How much will returning production matter in 2021?

Ian Boyd

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Over at ESPN.com, my old colleague Bill Connelly has a piece up talking returning production across college football. This is an unprecedented year for returning production because of the COVID exception, which has two enormous impacts on the relative experience levels of teams across the country.

First of all, a lot of good seniors with fringe or weak NFL futures were able to return. The boost to various rosters from bringing back experienced starters with another year to refine their skills for the college game is hard to quantify but it’s considerable. Secondly, a lot of teams are adding players who match this description who are transferring in from smaller schools.

Last season LSU added grad transfer linebacker Jabril Cox from North Dakota State, a multi-year starter and champion, and he had 58 tackles, 6.5 TFL, one sack, three INT, five PBU, and a defensive touchdown. There’s a few guys like that flying around this season as teams add COVID exception transfers from the lower levels.

The Big 12 is filled with schools who depend on developing fourth and fifth year players in order to have a chance of keeping up with Oklahoma’s talent levels. The COVID exception is leading to a MASSIVE boost for these schools as they bring back “seniors with fringe NFL futures” who tend to be the engines of their teams.

So it’s going to be hard to parse out what this will mean for the 2021 season. I want to take an early stab and we’ll revisit the topic as the offseason progresses.

Laying down infrastructure

I think of this as being less of an obstacle for Big 12 teams. Having a strong infrastructure for your team, meaning having savvy quarterback play, a cohesive offensive line, and then a defensive interior who can play well together, is not a guarantee. TCU has struggled to have “infrastructure” on their team more often than not over the last few seasons which is how they’ve managed to waste so many NFL “space force” players.

But the league has a lot of good coaches, they develop well, and the transfer portal makes it easier to patch roster holes at positions like guard, linebacker, safety, or even quarterback.

My “space force” argument has revolved around the notion a team’s ceiling comes mostly from their ability to field elite athletes at wide receiver, left tackle, cornerback, and the defensive edge. 2021 could challenge this theory some with the degree to which a few teams are going to be able to field insanely experienced infrastructure units.

Our easiest example is Iowa State. Check out their defense heading into next season:

Iowa State 2021 returning production.jpg

How much does it matter when your nose tackle, and two of three safeties are getting an extra senior year? Particularly for a team already returning some very well established talents such as Mike Rose, Will McDonald, and Anthony Johnson and won’t have a new starter at any position on defense?

The Cyclone defense already has two modes, the first is a disciplined “bend don’t break” approach where they wait for you to make a mistake while minimizing their own. The precision level here is likely to be very high, attacking the Cyclone base defense was already highly difficult and now they have multiple players at every level who’ve seen it all. The second mode is when they add complex layers of disguise with their blitzes and coverages from the three-high pre-snap set-up. The precision and complexity is likely to tick up here as well.

How do we quantify that? I don’t know, but it seems likely to matter.

There are a few other big examples here. Skylar Thompson is perhaps the next most obvious. He’s played in a lot of games at Kansas State and is about to enter his third offseason with Chris Klieman and his staff. Fielding a quarterback with really high institutional knowledge of your own offensive system and how it relates to defensive systems and personnel around the Big 12 is probably the most valuable “infrastructure” piece you can have as a program. If you didn’t know, Skylar Thompson was going to have his final year at Kansas State in 2020 but while it was thwarted by injury, he’ll get another chance in 2021 thanks to the COVID exception.

Every team in the Big 12 has a lot working in their favor in terms of returning experience, save for perhaps Kansas who’s senior class is in the transfer portal. Even the young Longhorns return two starting cornerbacks, two starting defensive linemen, both starting linebackers, and two starting safeties on their defense.

In this sense, you wonder if there are diminishing returns for returning production due to the fact everyone else is in the same boat. Will Iowa State’s insane experience levels on defense be blunted by the fact most of the league will return experienced quarterbacks and get much more productive offseasons with which to prepare their offensive lines?

Offensive line is another big one, it’s hard to be too experienced at positions like linebacker, safety, offensive line, or quarterback. There are always returns from adding additional experience and skills. Naturally Iowa State is in absurdly good shape here as well, returning everyone who started games in 2020 while also welcoming back a healthy Trevor Downing who was expected to anchor the unit at left guard until injuries shortened his 2020 season.

There are more important returns on offense, also. Defenses can arrive at a level of cohesion and pattern recognition faster than offenses can develop interlocking chemistry and skills. A highly experienced Big 12 with a real offseason is likely to test everyone’s theories about this being a defensive league now.

Returning experience in the space force

There’s generally been two consistently good ways to win lots of games in the Big 12. The first is to have a really good and established quarterback/wide receiver connection to ensure the scoring of many touchdowns. The second is to be Oklahoma.

Space force is about having high level skill and athleticism in those key positions, which may or may not coincide with returning production. It’s common to start a senior linebacker who’s seen all the Big 12’s schemes and knows how to get the right spots over a more athletic underclassman, but at the space force positions you might want to start the underclassman. You typically start the fleet-footed freshman at left tackle over the slower, 6-4, third-year starting guard.

Returning production in the space force, especially at cornerback and receiver, tends to tell a pretty useful tale about what’s coming for the next season.

As you’ve probably surmised, Iowa State returns everything. The PFPurdy to Xavier Hutchinson connection that grew during 2020? Returning along with the three-year PFPurdy to Charlie Kolar connection. Sean Foster, the mammoth senior left tackle who protected those connections in 2020 is using the COVID exception to come back for a sixth year and do so again.

The rich are also getting richer, Oklahoma will be able to continue to work the Spencer Rattler to Marvin Mims connection while also hoping to finally realize the potential with one of their three former blue chip junior wideouts Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease, and Trejan Bridges.

Dark horse team TCU will be hoping to benefit from getting another offseason and chance to work with Max Duggan to Quentin Johnston and they brought in Memphis left tackle Obinna Eze to help secure the connection. Oklahoma State is losing Tylan Wallace but bring back left tackle Jake Springfield and have another year to try and teach Spencer Sanders to get the ball out on time. They also have Braydon Johnson and Brennan Presley at wide receiver.

Kansas State wins big here as well, returning all of their corners, all of their starting tackles, and then getting another year to try and work out the Skylar Thompson to Malik Knowles connection. West Virginia? They bring errbody back on offense as well. The only school regularly considered to have a chance at appearing in the Big 12 title game who doesn’t have an ultra-experienced trio at quarterback, left tackle, and wide receiver is Texas.

The Longhorns aren’t hopeless here either though, they have a couple of talented quarterbacks coming up, young tackle Andrej Karic showed well in two late appearances in 2020, and leading receiver Josh Moore will be back in 2021 along with a few other former blue chips heading into an important offseason. They’re going to need their talent to show up on the field though in a fashion we haven’t seen much this decade and Steve Sarkisian and his staff will need to adjust quickly to the chess matches you face in the Big 12.

So how do we measure returning production in 2021?

The Big 12 has been a more gameplan-intensive league than most around the country, normally if you set up the offensive coaches in this league with so many veteran offensive players you’d be due for an offensive explosion.

However the league’s brain trust is a bit depleted currently. Dana Holgorsen, Art Briles, Kliff Kingsbury, and Bill Snyder aren’t out there any longer plotting the demise of your defensive schemes with run/pass conflicts. The drain is most noticeable down south, Chris Klieman and Matt Campbell have arguably upgraded the northern teams’ firepower between them despite losing the legendary Bill Snyder, but none of TCU, Texas Tech, nor Baylor are particularly intimidating on offense these days. Oklahoma State has even slipped and whether that’s due to staff turnover, Mike Gundy losing his fastball, Spencer Sanders’ own slow development, the bizarre 2020 pandemic season, or simply the issues for their offensive line is hard to suss out.

All in all we have the following factors all coming to a head.

-Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma potentially hitting their high point with a combination of talent and experience on offense and finally sorting out their defense.

-Texas hiring their best staff since the Mack Brown era, including one of the foremost offensive minds in the country.

-Experience-driven Iowa State and Kansas State programs fielding multi-year starting quarterbacks and veteran rosters to execute their tactically sophisticated systems.

-TCU and Oklahoma State finally having a chance to set up highly athletic young quarterbacks with stable supporting casts and systems.

There’s a lot of teams waiting to put a better foot forward in 2021.
 

ttaghorn

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Great writeup. I am trying to be very optomistic about our chances this year, and really don't want to hear a lot of negative, or otherwise shade on our chances. We could be very good with the right leadership in Coaching, and a terriffic effort by our OL and new QB's.
 

Abe Lemons

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Over at ESPN.com, my old colleague Bill Connelly has a piece up talking returning production across college football. This is an unprecedented year for returning production because of the COVID exception, which has two enormous impacts on the relative experience levels of teams across the country.

First of all, a lot of good seniors with fringe or weak NFL futures were able to return. The boost to various rosters from bringing back experienced starters with another year to refine their skills for the college game is hard to quantify but it’s considerable. Secondly, a lot of teams are adding players who match this description who are transferring in from smaller schools.

Last season LSU added grad transfer linebacker Jabril Cox from North Dakota State, a multi-year starter and champion, and he had 58 tackles, 6.5 TFL, one sack, three INT, five PBU, and a defensive touchdown. There’s a few guys like that flying around this season as teams add COVID exception transfers from the lower levels.

The Big 12 is filled with schools who depend on developing fourth and fifth year players in order to have a chance of keeping up with Oklahoma’s talent levels. The COVID exception is leading to a MASSIVE boost for these schools as they bring back “seniors with fringe NFL futures” who tend to be the engines of their teams.

So it’s going to be hard to parse out what this will mean for the 2021 season. I want to take an early stab and we’ll revisit the topic as the offseason progresses.

Laying down infrastructure

I think of this as being less of an obstacle for Big 12 teams. Having a strong infrastructure for your team, meaning having savvy quarterback play, a cohesive offensive line, and then a defensive interior who can play well together, is not a guarantee. TCU has struggled to have “infrastructure” on their team more often than not over the last few seasons which is how they’ve managed to waste so many NFL “space force” players.

But the league has a lot of good coaches, they develop well, and the transfer portal makes it easier to patch roster holes at positions like guard, linebacker, safety, or even quarterback.

My “space force” argument has revolved around the notion a team’s ceiling comes mostly from their ability to field elite athletes at wide receiver, left tackle, cornerback, and the defensive edge. 2021 could challenge this theory some with the degree to which a few teams are going to be able to field insanely experienced infrastructure units.

Our easiest example is Iowa State. Check out their defense heading into next season:


How much does it matter when your nose tackle, and two of three safeties are getting an extra senior year? Particularly for a team already returning some very well established talents such as Mike Rose, Will McDonald, and Anthony Johnson and won’t have a new starter at any position on defense?

The Cyclone defense already has two modes, the first is a disciplined “bend don’t break” approach where they wait for you to make a mistake while minimizing their own. The precision level here is likely to be very high, attacking the Cyclone base defense was already highly difficult and now they have multiple players at every level who’ve seen it all. The second mode is when they add complex layers of disguise with their blitzes and coverages from the three-high pre-snap set-up. The precision and complexity is likely to tick up here as well.

How do we quantify that? I don’t know, but it seems likely to matter.

There are a few other big examples here. Skylar Thompson is perhaps the next most obvious. He’s played in a lot of games at Kansas State and is about to enter his third offseason with Chris Klieman and his staff. Fielding a quarterback with really high institutional knowledge of your own offensive system and how it relates to defensive systems and personnel around the Big 12 is probably the most valuable “infrastructure” piece you can have as a program. If you didn’t know, Skylar Thompson was going to have his final year at Kansas State in 2020 but while it was thwarted by injury, he’ll get another chance in 2021 thanks to the COVID exception.

Every team in the Big 12 has a lot working in their favor in terms of returning experience, save for perhaps Kansas who’s senior class is in the transfer portal. Even the young Longhorns return two starting cornerbacks, two starting defensive linemen, both starting linebackers, and two starting safeties on their defense.

In this sense, you wonder if there are diminishing returns for returning production due to the fact everyone else is in the same boat. Will Iowa State’s insane experience levels on defense be blunted by the fact most of the league will return experienced quarterbacks and get much more productive offseasons with which to prepare their offensive lines?

Offensive line is another big one, it’s hard to be too experienced at positions like linebacker, safety, offensive line, or quarterback. There are always returns from adding additional experience and skills. Naturally Iowa State is in absurdly good shape here as well, returning everyone who started games in 2020 while also welcoming back a healthy Trevor Downing who was expected to anchor the unit at left guard until injuries shortened his 2020 season.

There are more important returns on offense, also. Defenses can arrive at a level of cohesion and pattern recognition faster than offenses can develop interlocking chemistry and skills. A highly experienced Big 12 with a real offseason is likely to test everyone’s theories about this being a defensive league now.

Returning experience in the space force

There’s generally been two consistently good ways to win lots of games in the Big 12. The first is to have a really good and established quarterback/wide receiver connection to ensure the scoring of many touchdowns. The second is to be Oklahoma.

Space force is about having high level skill and athleticism in those key positions, which may or may not coincide with returning production. It’s common to start a senior linebacker who’s seen all the Big 12’s schemes and knows how to get the right spots over a more athletic underclassman, but at the space force positions you might want to start the underclassman. You typically start the fleet-footed freshman at left tackle over the slower, 6-4, third-year starting guard.

Returning production in the space force, especially at cornerback and receiver, tends to tell a pretty useful tale about what’s coming for the next season.

As you’ve probably surmised, Iowa State returns everything. The PFPurdy to Xavier Hutchinson connection that grew during 2020? Returning along with the three-year PFPurdy to Charlie Kolar connection. Sean Foster, the mammoth senior left tackle who protected those connections in 2020 is using the COVID exception to come back for a sixth year and do so again.

The rich are also getting richer, Oklahoma will be able to continue to work the Spencer Rattler to Marvin Mims connection while also hoping to finally realize the potential with one of their three former blue chip junior wideouts Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease, and Trejan Bridges.

Dark horse team TCU will be hoping to benefit from getting another offseason and chance to work with Max Duggan to Quentin Johnston and they brought in Memphis left tackle Obinna Eze to help secure the connection. Oklahoma State is losing Tylan Wallace but bring back left tackle Jake Springfield and have another year to try and teach Spencer Sanders to get the ball out on time. They also have Braydon Johnson and Brennan Presley at wide receiver.

Kansas State wins big here as well, returning all of their corners, all of their starting tackles, and then getting another year to try and work out the Skylar Thompson to Malik Knowles connection. West Virginia? They bring errbody back on offense as well. The only school regularly considered to have a chance at appearing in the Big 12 title game who doesn’t have an ultra-experienced trio at quarterback, left tackle, and wide receiver is Texas.

The Longhorns aren’t hopeless here either though, they have a couple of talented quarterbacks coming up, young tackle Andrej Karic showed well in two late appearances in 2020, and leading receiver Josh Moore will be back in 2021 along with a few other former blue chips heading into an important offseason. They’re going to need their talent to show up on the field though in a fashion we haven’t seen much this decade and Steve Sarkisian and his staff will need to adjust quickly to the chess matches you face in the Big 12.

So how do we measure returning production in 2021?

The Big 12 has been a more gameplan-intensive league than most around the country, normally if you set up the offensive coaches in this league with so many veteran offensive players you’d be due for an offensive explosion.

However the league’s brain trust is a bit depleted currently. Dana Holgorsen, Art Briles, Kliff Kingsbury, and Bill Snyder aren’t out there any longer plotting the demise of your defensive schemes with run/pass conflicts. The drain is most noticeable down south, Chris Klieman and Matt Campbell have arguably upgraded the northern teams’ firepower between them despite losing the legendary Bill Snyder, but none of TCU, Texas Tech, nor Baylor are particularly intimidating on offense these days. Oklahoma State has even slipped and whether that’s due to staff turnover, Mike Gundy losing his fastball, Spencer Sanders’ own slow development, the bizarre 2020 pandemic season, or simply the issues for their offensive line is hard to suss out.

All in all we have the following factors all coming to a head.

-Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma potentially hitting their high point with a combination of talent and experience on offense and finally sorting out their defense.

-Texas hiring their best staff since the Mack Brown era, including one of the foremost offensive minds in the country.

-Experience-driven Iowa State and Kansas State programs fielding multi-year starting quarterbacks and veteran rosters to execute their tactically sophisticated systems.

-TCU and Oklahoma State finally having a chance to set up highly athletic young quarterbacks with stable supporting casts and systems.

There’s a lot of teams waiting to put a better foot forward in 2021.
Ian — SIAP but how would describe Jeff Grimes’ offensive philosophy and prototypical QB profile?

Does Baylor have a QB on campus now (Zeno, Bohanon, Shapen, Drones) that fits that profile and will prove competent in his offense, in your opinion?
 

Ian Boyd

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Ian — SIAP but how would describe Jeff Grimes’ offensive philosophy and prototypical QB profile?

Does Baylor have a QB on campus now (Zeno, Bohanon, Shapen, Drones) that fits that profile and will prove competent in his offense, in your opinion?
Haven't done the deep dive here yet.
 
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mibrooo

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Ian — SIAP but how would describe Jeff Grimes’ offensive philosophy and prototypical QB profile?

Does Baylor have a QB on campus now (Zeno, Bohanon, Shapen, Drones) that fits that profile and will prove competent in his offense, in your opinion?
I don't mean to step on any toes but if you don't follow Travis Roeder and are a Baylor fan you're doing yourself a disservice:

https://twitter.com/Travis_Roeder
 
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stevehorn

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In this sense, you wonder if there are diminishing returns for returning production due to the fact everyone else is in the same boat. Will Iowa State’s insane experience levels on defense be blunted by the fact most of the league will return experienced quarterbacks and get much more productive offseasons with which to prepare their offensive lines?
That's a reasonable point to ponder. Compared to the normal year, you will have more "experienced" teams so the differentials between teams may not be that great. Saw a stat on LHN last night where we return 61% of last year's production which put us 7th (IIRC) in the conference. My memory is that 61% is a pretty decent number.

A possible flipside to the experience, and relative lack of coaching turnover, is perhaps some predictability and a relative lack of new talent. I think it's safe to say that we will be the most unpredictable team. Besides a new system on both sides of the ball, we will be significantly changed at "space" positions on offense to what most teams faced last year. New QB, almost no one got a major dose of Bijan, likely a much different looking WR corp, and possibly TEs that they didn't face much.