One of the savvier political moves that Charlie Strong made at Texas was to tell the broadcast team for the Baylor game that “no matter who’s coaching Texas next year they’re going to be a 10-win team.”
The Longhorns are a very young football team and the squad that played TCU in the season finale featured four players in the offensive starting lineup who were in their first or second year in the program, along with six more on defense. The fact that so many key players on the team over the last two dismal seasons have been underclassmen has always been a selling point on the future of Charlie’s program.
However, Texas went 1-5 this season against teams with winning records and the sole victory was a one-point victory at home over a Baylor team that went on to totally collapse down the stretch, and will probably end the year on a six game losing streak. When you look at the youth and recruiting rankings for this team, there seems to be great potential. When you look at what they’ve done on the field and then factor in the possible loss of D’Onta Foreman, they don’t look like they’re on the brink of a 10-win season.
The narrative is going to be friendly to Charlie though as he’s successfully set up the expectation that Herman should win big early and that doing so will be due to utilizing “Charlie’s players.”
There is talent at Texas, always has been, and the Longhorns could have a big first year under Herman if he can fit the pieces together in a way where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Here’s what Herman needs to find either in high school recruiting, the JUCO/transfer market, or on the roster in order to answer Strong’s challenge.
What Herman needs on defense
We’re going to assume for now that Herman brings Todd Orlando from Houston to be the DC/LB coach, which seems safe given that Orlando is largely responsible for putting Herman in position to be the head coach at Texas yet isn’t likely at the top of the list for Houston who’s investing big money into their program these days.
I’ve written some in the past on Orlando’s defense here and here, it’s similar to the Bob Shoop/Manny Diaz system save for utilizing a base 3-4 structure and lots of sub-packages that serve to ease the process of blitzing from all directions at all times. The essential ingredients for this scheme are
- Lots of three-year players in the secondary that know what they’re doing.
- Players up front that can wreak havoc when the scheme gets them a 1-on-1 matchup or offers a free run into the backfield.
Charlie has been recruiting to a similar system but he’s been utilizing an earlier generation of this defensive philosophy that relies heavily on man coverage outside and single-high safety coverages. Todd Orlando will install quarters as the base defense with cover 3 and Tampa-2 as change-ups for when he wants to lock down the middle of the field with a defender.
Up front Charlie would usually bring five but Orlando will just as often scheme to bring just four pass-rushers and play a normal coverage behind it. The fourth rusher could be literally anyone save for the field corner. The 3-4 alignment brings a lot more overall flexibility to this system so that the defense can shift where the pressure is coming from or where the coverage is shaded and it also helps disguise where the pressure is coming from or where the coverage is shaded.
This spring is going to be a busy one for the Texas defenders as they learn to nail down how to play the assignments in the base coverages. That way, Orlando can blitz people from all different directions without worrying that the players behind the pressure don’t know what they are doing. Like with Strong’s scheme, it won’t be enough for defenders to learn just their position either, each player will need to learn how to play a few different zones and fit the run from a few different alignments to make this system work.
There’s not really any missing pieces for Texas, they have a large bevy of players up front that can do real damage in this scheme. It’s more a matter of getting the fundamentals of the system installed and finding the players who offer versatility.
Because of the prevalence of sub-packages in Orlando’s scheme it’s best to look at the roster in terms of roles rather than strict positions on a depth chart. Guys that have demonstrated the ability to play multiple positions such as Breckyn Hager, P.J. Locke, Poona Ford, Malcolm Roach, John Bonney, and Brandon Jones are likely to be rewarded with big roles.
It’s a good thing linebacker will be Orlando’s position to coach because this is where Texas needs the most work. Texas is well stocked with athletes here that can do the kinds of things that Elandon Roberts (six sacks in 2015) or Steven Taylor (18.5 sacks in two years) did at Houston. The issue is whether they can be reliable playing downhill in their run fits. Malik Jefferson is going to have to play with the kind of physicality and aggression he showed late in the year to find a role here in the new regime, hesitant or finessin linebackers need not apply under Orlando.
What Herman needs on offense
This is a run-centric offense, designed to power the ball between the tackles, with spread formations utilized in order to raise the stakes for the defense when they try to load the box by throwing the ball to speedy players on the perimeter.
There’s play-action and RPOs (run pass options) attached to this offense, quick passing game concepts, and QB run options. But it’s all about powering the ball downhill first and foremost. All the questions about who plays QB actually come behind ensuring that Texas has players that can allow them to pound the ball inside to bring the “smashmouth” dimension of the smashmouth spread.
As I noted last week, Herman will probably be replacing two of the three key elements that made Texas a dominant running team in 2015 in RB D’Onta Foreman and TE Caleb Bluiett. Herman made clear in his presser that ascertaining Foreman’s intentions will be an early priority as Texas isn’t overflowing with alternative options at this crucial spot.
If he’s back, Texas will obviously be in great shape and the thrust of the gameplan every week will continue to be feeding Foreman the ball and allowing him to run over hapless Big 12 defenses. Otherwise, Texas is going to want to add more here, possibly including a JUCO if one can be found worthy. Chris Warren could be the obvious answer here but he’s yet to have a full, healthy season and a position that is asked to ram through defenders generally requires some depth.
Kyle Porter has a ways to go to replace Foreman but he was only a freshman last year and flashed some nice jump cuts and burst through the hole, he might be able to carry a significantly increased role. There’s also the chance of Tristian Houston, Kirk Johnson, a freshman, or even Demarco Boyd getting some carries.
If you’ve watched a Tom Herman (or Urban Meyer) team before you know that sometimes it’s the QB who serves as one of the main inside runners. Greg Ward, Jr often served in this role at Houston despite his diminutive size simply because the Cougars couldn’t get enough advantage at the point of attack to power the ball downhill without resorting to some single-wing style runs.
Whether Texas asks this of their QB in 2017 will depend on who wins that job, but don’t be shocked if Sam Ehlinger gets a package like Tim Tebow got as a freshman in 2006 when he had 89 carries for 469 yards and eight TDs. Ehlinger served as the main inside runner for Westlake over the last few years and it’s part of what sets him apart as a spread QB, not just anyone can throw the ball down the field and be a force between the tackles.
Besides finding a guy, or a committee, to serve in the main role of pounding the ball between the tackles Herman also needs to find a TE that can plow the road. Given that Texas may not have a particularly athletic running QB at the helm in 2017, this becomes even more essential.
In the spread offense you always have to have a way to account for the defense playing man coverage and bringing an extra DB into the box as a free-hitter to outnumber your run game. If you have a running QB, you can negate the advantage the defense gets from the extra man by using the option. If your QB is more of a pocket passer then you want to negate that advantage with pass options attached to your runs.
The easiest way to protect the run game via pass options is with two-back formations that can create new gaps for the defense to account for after the snap, and trigger the extra defender to come downhill and fit the run. What’s more, the “power” running play requires either a back to lead block (could be a fullback, H-back, or even running back) or else using the QB as a runner with the option.
Shane Buechele operated the latter scheme this past year and did it fairly well, but Texas needs more, they need a fullback or tight end to trigger defenses and create easy reads for the QB to punish with RPOs.
Where a running QB becomes truly invaluable to a spread team is when he can create off-schedule plays by scrambling for time or yardage and when he can allow the team to run the ball in short-yardage or end of game situations. RPOs are a more deadly constraint than the option when you do them well because instead of punishing the defense by giving a QB a little space to run the ball from behind the line of scrimmage, you are giving a speedy WR a lot of space to run the ball beyond the line of scrimmage.
However, when you’re an RPO team, you always run the risk of defenses accepting your dare and forcing you to throw the ball when you’d rather just plow straight ahead on the ground. For details see the 2015 Cotton Bowl game between Baylor and Michigan State, Baylor threw for 603 yards in that game but when they needed to protect a lead the Spartans dared them to keep throwing and DKR’s maxim about the three things that can happen when you pass came into play.
A team can utilize RPOs as a main strategy on standard downs but they need a plan for short-yardage or “time to run clock and protect the lead” situations where you don’t want the defense to have the ability to dictate that you throw. That plan can either be utilizing the QB as a runner with option (or even better, single-wing) runs or going big and playing with two “ancillary” blockers at TE and/or FB.
For instance, the Pistol-I formation that Texas utilized this past year to help D’Onta Foreman can generally be counted on to give the offense a hat on hat for every defender near the line of scrimmage. They would utilize Bluiett as the in-line TE in that set and then Andrew Beck as the H-back, moving around to create new gaps.
If Texas doesn’t have a running QB to run lots of option concepts with, or count on to help pick up tough yards in situations where you need to run the ball, they can get around this by utilizing TEs and FBs to help create RPO opportunities and to go big situationally.
Andrew Beck wasn’t fantastic in this role this past year but he will certainly remain useful and could still improve heading into his senior season. Peyton Aucoin was brought aboard specifically to serve in this capacity and he’ll be coming off his redshirt season next year. Demarco Boyd isn’t a TE but it wouldn’t be hard to tweak this offense to feature a fullback/H-back if he or another player moved here and proved one of the better blockers on the team.
I won’t be shocked if Herman adds an “extra blocking surface” type TE to the class, perhaps stealing Parker Eichenberger (Katy TE currently committed to Houston), in order to get more depth at this spot. Don’t be shocked if they look to the JUCO ranks or move a player from defense or the OL to serve in this role. It’s a thankless job that doesn’t require a ton of athletic talent but it’s crucial to the design of the smashmouth spread. Texas has had some truly great ones here in Geoff Swaim and Caleb Bluiett this decade, they need to find another such player this offseason and stock up for the future as well.
Texas has tons of prospects along the OL and return the dominant left side pairing of Connor Williams and Jake McMillon, they have loads and loads of good WRs and tons of options in the new offense for using them. At QB they can always turn back to Shane Buechele, who just had a really strong freshman campaign. They do need to find linebackers that can fit the run with aggression, runners that can be featured inside, and H-backs to plow the road and clear up the picture for the QB.
Tom Herman has a lot of work to do before Texas is actually the kind of team that can win 10 games in 2017, but if he can find these missing pieces it’s definitely possible.
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