Football

Gameplan: Outside zone and the offensive line composition

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Texas has a number of big position battles playing out this spring. Many of them likely won’t be truly settled until the fall as the staff focuses on installation and evaluation in preparation for the summer and eventual pre-season camp. Nevertheless, these reps certainly matter and if talented players can seize control of a position it will be hard to unseat them in the fall.

Outside of quarterback, perhaps the most attention-grabbing position battles are at left tackle and the offensive line at large. Texas is in a unique position of returning older veterans Derek Kerstetter, Tope Imade, and Denzel Okafor, presumed fixtures Jake Majors and Junior Angilau, and several athletic young players such as Andrej Karic, Tyler Johnson, Isaiah Hookfin, and Christian Jones.

Kyle Flood is bringing experience at the professional (Atlanta Falcons) and semi-professional (Alabama) level in implementing a large amount of scheme in the run game and passing game. For his part, Steve Sarkisian has a similar background and initially rose to national prominence as a coach working with Pete Carroll at USC fielding an absolute juggernaut offensive line which never quite got the credit it deserved for propelling the Trojan machine.

Sark and Flood have a lot to work with but also quite a bit to teach and shake out in order for this group to realize their potential. The stakes are quite high with Texas fielding a first-year starting quarterback regardless of how the Casey Thompson versus Hudson Card battle plays out and running back Bijan Robinson safely established as the team’s star player.

Here are a few of the philosophical points I expect to determine how the starting lineup shakes out.

Blocking philosophy in 2021

With a less experienced quarterback, Bijan Robinson at running back, and RPO/play-action maestro Steve Sarkisian directing the team strategy it takes little skill to project where the emphasis will be for Texas in 2021. They’ll build as effective and extensive a run game as they can, install accompanying play-action and RPO schemes to build off those runs, and hang their hats on what they can get done with those elements.

There are a number of advantages to this approach beyond the obvious dynamic of how it will support and protect the Bijan Robinson run game and offer a guardrail for the quarterback. For one, it’ll be a boost to the offensive line. Play-action is always useful for creating hesitation from pass-rushers and RPOs are designed by rule to get the ball out quickly before pass protection becomes a major factor. As it happens, Sark has a deep playbook of run blocking schemes, RPOs, and various pass protections which are all built on top of each other.

The 2020 National Championship Alabama offensive line ran inside zone, outside zone, power, counter, zone/man iso schemes, sweeps, “duo,” and a few other plays. They could basically alter the approach from week to week to highlight the weaknesses of their opponent. The 2020 Bama formula is probably safely beyond the capabilities of Texas’ young line in year one of the new offense so we can expect them to more narrowly focus on a few particular schemes.

After Jake Majors was installed at center in place of Derek Kerstetter late in 2020, outside zone really began to make sense as the primary run scheme of choice for the Longhorns. The key to a great outside zone offensive line is overall unit athleticism and cohesion. It’s a coordinated dance which relies on effective timing and footwork from the offensive line to widen out the front without allowing any defensive linemen to shoot through and disrupt the play.

Texas has a number of advantages in executing the scheme.

The first is Jake Majors, who has ideal quickness at 6-3, 300 and bears a similar semblance of athleticism and skill as previous Sarkisian centers like Ryan Kalil (6-3, 285, USC) or Alex Mack (6-4, 310, Atlanta). When Majors took over at center, Texas was able to loosen up guards more quickly on the outside zone scheme rather than having to double with Kerstetter and a guard in order to effectively control the playside defensive tackle. Majors could reach the tackles’ shoulder or arrive to give a quick shove before advancing up to a lineman.

By now I hope everyone has seen the runs highlighted in which Majors effectively reaches a defensive tackle but observe how effective he is here in trading off the nose to Tyler Johnson and then staying busy and helping chip a few others to spring the run.

Another factor is Bijan Robinson, who has game changing quickness running laterally. When the offensive line and running back can legitimately threaten to win the perimeter and “hook” the defender on the edge (trap him inside) it forces the whole defense to start moving laterally in a real hurry, which then makes it easier for the offensive linemen to start shoving guys and for the running back to find cutback lanes. A defensive lineman who is first concerned with getting lateral to stay in his gap is easier to block than one moving downhill to engage with his man.

Then there’s Cade Brewer, who was quietly effective as a lead blocker in the outside zone scheme a year ago. Brewer had a knack for the quick movements on the edge (again, see above) or between the tackles to find blockers in space and seal paths for the running backs. He’s also highly versed in flexing out, moving back into the box, and bringing the sort of formational flexibility which can help an offense set up the play and execute it in a variety of fashions.

Finally, there’s the already mentioned overall athleticism in this group. Denzel Okafor, Tyler Johnson, Isaiah Hookfin, Christian Jones, and Andrej Karic all move well when going laterally and benefitted from the horizontal stress the outside zone scheme generates when trying to make good connections on their targets.

What can outside zone do for Texas?

The natural fit of outside zone for Texas’ roster was a reason, way back when, for believing an energized Gary Kubiak could make sense for the head coaching vacancy. Kubiak is an old hand in building versatile offenses which make the most of explosive running backs (Dalvin Cook at Minnesota is a nice facsimile for Bijan Robinson) and helping set up quarterbacks for success. As it happens, Kubiak wasn’t up to the job but Sarkisian also has a lot of experience in this scheme.

In recent seasons within the NFL game we’ve seen outside zone do wonders for quarterbacks like Jimmy Garappolo with the San Francisco 49ers and Jared Goff with the Los Angeles Rams. Both of those franchises went to the Super Bowl with those signal-callers before deciding to move in a new direction with the position.

Outside zone makes it extremely difficult to defend play-action, particularly when the running back is a demon from hell if you let him find the edge or an open crease. Alabama ran some outside zone play-action…

…but it was less of a focus for them than their counter play-action with pulling guards. Texas could borrow the counter play-action schemes but the outside zone is likely to be more effective for them if it gets a bigger emphasis and due to the superior athleticism of Thompson and Card on bootlegs. Watch the Sean McVay Rams or Kyle Shanahan 49ers and you’ll see how useful outside zone play-action can be for creating open space for quick receivers to run into.

Other advantages include the RPOs and other attachments you can add to outside zone. The lateral stress the scheme creates means the bubble screen is a typical accoutrement…

…and the bubble is a very simple RPO read and throw for a young quarterback. You can also add in some sweeps should you have some good athletes on the offense you want to feed the ball to regularly in a variety of simple ways.

In other words, it should be easy for Texas to build a good deal of young quarterback-friendly, Bijan-boosting offense on a foundation of outside zone if they can master the scheme effectively enough.

How will Texas’ blocking schemes influence the starting lineup?

You still want high quality pass protection at left tackle (or somewhere) but because the offense is going to create a lot of the pass game opportunities with RPOs and play-action, there’s more help available to the line in keeping the quarterback clean. Obvious passing downs, particularly third down, may be the only times Texas really works in much pure dropback game in 2021 (eventually they will get back to running much more).

In the run game, inside zone teams typically pair their best guard and tackle to the same side. If you can make the defense worry about handling those combo blocks and your best tandem and play on those terms then you remove some of their initiative for trying to attack potential weak spots elsewhere.

The priority with outside zone is having as many athletes along the line as possible. As the biggest and most impressive athletes on the unit, Christian Jones and Tyler Johnson stand out, but Andrej Karic also has major quickness and a lot more technical savvy after a few years of training from former Longhorn left tackle Donald Hawkins. The counter schemes Sark used heavily at Alabama also prioritize quickness at guard.

Everything will start with choosing a left tackle. This is normally quite straightforward and it still might be. You want your best athlete at left tackle and ideally for his athleticism to have translated into pass-protection skills. It’s not actually essential for the left tackle to be the best pass protector, last season Adrian Ealy held the honor for Oklahoma but he worked on the right side because he was more comfortable there, but it’s the most natural fit.

There are two aims for the offensive tackle positions. One is to have at least one tackle who can hold up in isolation against top pass-rushers so help can be shaded elsewhere. The second is to have your best pass protector watching the quarterback’s blindside so he isn’t taking hits or getting swiped while the ball is exposed from pass-rushers he doesn’t see coming. Normally you combine those into the left tackle. At this point one of the big emphasises in spring ball is to get Christian Jones (now listed at 6-6, 327 pounds) up to a level of technical proficiency in which his superior size and quickness will make him not only the best overall athlete on the line but the best overall lineman.

Junior Angilau and Jake Majors are likely fixtures along the offensive line after turning in strong 2020 performances, particularly Majors who has no apparent competition at center. Angilau came to Texas as an inside zone/power prospect and can still be that in the new offense but he came a long way over the course of 2020 in executing outside zone as well.

Derek Kerstetter seems a lock to start somewhere if he’s healthy for fall camp. He was a fringe NFL draft pick after the 2020 season and would be potentially the most reliable tackle on the team right now if he were able to see the field. They could also slide him inside to guard and he knows how to snap the ball and play center. Don’t rule out the COVID senior grabbing left tackle in fall camp if things don’t work out with other options but the healthiest Texas offensive line probably slots him back at right tackle or even guard.

Denzel Okafor, Tyler Johnson, and Isaiah Hookfin are all strong athletes with upside at guard if they can make significant improvements under the new coaching. Andrej Karic has great quickness as well and is probably the most reliable tackle in pass protection right now with Jones and Hookin still getting development and Kerstetter in rehab.

Ideally Texas would be able to put together an offensive line which can run outside zone right or left, strong or weak, and prevent defenses from scheming the run with alignment or stunts. Most likely they’ll really excel outside zoning in at least one direction (maybe right) and be able to build from there with counter, inside zone, and iso schemes.

Assuming Christian Jones won the left tackle job, Texas would do well to pair him with another quicker athlete such as Okafor or one of the younger players like Hookfin, Johnson, or Karic. If Angilau sticks at right guard it makes sense to pair him with Kerstetter to have some veteran upside and size on the right side of the line. If Kerstetter isn’t ready to go in fall camp, keeping Angilau and Karic together on the right side could be a boost to the line since they worked together in 2020.

Sark’s other top college offensive line, the 2005 USC Trojans Vince Young felled in the Rose Bowl, was composed as follows:

Left tackle: Sam Baker, 6-5, 305. 1st round pick.
Left guard: Taitsui Lutui, 6-6, 365. 2nd round pick.
Center: Ryan Kalil, 6-3, 285. 2nd round pick.
Right guard: Fred Matua, 6-2, 305. 7th round pick
Right tackle: Winston Justice, 6-6, 300. 2nd round pick

There was a good deal of athleticism across the board and they had the lighter-built Matua and Justice paired together while the thicker Lutui and Baker occupied the left side. If Texas followed a similar methodology they’d pair the quicker of the two starting guards with Jones and play Angilau on the right side, which is how they started this spring.

Based on what we’ve seen from all of these players in limited snaps, a best guess for how things could shake out would be as follows:

Left tackle: Christian Jones, 6-6, 327.
Left guard: Andrej Karic, 6-4, 296.
Center: Jake Majors, 6-3, 300.
Right guard: Junior Angilau, 6-6, 316.
Right tackle: Derek Kerstetter, 6-5, 300.

This can only happen should Jones master the kick-step and Kerstetter come back healthy. Karic would also need to maintain his edge over Tyler Johnson and Isaiah Hookin, and Denzel Okafor. This may not be as simple as you’d assume. Neither Okafor nor lack of quickness was typically the problem for Texas when running outside zone in 2020. The bigger problem was the failure to trade off of defensive linemen and the struggles of Kerstetter to effectively reach and control defensive tackles.

When Texas is able to field more athletes and fit players to their positions better in 2021 there’s some major potential for the offense to take off. Between the athleticism along the line, overall inexperience, need to set up the quarterback, and the need to make the most of Bijan Robinson, expect run blocking in particular schemes to set the table for Kyle Flood’s personnel decisions along the offensive line.

Cover photo courtesy of the Alamo Bowl

History major, football theorist.