Football

Gameplan: The calm before the schedule storm

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Back in the early 2000s Texas teams all followed a very similar pattern for the season. They’d lose to Oklahoma in October and drop one other game either in the non-conference or toward the end of the year that would invariably be the difference between having a Big 12 title/BCS season or not. The three-game stretch following the Oklahoma game could always be counted on to supply a three-game winning streak as the Longhorns adjusted to whatever deficiencies Bob Stoops had made apparent for them.

Under Tom Herman, Texas has gone 4-5 over three seasons in that three game stretch following the Red River Shootout. In 2017 and 2018 they drew some tough teams and came up empty when reloading after a pair of competitive and fierce efforts against the Sooners. The best stretch they’ve had was last year’s 2-1 run after the Shootout, which came against a weaker schedule and after the most lackluster Texas performance in the Shootout since 2012.

This year’s post-Oklahoma stretch includes the home game with West Virginia mentioned in last week’s column, and the three-game slate of at Texas Tech, Baylor at home, and then at Kansas.

Whatever happens in the Oklahoma game, and it certainly matters, Texas’ 2020 season will be defined as a failure if they don’t make the most of this third quarter of the season.

At Texas Tech

I thought year one had the potential to shake out favorably for Texas Tech’s first year head coach Matt Wells. He was able to bring in some transfers to fill holes in the Red Raider roster and inherited Alan Bowman after a promising freshman year. Wells’ future has always hinged on uniting Bowman and other in-state spread prospects to offensive coordinator David Yost, who’d just turned Jordan Love into a first round draft pick at Utah State and propelled Wells to Lubbock.

Instead Bowman was injured again early in the year and Wells’ defensive schemes, which are akin to Todd Orlando’s, unsurprisingly failed to make a steady transition from stopping Mountain West offenses to holding up against Big 12 spread attacks. They had some truly embarrassing defensive performances that included TV cameras catching Wells yelling obscenities at defensive coordinator Keith Patterson on the sideline. Patterson was unable to channel those expletives into fuel for his defenses, despite fielding what turned out to be a first round talent in linebacker Jordyn Brooks. The Red Raiders went 2-7 in league play and 4-8 overall.

For this coming year, Bowman is healthy and ready to give things another go and Jett Duffey has left the program in anticipation of losing the job. Wells tried to hire back his old pal Todd Orlando when Texas fired him, but Orlando only agreed for a short period before bailing to head west when USC made the same offer with a much better roster and compensation.

The 2020 Red Raiders will be able to pair Alan Bowman with their top wideouts from a year ago but have to replace both starting tackles and tight end Donta Thompson. The whole unit is disjointed and unbalanced. Their strongest returning component is an interior O-line lead by guard and former 4-star recruit Jack Anderson. Their best plays in 2019 were a power-read play-action play and inside zone runs to returning running back Sa’Rodrick Thompson. However, their ceiling in 2020 will come from being able to run the 11 personnel HUNH spread with Bowman flinging the ball around for 300 yards a game.

Here’s the power-read play-action scheme:

It’s basically 4-verticals but with a pulling guard and sometimes a switch/wheel combo to one side. You might wonder if a power-read play-action scheme would be effective with Alan Bowman at quarterback rather than Jett Duffey but Tech virtually never ran power-read for Duffey. This concept still generated a lot of results. Pulling guards suck in defenders like moths to the flame.

David Yost made the most of their situation in 2019 and shouldn’t be counted out from doing the same this year if Bowman is back and healthy. The Red Raiders don’t have any dominant dimensions to their game right now. They possess a lot of overall competencies that could keep them competitive up until they face defenses that are strong enough as units to swarm their strong spots, or who have athletes that Tech can’t match up against.

Over on defense, Jordyn Brooks is moving on and so is defensive tackle Broderick Washington, an underrated lineman. They still have defensive end Eli Howard, who is a solid pass-rusher, and their other top returning player is outside linebacker Riko Jeffers. If those two can generate a pass-rush this unit will have a chance. To replace Brooks they brought in JUCO transfer Krishon Merriweather, who had 153 tackles at a Kansas JUCO last year, and Michigan State back-up linebacker Brandon Bouyer-Randle.

The Michigan State linebacker competition in a given year is generally pretty stiff so there’s a good chance that Bouyer-Randle is a quality player. Any time you can get a Big 10 inside linebacker that narrowly lost a job, that’s typically a win. It’s hard to make 150 tackles if you have no idea what you’re doing so reasonable minds should assume Merriweather will be solid as well. The challenge for the Red Raiders will be getting the newcomers up to speed in a new defense on a short offseason.

Tech’s secondary could be boosted by the move of Adrian Frye (five interceptions, 10 break-ups in 2018) back to cornerback from safety. He’ll start opposite Zech McPherson who started last year after transferring in from Penn State. With Jeffers and the linebacker transfers the Red Raiders are basically locked into 3-3-5 personnel which limits how much they can help the secondary. On top of that, Matt Wells has been married to a zone-blitzing philosophy that has yet to find purchase in the Big 12. Their roster and scheme hinges on attacking opponents with the front six and asking the secondary to hold up behind them. Well the front six may or may not be worthy of that focus and we’ve seen this secondary repeatedly fail to withstand that kind of stress. Add to the challenges of teaching zone blitzing in a shortened offseason and you have a recipe for another terrible Tech defense.

Texas struggled with the Raiders’ spread offensive competency last year but eventually hit the gas on offense and just blew Tech away at home. They should be able to do so again without great difficulty, even if the Red Raiders are extra explosive at home in year two under Yost.

Baylor

Matt Rhule got out when the getting was good, that much is obvious. He left behind a senior quarterback with multiple known concussions, a defense faced with replacing nine starters including James Lynch, and a schedule that will take the Bears on the road to Norman, Austin, and Ames.

Dave Aranda has an awful lot to figure out and not a lot of time in which to sort through things. Many of his hires and the overall investment Baylor is making into the football program portend a positive future, but 2020 is likely to be pretty rough.

The returning pieces for the Bears include some of the biggest question marks, starting with the offensive line. All five prospective starters are returning starters from their units over the last two seasons. The most fascinating dimension to the team is that their O-line had been coached by former high school coach and first time college assistant Shawn Bell. Aranda moved Bell to tight ends coach and replaced him with his polar opposite, Joe Wickline.

Wickline is a clear step up from Bell in terms of detailed and experienced instruction. His last unit was the 2018 West Virginia line that was quite good. Holgorsen interestingly didn’t bring him along to Houston though so Wickline took 2019 to rest up before getting the call to try and mold this Bear unit. This will be crucial as the 2019 line was unable to protect an already reckless Charlie Brewer or open up a consistent power run game.

New offensive coordinator Larry Fedora will be aiming to build a smashmouth spread offense in Waco that builds on the same power run + RPO dimensions that both Art Briles and Matt Rhule relied on in their own fashions. The best feature of Baylor’s 2019 offense was boundary receiver Denzel Mims, who caught 66 balls for 1020 yards and 12 touchdowns, usually on RPOs or play-action. The Bears still have talents at receiver such as Tyquan Thornton (782 yards, five touchdowns) and Josh Fleeks who flashed big potential before injuries sapped Brewer’s ability to hit him down the field.

The Bears may have some talents that can help stretch the field and clear the alleys for the run game but whether or not any of them can command bracket coverage in the boundary like Mims is another matter. There’s also the question of whether Brewer can stay healthy enough to deliver them the ball and what would happen at quarterback if he can’t.

Baylor’s rise in 2019 was really powered by the defense, which flipped to the 3-2-6 “flyover D” model Iowa State developed. They were fast and hard-nosed in the defensive backfield and capitalized on having a line of James Lynch, Bravvion Roy, and James Lockhart that could mount a credible pass-rush without blitzing. In emulation of Iowa State, they’d park athletic but big Blake Lynch (6-3, 230) at nickel linebacker to take away perimeter screens while covering him up over the top with converted cornerback Grayland Arnold and safety Chris Miller.

All of those guys are gone now, leaving the Bears with a talented roster picked and developed by Rhule but short on game experience in either the flyover scheme or Aranda’s own zone-blitz designs. The Bears will be adding edge-rusher William Bradley-King from Arkansas State and thus either moving away some from the flyover D scheme or trying to find four-down methods for getting into that setup like West Virginia has found.

The two remaining starters from a year ago are explosive inside-backer Terrel Bernard (112 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and cornerback Raleigh Texada. Everyone else emerging on the roster is a former 3-star recruit chosen by Rhule for their athleticism and growth potential that likely needed that full offseason to develop under Rhule’s direction, much less in a new system.

Texas was shut down on offense in the 2019 road game against Baylor’s defense and really struggled to block James Lynch. Against a Bear defense breaking in new starters and forced to bring pressure in groups of four and five rather than three, that task should be easier. The Baylor offense wasn’t overwhelming in 2019 and did most of their damage against Texas with some power run schemes from 12 personnel that the Longhorn defenders didn’t know how to line up against. Unless Wickline works serious magic and Charlie Brewer comes back healthy and remains so, the 2020 Bear offense should be easier to limit.

Look out for the Aranda Bears down the line but the scenery isn’t favorable to them in 2020.

At Kansas

Texas had to face the Jayhawks fresh off a bye week last year. The Jayhawks spent their extra week promoting FCS wunderkind Brent Dearmon to offensive coordinator and installing more of his RPO offense. Tom Herman warned media all week of the challenges of facing a team that was changing their coordinator and system in a bye week. That proved quite prescient, especially against a beat up and reeling Texas defense, and the Jayhawks did a ton of damage off this concept:

They’d come out in 21 personnel from the pistol with a tight end and Les Miles’ son Ben (now a 242 pound sophomore) at fullback. They had a few variations on the play but Miles would often arc around the unblocked edge player to lead for the quarterback and they could attach route options for the receivers.

So the quarterback could execute a zone-read on the backside with a lead blocker or potentially pull the ball and fire a pass if his receiver was getting a 1-on-1 outside on an option route. Texas didn’t have great answers for this play, even though Herman was clearly aware of the challenges and even though you can find instructional videos by Brent Dearmon online explaining this play.

The Jayhawks will notably lose NFL left tackle Hakeem Adeniji and also solid senior quarterback Carter Stanley. However, they have another talented athlete coming up in the ranks named Earl Bostick Jr. to plug in at left tackle. Kansas has tended to opt for the strategy of building left tackles out of raw, lanky athletes coming out of high school. That’s allowed them to send twice as many offensive linemen to the NFL over the last 10 years as Texas (2 to 1). At quarterback, Les Miles has a few upperclassman JUCO transfers in Miles Kendrick and Thomas MacVittie. Kendrick is a crafty, 5-10, 185 pounder who’s better than hopeless in their RPO and option game. MacVittie is his polar opposite, a less mobile, 6-5 and 225 pounder who didn’t even take care of the ball terribly well at the JUCO level.

Then they’re bringing in a true freshman from California named Jalon Daniels. This kid is a live-armed athlete at 6-0, 206 that is a near lock to be the quarterback before the season is over and isn’t a bad bet to run things in the opener.

The skill talent for Kansas is actually very good. If they get quarterback right then they have the potential to be pretty dangerous, as the Longhorns found in their 50-48 shootout win last season. Receivers Andrew Parchment and Stephon Robinson Jr. had 831 and 727 yards respectively last year and both return. The Jayhawks also have at least one more year of eligibility for lightning quick running back Pooka Williams, who has not failed to rush for 1,000 yards in his college career despite playing for Kansas.

Kansas’ defense is a mess and unlikely to improve too drastically after losing NFL athletes in cornerback Hasan Defense and edge-rusher Azur Kamara. Les Miles is rebuilding the roster carefully, refusing to use the transfer portal or JUCO ranks for quick fixes but instead building a depth chart from young players. They need more time and full offseasons to make his vision for the program materialize, but they have reached the standard “this team can give you a shootout if you’re not ready to play” level that characterizes the rest of the Big 12.

All three of these teams are likely at that level, save perhaps for Baylor who have a wide beta depending on how their fall camp goes and the health of Charlie Brewer. All three of these games should be the sort that Texas should now expect to win by comfortable margins if they take care of business during the game week and show up on Saturday. Each of these three teams have some talent, some promising features, and also first or second year head coaches trying to build something on a shortened offseason. Tom Herman needs to have a 3-0 stretch before the final quarter of the season where Texas will face the other serious Big 12 conference contenders.

History major, football theorist.