Gameplan: Finding a bell cow receiver

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Tom Herman runs a “bell cow” offense at Texas. That’s a common trait for pro-style offenses of all varieties, including the pro-spread vision guiding the Longhorns. Most people understand the idea of a “bell cow” running back like Ricky Williams or Cedric Benson that get 250+ touches over the course of a season, but that kind of back is fairly rare these days.

However, the bell cow of your offense doesn’t have to play running back and ideally he doesn’t. The 2018 Longhorns got the ball to Lil’Jordan Humphrey on offense 96 times for 1219 total yards and 11 total touchdowns. In 2019, Devin Duvernay touched the ball on offense 118 times for 1428 yards and 10 touchdowns.

That’s a bell cow, a player that you are intentionally feeding the ball to multiple times a game in order to drive your offense. What’s more, that’s star running back level production on half the touches. Ezekiel Elliott needed 273 carries in 2014 to get to 1878 yards.

Nick Saban has tended to follow a similar prescription at Alabama, at least until recently. Amari Cooper had 124 catches for 1727 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014. The following year, Derrick Henry got 395 carries for 2219 yards and 28 touchdowns. It was clearly the goal in those seasons for those two players to touch the ball as often as possible. If you beat Alabama they were going to make sure that meant you’d beaten Cooper or Henry.

The pro-spread offense tends to emphasize this sort of philosophy, looking to guarantee that a particular player on your team is always a major factor in big games. The challenge of executing that vision from the spread offense is that it’s inherently designed around a “hit ’em where they ain’t” philosophy in which the ball is supposed to find open space. If your opponent denies space to the best player, now what? How do you guarantee that he touches the ball regularly?

There are a few answers in the passing game that you can summarize as “matchup hunting,” all of which tend to call for a particular type of player.

Herman’s H

Outside receivers generally need to have one of two physical traits: they need to be very big or they need to be very fast. There’s not very many directions you can go when you’re lined up outside. The options are to go in or to go up. Everything hinges on those first few steps and using strength or speed to create a trajectory that the quarterback can throw to on time over a long distance. If you get going up you can also come back, but that hinges on your ability to go up.

But in the slot? There’s no sideline hemming you in so there’s a two-way go all the way up the route tree. Release in or release out, break in or break out, or go forward and backward like an outside receiver.

The slot receiver necessarily begins every play with more space to work in than an outside receiver and he’s often closer to the quarterback. The closer proximity lessens the need for a precise trajectory because the quarterback can rifle the ball in when the receiver is open rather than having to time the throw.

For all these reasons, slot is also an easy guy to hit on slants, outs, and bubble screens attached to running plays. In 2018 and 2019 Texas hit their H regularly with RPOs on 1st and 10, then took advantage of his spacing and alignment to throw him crossers and option routes on 3rd and 6. When Texas wanted to play the matchup hunting game for their H, they’d use the running back and tight end as flexed out threats to play against the numbering system that defines modern pass defenses.

The way pattern-matching defenses typically work is they assign their defenders to match the receiver that ends up in their natural pass zone. That way they get the best of zone and man defense. The defenders can tightly match routes like in man coverage, but do so based on who’s in their normal zone rather than having to line up in an unfamiliar area on the field. The idea is basically that a middle linebacker is better off defending the same area around the hash mark than chasing a running back wherever the offense sends him.

Herman preys on those rules and preferences with alignments such as the one above, where the defense is forced to live with their decision to use the cornerbacks and nickel outside while leaving (in this instance) the two inside linebackers matched on the H and the Z receiver respectively.

If you never substitute out of 11 personnel then you drastically reduce the ability of the defense to sub into a package where those inside linebackers can be replaced by better coverage defenders. Hurry-up tempo combined with 11 personnel is a favorite pro-style trick for building a “bell cow” offense that features particular players and allows them to be moved around in pursuit of matchups.

But Texas would generally employ these tricks specifically to benefit the H with the other top receiver, generally the X receiver, remaining in his place as the outside receiver on the boundary.

The Yurcich/Coleman bell cow

Talk around Texas is that receivers won’t be pigeon-holed into particular roles but moved around to seek out opportunities and matchups. While that sounds like a good way to make the most of Texas’ deep room of receivers, what it really does is help make the most of a bell cow receiver. Andre Coleman was a part of offenses at Kansas State that would move players like Tyler Lockett around to attack opponents in different spots.

Similarly, Jordan Shipley lined up in three different positions over the course of the Rose Bowl versus Alabama. He lined up as the outer slot in trips formations, as the inner slot, and as the boundary X receiver. It turned out he could whip everyone in the Alabama secondary if left 1-on-1, so where he lined up almost didn’t matter. If Alabama brought a 5-man blitz then he’d get a 1-on-1 matchup and an accurate throw guaranteed at least a big gain if not six points.

Against other opponents, or against a full schedule of opponents, it’s not likely to be the case that a team’s star receiver can execute a double move and get wide open against any given defender on their roster whenever they want like Shipley could. Various teams will also have different weak spots where you’d ideally be able to attack with your best receiver. Some teams lack options for helping their cornerbacks, other teams may be vulnerable inside due to slow-moving and/or slow-thinking linebackers and safeties.

In general, you can tend to apply two maxims to making the most of a dangerous receiver. The best place to get vertical 1-on-1 opportunities is at an outside receiver spot, and the best place to find space to get open at the chains is generally in the slot.

Unless the defense is playing with three deep safeties after the snap, it’s very hard to shore up their coverage against both at the same time. Solutions for this problem would involve the yielding of easy space outside for the other receivers, multiple coverages to teach the players for that game, and the surrendering of a light box against the run game.

It’s also possible to find ways to create space for the slot to get open deep. Art Briles built his entire offense around doing exactly that and everyone else picked up on the theme. When you give a slot a lot of space underneath that can create a runway for him to set up deep safeties to get clowned on vertical routes.

Consequently, receivers that are good outside are also typically at least pretty good inside and potentially monstrous, while the reverse is not necessarily true. You don’t typically find as much space and easy timing outside as can be found inside, but alternatively you do find a lot more 1-on-1 matchups. Then if you can get a good release you can run free down the sideline or buy yourself space to catch endless hitches and comebacks in open grass.

The challenge preventing a team from being able to move a bell cow receiver around to target weaknesses in a given defense is the amount of learning that has to happen at all positions. Every receiver has to be taught a fairly extensive route tree from multiple positions or else the offense has to substitute regularly. If your bell cow is normally at the X and you want to play him at the slot, either the other receivers need to move into different positions and the slot move outside or else you have to sub in back-ups.

The most devastating version of this would be an 11 personnel Texas offense in which the running back knows how to flex out and run a few different routes as a receiver, the receivers can all play in multiple spots, the tight end can play in multiple spots, and the offense moves the best receiver to whichever spot is most likely to find a favorable matchup or spacing. No one necessarily has to be terrific. They just have to be capable of running their routes competently and reliably being in position if the quarterback has to “check down” to them in his progression because the defense was able to deny the bell cow his pasture.

So step one is developing all-around versatility from the whole receiving room. Step two is figuring out which receiver is the most dangerous and developing formations and concepts that allow him to punish different defenses.

Texas’ wide receiver room in 2020

There is a lot of talent in the Longhorn wide receiver room this season. The fact that Andre Coleman is developing them as all-around receivers rather than as cogs with specific roles is a major positive for the future of the program. That makes it all the easier to find a versatile bell cow every year from the rising underclassmen ranks who’s already been trained to dominate in multiple positions.

Tarik Black in particular is an obviously important building block. While the Texas playbook is new for him, he played in a pro-style passing game for three years at Michigan and lined up at every receiver position in their offense. Foot injuries may have sapped his ability to be a bell cow (or maybe not, we’ll see), but he’s definitely a receiver that could be part of a starting lineup and easily move to different alignments to help set the table for the best receiver. His big frame and savvy route-running should at the least make him tough to stop as a second or third option.

Brennan Eagles is generally anticipated to be “the guy” for 2020. Whether he’ll be moved around to hunt for matchups or serve primarily as an isolated constraint on the backside like Collin Johnson remains to be seen.

If it isn’t Eagles and Texas defaults once more to using the H as their mobile attack piece then there are still a lot of options. Jordan Whittington is a former 5-star talent who is perfectly suited to running option routes in the middle of the field with his absurd lateral quickness and large frame. Jake Smith isn’t too far behind him in terms of strength and quickness while also adding some double move/vertical speed to win over the top. Josh Moore is a speed demon that could be a home run hitter from the slot on play-action or running crossing routes. Marcus Washington is exactly the sort of terrific, all-around receiver that you waste if you don’t cross train him at multiple spots.

But everyone listed above but Black and Eagles are second year players and many of them haven’t seen the field much yet. Texas has a clear vision for developing receivers down the road to be able to regularly produce unstoppable players that can move around and torture opponents. If they can get there in 2020 for Sam Ehlinger’s senior year they’ll be much closer to finally seizing that Big 12 championship trophy.

History major, football theorist.