Gameplan: Previewing the 2021 spring game

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Texas will be playing football in DKR Memorial Stadium on Saturday, which is a big win for the program and college football at large. This time last year spring football was being cancelled while college football fans were being deluged with doomsday predictions about the sport’s future and fall prospects by many in the commentariat. Fortunately, those predictions proved about as accurate as the preseason picks the media would normally have been selling over the summer. This year everything is in a much firmer and more hopeful place.

The goals for the program in this game will be mostly to generate hype and excitement around the team, both for selling out tickets in the fall and also for building momentum for recruiting as they prepare to come out of this extremely long dead period.

Meanwhile both us new media and the old media will be constructing narratives out of this game based on the results, however silly it might seem. There will be plenty of takes cautioning against overreactions from the one good or bad throw either quarterback might make, but it’s human nature to make something out of the big plays we’ll see. Who else remembers DeMarvion Overshown laying a huge hit on Casey Thompson at the goal line a few years back?

How relevant will that play be to the 2021 season years later now Overshown is a linebacker and Thompson is battling for the starting quarterback job? Or Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson both making multiple snags in the 2018 game before pacing a breakthrough season the following fall?

Ideally this game would feature some big plays from particular up and coming stars which can be clipped into highlights to go on social media and generate some buzz about the season.

Shaping narratives

Spring games are rarely about creating a lot of additional film for the coaches to study, they get those cut-ups from the private spring scrimmages held throughout the practices. The public scrimmage is more about generating excitement and interest for the fans and for recruiting.

For this reason, the break-up of the teams is usually designed to engineer the sorts of results the head coach wants. If I’m Steve Sarkisian, I want the spring game to give me the following results.

-A few clips of Bijan Robinson running wild.
-Some probably scripted plays with the result of creating some highlights for prospective star players like Jordan Whittington, Ray Thornton, and Josh Thompson.
-Cloudy insight into which quarterback will win the starting job come fall.

The easiest way to generate those results is to make this a first team vs second team scrimmage and to play Casey Thompson with the first team while Hudson Card is relegated to the second team.

As the older, more established player who is less of an obvious schematic fit for a more pro-style offensive system, Casey Thompson is (at least hypothetically) the greater transfer risk. To lose either quarterback to transfer would be a disaster which would make Charles Wright and Cole Lourd uncomfortably important this fall.

Playing Thompson with the first team clouds the picture of who wins the spring game. If Thompson outperforms Card in the spring game, it can be summed up as “well, he had the much better supporting cast and didn’t have to face the first team defense.” Then if Card wins the job in the fall it can be understood as “the young, promising passer really put things together.” If Thompson plays poorly in the scrimmage but ends up winning the job in the fall, the story will still be “well…he was ahead in the spring too.”

If you don’t have a winner yet in the quarterback battle there’s no reason not to just maintain the 2020 pecking order and let the battle play out away from the public eye. Sark could go even further and rotate the quarterbacks so both play on either team.

Meanwhile, playing the first teams against the second teams helps accomplish the other goals. You probably spring Bijan Robinson for a few runs, make it more likely Jordan Whittington makes a couple of catches, and you give Ray Thornton and Jacoby Jones the chance to pile up some highlights working against the second team offensive line. Anything positive Hudson Card and the second team offense does against this set-up is gravy.

X’s and O’s watch

You have to be careful trying to glean much from the X’s and O’s in a spring game. By year three Tom Herman was willing to put anything on film in the spring game which was already on film from previous seasons but they certainly weren’t introducing anything new.

Everything Texas would run in the spring game this year would technically be “new” since it’s an all new staff with a lot of new players. In year one with Tom Herman the offense mixed in a lot of new looks by necessity because they were converting from Sterlin Gilbert’s “veer and shoot” to Herman’s “pro-spread.” On defense Todd Orlando ironically deployed the defense in a lot of 2-4-5 looks with Malcolm Roach as an outside linebacker. They laid waste to the Texas offensive line and spoiled Sam Ehlinger’s DKR debut, only to play the next season primarily in the tite front with Malcolm Roach as a 4i.

The 2-4-5 looks had really caught my eye and made me think Roach was about to have a huge year working off the edge, but he didn’t get to play there again until Orlando started using a 5-technique to set the edge from his 3-down fronts two full years later.

So you never know exactly what a new staff will be willing to show. Do they intend to put anything on film useful for themselves or is it a glorified fan appreciation day? Will the defense line up and play cover 1 man all day or will they show any of their actual disguises and match coverages? This staff doesn’t seem terribly concerned about keeping a particularly tight wrap on their various plans for the season. I think they put a lot more on weekly gameplanning rather than simply out-executing opponents, but that doesn’t mean they’ll advertise all of their X’s and O’s either.

Here’s what we can look for in this game: basic chemistry and execution of whatever base concepts they do call.

Even if Texas comes out in 12 personnel and just runs a few varieties of zone and maybe a gap scheme or two most every snap, you can still evaluate a lot from their execution of the basics. Do the offensive linemen trade off defensive linemen effectively on outside zone? How well do the linebackers react and fit their gaps? If the defense is playing basic match 3 or match quarters coverage how well do they trade off routes and deny easy throws to the quarterback’s first read?

I’ll never forget watching Auburn play their base defense in the spring game of 2016 and realizing they were already pretty precise with their execution of press-quarters under Kevin Steele. Sure enough, they’d go 8-5 thanks to a defense which only yielded 17.1 ppg and kept them in a narrow 19-13 loss to Clemson to start the year. A careful eye should be able to see how well Texas’ players do or don’t execute the basic assignments of a base defense.

The base systems we will probably see are a multiple front defense that mixes 2-4-5 looks with some odd, 3-3-5 tite fronts backed mostly by match 3 defense and then an offense which relies quite a bit on outside zone and some accompanying RPOs and play-action.

Key matchups to observe

If we get mostly one’s vs two’s in this scrimmage then there are a few areas to watch in particular if you want to get a good gauge of how the team is coming along. A key matchup will be the first team offensive line facing the second team defensive line.

This should be a win for the offense. The second team defensive line is expected to be built up over the summer with the healthy return of T’Vondre Sweat and the expected additions of Ben Davis and Ovie Oghuofo at outside linebacker. The crew facing Texas’ offensive line in the scrimmage shouldn’t be able to devastate the passing game with edge rush. Inside, the trio of Denzel Okafor, Jake Majors, and Junior Angilau should be blowing open some holes for Bijan Robinson.

Another big area of interest will be between the first team wide receivers facing the second team secondary. Can the Texas wideouts get open against those cornerbacks and nickel against the slot and two outside receivers? The second team defensive back trio will likely be Kitan Crawford, Darion Dunn, and then one of Chris Adimora or Anthony Cook. Much of the Big 12 would be happy to roll out a trio of athletes like that as the foundation of their defense in 2021. Can Texas get their first team receivers open against them in the scrimmage running what will probably be fairly basic route concepts?

This is a pretty good test of whether these receivers could be expected (as things currently stand) to play winning football against better defenses such as Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas State, or other teams with strong skill athletes in the secondary. You probably won’t find a bigger concern on the team than whether they have playmakers who can get points on the board against quality defensive back play and prevent teams from loading the box against Bijan.

A battle between the first team cornerbacks and second team wide receivers should be a silent affair unless the second team quarterback is able to make some big time throws. If it isn’t, this may tell us something as well.

Finally, an important matchup to watch will be how well the linebackers handle their assignments in the middle of the field. Even the most basic elements of this offense should be testing their ability to cover with depth between the hash marks and to properly handle runs the outside linebackers force between the tackles. To some degree they’ll be going up against the offensive line and the tight ends but in another sense they’ll be battling the space of the field and the eye and footwork habits they need to navigate those areas.

Texas will probably be adding multiple linebackers to the roster over the summer, including currently injured DeMarvion Overshown, but it’ll still be valuable to see how far along David Gbenda, Luke Brockermeyer, Jaylan Ford, and the others are in manning the middle of this new defense.

Then there’s always the often misleading but still fun flashes of athleticism you get in a spring game. Anyone else remember making way too much of this?

But then there have also been moments like this…

…this was the third perfectly placed fade Shane Buechele threw in the 2016 scrimmage and this one came right after taking a high, late shot from Kevin Vaccaro. At this moment, it was clear Buechele would be starting the following season…at least to most of us.

So everyone buckle up and enjoy the show, you never know exactly what you’ll get from these but there’s no harm in making the most of it.

History major, football theorist.