Gameplan: Is Mike Yurcich reshaping the Texas offense?

One of the fascinating tidbits from the last Scoop team update was the fact that Texas is working in 10 personnel (one running back, zero tight ends, four receivers) pretty heavily during their 7-on-7 sessions. The reasons for that development are obvious and intuitive. The 2020 Longhorns are loaded with receiving talent.

In Tom Herman’s normal 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) offense that would leave room for only three of Brennan Eagles, Jordan Whittington, Tarik Black, Jake Smith, Josh Moore, and Marcus Washington. There’s always room for substitution but it’s not possible to make the most of all those talents from a base, 11 personnel offensive system. If Texas’ best players include more than three names from that list then they can’t maximize without using 10 personnel to get more of them on the field.

But there’s a lot of ramifications to Texas moving away from using 11 personnel to the extent they were doing in 2018 and 2019. If the Longhorns are really planning to make more use of 10 personnel in order to get those players on the field it suggests an evolution in overall strategy and staff organization is taking place.

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One of the bigger takeaways if Texas mixes in more 10 personnel is that Mike Yurcich truly has a fair amount of leeway to tweak the offensive approach. We’re still not into fall camp yet and these 7-on-7 sessions could just be a method for getting more reps for the receivers, but if Texas intended to play as much 11 personnel as they have in years past then it wouldn’t be the best idea to deny their tight ends as many 7-on-7 reps as they can get.

Yurcich used many more personnel packages at Oklahoma State than the Longhorns have used under Herman. If this is a precursor to some major philosophical changes, it could have a profound impact on Longhorn strategy.

Herman’s devotion to 11 personnel

One of the key features to Texas’ utilization of 11 personnel under Tom Herman was that it allowed them to always fall back on their tight zone run game. Whenever Texas faced the need to pick up short-yardage, they’d often fall back on the “touchdown play,” unbalanced tight zone run. When they wanted to move with extra tempo and get after a defense reeling from chasing Longhorn skill players they could line up and run tight zone over an opponent for easy gains to keep the tempo rolling and the chains moving. If Sam Ehlinger saw something he didn’t like in a defensive response to a play call they could always audible to either tight zone or a play-action concept built off that run.

None of that is available to the offense if they aren’t in 11 personnel. The tight zone run accounts for all six defenders in the box with a blocker. If you remove the tight end for an extra slot then you can’t block six defenders in the box. Any substitution to bring in a tight end allows the defense the time to make their own substitution and slow the tempo down or match up with the offense’s personnel.

The upshot is that without a tight end to punish them in the run game, defenses can force the offense to throw the ball more than a Tom Herman team is inclined to do. It also forces Texas away from the tight zone play as the foundation of their offense. You can’t run that scheme without a tight end.

A 10 personnel run game

You can run the ball effectively from 10 personnel without a tight end on the field. You can even do so with a power run game, but there are a number of trade-offs. A 10 personnel run game has to include quarterback options in order to effectively account for all the defenders that could sneak into the box.

The obvious way to run the ball from 10 personnel is with RPOs. Instead of blocking six defenders and having the quarterback use the seventh as a hand-off or throw key, you block five and have the quarterback read the sixth defender. For instance, on Texas’ inside zone play:

If Texas had Jake Smith or Jordan Whittington at the H and a burner like Josh Moore at the Y then they could mix this route combination in with the inside zone run. Ehlinger would read whether the middle linebacker played the run or not. If he crashed to stop the run then Ehlinger would read the nickel to know whether to slip in the stick route to the H or take the fade over the top to the Y. If the middle linebacker stayed wide Texas could just run the football on a light box.

These sorts of vertical RPOs create a more explosive and potent approach to offense but carries some tradeoffs. One problem is that the more you commit to this approach, the more you invite complexity from the defense. When RPOs are a small component to the offense, they don’t get as much attention from the defense. When they are the main thrust of your run game then defenses start to mix in different looks and traps that now have to be gameplanned.

Another one is that defenses may choose to play man coverage outside on all your receivers and keep the linebackers in the box. Then there are no longer any easy throws or leverage outside and there are six defenders in the box for five blockers. If the offense wants to run the ball against those formations, they have to use the quarterback in the run game. If they’re willing to throw regularly on the other hand, they’re in great shape.

Finally there’s the third-and-two dilemma. What does the offense do when the defense plays man coverage outside and loads the box in short-yardage situations? Substitute in a tight end? Now the defense can sub in a short-yardage package. Run the quarterback? That certainly works well with Sam Ehlinger but it carries some obvious risks. Perhaps in a shortened season with an extra bye week or two we’d see this as a common solution.

For a team that wants to run the ball regularly with the running backs, the easiest solution is to mix in quarterback options and pass options that make defenses inclined to yield lighter boxes. But the inside zone play isn’t necessarily the best way to achieve that end. The traditional inside zone-read play runs into challenges against modern defenses that will play their front to the back in order to cause problems.

Texas loves to run inside zone as a downhill play that regularly cuts back behind the double team. What defenses like to do is play the 3-technique across from the running back as illustrated above. With a defensive lineman inside of him in that B-gap, the defensive end can keep his shoulders square to the line and first play the quarterback before sliding inside to defend the cutback lane.

To make this play work that double team has to generate real movement on the 3-technique. It’s very difficult for the running back to hit the space between the unblocked defensive end and the double team unless they are absolutely driving that 3-technique off the ball to widen the cutback lane.

If the quarterback is quick enough, he can punish the defensive end for trying to stay in position to play the cutback. But he’d better be pretty quick and the risk is that the end will string him out and set him up to get popped by a defensive back closing from the perimeter a la Quandre Diggs versus Patrick Mahomes in 2014.

However, if Texas was willing to use less inside zone, there are other options.

Alternative 10 personnel run schemes

Both Mike Yurcich and Texas each have alternatives to inside zone in their old playbooks for when they want to run the ball from 10 personnel. Herb Hand really has two main loves in the run blocking game, the tight zone play and the power run game.

In year one of the Herb Hand era at Texas they ran a decent amount of traditional power, using Andrew Beck as a fullback to kick out defensive ends and then pulling a guard between him and the down blocks. In year two there wasn’t an Andrew Beck on campus and Texas conspicuously shelved that version of power in exchange for this one…

…the GT counter-read popularized recently by Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma. The guard executes the kick-out block that the fullback was assigned in normal power and the tackle is the lead blocker instead of the guard.

It requires a quarterback read for the numbers to work out. In this case the Tigers only have five in the box and the quarterback read is on the middle linebacker (#35). Ehlinger doesn’t think that linebacker honors the bubble screen enough and flips it out to Duvernay for a big gain. The actual power run was also set up favorably as well with five blockers for five defenders.

If Josh Moore is on the field often in 2020 these bubble screens are going to have to go his way. His 165-pound frame and speed will become a liability if he’s blocking rather than receiving on those schemes. Or they can draw up RPOs like the ones above in which everyone is running a route.

Against a 4-down defense with a defensive end unblocked the offense has to run a quarterback keeper option on the backside like a zone-read. The upside with the GT counter scheme like the one above is that the defense will rarely choose to make the quarterback actually hold the ball. If they do, the offense can give the quarterback a bubble/flat route to use to create a 2-on-1 against the middle linebacker in space:

The offense can create too many dilemmas on the backside of this scheme for defenses to try and cheat the scheme like they do on zone-read. This makes the GT counter a really useful blocking scheme for enjoying the benefit of quarterback option without actually asking the quarterback to run the ball particularly often.

Another option is to run zone schemes like outside or mid zone where the running back’s path is wider:

When the running back is aiming for the opposite perimeter and the line is creating a lateral stretch, it’s no longer as feasible for the defensive end to play the quarterback keeper AND the running back cutback like he can on the downhill tight zone play.

Both of these schemes, and countless others that involve quarterback options, could be standard down solutions for Texas when they’re in 10 personnel. The trick is the role that tight zone played in the offense as a well drilled scheme that Texas could always audible to. The O-line and players knew how to execute that play against any conceivable defensive formation. If they can’t audible to tight zone then they need another run play they can check to that’s either specific to that week’s opponent or similarly universal. Or they need a passing play that is highly versatile and sound. In either event, we’re talking about a significant change to the offensive philosophy.

Texas’ 10 personnel gambit

Mike Yurcich used more formations and more personnel packages at Oklahoma State than Texas has used under Tom Herman. The Cowboys had 30 personnel sets with two fullbacks, 11 personnel, 20 personnel, 12 personnel, and of course they’d always have 10 personnel sets. Whatever their roster allowed, they’d shape their playbook to utilize the personnel on hand.

Texas’ 2020 roster is as versatile and deep as any unit that the Cowboys ever had while Yurcich was the coordinator. However, to fully explore the depth on offense with multiple personnel packages and formations will require a fundamental restructuring of the offensive system to no longer be built from the foundation of running the tight zone from 11 personnel.

If Texas moves in that direction they have options on how to restructure the offense differently, whether or not they do so and how will be one of the most fascinating subplots of fall camp and the early season.

History major, football theorist.