Ranking the Big 12's space force units: The dominance of wide receivers

Ian Boyd

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When it comes down to evaluating Big 12 teams, it’s often very difficult to distinguish between the non-Texas/Oklahoma teams. In fact, it’s often been difficult to distinguish whether or not Texas has worked things out in a given year or not.

People will regularly turn to recruiting rankings, returning starters, coaching track records, or other metrics to try and work out which Big 12 teams have things worked out in a given year. Those methods all regularly fail to figure out which team ends up in position to battle Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game.

My method, which I’ve been fleshing out over the last year, is to evaluate teams’ “space force.” Big 12 games are won or lost primarily by which teams control space, which is accomplished primarily by having the best skill athletes in a given year playing in space. In particular, at wide receiver, offensive tackle, cornerback, and edge-rusher. If you suck at the other positions you’ll struggle to make anything of having great athletes in those positions (hello 2019 TCU!), but once a baseline of competence is met inside then the athletes on the perimeter will make the difference.

Today we’re going to talk about what’s typically the most loaded space force position in the Big 12 in a given year, the wide receivers.

Explosive gains and precision strikes

There’s two areas where the receiving corps of your “space force” can have a huge impact on games. The first is with explosive gains, often on play-action, that make the offense more efficient overall at getting points on the scoreboard. It’s simply much easier to score a lot of points if you tend to pick up big gains or even six points on long throws. As noted in a recent conversation on here, Oklahoma State beat Iowa State in 2019 due to three RPO plays generating big gains as well. They had a couple of 50+ yard now screens housed by Braydon Johnson and Tylan Wallace and then a breakaway touchdown run by Chuba Hubbard on the same play.

The other way receivers have a big impact is with reliable targets that can get open consistently on 3rd down or else prevent opponents from being able to cover the other targets by commanding bracket coverage on passing downs.

In the instance of the 2019 Big 12 champion Sooners, CeeDee Lamb was both. He could beat teams with explosive gains as a deep threat, with the ball in his hands after catching a short pass, or he could work open at the chains. For the 2018 Sooners Lamb was more of a chain-moving player while Marquise Brown landed more of the big shots.

The 2019 Iowa State Cyclones were able to replace Hakeem Butler’s production in converting throws at the sticks by running crossing patterns with tight end Charlie Kolar and savvy slot Deshaunte Jones, but they couldn’t replace him as a big play weapon. You really need both to be clicking on all levels as a passing game to beat teams that way.

Finding star receivers

Finding elite skill athletes on offense is the easiest part of modern offense. The easiest. It matters a great deal, these guys often dominate games, but it’s the easiest part.

Everyone always talks up the need for teams to “recruit elite skill athletes from Texas, California, and Florida” as though it were typically the deciding metric. It is important, but it’s not that difficult.

The country has a near infinite supply of great athletes who come in the range of 5-9 to 6-6 and 170 pounds to 240 pounds with the ability to become good route runners and reliable targets. Some of them are rated 3-stars, some of them 4 or 5, some of them 2-stars. Many of them are very good.

Finding young men that can become 6-5, 300+ pounders with a good kick step and pass protection skills? Not super easy. Finding a 6-2+, 230+ pounder who can bend around the edge and get to the quarterback quickly? Not super easy.

Finding a 5-9 to 6-2 player that can run and cover other skill athletes? Also difficult, because not only can wide receivers come in all shapes and sizes (many of which are common), it’s also the more attractive position. If you are a 6-1, 200 pound athlete who can run a 4.4 would you rather put that ability to work catching touchdown passes and cueing the fight song? Or stopping someone else from doing so?

So this is truly an area where there’s not much excuse for offenses to fail to have legitimate weapons. Indeed, the spread offense exploded onto the scene in college football because smaller schools found that while they couldn’t recruit enough offensive linemen to own the trenches, they could find skill players that would be dangerous in space. Eventually the bigger schools, especially Oklahoma, realized that they could welcome contests centered around feeding elite skill athletes in space and still overpower the smaller schools.

Wide receivers are the new running backs in football. Where teams in the past would orient their strategies and personnel around setting up the running back to find holes or win the edge, modern offenses orient around setting up star receivers to find space or matchups. Much like Wisconsin still does for their running backs, teams that do a good job of setting up star athletes to do damage as receivers can expect to pick off 3-star recruits with upside or occasional 4-star recruits to come and be featured weapons in their passing attacks.

In the Big 12 it’s even easier. The state of Texas is stocked full of schools that already train top athletes as receivers in the spread offense and it cranks out more topline wide receiver talent than the league even needs. The only schools that don’t project to start a former 4-star recruit somewhere in their 2020 receiving corps are Kansas and Kansas State. The Jayhawks are returning Stephan Robinson (45 catches, 727 yards, eight touchdowns in 2019) and Andrew Parchment (65 catches, 831 yards, seven touchdowns in 2019) so despite that detail they aren't hurting for skill talent. The Wildcats return up and comers Malik Knowles and Joshua Youngblood and may also prove to be in good shape.

No one is hurting for good skill talent.

Receiving corps deployment

I’ve repeatedly been emphasizing this offseason that the 2020 Big 12 season is going to be all about the play-action passing game. It’s the easiest way to protect the quarterback with these offensive lines and it’s also one of the best ways to open up space or matchups down the field anyways.

Tylan Wallace is basically your gold standard for attacking teams down the field with play-action. He’s blazing fast and he’s learned to throw some double moves at opponents. If you try to cover him 1-on-1 you’re either nuts or overwhelmed by the overall force of the Cowboy offense.

Charlie Kolar is maybe the gold standard of chain-moving, dropback weapons. In general the best way to execute a great dropback passing game is with a tight end that can line up in multiple positions on the field and create matchup problems. A normal receiver who can do that is also highly valuable (Justin Jefferson, LSU) but when the tight end can do it the offense can use tempo and really screw with the structure of the defense and how they control for matchups.

Watch for receiving running backs to be the next phase of evolution here.

Remember when NBA teams started using “stretch 4s” and creating problems by having power forwards on the floor that could shoot threes and create more space for point guards to run pick’n’rolls with the center? What happened next? Two things essentially, first teams started going even further by playing “stretch 5s” because if the center can also shoot threes that creates even MORE space on the floor. Secondly, teams no longer relied strictly on short point guards to run the pick’n’rolls and initiate the offense but would use “point forwards” like LeBron James or now Luka Doncic. Anyone that could attack face up from the perimeter and distribute with passing to open shooters behind the three point line when defenses collapsed could be the "point" player on offense. If he's bigger that's potentially even better.

In college football you’ll see similar evolutions. First, teams will find matchup weapons that can move around and then they’ll move them around to create 1-on-1s for them. Is it a deep threat burner who’s 5-9, 180? A big tight end with a knack for finding space on option routes at 6-5, 250? Doesn’t matter, set him up to do what he does best and make that a foundation of your offense.

Going four-wide and flexing out the tight end makes it easier to create matchups for the best receiver. Well guess what happens if you also flex out the running back? Someday in the not-too-distant future we’ll consider it ridiculous that the elite athletes you regularly find at running back were primarily fed with the run game rather than out in space in the passing game.

But that’s all in the dropback game. In the simpler world of RPO/play-action spread offense the tight end and running back are there to threaten the box with the run game to hold the attention, if not the presence, of safeties in the box while receivers run free in space.

When you evaluate a team’s receiving corps you need to look at both dimensions. Do they have players that can really hurt you on play-action or catching hitches, screens, and slants on RPOs when it’s first-and-10? How about on third-and-seven? Can they create matchups and throw option routes to guys that can work open when they are facing man coverage rather than distracted defenders with eyes peeking in the backfield?

In the next post we’ll talk through what the league has here in 2020 and rank this piece of every team’s space force.
 

sherf1

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I like the comparison to RBs. There's definitely some bell curve stuff going on here where the bulk of Big 12 receivers are fungible and their success is going to come from the quality of the system around them, and then you identify your Wallace and Lamb guys to build around structurally, where they prop up the system instead of the other way around.

My thoughts is we're actually in a down year for elite guys outside Wallace this year, but a few will obviously emerge.
 
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4ormore2orless

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Nice job @Ian Boyd

Love the historical tie-ins...

I mentioned the creativity coming from smaller schools 2 decades ago. It makes our own wish-bone story even more special IMO. It took some humility to scheme some confusion in the face of “impose our will” sentiments. (not that the bone is finesse)

On defense, shading with gap-control, under the axiom of “anybody can beat half a man“ followed the same course... and blew up when talented big schools dropped the head-up, 2-gapping, move me if you can bravado. Bear Bryant, a slobber-knocker coach if there ever was one, was very creative.....

From the more things change, the more they stay the same thinkers, there’s a tantalizing run-em-over carrot. Defenses had to employ quicker faster dudes. And, like you somewhat alluded to, that usually comes in the form of smaller. It’s one of the reasons why I was hoping for more 4man DLs with LINEMEN. I’ll never forget super-duper open offense guru Lincoln Riley stealing our lunch money by gutting us with true Power (OG and OT).
 
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sherf1

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Nice job @Ian Boyd

Love the historical tie-ins...

I mentioned the creativity coming from smaller schools 2 decades ago. It makes our own wish-bone story even more special IMO. It took some humility to scheme some confusion in the face of “impose our will” sentiments. (not that the bone is finesse)

On defense, shading with gap-control, under the axiom of “anybody can beat half a man“ followed the same course... and blew up when talented big schools dropped the head-up, 2-gapping, move me if you can bravado. Bear Bryant, a slobber-knocker coach if there ever was one, was very creative.....

From the more things change, the more they stay the same thinkers, there’s a tantalizing run-em-over carrot. Defenses had to employ quicker faster dudes. And, like you somewhat alluded to, that usually comes in the form of smaller. It’s one of the reasons why I was hoping for more 4man DLs with LINEMEN. I’ll never forget super-duper open offense guru Lincoln Riley stealing our lunch money by gutting us with true Power (OG and OT).
Big picture it's important to remember there really isn't a perfect offense, or even one that's really better than others, it's all about picking the right way to attack what the other team is doing. If they're big, be fast. If they're quick, be strong, etc.

We're seeing a surge of creativity in the last 20 years or so because all these ideas that have been on the fringes of the game have finally been given their chance to shine at big programs with big talent, but there's definitely a circular aspect to this and we'll probably have a team that runs old school power with a full back giving some of these small fast defenses all sorts of trouble again (Titans already showing a bit of this dynamic in the NFL).
 
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4ormore2orless

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Big picture it's important to remember there really isn't a perfect offense, or even one that's really better than others, it's all about picking the right way to attack what the other team is doing. If they're big, be fast. If they're quick, be strong, etc.

We're seeing a surge of creativity in the last 20 years or so because all these ideas that have been on the fringes of the game have finally been given their chance to shine at big programs with big talent, but there's definitely a circular aspect to this and we'll probably have a team that runs old school power with a full back giving some of these small fast defenses all sorts of trouble again (Titans already showing a bit of this dynamic in the NFL).
I think it was Lombardi who simplified offensive scheme by saying it doesn’t matter what you run, the key is to be better at running it than they are at stopping it. Really wanted to see Army pull it off vs OU a couple of years ago...

Styles make fights... I am so tired of seeing darn near the same offense 90% of the time. It’s probably why I watch B10, ND and USC when they had an OL.
 
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hojutx

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Sherf, I like your comment that there is no "perfect" scheme and that we seem to be seeing more creativity. I though about it some more, and I might add that a few structural changes have helped this generation's creativity:
  • Youth/high school player preparation: All of the 7-on-7s and greater practice-time allowance produce a lot of players who know some fundamentals of making reads and executing these offences in a way that didn't exist before 2000. I remember in the '90s when Texas High School football was known for defensive players and running backs. All the QBs came from western Pennsylvania or Baton Rouge Catholic High (Hello, Applewhite!) It seems like right around 2000, the UIL made a couple of changes that allowed quarterback camps, more offseason practice time, etc. I'm not sure that the modern "space force" offenses would be nearly as prevalent without having an entire generation of players prepped to run them right out of high school.
  • NCAA roster-related rule changes improve parity: From scholarship limits in the early-'90s to more universal limits on oversigning a few years ago, I think that the NCAA rule changes have slowly but surely had the effect of distributing talent in a way that "mid-majors" can make creative offenses fly, and therefore, more tempting for the "blue bloods" to adopt. You might even argue that the, while the headlines from the transfer portal are QBs going to blue bloods, one of the broader effects will likely be to make some talented recruits more likely to sign with a "mid-major," knowing they aren't "trapped" there forever. (Of course, countering that parity trend is increasing disparity in money, which prevents the "mid-majors" from having the depth of talent to be truly competitive.)
  • Rule changes at all levels intended to help offense, in general, and forward passes, in particular: Think about all of the rule changes since the '90s: moving hash marks in, where a missed FG is spotted (intended to make a team incentivized to "go for it"), and of course, all of the rules protecting passers and receivers.
As I was typing this, a more fundamental thought came to mind: Is this era "more creative" than previous eras, or does it seem more creative because we're already familiar with what came before? The '60's, '70s, and '80s saw the development of triple-option offenses in a way that would have blown away someone watching in the early '60s. The '80s and '90s saw the development of wide open passing offenses, like BYU's proto-air-raid, the loveable run-and-shoot, and Spurrier's "fun 'n' gun." The 2000's saw Greg Davis call three bubble screens in a row for loss against OU. (Oh, wait! That doesn't belong on this list! :)) Maybe what makes the 2010s seem different is that the creative concepts of this area have more broad adoption - and success - at the pro level than some of the previous ideas.
 

sherf1

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Sherf, I like your comment that there is no "perfect" scheme and that we seem to be seeing more creativity. I though about it some more, and I might add that a few structural changes have helped this generation's creativity:
  • Youth/high school player preparation: All of the 7-on-7s and greater practice-time allowance produce a lot of players who know some fundamentals of making reads and executing these offences in a way that didn't exist before 2000. I remember in the '90s when Texas High School football was known for defensive players and running backs. All the QBs came from western Pennsylvania or Baton Rouge Catholic High (Hello, Applewhite!) It seems like right around 2000, the UIL made a couple of changes that allowed quarterback camps, more offseason practice time, etc. I'm not sure that the modern "space force" offenses would be nearly as prevalent without having an entire generation of players prepped to run them right out of high school.
  • NCAA roster-related rule changes improve parity: From scholarship limits in the early-'90s to more universal limits on oversigning a few years ago, I think that the NCAA rule changes have slowly but surely had the effect of distributing talent in a way that "mid-majors" can make creative offenses fly, and therefore, more tempting for the "blue bloods" to adopt. You might even argue that the, while the headlines from the transfer portal are QBs going to blue bloods, one of the broader effects will likely be to make some talented recruits more likely to sign with a "mid-major," knowing they aren't "trapped" there forever. (Of course, countering that parity trend is increasing disparity in money, which prevents the "mid-majors" from having the depth of talent to be truly competitive.)
  • Rule changes at all levels intended to help offense, in general, and forward passes, in particular: Think about all of the rule changes since the '90s: moving hash marks in, where a missed FG is spotted (intended to make a team incentivized to "go for it"), and of course, all of the rules protecting passers and receivers.
As I was typing this, a more fundamental thought came to mind: Is this era "more creative" than previous eras, or does it seem more creative because we're already familiar with what came before? The '60's, '70s, and '80s saw the development of triple-option offenses in a way that would have blown away someone watching in the early '60s. The '80s and '90s saw the development of wide open passing offenses, like BYU's proto-air-raid, the loveable run-and-shoot, and Spurrier's "fun 'n' gun." The 2000's saw Greg Davis call three bubble screens in a row for loss against OU. (Oh, wait! That doesn't belong on this list! :)) Maybe what makes the 2010s seem different is that the creative concepts of this area have more broad adoption - and success - at the pro level than some of the previous ideas.
Good stuff. And yeah I definitely agree on the creativity front, this is more about the mass acceptance and adoption of those ideas than some groundswell of new thinking. A lot of the more recent developments (RPOs being example one) are more tactical than the really crazy stuff that came before (the option, wishbone, wildcat).

But it's very fun to see football culture change from a very rigid idea of what it should be to this wild west environment, where it's not just about having the biggest or fastest guys. That will always help, of course. But it's a lot more of a meritocracy now, where if something works, it's embraced, even if it goes against past orthodoxy.
 

Justin Wells

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But it's very fun to see football culture change from a very rigid idea of what it should be to this wild west environment, where it's not just about having the biggest or fastest guys. That will always help, of course. But it's a lot more of a meritocracy now, where if something works, it's embraced, even if it goes against past orthodoxy.
It’s everything Bill Walsh imagined one day.