow up the Texas OL or cover Texas’ receivers in man coverage, Charlie’s going to need a little extra something to relieve pressure and move the football.

He needs punishers who can beat people over the top and threaten the crucial point of every defensive structure: the deep pass coverage. Texas’ lack of a deep threat and punishing instinct was made overly clear in the game against TCU in 2014 when the Horned Frogs used late shifts to bring numbers and outnumber Texas’ RPOs.

TCU vs power-stick

On this RPO, Swoopes had multiple reads and options to make the Frog defense wrong, but all those options come with a variety of defensive responses to also take into account. First, he has the hitch route to the X receiver if the corner is playing off coverage, but TCU was in classic cover 2 to the weakside so that wasn’t a great option.

Next, he reads the “conflict defender” which is the middle linebacker. Does that defender cover the stick route by the H receiver or stay in the box to stop the power run? TCU’s response was to bring the middle linebacker into the box late to provide even numbers for the defense against the run while having the free safety drop down and cover the stick route. Swoopes figured this out and started throwing the route but the safety would come downhill and break it up or make a tackle within two or three yards, effectively defending the entire breadth of the play.

The offensive counter to this has to be to take a deep shot and punish the defense for bringing their safeties down, preferably with a double move, in this instance a double move from the H receiver up the seam could really burn that safety and potentially result in six points.

Lorenzo Joe. (Justin Wells/IT)

Lorenzo Joe. (Justin Wells/IT)

Texas also needs receivers like the Z receiver in this diagram, or perhaps the X in another concept, to be players that the QB can throw a deep lob to if he sees man coverage without a safety sitting on top.

Charlie has been doing a great job of assembling deep threat/double move weapons and there are many players on campus that could grow into the role as well as a few more on the way such as Gilbert Johnson, Collin Johnson, and Burt. In the meantime, it probably falls on Marcus Johnson and Foreman to be the players that Texas uses to punish aggressive defensive responses to the RPO game.

Texas had Foreman run some double moves off RPO action in the Spring game and we’ve all seen Marcus Johnson burn some fools deep with wheel routes so we know he has some potential in this area as well.

Deployment

As you can see in the example of the RPO that TCU wrecked, Texas’ greatest potential for attacking aggressive defenses is going to come either from adding the QB as a runner to regain a numerical advantage or even better, by attacking with the vertical passing game.

Short of involving players like Daje or Heard who can just break a tackle and make things easy, if Texas can play 4-wide with one of the more reliable receivers such as Marcus Johnson or Army Foreman playing in a slot position to attack the linebackers or the seam, then it becomes easier for Texas to really punish defenses for attempting to drop its safeties down to stop the run or quick passes.

Just imagine our RPO from above if that H receiver is a guy like MJ that can use a quick move to get by the free safety:

Power-double move

With a pump fake and a deep lob up the seam that play could really punish a lot of favorite Big 12 defensive tactics for handling these kinds of plays. Once that safety or linebacker has to start backing up and watching more carefully than you can open things back up to resume your ball-control approach of throwing quick passes and running the ball up the middle.

If Texas plays more three receiver sets with an H-back or TE than it will be necessary for the outside receivers to really provide a vertical stretch on the defense or else the ‘Horns will just be inviting more defenders into the box that they’ll have to account for in the blocking schemes. When you don’t have a vertical threat at the slot or a great blocker at TE, this isn’t a desirable strategy to pursue.

In the event that Texas aims to keep a TE on the field the majority of the time, Leonard’s development as a sideline jump-ball weapon becomes essential to the season and Watson has a choice to make on whether to utilize a flexed out RB or a true receiver who can attack the seam at the slot position.

If Texas opts to rely more on the passing game as a constraint rather than putting young athletes on the field, don’t be shocked if you see Marcus in the slot while Foreman and Leonard play outside in Texas’ 3-receiver formations next season as Watson tries to get his one experienced receiver in positions where he can exploit defenses.

In a 4-receiver set, the best combination will probably be Leonard and Foreman outside with Marcus and Warrick (or Daje if he gets it together) at the slot positions.

Ultimately Texas is going to end up relying on some unproven players at the skill positions in 2015 no matter which strategies Watson settles on. If he can keep their required contributions to a minimum and Norvell can develop them to hurt a defense where it matters most (deep) then there is enough talent here to prevent defenses from ganging up on Gray and the running game.

The success of this season may very well hinge on if Texas’ veterans in Warrick, Daje, and Marcus get things together as well as how Norvell does in developing the younger talent in Lo-Jo, Leonard, and Foreman. The eyes of Texas are going to rest on the quarterback but these guys will set the ceiling for this team.