Included in some of the practice reports from Texas’ spring scrimmages and battles has been some info on what the coaches feel will be the strength of this team. When you combine that trickling stream of info with the game film from 2015 and typical growth projections for a young team, you can start to get a picture of what the 2016 Texas Longhorns identity will be.
If so, this might be the first time in Charlie’s tenure that Texas has gone into the summer with a firm identity on both offense and defense.
So what is it? Well, there were a few obvious things that the Longhorns did right in 2015 that will have to be the foundation of a successful 2016 season since it’s not common for teams to turn major weaknesses into strengths in a single offseason.
Despite finishing 5-7, Texas ran the ball well last season, and by the end of the year, they were playing good coverage outside while occasionally flashing a pretty good pass rush as well. Those are all strengths that more or less correspond to the best ways to attack the Big 12. You want to power the ball down main street against Big 12 defenses and be able to hold up against Big 12 passing attacks.
Of course Texas also demonstrated some crushing weaknesses that are going to carry over into 2016 if they aren’t shored up in a major way. The Longhorns were awful throwing the ball and poor at controlling the middle of the field either against the run or pass.
Here’s how Texas could look to leverage those strengths, mitigate its weaknesses, and try to find a winning formula against the 2016 schedule.
Texas’ offensive identity in 2016
It’s obvious enough that Texas needs to run the ball to win in 2016. The best players on offense are mostly blockers (Perkins, Vahe, Bluiett, and Williams) while the skill talent is concentrated in the underclassmen ranks. It’s much easier to feature complexity with young RBs than young WRs even if your team does have good options at QB.
In the spread offense there are two ways to make sure that your spacing is put to work helping your offense run the ball rather than simply changing the point of attack to the perimeter.
One way is with RPOs and play-action passing, and there is no better system for using those concepts in conjunction with spread formations to absolutely shred defenses than the “veer and shoot” system OC Sterlin Gilbert is installing at Texas. The problem is that this makes the QB’s trigger finger the feature of the offense, and Strong has somehow failed to find good marksmen in a state known for gunslingers.
Other problems with this route for UT include the fact that it requires a lot of coordination in the passing game between the QB and the WRs, and while Gilbert is inheriting a phenomenal group at that position they are all rather young and none of them have been a part of a good college passing attack.
Finally there’s the issue of pass protection, which is made much easier in this system by the RPOs (where the OL is run blocking) and play-action (where the offense can misdirect and leave extra blockers in to help) but was a weakness for this team last fall.
The other way is to ensure that the offense can always get at least honest numbers, if not outrageously advantageous looks, by making the QB a part of the rushing attack.
Now we’re talking about an approach that makes sense with this Longhorns roster.
If Texas goes this route with Tyrone Swoopes at the helm, the base play of the 2016 Texas offense will be “Power-read” which happens to feature every Longhorn in their best possible role. Here it is drawn up against most Big 12 defenses’ favorite run-stuffing look:
Because the inside runner is the 6-foot-4, 254-pound Tyrone Swoopes and the outside runner is the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Chris Warren, the defense has some really tough choices to make on how they want to defend this play. The two key defenders are going to be the DE and the space-backer (the “S” in this diagram).
The most popular defense would be to have the DE stay at home and prevent Swoopes from getting downhill behind the pulling guard, but then it becomes essential that the space-backer is playing that H-back arc block really well and forcing the ball inside within a narrow crease where pursuit is coming.
Now you’re talking about that player taking on a block by the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Caleb Bluiett. Starting to see why Strong is feeling good about the Texas running game?
Other possible counter strategies include playing an odd front like OU will do and using a linebacker in a tighter alignment to contain the play, attacking the reads and point of attack with run blitzes, or just cheating in Virginia Tech fashion by using the free safety as a rover and playing with zero safety help on the receivers outside. At that point, Texas just has to be able to make people pay with the passing game.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t make as much of UT’s WR talent, it doesn’t fully utilize the spacing and home run concepts of the veer and shoot offense, and it depends on Swoopes or Jerrod Heard making good decisions and throws when teams cheat to stop the run.
The alternative path for Texas is with freshman Shane Buechele at the helm and more RPOs included as the primary way to protect the run game from facing cheating defenses. In a vacuum, this is really the best way to get after defenses because the “shoot” constraints on the “veer” can have the effect of lighting up the scoreboard in an instant. However, it requires some extra sophistication and chemistry from the personnel.
Here’s “Power” drawn up with the passing game as the primary constraint rather than a Swoopes dive:
Now the main defenders being read are strong safety and space-backer rather than the DE. The offense will try to handle that DE by kicking him out with Bluiett (a likely win but a tougher assignment than stalking the space-backer) with the goal of clearing space for Warren to get downhill.
Buechele would then read whether the space-backer and/or the strong safety were dropping down to help stuff the run or if they were staying home to help against the pass. If the space-backer is dropping in, Buechele is throwing the quick bubble to the perimeter, if the strong safety is dropping down he’s throwing vertical to the outside receiver, and if both are dropping down he picks the best matchup.
Now you are getting athletic guys the ball in a ton of space and you can make defenses pay with touchdowns rather than chain-moving chunks on the ground. The only problem is that the level of coordination needed from the offense to execute this approach is much greater and a slight-framed, true freshman is the only player on Texas’ roster that can be reliably counted on to execute it.
When opposing teams start bringing blitzes designed to stop muddy the QBs reads and stop the RPOs, how will a true freshman respond under fire?
Texas’ defensive identity in 2016
An essential part of the plan to turn Big 12 games into a scrum where the Longhorns can run the ball 40x or more is that the defense not allow the other team to light up the scoreboard.
Texas is facing much more serious challenges here with its 2016 Big 12 slate including returning QBs such as Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph, Pat Mahomes, and Seth Russell, with Kenny Hill and Jesse Ertz looming as new potential problems.
Fortunately UT should be able to count on really good corner play that allows them to keep three linebackers on the field while adding a box safety to lend a helping hand. This was true at times last year as well, but the defense still struggled to get the middle of the field on lockdown thanks to inexperience and lack of instinctive, decisive play at linebacker or safety.
There will probably be four to five teams in the Big 12 that can actually present a real challenge to the Texas fronts with their running game and six or seven that can attack the coverage in the middle of the field with the quick game. Notre Dame is starting over somewhat on offense but you can expect that they’ll probably be pretty proficient in one of those capacities as well.
In terms of run defense, the hope seems to be that Jason Hall will become the enforcer at box safety that everyone expected to see in 2016, that Anthony Wheeler will make a leap from “promising” to “ready to go” at inside-backer, and that a Ford-Boyette-Nelson DT rotation is able to keep them as clean as units with Malcom Brown and Hassan Ridgeway were able to do.
For Texas to reach eight wins or so they don’t have get all the way to “great” from “poor” in run defense since there isn’t a ton of overlap between the strong run games and the teams that are likely to challenge Texas. The bigger issue is going to be pass defense, which Big 12 offenses are much better equipped to attack.
If you look at the quick attacks Texas ended up facing last year and compare them to what UT seems likely to face in 2016…
…you see that the Longhorns are going to be tested regularly (fewer D-grade teams this year unless opponents get beat up by injuries again) with a several opponents that will be ready to pounce if the Longhorns aren’t ready to lockdown the middle of the field.
Texas has a couple of promising players involved here with Malik Jefferson and Dylan Haines while they’ll need Anthony Wheeler, Jason Hall, and PJ Locke to make some big leaps from what they learned last year. We’ve seen promising play from everyone involved here, it’ll simply be a matter of understanding and recognizing opposing route combinations and tendencies while learning to work together and communicate.
Unlike 2015, the still young Texas D will at least have a slower warm-up to start the year and they won’t have to open against future pros Will Fuller and Jared Goff before they face off against the potent Okie attacks.
From here on out
Between the two obvious directions for the offense and the known challenges for the defense, this team should have a strong idea of what needs to happen over the summer and in the fall in order for this team to build an identity and master a formula that can win games in 2016.
For the offense that’ll be making a decision at QB and then hammering home the base concepts and the needed counters to protect them. For the defense, they need (and are surely getting) tons and tons of reps for the interior core of the defense so they can learn to work together and take advantage of numerical advantages afforded by this CB tandem to deny the middle of the field to offenses.
If they can move forward with confidence in their team identity and spend the next several months mastering the basics while learning to leverage their specific advantages, you won’t want to bet against Strong coming back in 2017 with a league title on his mind.