Finding the top antagonist in 2021: The supremacy of base pass rush

Ian Boyd

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Ever since the Big 12 decided to have a championship game to determine the victor of the league's trophy, the dynamics of the league have always played out as follows.

You get Oklahoma, perhaps after some initial slip-ups but always pulling away in November and December, and then you get a challenger from the rest of the league. The latter school I tend to call the "top antagonist" with Oklahoma getting the role as the protagonist, hero, and main character in every Big 12 story for the last several years.

In 2017 the top antagonist was the TCU Horned Frogs. Kenny Hill figured some things out after an interception-filled 2016 season and the defense made a leap after plugging in transfer defensive end Ben Banogu. The next season it was the Texas Longhorns, who finally utilized their greater depth of NFL talent vis-a-vis the rest of the Big 12 to give Oklahoma a bigger challenge but weren't ready to overcome the Sooners. In 2019 Baylor switched their defensive scheme to the 3-down "flyover defense" and got a leap in improvement from James Lynch that pushed them to the Big 12 title game. In 2020 the Iowa State Cyclones plugged a healthy JaQuan Bailey back in at defensive end and nailed the flyover defense, which they authored, to emerge as OU's stiffest competition.

All of those teams, save for the 2017 Horned Frogs, gave Oklahoma a loss or a bad scare. The Bears nearly caught them twice but failed, Texas and Iowa State won their round ones and lost the rematch. All of those teams had really good bookend edge players helping to power their defensive effort and allow them to rush the passer without selling out on the blitz.

2017 TCU
DE: Ben Banogu: 55 tackles, 16.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks.
DE: Mat Boesen: 64 tackles, 15 TFL, 11.5 sacks.

2018 Texas
DE: Charles Omenihu: 45 tackles, 18 TFL, 9.5 sacks.
RLB: Gary Johnson: 90 tackles, 16.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks.

2019 Baylor
DE: James Lynch: 41 tackles, 19.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks.
DE: James Lockhart: 31 tackles, 8.5 TFL, six sacks.

2020 Iowa State
DE: JaQuan Bailey: 38 tackles, 13 TFL, seven sacks.
DE: Will McDonald: 35 tackles, 13 TFL, 10.5 sacks.

Most of these teams used 3-down fronts save for 2017 TCU, the 2018 Longhorns were mostly a 3-down front but would blitz on fire zones or Gary Johnson insert blitzes pretty often. In a related story, the 2018 Longhorns are the worst defense listed here.

It is nearly a given Oklahoma will end up being the season's protagonist again. It isn't a given that 2021's top antagonist will be the Big 12 team who puts together the best base pass-rush. This happened to be a main way the top challenger differentiated themselves, they played better defense than most of the rest of the league and it made them the last man standing when it was time for the throw down in Jerry World for the title.

Were this pattern to hold true in 2021, here's a glimpse into how the different non-OU teams across the league might stack up.

Texas

The Longhorns are in a tough spot out of the gate after losing Joseph Ossai, a first round edge talent. He'd likely have broken out in the sacks department this season after notching 5.5 in 2020, but will instead seek those numbers in the NFL.

Texas has a lot of names to throw in here but not a lot of proven domination off the edge. Their best defensive line talent is sophomore tackle Alfred Collins, who will presumably play 3-technique next season (we'll see what Pete 2legit2 Kwiatkowski cooks up), and after Collins probably nose tackle Keondre Coburn. On the edge they add LSU transfer outside linebacker Ray Thornton and then return Jacoby Jones and Marqez Bimage, all of whom are solid athletes but none of whom have ever been a featured edge-rusher.

Collins is a potential force multiplier but we'll have to wait and see how they deploy him.

Iowa State

The Cyclones are on the other end of the spectrum here. They return Will McDonald, who may be ready to surpass JaQuan Bailey as an all around defensive end after already passing him as an edge-rusher. They won't be able to duplicate the advantage of having McDonald and Bailey on the field together, obviously, although they weren't doing that every snap in 2020 either. Zach Petersen returns at defensive end and is a really solid football player, he just hasn't put together much of a pass-rushing arsenal yet.

Beyond Petersen and McDonald, I'm not sure who else the Cyclones have coming down the pipe but McDonald is arguably the best start in the league.

TCU

I think the Frogs finally feel okay again here and could be poised to make some real noise in 2021 as a consequence of how things are coming together for their defensive front. Khari Coleman took over one of their defensive end positions during the season and finished with 15 TFL and three sacks. He's kinda small, listed at 6-2, 224 but he doesn't really appear even 6-0. If I'm a TCU opponent in 2021 I'm using an inline tight end and motioning him around to try and force Coleman into a 6-technique.

Opposite Coleman is Ochaun Mathis, who has a lot more size at 6-5, 250 or so and ended up getting to the quarterback for eight sacks last season. The Frogs also return Corey Bethley, who's been there forever and was an amazing tackle/end stunt partner with Ben Banogu the last time the Frogs played great defense.

Oklahoma State

The Cowboys have Trace Ford, Calvin Bundage, AND Brock Martin all returning in 2021. The only issue is all three essentially play the same position and aren't super easy to get on the field together unless the opponent allows them to sub-package on third down. Getting two out of three on the field together at the same time would be a really useful offseason project for defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Particularly with the secondary losing NFL cornerback Rodarius Williams. The Cowboys would benefit from being able to play more drop eight zone next season but it's hard to do so without really good all around defensive ends.

They'd be better off using a 2-4-5 front with some of these speedy options on either side.

Baylor

Dave Aranda likes to do his damage with the blitz package, outsmarting offensive coordinators with "creeper" blitzes targeting weak spots in protection. It's an approach which has never really worked in the Big 12, perhaps the Bears can figure it out. They actually have some good edge-rushing players though.

William Bradley King had a decent year one as their field side defensive end and Matt Jones flashed as a potential jack linebacker, as he has always done. A breakthrough season from Jones, starting opposite WBK, and the Bears could be in business.

West Virginia

Early in the year it looked like Alabama transfer Vandarius Cowan was going to have a big season making the most of his opportunities playing off the Stills bros. Then Cowan was injured and freshman Akheem Mesidor ended up emerging as the prime benefactor of the deadly Mountaineer interior. Mesidor lead the team with five sacks and will return, along with the better Stills bro (Dante), and Cowan. There's actually a decent chance West Virginia gets after it better in 2021 than in 2020 due to the natural growth from Stills and Mesidor.

Texas Tech

Errbody's back for Texas Tech and they've added another transfer linebacker or two. However, Tech was terrible last season and didn't rush the passer particularly well. They're really trying to do it with the zone-blitz and bringing linebackers, which is not a great method in the Big 12 and not the established best practice of the day. Honestly I think we're kinda biding time here until the athletic department feels like it won't be unseemly to give up on the Matt Wells hire.

Kansas

Another school trying to be a 3-down team who brings the linebackers. That dog won't hunt. You can be a 3-down team and destroy offenses in the Big 12, but your 3-down linemen need to be pass-rushers.

Kansas State

The Wildcats have been good here under Chris Klieman. Wyatt Hubert was arguably the best true defensive end in the league last year, there was some tough competition, we'll see how the draft shakes out.

Next year's crew includes Boom Massie, Khalid Duke, and Felix Anudike. I always liked Massie but he didn't really put it together until last season and did a lot of his best work in their third down package lined up inside and torturing guards. The outside guys in that package figure to be Khalid Duke, who seemed poised for a breakout in 2020 until injuries slowed him up, and then Felix Anudike who's also mostly potential at this point.

If Kansas State is in the Big 12 Championship game next season the media will look back and say, "wow, who knew those young defensive ends Duke and Anudike were going to explode like that?" If they don't, and K-State doesn't get some sort of huge performance from another source, the Wildcats will probably struggle to make the most of bringing back Skylar Thompson and Jahron McPherson for this upcoming season.

********

The 2021 Texas Longhorns are going to be super talented and have all these exciting new staffers, the Iowa State Cyclones return virtually their entire team who competed for the Big 12 title just a month ago, but by this analysis you'd really have to consider putting your money on Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs. A defensive line built around Corey Bethley, Khari Coleman, and Ochaun Mathis will generate pressure and it's a poor bet to assume Gare won't assemble a solid group of defensive backs behind them. It's a sucker who worries about whether Patterson can replace Ar'Darius Washington and Trevon Moehrig.

Keep an eye on the Wildcats too though. They don't have the pedigree up front but they do have some talent and the coaching staff in Manhattan is no joke.
 

travisroeder

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For Baylor, William Bradley King is gone. The primary pass rushers will be Terrel Bernard (3.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL in 4.5 games last year) from weakside, Jalen Pitre (2.5 sacks, 11.5 TFL) from STAR, and Matt Jones at JACK (didn't really play til last few games of the year).

I really disagree with your hesitance on whether Aranda can make the creeper based pressure system work in the Big 12. For starters, it did work in year one. Baylor was projected to be much worse on D in 2020 than they were; they held OU to their worst ever YPP of the Lincoln Riley era with a hilariously under-manned and under-talented DL.

Aranda/Roberts basically never send more than 4 guys. On base downs they're either inserting the JACK or an ILB as a 4th rusher. On passing downs they go to a 2 DL look and have more variety, but still only send 4 guys 95% of the time. I know you've contended that a blitz is a blitz is a blitz, but it's not like he's using fire zones to regularly bring 5 or 6 guys which I think is more accurately what you're talking about that hasn't worked in the past.

The two stars of the show for Baylor are Bernard and Pitre. They had the vast majority of Baylor's sacks this past year and they will again in 2021. They're two of the best pass rushing off ball linebackers I've seen in the recent Big 12.
 

Ian Boyd

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For Baylor, William Bradley King is gone.
Well that's not great.
I really disagree with your hesitance on whether Aranda can make the creeper based pressure system work in the Big 12. For starters, it did work in year one.
Gave up 29.2 ppg, 35th in defensive FEI, 42nd in defensive SP+, all while facing pandemic depleted offenses.

That's solid but it's not amazing. Obviously he's only just getting started, but the B12 is also just getting started on him.
Aranda/Roberts basically never send more than 4 guys. On base downs they're either inserting the JACK or an ILB as a 4th rusher. On passing downs they go to a 2 DL look and have more variety, but still only send 4 guys 95% of the time. I know you've contended that a blitz is a blitz is a blitz, but it's not like he's using fire zones to regularly bring 5 or 6 guys which I think is more accurately what you're talking about that hasn't worked in the past.
I appreciate that and I like having a blitzing approach that still only sends four. The question is...
The two stars of the show for Baylor are Bernard and Pitre. They had the vast majority of Baylor's sacks this past year and they will again in 2021. They're two of the best pass rushing off ball linebackers I've seen in the recent Big 12.
...if your best pass-rush comes from blitzing guys who are also good in space, that means you're sacrificing ability in space to get pass-rush. That's the part I don't like.

2legit2Kwiatkowski does some of that but does his best work when he shows 5-6 possible pass-rushers and brings 3-4, all of whom are members of the defensive front.
 

ripharley

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This morning one of the hosts of the B&E radio show asserted that the Big12 has become The Defense League and the SEC has become The Offense League. I found myself smiling at that.

I don’t know how quickly Sarkisian’s offense can be implemented - I’ve read that (did Ian confirm?) it requires more from each player than most collegiate systems but, hopefully, he will have an answer to these B12 defenses. (In the meantime, who knows, maybe the offensive SEC will figure out how to play defense.)
 

sherf1

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This morning one of the hosts of the B&E radio show asserted that the Big12 has become The Defense League and the SEC has become The Offense League. I found myself smiling at that.

I don’t know how quickly Sarkisian’s offense can be implemented - I’ve read that (did Ian confirm?) it requires more from each player than most collegiate systems but, hopefully, he will have an answer to these B12 defenses. (In the meantime, who knows, maybe the offensive SEC will figure out how to play defense.)
It's the natural evolution of good coaching. Fun to watch in real time
 

matonmacs

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You get Oklahoma, perhaps after some initial slip-ups but always pulling away in November and December, and then you get a challenger from the rest of the league. The latter school I tend to call the "top antagonist" with Oklahoma getting the role as the protagonist, hero, and main character in every Big 12 story for the last several years.
So are we Rosencrantz or Guilderstern?
 

stilesbbq

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Lotta good teams. Would really be something if Big 12 OCs figure out Aranda by just year two
 

melodicmarc

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For the record, I think OU should be considered the antagonist and the other teams the protagonist. No one is rooting for OU outside of the OU fans.