Gameplan: Texas and Sarkisian find their way back to 2005

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There was a time when the Texas Longhorns were on the cutting edge of blending pro-style schemes with spread formations and tactics. The 2005 and 2009 runs at the National Championship were both powered by offensive systems designed to allow Vince Young and Colt McCoy to dominate games by operating in space.

For the Vince Young Longhorns, their most lethal feature was the combination of dropback passing from the shotgun with Young’s own overpowering athleticism. Even if you had a sound plan for the zone-option run game and could cover up all the routes, Young was still capable of tucking the ball away and running for touchdowns. In the Colt McCoy era, the scramble was still valuable but what really killed opponents was the impossibility of covering Jordan Shipley well enough when he was running routes in space so that McCoy couldn’t find and hit him.

Then McCoy was injured, Alabama beat Texas, and the trauma of losing with Colt combined with the allure of copying the Tide’s approach while recruiting up and coming Texan 5-star running backs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray seduced Mack Brown. Texas shifted their focus to building a power running game, the program collapsed, and they’ve wandered in the wilderness ever since. Neither Charlie Strong nor Tom Herman aimed for or even understood Texas’ success in the 2000’s and saw the resources of Longhorn and Texas high school football as a set-up for realizing the “power run + defense = championships!” Alabama formula.

Meanwhile over in Alabama, Nick Saban realized this formula couldn’t bring more championships as spread teams with some pro-style dimensions kept defeating his Tide squads. The Tide began to evolve their approach on offense, both in terms of their schemes and tactics as well as their recruiting, culminating in this past season. The 2020 Crimson Tide are poised to win the National Championship by setting up a quarterback to regularly find an uncoverable receiver in space… and Texas just hired their most recent offensive architect to be the head coach.

Steve Sarkisian

Sarkisian was there when Texas was demonstrating the potency of the spread back in 2005. He was on the USC sideline during the Rose Bowl working as the quarterbacks coach.

Sark’s own background in football was at BYU, which was the foundation point for the modern passing game in college football. It was at BYU where a young pre-law student named Mike Leach watched the LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow offenses chew up opponents and questioned why more football teams didn’t orient their offenses around the passing game.

Sarkisian was the starting quarterback for the Cougars in the 90s and then followed Chow to USC, coaching Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, and Mark Sanchez in that succession in his first stint. Then he guided Cody Kessler in the short-lived second stint as the head coach. These guys were regularly throwing for 3000+ yards, with Palmer, Leinart, and Kessler all getting close to 4k yard seasons long before such was the norm. He’s long followed a similar formula as his buddy Lane Kiffin, but with a lot less of the HUNH tempo and less of the Art Briles influence Kendal brought to Kiffin at Florida Atlantic a few years back.

But you could absolutely watch Sarkisian’s offenses and come away with the impression you were watching a pro-style Briles.

Let’s talk a little RPO.

This is an Alabama RPO you can see him break down in this link, which is pretty instructive to the Sarkisian mode of thought regarding run/pass balance in the spread offense. The challenge of RPOs is this, you are essentially giving the defense the power to determine where the football is going. Installing an option-heavy system where the quarterback has multiple options on every play seems like a way to build an unstoppable offense but the real masterminds, like Briles or Sarkisian, will do their homework in the gameplan to ensure the quarterback has a more limited menu of options. That includes frequent options for getting the ball to players like DeVonta Smith in space.

RPOs are primarily about clearing out the box so you can run the ball, at least they were originally. Eventually defenses realized conceding space for gimme passes on the perimeter to speedy receivers was considerably worse than yielding a light box against the run. Nowadays, defenses won’t give away easy throws if they have any choice in the matter and the best ones will often challenge underneath routes, mix up numbers in the box against the run game, and force you to throw the ball against man coverage.

Sark’s RPOs are designed to give the quarterback options against man coverage outside, such as on the diagram up above. You’ll see the Tide throw double glances to the two receiver side or have the single receiver run an out or glance based on the cornerback’s leverage (and probably some gameplanning). What appears to be endless slants thrown by Alabama are effectively “get open!” routes where the receiver breaks after four steps and “runs to daylight” much like a vertical option route in Briles’ “veer and shoot” offense.

But ultimately RPOs have diminishing returns against man coverage, particularly single-high man coverage which can drop a safety down to deny space for some of those “get open” glance routes. The quarterback has a limited window of time to make a decision and throw the ball on a RPO before his offensive line either progresses down the field and incurs a penalty (no ineligible receivers are allowed further than three yards past the line of scrimmage) or else the run blocking fails to protect the quarterback and he takes a hit. If you really want to punish man coverage and aggressive run-stopping defense, you want play-action…

This is designed to look exactly like the Y-iso/glance RPO above with the glance routes coming from the two receiver side rather than the single receiver side, but it’s not. It’s play-action and DeVonta Smith is running a sluggo (slant and go) double move. Obviously, it’s effective.

Alabama’s offense is more pro-style in terms of some of the concepts, dropback passing game, and personnel than many a Big 12 team but is ultimately another RPO spread/play-action squad that wants to take the top off the defense throwing deep. Sark regularly uses the stresses their base RPO offense puts on the defense in order to set up kill shots with play-action. In order to make that work, they invest very heavily in the RPO game and have a lot of variations, combinations, and options in order to make their RPO game an every down feature of the offense. Those kill shots are the main feature.

A million ways to run “mills”

“Mills,” or dig-post, along with the slot fade are probably the two most devastating weapons in the modern game. Double move play-action shots like Sarkisian loves or “leak” concepts like Lincoln Riley throws at people are devastating but they’re also harder to execute and rely on extensive set up and good offensive line protection. Everyone in the Big 12 can set up “mills” or slot fades. As it happens, Sarkisian can also set up “mills” and has a lot of ways to do it.

“Mills” is the ultimate way to beat two-high coverages. The inside receiver runs a dig route behind the linebackers and the safety has to pick him up so the quarterback can’t hit him for an easy gain. Then the outside receiver runs behind him on a post route. Defending a post route from a top receiver without inside safety help is extraordinarily difficult for cornerbacks and the consequence of failure is typically a touchdown. The best way to handle “mills” is to bring another safety over so you have three deep defenders over two deep routes. Defenses are wary of giving up shots on slot fades and “mills” to star receivers, so the best gameplanners and play-callers do some work to set them up. For instance…

Sark sends DeVonta Smith (X) into motion before the snap to the wide side of the field, which will always draw attention from a defense. The more damaging effect though is Georgia beginning the play in a trips coverage and then having to check into their back-up coverage on the fly. The back-up coverage can’t be dialed up and signaled in by the defensive coaches in the moment. It has to be prepared beforehand. Then, Alabama runs a switch, with the outside receiver breaking inside to run the dig and Waddle running a wheel-post outside.

The Dawgs struggle to work out who covers who and they don’t get the “3 over 2” effect by using the opposite side safety, who is instead worrying about the Smith/tight end combination. Jaylen Waddle runs by the confused corner on the post and it’s six points for Alabama.

Alabama has a few ways to run “mills” in order to generate the coveted 1-on-1 outside where a receiver is breaking deep and inside against a cornerback who doesn’t have a post safety to help him. They’re more aggressive and multiple here in many respects than some Big 12 teams that love to attack over the top. It’s truly a more carefully developed and nuanced version of what is commonplace across the Big 12 conference from the better offensive teams. Pro-style Briles.

Sark at Texas

I’m guessing Scipio Tex really perked up when he heard of Sarkisian’s plan to emphasize recruiting in Texas and the southwest out to California. The reasoning for this focus is pretty easy to deduce. Sarkisian wants to load up on speed at wide receiver and fine-tuned skill at quarterback. Texas has plenty of each, but as Tom Herman and Lincoln Riley have both found, the southwest and California has a considerable amount as well. Much of it is conglomerated for the benefit of big recruiting schools at a few private high schools without much competition for a school of Texas’ stature.

Bryce Young was the second blue chip quarterback Sarkisian coached from Mater Dei High School down in Southern California near Anaheim. He’s coached a few blue chip receivers from Texas, Louisiana, and California as well as some famous running backs… which brings us to Bijan Robinson.

Sark is exactly the sort of coach Texas needed to hire in terms of offensive vision. Tom Herman wanted to run the football and control games like he’d done with Urban Meyer at Ohio State or with Greg Ward Jr. and Major Applewhite at Houston. Charlie Strong didn’t really seem to have a vision for the offense other than, “someone please score some points for my defense.” Sarkisian is going to come in planning to use the highly skilled receivers and quarterbacks on campus and within the Texas/Pac-12 recruiting sphere in order to attack the structure of opposing defenses down the field in the passing game.

The upshot of this approach, which is extensive yet measured, will be to clear out space for some steady gains on the ground. It was always going to be important for Texas to install an aggressive approach with RPOs and play-action for 2021 in order to get the most out of their obvious star player, Bijan Robinson.

Defenses will take a glimpse of the 2020 film and quickly decide they have zero interest in giving Bijan any space to work in whatsoever. Consequently, the constraints from RPOs and play-action from the 2021 Longhorns have to be cutting and damaging enough to force opponents to yield some space and leverage in the box. Texas has plenty of speed on the perimeter they can use in this mission and both Casey Thompson and Hudson Card have extensive backgrounds in the RPO game. They don’t have a lot of experience and knowhow from their young quarterbacks or across the offensive line for executing a lot of pro-style dropbacks (which are also abundant in the Sarkisian playbook). Texas needs a gameplanner who can use effective tactics from week to week to force defenses to worry about denying space to Bijan, Jordan Whittington, Jake Smith, Kelvontay Dixon, and Josh Moore all at the same time.

There’s your starting point for Texas in 2021. Later on they can get into more and more of the LSU-style pro-spread schemes Sarkisian had only just begun to break ground in this season in Tuscaloosa.

Back in 2005, Sark was there when the future possibilities of putting elite athletes in space via spread formations and run/pass conflicts were made stark on the national stage. Now he’s coming to Texas at just the right time to help the Longhorns find their way back to the pro-spread ranch.

History major, football theorist.