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After a tumultuous offseason, we finally got to see the Longhorns take the field on Saturday night. Following the hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball, Texas received what proved to be a fairly extensive makeover and finally gave the reveal to their fans.
The new look was striking.
Mike Yurcich has finally dragged Texas all the way into the world of pass-first offense, eschewing the option of trying to establish the run against a UTEP team clearly anticipating that approach and instead empowering Sam Ehlinger to fling the ball around. When Texas threw the ball on a vertical RPO to the wide side of the field for a touchdown on the first play of the game they broadcast a loud message to the rest of the Big 12.
Chris Ash’s defense wasn’t quite what I had envisioned but was certainly in line with practice reports. They rarely gave the quarterback a clean pre-snap look but used a lot of clever, well-timed coverage shifts, achieving the “look complicated but be simple” model Ash emphasized in the offseason.
After reviewing the game I was able to get a solid sense of how the base schemes work and what to expect from Texas in 2020.
Ash’s base defense
I was thrown off by how much cover 3 Ash played early in the game. They’d start from a two-high/quarters look but then always roll into a single high coverage. It was typically one you wouldn’t guess from the initial alignment.
I’ve been watching how teams rotate coverages for years now and sometimes you can tell pre-snap what’s really coming because of the offensive formation and alignment rules out all but one option. Not so with this unit, they’d show a coverage that would make sense against the formation only to shift into another one (that also made sense). Here’s an example:
Before the snap it looks like the sort of trips coverage in which the boundary safety helps rob the post from the boundary receivers while the nickel has to play like a corner to the field. Instead, the field safety rotated down late to help the middle linebacker with the slots and the boundary safety rotated deep, leaving the boundary corner in man coverage.
Eventually they played more of the press-quarters we expected, but they showed more in this game than just one base coverage. The apparent diversity and commitment to disguise should be encouraging to Texas fans. Philosophically it’s much closer to the approach by teams like 2019 Kansas State, putting an emphasis on having multiple options to leverage receivers rather than using valuable practice time to nail down a gazillion pressure packages. In the Big 12 you need options to clamp down on top receivers, if you’re utilizing a four-down front then you’ve already made a lot of concessions to the needs of the pass-rush. You don’t double down against an ace.
The big question every team faces is how to handle trips formations, a topic we’ve covered here extensively in the offseason. When the offense loads three receivers to one side of the field, then another (maybe the best one) alone on the boundary, how do you handle the spacing?
Texas had three answers in this game. The base approach in their press-quarters scheme was “solo,” a coverage which asks the field safety to help the nickel over the top, the boundary safety to help over the top for the middle linebacker, and then leaves the boundary corner in man coverage on the backside.
If the boundary safety isn’t occupied by the need to catch that third receiver going vertical, or if he’s really good with his eyes, he might be able to help the boundary corner on a post route. He’s not helping on fades or comebacks though, that’s all on the corner. You’ll notice in both of these instances Texas had Josh Thompson on the boundary (he stays on the left side) and he made plays. UTEP took a shot on Thompson when he was left alone on a deep post to the wide side of the field as well. The boundary safety (B.J. Foster) wasn’t aware and didn’t get depth to help him out, but Thompson still shut it down.
Texas’ had two other trips coverages in this game. One was “cover 3-buzz mable,” which has the strong safety rotate down to help the middle linebacker, the boundary safety drop to the deep middle, and the corners and even nickel potentially isolated. Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” made this one famous, buzzing down Kam Chancellor and dropping Earl Thomas deep while asking Richard Sherman to hold up in man coverage on the backside. The other trips coverage was a more extreme version of the same thing, fire zone coverage with man or match coverage everywhere and then a single deep safety over the top. Texas brought a fire zone on the first defensive snap of the game, perhaps to troll me.
Those blitzes will be useful in attacking the Big 12 offensive lines that can’t handle 1-on-1 matchups. As defensive mastermind Bill Belichik says, you blitz bad lines and you drop eight against good ones. You want to attack the enemy on the worst possible turf for him. I’m sure Sun Tzu has some quote or another expressing this concept. You don’t want to blitz the better lines as much. I think we’ve all seen enough now to understand why not.
The next big question on defense should be pretty well answered by the Texas Tech game. The coverages Texas showed against UTEP usually gave corners help on the post route but they would concede the slot fade to the nickel in the single-high coverages (see the near touchdown against Chris Adimora) and they trusted Thompson and Jamison to hold up against fade routes. Texas Tech is going to go after those defenders and coverages with those exact routes executed by a big, dangerous receiving corps. We’ll see if Ash has some coverages in the playbook to help Thompson out or if the redshirt junior is simply good enough to play on an island regardless of the opponent.
Mike Yurcich’s offense
This was my favorite play of the game.
They hurried into this set, and you can see the UTEP strong safety struggling to figure out where he’s supposed to be. A now screen to the bottom might have been easy yardage for Texas, or at least it would be if they’d executed it properly. They’re also running inside zone and it’s right on the edge of being called for “ineligible man downfield” (Kerstetter). So Ehlinger has three options on the play, throw to the bottom, hand off, or throw to the top, based on where the defense aligns numbers.
What makes this design so effective is the three receivers loaded into the boundary. They create a lot of space for the single side receiver to the field, like an isolation clear out in a basketball game. UTEP, as most teams would in this situation, gives Brenden Schooler a lot of space to avoid getting beat over the top. Schooler runs a hitch route and then after a nice ball and a stiff-arm he’s running all alone with the rest of the Miners on the other side of the field. The better answer from UTEP would have been to surrender an easy run, but that wasn’t their gameplan.
We’ll call this one “touchdown play 2.0.” It’s an unbalanced sort of formation they can easily get into while moving at “warp speed,” just like they can with the 4×0 tight zone/bubble screen RPO they ran so often in 2019 (and used twice in this game). The defense has to figure out how to align to it very quickly and then Ehlinger is in position to make quick decisions and distribute the ball in space to playmakers.
There’s no reason Texas couldn’t mix in such schemes regularly and have a half dozen or more “touchdown plays” with wonky, perhaps unbalanced formations and multiple options attached to runs for Sam Ehlinger to choose from. Don’t be surprised if they do, what else is a senior quarterback for?
It’s hard to overstate how deadly such a dimension to the offense could be this season. Texas has never had an offense designed to use spread formations and tempo to generate space and options for their quarterback to distribute the ball to playmakers with room to make something happen. There are diminishing returns against top defenses with time to gameplan all your favorite “touchdown plays” but then Texas can fall back on the pro-spread, “isolate the top receiver” schemes they’ve been uniquely good at in recent seasons.
As for receivers, there are a few obvious options for getting looks on third-and-six. Tarik Black had a fantastic opening game, catching a few shallow crosses and hitch passes while narrowly missing a touchdown when Ehlinger slightly overthrew him on a post. Brenden Schooler hasn’t done much yet, except demonstrate great technique on his two hitch route catches and break tackles in both instances (one captured above). After another two weeks he might be able to greatly expand his role. Josh Moore is not only blazing fast but also went up for a catch in the seam on a four-verticals play and accepted the punishment that came from exposing his small body. Very promising showing from Moore. We’ve still yet to even see Jake Smith, who was reportedly developing a great connection with Ehlinger before the injury.
Brennan Eagles made a fantastic touchdown catch but also struggled with his assignments and once ran into another receiver while trying to run a snag route. Texas notably diminished their emphasis on RPOs when Eagles replaced Collin Johnson at the X a year ago. If he’s still not reliably in the right spots there’s more competition to keep him on the bench this year.
Texas also made some use of 12 personnel. This time instead of using it as a way to guarantee enough hats in the box to run the ball regardless of what the defense did, Ehlinger was empowered to throw the ball outside when the defense loaded the box and gave him 1-on-1 matchups outside.
There was very much a 2017 Oklahoma vibe to the Longhorn offense against UTEP. Those Sooners also had a senior quarterback executing a wide array of schemes designed to help inexperienced wideouts. Texas will need to find 1-2 players who can beat man coverage against top defenders and command extra attention to reach their ceiling as an offense, but I think the days of Texas struggling to blow away weaker Big 12 opponents are over.
Really the only significant concerns from this game were on the offensive line, where Texas wasn’t able to consistently impose their will against a loaded box. This offense isn’t necessarily designed to do that, which should be seen as a mercy for Texas fans, and the run blocking wasn’t really so bad anyways. Some of it was even a touch different than a year go. It seems Yurcich didn’t allow a pandemic to stop him from putting more emphasis on outside zone blocking like he had at Oklahoma State and Ohio State:
Texas’ lighter offensive line looked pretty comfortable moving laterally, was that the plan all along? At 6-foot-5, 310 pounds with enough athleticism to stick at tackle, Derek Kerstetter is a center in the mold of a Barrett Jones or Ryan Kelly who powered some terrific stretch blocking schemes at Alabama, or Josh Myers who did so a year ago at Ohio State. Denzel Okafor and Junior Angilau are also quick laterally and Texas’ tackles are much more athletic and powerful than two years ago when their quarterback stretch play with an extra lead blocker was the only way they could count on winning the edge. Outside zone is also a more effective way to run zone-read and Texas mixed in some midline reads (leave an interior D-lineman unblocked and release the tackle) on the play for their younger quarterbacks and ran it as a triple option scheme with the pitch/toss to the tight end twice.
On rewatch Christian Jones was better than it appeared live, most of the issues to his side related to Texas losing hard-charging defenders while trying to trade off blocks on these zone concepts. When you load the box you can cause problems for zone schemes with aggressive linebacker play, but you also might see your opponent house hitch routes. Wait and see how this looks against a team that prioritizes stopping Ehlinger and the passing game before getting overly fretful. Isaiah Hookfin was terrific off the bench. When he hit people there was a noticeable shock and displacement. Andrej Karic looked like the premier athlete Texas needs in the tackle pipeline.
It doesn’t appear Texas will lack for quality athletes on the line this season. Stay tuned for how well they can handle stunts and inside pressure.
The schedule sets up quite favorably for Texas. Texas Tech will test the defense with run/pass conflicts and outside receivers matched up on the cornerbacks, but their own defense will leave them overmatched against the Longhorns. Then TCU will stress test Texas’ offense and their ability to beat good coverage outside or handle well executed pressures. But the Frogs don’t have the offense to really challenge Texas. The upshot is a series of useful tuneups before round one in Dallas. This time Texas will be bringing more firepower into the shootout.
Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics