With Joe Wickline taking over the OL, Malcolm Brown leading an experienced RB corp, and last year’s run-heavy approach it’s easy to think of the 2014 Longhorns as being a running team.
But the 2014 Texas Longhorn’s ceiling will be set by the passing game.
Malcolm Brown is a sturdy and reliable runner, but he hasn’t shown the ability to be a big play runner. Meanwhile the OL replaced key players like Trey Hopkins that helped to open massive holes for the Texas backs in 2013. With all of the new starters on the line and the move of Daje Johnson to the slot, the true potency of the team won’t be in running the football.
The tight ends and wide receivers on the roster comprise the real strength of the offense.
Texas has to get very good play at QB in order for that truth to become apparent, but provided that David Ash and/orMax Wittek make some leaps, the Texas offense may be keyed by their pieces on the edge.
Daje Johnson: It’s clear that Johnson is the most dangerous player on the team with his exceptional athleticism and ability to house a quick pass or run past helpless defenders. His hands and route running have to reach the point where the quarterbacks have faith to throw him the ball on a timing route and know that he’ll break off his route where he should and that his hands will secure the ball rather than setting it in the air for a defensive back tointercept and return.
Kendall Sanders: Sanders is the ace in the hole in the event that Daje can’t manage to translate his athleticism into a receiver’s skill set. With Sanders, Texas gets many of the same abilities to run past defenders on play-action or transform a short route into a big gain for the offense.
Who can forget his most glorious moment of 2013 when Ash hit him with a deep post off play-action?
Jaxon Shipley: Shipley is poised to benefit in a huge way both from Watson’s offense and the possibility of a season in which Case McCoy is not the QB. He’ll be ready to graduate from “Case’s safety net” to “unstoppable possession receiver.”
In a passing attack designed around route adjustments and the quick game, Shipley’s hands, cuts, and intelligence will likely put him in position to catch 80 balls.
His ability to snatch anything near him, even in the middle of the field when hits are coming will make him a favorite target:
He’s also fantastic at making the out cut, which is a prominent feature of Watson’s passing attack, and hauling in passes over the shoulder:
Shipley has the ideal skill set for the West Coast offense and will be a staple inside, attacking the soft parts of every opponent’s coverage. He’s also a Red Zone terror that opponents might have to double near the goal line.
Marcus Johnson: While Shipley is one of the finest possession receivers we’ve seen, Johnson is the war horse of this group. He’s the total package…
In this clip he shows change of direction and acceleration that murders TCU’s Derrick Kindred underneath. There is no team better at playing underneath coverage in this league than the Horned Frogs.
Later against the Frogs, Applewhite put him inside and Patterson matched him with Sam Carter, the best nickel defender in the Big 12:
He freezes Carter with a double move and flies past him. A stronger arm throwing that ball and it’s six points for Texas.
We all recall him burning both Oklahoma and TCU with wheel routes that demonstrate his ability to take the top off a defense but the quickness on these plays are what really make him special. Check out this acceleration out of his break on an out route:
As Johnson adds moves and routes to his repertoire, his ability to set up defenders with fakes, separate with his acceleration, and then blow by with his extra gears could make him one of the B12’s best receivers before 2014 is done.
Blake Whiteley: Whiteley’s an exciting prospect because he has good tape both as a blocker and a receiver, which is rare for a young tight end.
In high school in Canada he played out wide as a receiverand demonstrated a few different exciting competencies including the ability to turn the corner and run past linebackers:
As well as the ability to run deeper routes and beat smaller defenders for the ball in the air:
Then as a JUCO in Arizona he was deployed as an H-back/tight end and demonstrated the ability to take on JUCO DE’s or motion and find linebackers at the 2nd level:
The best thing about Whiteley is that he’s a true sophomore in 2014 and has four years to play three. Given our inability to find players at this position in the past along with his own talent, you can probably only expect to get three from him, but that’s eternity for a team that has lacked this kind of talent at the position.
MJ McFarland: It was easy to forget McFarland during his redshirt season in 2013 in which his once great potential was forgotten while Texas actually built something of an identity out of mauling teams with double tight end sets.
In the 2012 contest against Baylor, Mac gave two demonstrations of his potential, first in the running game:
Now, ignore his power in driving the defender off the ball because he’s doing that to 200-pound Ahmad Dixon, not 265-pound Charles Tapper. However, his ability to get wide of the quick Dixon and seal the edge IS impressive.
Later he got the chance to attack the seam in the passing game:
McFarland’s length, speed, and hands are top shelf. At 6-foot-6 but only 240 pounds he’s probably not much for lining up across a DE and driving them back, but as an H-back or flexed out TE he could be a weapon blocking linebackers or defensive backs on runs and screens.
Geoff Swaim: Swaim is probably most well remembered for his overeager hands against Oregon, which bumbled away two easy catches. He should be better remembered for blocks such as this one:
Which cleared a massive lane for Malcolm Brown on that outside zone run. Or this example:
He takes on Kansas State’s DE Marquel Bryant head on and drives him back. Swaim’s ability to find and destroy targets on the move as well as handle DE’s face up on the line make him a possible full-time starter for 2014 Texas.
So we see that Texas has some versatile tight ends and a few receivers who are likely to be very dangerous in the Watson passing game. How does all of this come together?
You can expect Texas formations in 2014 to come in three main flavors:
Double tight end or “12 personnel” sets, classic “11 personnel” sets with one TE or H-back and three receivers, and possibly some exotic stuff if we’re lucky.
First you have the 12 personnel groupings, which against the 4-3 Over defenses many teams on the schedule employ would look like this:
Obviously there are endless variations. The primary benefit of the first example is the possibility of overloading a defense with stress points in the run game. That “S” or Sam linebacker will generally either be a smaller LB/S hybrid player or a third linebacker who isn’t on the field very often.
Big 12 rosters aren’t to defend double TE formations, teams are looking to survive against spread attacks. Additionally the DE’s on the edge are rarely remotely capable of taking on a double team. If you doubled the DE on an outside zone block there’s a good chance he’d be driven inside or pancaked within a few steps, freeing the H-back to hit that Sam and clear a lane. If a DE is positioned across from a tackle with a TE outside of him? He’s as good as dead.
In the second example you see some of the problems an offense can create by separating the running strength from the passing strength. The defense has to train their corner to run to the other side of the field to avoid facing terrible matchup issues against both the run and the pass.
Let’s put some names to those letters: Imagine Swaim as the Y, Whiteley or McFarland as the H, Shipley as the Z, and M. Johnson as the X. Now you can see some of the dilemmas created by a Big 12 defense trying to move their players around to avoid matchup problems.
Then remember this key fact: Watson will motion the H and Y players around the formation either to see how the defense will respond or to create headaches and matchup issues. If the H player is a serious threat in the passing game then your coverage may have to change if he goes from one side of the formation to the other.
By utilizing formations such as this and reasonably versatile, hard-nosed players in those positions, Kansas St has been manufacturing easy yardage for the last several years.
Next you have your classic 11 personnel grouping that we saw so much of in the Greg Davis days. You can create several more combinations from this personnel grouping including balanced looks with a fullback or H-back:
Or unbalanced, trips sets with a tight end:
I hope you can imagine the endless combinations without the need for dozens of diagrams. That Y player could be a flexed out tight end if McFarland or Whiteley prove worthy, more likely that’ll be Sanders or Johnson.
These are sets that Big 12 defenses are designed, by scheme, roster, and practice time, to effectively defend. However, the reason that defenses are spending most of their time learning how to handle these packages is because they are potentially explosive.
The key is for Texas to find the groupings that maximize the talent that’s on campus with a focus on creating matchup advantages against the opponents on the schedule. That will most likely be accomplished with the double tight end formations that allow for play combinations such as this:
That’s an outside zone run with a double team against some hapless Big 12 DE recruited for his pass-rushing abilities with an undersized linebacker waiting to do battle with Whiteley after he releases to him. The outside zone is the best friend of the quick, athletic OL, which is exactly what Texas has in 2014.
The next play could be a passing game staple like Y-stick:
Finally, there’s what might be possible if Daje Johnson should develop his hands and become the Percy Harvin-type weapon we’ve all been dreaming of. If the coaching staff wants to get creative, they might try something like this:
Putting names to letters: Imagine M. Johnson as the X, whichever TE is best as a pass blocker and route runner at Y, Daje as the R, Shipley as the H, and Sanders as the Z.
The defense faces several horrifying mismatches, not least of which is trying to cover Daje with a linebacker or a safety. If the defense attempted to play dime personnel he could simply motion into the backfield and run outside zone to the tight end side of the field.
If they didn’t get some across from him who could handle him it’d be a simple matter to have everyone else run routes to clear away coverage and then throw to Daje in space, isolated against a badly positioned linebacker.
It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to protect Ash or the QB in these sets either as you’d have the potential for six man protections with the TE staying in to block or very quick concepts to get the ball in Daje’s hands as quickly as possible.
There’s also a dozen ways to throw screens to Daje or Sanders in empty formations, including options where you get Swaim running out in front as a blocker. This is how Tech eviscerated people in 2013 with Jakeem Grant and Jace Amaro.
These TE-heavy and Daje-specific formations are where Texas’ advantages are in 2014. By creating matchup problems in the run game with players like Swaim and Whiteley, Texas can get Shipley, Marcus, and Daje in position to be isolated against inferior athletes and snatch up yards in chunks.
Of course, the only way all of this potential is unlocked is by having a healthy and effective QB to distribute the ball. Let’s all hope Ash and Watson see these possibilities and put in the work this offseason.