This is a speculative exercise based largely on film study of the 2013 Louisville and OSU offenses along with some older material so be aware that how Wickline and co. adapt to Texas’ roster and situation may not perfectly mimic their previous strategies.
However, the way Strong assembled this staff point to obvious conclusions about the style and schemes that Texas will rely on in 2014 and beyond. This is going to be a ball-control offense that is methodical in moving down the field and relies on a physical, inside running game to punctuate drives.
Bill Connelly recently wrote a column on “the five factors” (http://www.footballstudyhall.com/201...l-five-factors) that most strongly correlate to winning football games. Ranked by importance these were:
1) Explosiveness 2) Efficiency 3) Field Position 4) Finishing drives 5) Turnovers.
You’d expect a ball-control, defensive strategy designed to maintain possession and play for field position to score well in avoiding turnovers, maintaining good field position, and potentially in efficiency if executed well.
The potential pitfalls are numbers 1 and 4: Explosive plays and finishing drives.
If you’ll recall, the 2008 and 2009 Texas teams were ball-control, West Coast offense teams like many that Shawn Watson has coached in the past. The key to those Texas squads’ success was the remarkable efficiency of Colt-to-Quan and Colt-to-Shipley and Texas’ jumbo, short-yardage package.
It’s easy to look back and remember Texas’ weak run game in the Colt era, or the brilliance of the Texas short passing game, but Cody Johnson’s 24 touchdowns were an enormous part of Texas’ offensive success in those two seasons.
In this article we’re going to talk about how Texas approaches the task of ball control with this team with an eye on how that translates to fulfilling the five factors that lead to victories.
Part 1: Ball-control with the run game
The Wickline hire had the obvious aim of forming the TexasStrong identity as a program that can run the ball and impose its will on an opponent. The most basic concept for Texas in accomplishing that aim will be Inside Zone.
Wickline’s approach to Inside Zone is to begin with a “dropstep,” meaning the first step the OL take is backwards and designed to aim their hips at their trajectory. The next step is quick and gets them moving downhill through their zone path.
Much like with Alabama over the last few years, Inside Zone will be the offenses’ defining run play and emphasized in practice with the aim of being able to run the play effectively against all fronts and blitzes. Wickline’s OSU OL were known for their great gasp of the play’s concepts and techniques and their ability to adapt after the snap.
The first priority for the play is getting “full coverage” on defensive linemen, meaning that they are enveloped by the OL and unable to get into the backfield or create negative plays.
The next goal is displacement, either driving defenders backwards or sealing them out of the zone pathway and creating creases for the backs to exploit.
With this approach to Inside Zone, the ideal OL are wide and powerful with quick feet. The approach in recruiting will be geared towards taking tackle or fringe-tackle prospects that measure 6’3” or greater with room to grow to 300+ pounds.
Under Applewhite, Texas was moving towards using Inside Zone and Power as feature concepts for the OL but the lighter, quicker personnel in 2013 was more suited for Outside Zone or Pin & Pull, plays that got the OL moving in space. Fortunately, the younger OL on campus are better fit for Wickline’s vision.
After Inside Zone, Wickline has featured Outside Zone (looking to seal the edge with lateral movement rather than driving open holes through the gut), Lead Zone, Power, and draws. In particular, OSU had a massively effective QB draw game that Wickline will probably have to shelve until Texas’ depth at QB allows them to risk their signal callers’ health on designed runs.
Lead Zone is a play that is likely to have a featured role in the Texas offense.
With Lead Zone, you have zone blocking by the OL with the insertion of a fullback between the tackles. Ouch.
Coach Venable examined the “boundary G” scheme run by Wickline at OSU as well, which gives the RB a two-way go to cut upfield or get outside behind the FB’s block depending on defensive response.
The OSU offense has a plethora of strong 2-back zone run concepts that will likely be features of the Texas’ offense in 2014, utilizing players like Geoff Swaim or perhaps Alex De La Torre to flank or cut off defenders, instill a physical run game, and allow Texas to use favorable angles in the run game without installing the “read” element to the Zone plays and risk QB health.
Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron should thrive attacking the A-gaps in Inside Zone and turning the corner into a smaller defender in outside zone, but explosive plays will be determined by how well the inexperienced OL catches on and whether the pass game is able to protect them from the 8 man fronts that plagued Texas in 2013.
With a younger OL new to the Wickline school there may be a learning curve in 2014 but it’s possible that the future will hold a brutal Longhorn run game that echoes what the Crimson Tide has done in recent years.
Part 2: Ball-control with the passing game
It will be interesting to note how much of the OSU passing game Wickline brings from OSU and how much Watson brings from his own background. Regardless, you can expect the Texas passing game to rely heavily on “spacing concepts” that allow the QB to make quick, timing throws that consistently net positive yardage.
On Watson’s end, he loves to throw “hitch,” “out,” and “in” routes that are opened up by vertical routes that clear away defenders.
His favorite spacing concept is “Y-Stick” a trips concept that attacks the linebackers in coverage from the inside-out.
The play is perfect for attacking slow-footed middle linebackers and the timing is such that the QB can drop back, make a read, and fire the ball with little pressure. In the above instance, Bridgewater eyes the middle of the field and sees that UCF is dropping a safety into the box to help against concepts like these.
He then calmly eyes the dropping safety who’s covering the “Y-stick” route that would normally exploit the middle linebacker, then turns and fires to the 2nd out route. Eye control and the ability to make a read and then rely on muscle memory make a quick and accurate pass is essential in this system.
At OSU, they relied on a similar spacing concept called “Scat” which can be run from the 2-back set:
The play begins with motion and the QB reads the flat defender to determine if he’ll chase the RB. If so, he fires the ball to the inside route for an easy gain. In this instance, the TCU Nickel was basically baiting the inside throw but the receiver is too well positioned between him and the mike linebacker and Clint Chelf’s timing is too good to break up the pass.
With both of these concepts, timing and accuracy is essential. Let’s assume that Texas is able to plug Malcom Brown in at F, Daje Johnson at H, Shipley at Y, Sanders at Z, and Marcus Johnson at X.
If the QB can hit Daje in stride on the quick flat route, that becomes a low-risk, high-reward play that the defense has to respond to. After they adjust, the QB works inside to the route by Shipley. Again, if he can consistently throw Shipley open and set him up for yards after catch, the defense has to adjust or be destroyed.
Eventually the defense widens out or plays dime defense with another defensive back in that middle linebacker spot and Texas then runs Inside Zone down their throat.
OSU also had a terrific QB draw game they could package with this play that utterly befuddled Texas in 2013 but again, QB depth limits what Texas can do with that concept.
Two more concepts that will feature into this ball-control approach are your constraint screen plays and “Levels.”
You can count on Texas packaging Inside Zone with bubble screens and perhaps some 2-back RB Draw plays with “Y-stick” or “Scat.” However, Texas can also roll out the tunnel screen to punish teams for paying too much attention to the spacing throws to the field side.
The TCU middle linebacker runs to stop the in-breaking “Scat” route and leaves open space and an undermanned weakside against a WR tunnel screen to the boundary. Josh Stewart was very close here to breaking loose for even more yardage.
“Levels” is a classic Cover-2 beater and Watson used an aggressive version of it at Louisville with Teddy Bridgewater
Normally the innnermost receiver will run a “dig” route to the middle but at Louisville they’d often have this receiver adjust his route to the coverage, often flying up the seam against a defense watching the pattern develop and expecting a normal levels pattern.
On the normal “Levels” the QB reads the Middle linebacker and if he drops to defend the “Dig” route will throw underneath to the “In” route for an easy gain. Or, he can read the safety response to the “Dig” with that receiver and take the top off the defense. As you might have guessed, the term “Levels” refers to how the pattern creates a vertical stretch on the defense.
As a final note, you may assume that the X and Z receivers aren’t terribly involved in this offense. On the contrary, they will frequently run vertical routes that the QB will target if the defense drops down their safeties. In particular, the X receiver on the backside is often isolated as a result of the field combinations and can run hitch routes, curl routes, fades, slants, or posts depending on how the defense is most easily exploited.
If Texas finds a great receiver in Marcus Johnson or another player worth isolating on the weakside, they will be able to create endless possibilities there for him.
Part 3: Explosiveness? Finishing drives?
Texas will rely on those run schemes and spacing concepts to work down the field. But how will they punctuate drives? And where will the “explosives” come from that make the task of working the length of the field so much more likely to succeed?
First, they’ll have to come as a result of a balanced and well-executed attack with both the short passing game and the run. Passes that don’t lead a receiver to grass, weak blocks, and poor reads by the QB and WR’s will result in this offense stuttering to a halt. Accurate passes, quick reads, and strong blocks paired with athletic players will lead to opportunities for “explosives.”
Players like Kendall Sanders and Daje Johnson who can do something in space with the ball in their hands will be an essential part of turning routine concepts into back breaking plays. Consider that the Florida St. victory over Auburn was landed as a result of Winston completing an accurate “In” route to Rashad Greene that broke free and put the Seminoles in the Red Zone.
Then there’s the vertical passing game and short-yardage run game, both of which can be boosted with the installation of a single package: The Diamond Formation.
All of the basic zone run plays can be run from the diamond formation with great disguise. The best backfield pairing would be a blocker like Swaim, a player that can receive, block, or catch such as Bergeron or Brown (who wants to block, gentleman?), and then either the other running back or Daje Johnson.
Because the blockers can be inserted at different points along the defensive front it can be difficult for defenders to match their run assignments and track play-action if the backs leak out into pass routes.
However, the real purpose of the original Diamond formation for Holgorsen at OSU was what you see on the edges: man-to-man coverage on the outside receivers with a single deep safety helping over the top. For OSU when they had Justin Blackmon, this was a dream scenario as no B12 cornerback could be trusted alone against that freak.
For Texas, the Diamond will at least be a short-yardage tool but could also potentially serve to create vertical and play-action opportunities to hit deep throws if any of the receivers prove to be worth isolating deep. Barring that, the quick West Coast passing game will include automatic checks at the line in which the QB can throw a skinny post or fade if he sees a favorable matchup. Texas may also run some “4 verticals” plays, which is exactly what it sounds like: four receivers running downfield.
If David Ash is healthy, Wickline and Watson will be able to package together a diverse and balanced attack that should serve to hold onto the ball, work the field, and keep pace with the high scoring offenses in the league. If Ash can’t go and Texas is simultaneously breaking in a young OL along with a new signal caller, the offense will have to rely on avoiding turnovers and protecting field position (i.e. “punting”) until the level of execution can create explosives or finish drives.
Let’s hope our QB is healthy.