Why is TCU so bad on offense?

Ian Boyd

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Jan 14, 2014
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The Horned Frogs have been a mess on offense this season.

Last season they scored 30.3 ppg (56th nationally), ranked 82nd in FEI, and 67th in offensive SP+. With Max Duggan returning and finally offering some stability at quarterback combined with the return of Doug Meacham and oversight of Jerry Kill, there was at least reason for optimism things would improve.

Through five games?

They’re scoring 24 ppg (94th nationally), ranked 70th in FEI, and 95th in offensive SP+.

Max Duggan has been carrying most of the weight of the offense with 190 pass attempts for 1274 yards at 6.7 ypa with five touchdowns and three interceptions and then a team leading 90 carries for 348 yards at 3.9 ypc with six rushing touchdowns.

In seven games that adds up to 27 pass attempts and 12.9 carries per game, or about 40 plays a game, which is fairly reasonable for a top spread quarterback. For comparison’s sake, Sam Ehlinger has attempted 250 passes and made 90 rushes, for 49 plays per game. That’s been too much for Ehlinger this season, at least it has with the level of protection he’s been getting which is comparable to what’s happened to Duggan.

Quarterback and the offensive line set the floor for a team and along with the ancillary (tight end/fullback) tend to establish the identity and infrastructure of a team. What your line and ancillary can block has a lot to do with the offense you run, as well as what your quarterback can throw or run and what he can identify and read.

Your ceiling comes from the skill talent, particularly the space force and even beyond that the outside receivers. Defenses don’t want to use more than one defender to cover space from the numbers out to the sideline, that’s too far away from the rest of the action to park multiple defenders. If an outside receiver can force two defenders to play out to the numbers and beyond the defense is severely handicapped in stopping anything else.

Max Duggan checks a lot of physical boxes. He can pull the ball and run around the edge, he can run between the tackles, he handles pressure reasonably well, can get through progressions and throw a decent ball, and he has the arm strength to throw out to the far numbers. He doesn’t set many theoretical limitations on what an offense can do.

Yet TCU is not good on offense. What’s up?

Building an identity

The primary fear in adding Doug Meacham back and Jerry Kill as the oversight had to be the formation of a primary identity. The big picture philosophy seems the same as it ever was dating back to the first time most of us watched TCU, back when Patterson was dominating the Mountain West.

Patterson’s big breakthrough teams combined his normal defensive prowess with Katy Tiger Andy Dalton, a 6-2, 215 pounder who could throw the ball outside the hash marks and run between the tackles on power schemes (4.83 40). After a spell in which Casey Pachall came apart, the next big TCU breakthrough came when they were able to match the core competencies of Andy Dalton with Trevone Boykin.

At 6-0, 212 with 4.77 40 speed and some sweet feet and the ability to throw the ball outside, Boykin brought some similar dimensions to their offense.

Each of those two guys enabled the Frogs to execute a power-spread offense that paired nicely with Patterson’s emphasis on defense. They could throw endless slants and hitch routes outside to Josh Boyce or Josh Doctson if you tried to pack in numbers around the box, but if you spread yourself thin to stop the passing game they’d involve the quarterback in power/zone-option schemes that could outnumber you at the point of attack. The upshot was an ability to consistently run the ball.

The 2010 Horned Frogs had three backs other than Dalton who got a fair amount of work and the trio combined for 401 carries for 2300 yards at 5.7 ypc with 23 rushing touchdowns. In 2015 Aaron Green carried the main load with 244 carries for 1272 yards at 5.2 ypc with 11 rushing touchdowns.

In 2019 TCU gave Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua 285 combined carries that yielded 1360 yards at 4.8 ypc with 14 touchdowns. For 2020 Duggan is leading the team in carries by a fair margin while Patterson’s staff juggles a room with five running backs. Add up the contributions of Darwin Barlow, Kendre Miller, Zach Evans, Emari Demercado, and Daimarqua Foster and you get 154 carries for 814 yards at 5.3 ypc with five rushing touchdowns.

Yet their rushing success rate is only 63rd nationally, the stuff rate is 108th nationally, and they’re essentially a boom or bust unit. That’s not how the power spread works, you can’t generate explosive gains now and again and win with this philosophy. You need to be able to pick up consistent gains so you can hold the ball and control games.

Meanwhile the passing game is a complete mess. Duggan’s 6.7 ypa isn’t cutting it and with those success rates in the run game it’s inevitable their passing game would face regular passing downs and third downs. The Frogs are 92nd nationally on passing downs and 79th in third down percentage with a rate of 37.6%.

The keys to a successful power spread approach are a high success rate in the run game, a consistent plan for picking up third downs, and a low rate of turnovers. The Frogs are 61st nationally in turnover margin and at a flat zero. They don’t turn it over too much but they don’t turn over opponents all that often either.

So what’s the deal? What is the missing ingredient to allow this team to execute consistently?

Offensive line?

The Frogs had a miserable start to the year trying to protect their quarterbacks, particularly on all of the passing downs they were facing. It’s gotten a little better since they were able to get Colorado State left tackle transfer T.J. Storment in. Against West Virginia they started multiple experienced vets aside from redshirt freshman Andrew Coker at right tackle, the Mountaineers only sacked Duggan once, although that apparently doesn’t include this play:


The rushing attack didn’t do much though.

Like most other college teams, the Frogs run a lot of inside zone as their primary mode of attack, and they’re actually quite good at it. Esteban Avila paired with John Lanz and Kelton Hollins did a good job against West Virginia, those two guards are quick and experienced while Avila is a big guy at 6-4, 315 who’s good at combo blocks and getting tackles under control.


This unit may have some big struggles in pass protection but the issue is likely more the frequency of passing downs than an insurmountable incompetence.

The skill talent

Reasonable minds could question whether TCU’s use of such a deep stable of running backs is actually hurting them. Shuffling players in and out doesn’t aid much in building consistency and it also risks allowing defenses to zero in on tendencies. For instance, TCU’s diamond formation pairs two running backs with ancillary Carter Ware in the backfield and is completely transparent.

At receiver things are similarly mixed. Quentin Johnson has the talent to be one of the best outside receivers in the league. Thus far on the year he has 14 catches for 240 yards and a score. The Frogs will mix in a vertical RPO for him at times, running inside zone while clearing space to his side so he can run an adjustable vertical route based on the coverage he’s getting. They only mix it in sporadically and often don’t connect.

Taye Barber is one of the league’s top slots and leads the team with 30 catches for 322 yards and two scores (those are all team high numbers). He’s good at finding space on Duggan scrambles, running crossers, running sweeps, and even going over the top.

Blair Conwright has been their next most consistent target outside. Overall they have some solid weapons at receiver but their passing game arsenal is wildly erratic. Much like in 2019, their spacing and timing in much of the passing game is often sloppy and imprecise. There’s always something off, either the spacing of the route, the protection, or Duggan’s sense of timing or even his accuracy. At times he’ll suffer from paroxysmal “wild thing” syndrome where his throws will wildly miss the target.

Given their solid inside zone blocking, I’d guess a fair amount of their practice time gets devoted not to nailing down the details of base passing schemes but instead on the run game.

Ultimately there aren’t any skill talents on this team you can really identify as the Frogs’ “go-to” players, which is likely another culprit for why they are so inconsistent.

The spread offense, at its best, is about creating space so your best skill players can operate at advantage. Precision comes when you have a clear identity and go-to weapons so you choose what to major in and carve out roles for the rest of your team. The Frogs are occasionally a power-sweep team that blends the inside running of Duggan with Taye Barber’s speed on the perimeter, at other times they’re an inside run and vertical pass to QJ team. They always seem to minor in every dimension, there’s a jack of all trades and master than none dimension to the unit.

The ancillaries

Here’s where I think the biggest breakdowns are evident. Tell me who a spread team is using at the tight end/fullback ancillary position and I’ll tell you their identity.

Your ancillaries’ primary job is to support your best players. Everyone loves a tight end that can do this or that, but unless he’s a Gronk-type go-to weapon what matters from your tight end is whether his skill set supports your bell cow receiver and the run game.

TCU is richly blessed with the skill sets on their roster at this position AND they have considerable additional margin stemming from Max Duggan’s running ability on zone/power-option schemes.

Here’s the math every spread team has to contend with when they want to run the ball. Defensive fronts typically have roughly six players around the box who have the size and training to handle run fits. Most of them are aiming to bring one more guy than you can block to guarantee minimal gains for your run plays. If you have five offensive linemen, they’ll have a linebacker in the box to be unblocked or they’ll have him hovering nearby so he can arrive quickly. Add an ancillary to help block and they’ll have the nickel, a safety, or even a cornerback hovering to be the extra guy.

If your quarterback can’t handle a big load in the run game (10-15 total carries per game generally) then your tight end needs to be able to block the sixth guy and then you need to be able to account for the seventh with a wide receiver block, terrific spacing and run/pass balance, or direct run/pass balance in the form of RPOs.

If he can handle a regular load in the run game? Then you can leave a defender unblocked and either use the tight end to block the seventh defender to maximize runs or else play with just wide receivers to get more speed and spacing. In this case, you can also prioritize receiving skill from the tight end.

TCU has a good blocking tight end in Carter Ware who’s 6-4, 254 and can block a defensive end on inside zone and also knows how to flex out to stalk block on screens or run basic route patterns to help free up better receivers to attack matchups. He’s a good power-spread ancillary who can play on every down.

Then they have Pro Wells, who’s 6-4, 250 and a solid blocker (not as good as Ware) but has some real quickness and skill as a receiver. It’s obvious TCU doesn’t really know what to do with him. Just look at this nonsense…


What are we trying to do here? Why are you throwing a bubble screen to a tight end? Making the most of a bubble screen requires real burst and quickness, and while Wells is a plus athlete for a tight end he doesn’t have a ton of wiggle in space. Additionally, if your tight end is running the screen that means a receiver, who’s almost certainly a more fluid athlete in space, has to block. Finally the spacing on this is dumb, running the play from a bunched up alignment doesn’t get the ball in space and invites pursuit, and Duggan still doesn’t put an accurate ball on him despite the close proximity. What you’d want here is to lead Wells to where he can go to the outside corner and maybe run over the corner, but the throw doesn’t allow it and Wells responds after the catch like his goal should be to work back inside, like it was a tunnel screen.

It’s apparent TCU doesn’t know what to do with Wells. He could be a matchup weapon in the passing game, but the passing game isn’t the main emphasis of the offense. They could play more 12 personnel and use him as the slot, but then what do you do with Taye Barber? Or they can mix in him periodically and run poorly designed and insufficiently drilled plays in hopes of feeding him the ball enough to keep him happy and out of the transfer portal. This appears to be the path they’ve chosen.

They don’t consistently use him effectively by leveraging his abilities to open up opportunities for other skill players. In their defense, that’s hard to do when he’s in a platoon with another ancillary with a contrasting skill set in an offense lacking a clear identity and go-to receivers who can create clear roles for everyone else.

As a general rule, most of this offense looks like the Frogs have TOO much talent and they’re busy trying to feed all the mouths rather than zeroing in on a few playmakers and telling everyone else to either own a role or sit and wait their turn. If they want to be a power spread team the offense should be geared around maximizing the zone/power-option game and building in lethal constraints and complements. Instead they’re “multiple” and are constantly shuffling tight ends and running backs in and out of the game to run ineffective plays.

They have the talents to build a few different types of effective offense but it appears they can’t choose which one to be.

There’s too many chefs in the kitchen up in Fort Worth, too many ingredients to choose from, and far too few positive results. What exactly is Jerry Kill doing up there? Why should Frog fans believe this will get better in 2021?
 

josephcook

Inside Texas Writer
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Feb 11, 2013
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There’s too many chefs in the kitchen up in Fort Worth
I thought when they made an off-field guy the offensive overseer it was donezo. Bringing Meacham back made some sense, but putting someone in Kill who hadn't been part of a previously successful offensive braintrust into a larger offensive braintrust was a recipe for disaster from the start.
 

txfan2424

Member Who Talks
Jul 12, 2012
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I can’t help but think most of their trouble stems from being very young on offense. They have some premier pieces that will do well by then over the next 2-3 years.
 

DC Horn

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Oct 29, 2008
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No other defense gave up the entire middle of the field for a QB draw TD play.