Inside the Gameplan: Spring foundations

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By and large, the core of a football team is established in spring practices. There are always tweaks and adjustments and occasionally high impact additions in fall camp, but the football staff and team figure out a good deal of who they are and where they’re at in spring. For Steve Sarkisian and his staff, this spring is going to be a highly informative one as they seek to probe this roster and discern what summer and fall need to look like in order for year one to be a success.

In his first spring presser Sark noted a major emphasis for spring will be schematic install. While he’s paid lip service to simplicity, adjusting to the roster, and recognizing how this team will be absorbing a lot of new concepts and terminology from their third set of coordinators in as many years, it’ll still be a new offense. Sark didn’t come to Austin to try and pick up a first down or two before punting. #AllGasNoBrakes means motion, layered offense, and a knockout-hunting approach to offense which has been sorely lacking at Texas and indeed is why he got this job offer. Similarly, Pete Kwiatkowski and the defensive staff aren’t going to run back the Chris Ash defense in place of their own schemes.

The new staff will lay down as much of their systems as they can in the spring and then choose how complicated to be with the playbook and adjust based on how well their general approach fits the knowhow and skill sets of this roster. Some of what this staff wants to do will mesh easily with the existing team and from there they can seek to build an identity for the coming season. Over the upcoming spring practices the foundation will be laid for building the 2021 team.

The staff’s core philosophy

Texas has routinely struggled to adjust to the new world of Big 12 offense. The paradigm was changed when Art Briles lead Baylor to back to back Big 12 Championships (2013, 2014) with an ultra-aggressive approach to both tempo (80+ plays per game) and vertical shot-taking. Baylor was willing to risk getting behind by a few scores because they had confidence they could extend games and erase a deficit later on.

Notable examples include their 2013 battle with Oklahoma when, with 3:48 left in the second quarter, BU suddenly figured out the Oklahoma defense and scored two touchdowns to go up 24-5 going into the half. In 2014 they got down 58-37 against TCU early in the fourth quarter and won the game 61-58. You weren’t getting away from them, their aggressiveness forced opponents to play on their terms.

The Oklahoma Sooners adjusted better than the rest of the league. Rather than attempting to wrest control of the game away from opponents with defense and the run game, they embraced the aggressive style reasoning, “okay, if we’re going to trade knockout punches we like our chances as the most powerful and granite-chinned contender here.” Lincoln Riley came aboard and they haven’t lost the Big 12 since.

Texas went in a different direction. Charlie Strong notoriously overlooked offense, building incongruent offensive staffs and leaving them to their own devices for two years before finally copying Baylor wholesale by hiring Sterlin Gilbert and Matt Mattox in 2016. By then it was too late and his defense was breaking down under the strain of trying to match Big 12 offenses with young, inexperienced defenders.

Tom Herman aimed to control games with the run game, ball control passing to isolated slot receivers, and situational utilization of the quarterback run game. At times situational utilization of the quarterback run game meant “Sam, we ain’t gonna win this unless you’re making something happen on your own here…” Texas was often successful in forcing their style on games but they also allowed most of the league to play them close and dropped multiple games every year as a consequence.

Steve Sarkisian wants to score points.

Alabama’s strategy in 2020 was to pour it on against opponents, attacking them with play-action and RPOs which were clearly practiced and set up for their opponent. Such as this Dart/slot fade RPO which burned LSU for their reliance on man coverage.

Sark is looking to score in the same manner Big 12 offensive coaches have been aiming to do for the last decade.

Texas had some of these dimensions in the offense, particularly under Mike Yurcich, but they weren’t attuned to the possibilities from throwing deep to the slot receivers or using motion to set up knockout shots. Even this play above featured Alabama motioning a receiver over to form the trips set and clear the picture for Mac Jones. Sark made it a point to attack his opponents and aim to secure knockouts where possible rather than leaving himself open to the interpretation of the judges’ cards as Herman had often done.

Defensively, the approach is a more pass-first version of the Chris Ash system installed a year ago. Like Ash, Pete Kwiatkowski wants to do less with more in terms of schematics and mix in some “bend don’t break” while emphasizing fundamentals. However, Ash’s 4-3 quarters defense was designed to send help to the box in the run game while Kwiatkowksi’s 2-4-5 match 3 defense is designed to match up with the pass game first.

Kwiatkowski’s defense is actually similar to Charlie Strong’s scheme, certainly more so than Todd Orlando or Chris Ash’s designs, and will thrive if/when Texas can lock down Big 12 offenses by putting multiple NFL caliber defensive backs on the field.

Texas’ roster identity

The Longhorns have a couple of obvious strengths heading into 2021 and then several areas of potential. Blowout wins against Kansas State and Colorado late in the season made clear Texas has some athleticism along the offensive line and a rare game-changing running back in Bijan Robinson.

Mike Yurcich installed outside zone during the offseason for reasons I may never quite fully understand but the scheme came alive once freshman Jake Majors was installed at center. Majors had the quickness to reach defensive tackles’ outside shoulders, negating the need for long double teams inside and allowing the line to generate a horizontal stretch for the defense as well as freeing up the guards, or Majors, to release to the next level.

I doubt there’s a scheme Bijan Robinson would fail to execute at a high level but it certainly wouldn’t be outside zone. His lateral quickness, explosive first step, power, and balance is a major problem for defenses, particularly when they are trying to navigate the moving gaps and resulting creases. The counter play is an easy accompanying scheme Texas already has in the playbook and which Sarkisian and Flood relied upon heavily at Alabama last season.

Building the running game for Bijan Robinson is the easy part. Sark’s vision to have a rushing attack which can punish teams for how they handle spread spacing and run/pass conflicts should be attainable in year one. Texas’ offensive line has talent, it has some experience, and Bijan has the ability to make everyone else look good. The challenge will be presenting enough threats in the passing game to set up Bijan and the run game to dominate.

Defensively this roster has some massive advantages in terms of building a strong pass defense. The setup is similar to in 2014 when Charlie Strong came to Austin and inherited Quandre Diggs, Duke Thomas, and Mykkele Thompson with all of their years of experience playing man coverage and defending the Big 12. Much like today, Strong also inherited a defensive line without a dominant edge rusher but including a special talent at defensive tackle in Malcom Brown.

Kwiatkowski and Terry Joseph are welcoming back a pair of senior cornerbacks in D’Shawn Jamison and Josh Thompson and then adding McNeese State transfer Darion Dunn who might potentially be the best of the bunch.

An additional “problem” the Texas defensive staff has is the fact the nickel position is still occupied by talented defensive backs Chris Adimora and Anthony Cook. Adimora has cut almost 10 pounds for spring ball after playing a space-backer position last season at 214 (now 206). Cook has been surging in the classroom and drawing praise from Sark for his early returns in the new program.

It’ll be remarkable if the staff fails to consistently field three high quality defensive backs who can play man coverage. With such a dimension established on defense, life gets difficult in a hurry for Big 12 offenses built off creating run/pass conflicts and generating easy space and gains for their passing attacks. In a nickel package playing match coverage on the outside receivers and slot with high quality defensive backs, Texas can force opponents to earn their way down the field the hard way by picking up steady gains on the ground against Keondre Coburn, Alfred Collins and the Longhorn defensive line. Texas’ challenge here will be playing sound and effective run defense with an inexperienced and overhauled linebacker corps which will be asked to man as many as four of the six positions in the nickel front.

Winning in the trenches

The 2021 Big 12 is loaded with quality rosters. Ever the developmental league short on talent with the opportunity to leave school for the NFL draft, a fair number of the conference’s teams are returning a few extra quality seniors due to the COVID exception. Iowa State and Kansas State in particular are loaded up with returning starters while Oklahoma and TCU are due for normally scheduled talent booms in which their most promising young players will be entering into prime years.

It’s a tough year to try and build a good team and expect to be rewarded with a clean path to nine wins and/or a Big 12 title game berth. On top of that, Texas opens the season facing a Louisiana squad with nine seniors who are taking the extra year after winning 10 games each of the last two seasons. Then they draw Arkansas, who also returns the vast majority of their starters from 2020 and is deploying them in Kendall Briles’ offense and a defensive scheme drawn up by Barry Odom which emulates Iowa State’s “flyover defense” model. As strong as the Big 12 looks for 2021, it’s possible Arkansas will effectively be a Big 12 team and one perhaps capable of playing for the Big 12 title if they were hypothetically inserted into the conference for a year.

So against a schedule with several experienced, quality teams, where can Texas find an edge?

The answer is with elite athletes.

Defensively, while their defensive tackle tandem is potentially dominant, Texas is likely to be defined by their abundance of experienced skill athletes. Not only does Texas have a better share of 4.4/4.5 athletes in their secondary than anyone else on the schedule but these guys have all been through the refining fire of covering good receivers in aggressive spread offenses. Having a true athlete who happens to be 300 pounds on the defensive line and then NFL-caliber skill talents on the perimeter is a classic blue blood privilege.

Meanwhile on offense Texas again has a nice share of high level athletes but the established skill is not there. Casey Thompson has made 29 pass attempts in college games and Hudson Card has made three. The Longhorns are going into this spring looking to get reps and opportunities for Troy Omeire, who has played half a fall camp, Jordan Whittington, who has caught 23 balls in two years, and Kelvontay Dixon, who has three career catches. Offensive tackle will likely choose between highly experienced but fringe NFL athlete Derek Kerstetter, highly athletic but extremely raw Christian Jones, or highly athletic but undersized and inexperienced Andrej Karic.

Fortunately for Texas, if they can get the passing game working at a high enough level they can encourage defenses to yield some numbers or space for their running game. With space to work in, Bijan Robinson has unique explosiveness and can help Texas win a lot of games. Conversely, Texas should expect offenses to attack them off-tackle rather than testing them inside or out in space.

What Texas actually wants is for the better opponents on the schedule to get drawn into trench battles (the weaker opponents they’ll want to be able to overwhelm offensively). If the opponent’s ability to score hinges on their ability to sustain and finish drives running the ball on Coburn, Collins, and T’Vondre Sweat with B.J. Foster lurking just outside the box then Texas won’t need to score so much themselves. And on the other side, if Texas has the opportunity to get Bijan Robinson 20+ touches their chances of generating explosive plays and touchdowns is considerably higher than for most teams’ rushing attacks.

By dominating the perimeter with their athletes on defense and getting their own quarterbacks and receivers reps and work in leveraging their own abilities, Texas could achieve Tom Herman’s vision of controlling games with the matchups in the trenches. At that point, young talents Alfred Collins and Bijan Robinson can become trump cards who power a winning Texas team for Sark in year one.

History major, football theorist.