Gameplan: Tight end blocking in 2021

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Steve Sarkisian inherited a bit of a tricky situation at Alabama when he became the offensive coordinator in 2019. While the offensive line and wide receiver rooms were loaded with amazing talents, tight end was a little different. Irv Smith Jr. had been the main weapon in 2018 and had consequently departed for the NFL. The eldest player left in the tight end room was converted quarterback Miller Forristall, who came to Tuscaloosa at 6-5, 220 pounds and rated as a 3-star commit.

Behind him were some other prospects rated between 3-4 stars who also arrived lean and with a background in pass-catching in Major Tennison, Kedrick James, and Michael Parker. James transferred to SMU before the season leaving the room even lighter.

Much like in Austin over the same period, Sarkisian wanted the Alabama offense to include a downhill run game as a primary dimension to the offense. However, a power run game approach typically requires something from the tight end as a blocker and the Tide weren’t exactly loaded up with mauling blockers to pair with their offensive front.

Longhorn fans will recall Tom Herman had a similar fastidiousness for emphasizing blocking at tight end, despite really only having one true “power run game” blocker in four years at Texas (Andrew Beck in 2018). Nevertheless, Sark managed to put together a power run game in 2019 which propelled Najee Harris to 1224 yards at 5.9 ypc with 13 rushing touchdowns while setting up the RPO and play-action game for Tua Tagovailoa. Then in 2020 they took it up a notch in both regards and Harris ran for 1466 yards at 5.8 ypc with 26 touchdowns.

Here were some of the tricks Sark employed to build out a power run game at Alabama from a limited tight end room.

The sixth offensive lineman

In an RPO scheme, the tight end is often something of a glorified offensive lineman. Art Briles helped pave the way for this at Baylor when he began to field bigger blockers like Jordan Navjar (6-6, 260) and Tre’Von Armstead (6-6, 270) who’d only catch the ball around 10 times a year.

On RPO and play-action concepts, the goal of the run action is to suck in as many defenders as possible in order to generate space to throw the ball. Having versatility in the run blocking schemes is a boost toward that goal. The value of a move blocker who can create a new gap or who can join the line and cover up a defensive lineman so an offensive lineman can pull is massive for an offense whose aim is to lure in defenders.

You’re rarely throwing to the tight end on those plays unless it’s a POP pass, which is typically more of a change-up or red zone play call than an every down concept.

Like Briles, Sarkisian also leaned into this facet of RPO offense while at Alabama and moved offensive lineman Kendall Randolph (6-4, 298) to tight end. Sark used him whenever the Tide wanted to get really serious about power running.

A similar move is something to watch for this spring at Texas. The Longhorns have plenty of athletic young linemen who could factor in this season as blocking tight ends in heavy formations. They also return a pair of tight ends who played regularly in 2020 and one of them (Cade Brewer) is a pretty capable blocker with two years of experience. However, if they want to have some power sets for short-yardage or simply have a heavier presence in the run game, they might move over one of the extra offensive lineman.

Making the most of Texas’ tight end roster

Cade Brewer has quietly been a solid blocker for the last two seasons. Texas scrapped their power-O runs after Andrew Beck graduated but Brewer was able to execute the still challenging tight zone scheme in 2019. In 2020 Texas transitioned to outside zone and Brewer was the best tight end on the roster at picking his way through the scrum and leading for the running backs.

This is an iso run concept with outside zone blocking and Brewer finds Garrett Wallow in the hole and takes him to the ground. Brewer’s knack for leading from these fullback alignments and hitting the right spots while making meaningful contact is why he was the starting tight end throughout 2020 despite Jared Wiley’s superior receiving skills.

Leading into linebackers is a very different task than picking up a defensive end on tight zone or kicking out an end or outside linebacker on power. When Sark was looking to build a power run game at Alabama which could draw in defenders for RPOs and play-action by adding or moving gaps across the front, he did so with a pair of schemes which gave the Tide flexibility, power, and didn’t ask too much of their tight ends.

In particular, iso…

…and counter:

On iso runs, the interior O-line need to handle the defensive tackles while the tight end leads through the bubble (the gap with no D-lineman aligned in it) and finds a linebacker. On counter runs, the pulling guard kicks out the defensive end while the tight end leads up to a linebacker.

The lead blocker can’t be soft but these are literally easier lifts than rooting out a defensive end to open the main hole for the running back. Heavier responsibilities go to the interior offensive line.

At Alabama the interior line was a team strength. Left guard Deonte Brown was a first team All-SEC selection and 6-3, 350 pounds. Center Landon Dickerson was also first team and weighed in at 6-6, 325 pounds and then right guard Emil Ekiyor was 6-2, 324. There was a lot of weight coming at opponents in the middle of the line from the Tide and all three of those guys could move plenty well in order to make their weight felt. Watch their counter and iso concepts from a 2020 game and you’ll see their guards consistently control opposing defensive tackles and open gaps off tackle when pulling.

For Texas in 2021, the interior line may also be a strength although their crew is a bit different. The trio of Junior Angilau (6-6, 294), Jake Majors (6-3, 298), and Denzel Okafor (6-3, 317) all have some banked reps in outside zone together, as do Tyler Johnson (6-6, 324) and Derek Kerstetter (6-5, 293). Majors is a very different player than Dickerson, shorter and perhaps quicker, and the Longhorn guards are mostly taller, leaner players than the squatty power lifters Sark had in Tuscaloosa.

Nevertheless, you can run iso concepts with outside zone blocking…

…and Texas had counter in the run game mix for every season of the Tom Herman era. Between those two concepts, Sark and offensive line coach Kyle Flood can build a run game playbook with the flexibility to always attack “the bubble” or any weak spots in opposing defensive fronts.

Here are some of the common fronts you get in the Big 12 with the “bubble” up front where it’s useful to be able to insert a lead blocker and where the “conflict” defender you want to slow up or back off with a pass option often is.

Against a 4-2-5 Over where the nickel is regularly a part of the run fit, such as TCU, the bubble is in the B-gap between the end and nose and the conflict player is the nickel.

Against a tite front the bubble is in the open C-gap outside of a defensive end, typically the one between the nickel/sam and defensive end if the other side has a jack linebacker:

In both of these instances the middle linebacker is typically going to trigger hard on runs to spill the ball to the outside player. Ideally you can add a lead blocker to take out the middle linebacker (usually the tight end) and control the outside player with some sort of pass option for the quarterback to throw to the slot.

Against more of an Under front with man coverage, the bubble is the B between the nose and end again and the conflict player likely the strong safety:

With a handful of counter and lead insert man/zone schemes (inside or outside zone), the offense can have the flexibility to use the tight end to hit the bubble against a variety of opposing fronts, suck in defenders by generating that stress in the structure of the defense, and punishing it with pass options. The tight end is always a crucial component and essentially the counterpart to the middle linebacker for the defense.

The end game, throwing over the top.

Obviously these schemes which require a defense to send defensive backs to the run fit are a gold mine for drawing up RPO and play-action concepts. Smashmouth spread tactics like these have been where offensive football in the Big 12 conference has focused since Art Briles unleashed this hell back in the early 2010s. Sark’s offense is like a “pro-style Briles” system. Much of the philosophy is consistent, “clear out the box with RPOs and end zone-hunting play-action shots, then run over whoever is left in the box.” The difference is Sarkisian blends in a lot more pro-style concepts and doesn’t utilize the extreme splits or other unbalanced aspects of Briles’ approach.

TCU’s defense in particular is designed to react and swarm to the ball, which is why they’ve often been been caught and wrecked by good power run/play-action offenses like Art Briles’ Baylor or Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma.

Here’s an example of how the sort of counter run Alabama ran regularly looks against the dreaded Frog 4-2-5 Texas keeps struggling to solve.

In this example the slot receiver is running a glance/slant route behind the strong safety if he’s the guy TCU is counting on to account for the extra gap created by the tight end. Should it be the weak safety coming up, Texas might have the backside X receiver running the glance route behind him. The slot could also run a quick out or a bubble, just depending on the coverages they’re getting.

Like any good Big 12 play-caller, Sark’s real aim is to chunk it over the top with vertical patterns and double moves. For instance, against Texas A&M last season…

…you get a little of both. The tell for A&M should have been the tight end, the only reason for the Tide to put Miller Forristall up on the line like this is to get him vertical on a pass route more quickly. Otherwise they’d want him in the backfield to lead block on RPOs.

The Aggies don’t sense the trap though but play cover 2 against the Jaylen Waddle vertical and DeVonta Smith motion and leave their corner to slide over and pick up John Metchie in off man coverage. Metch gives him a double-move and it’s six more points for the Tide.

Running double moves off the glance was another deadly option. One of their more deadly plays was running play-action to look like an RPO only to feature a double move.

The Tigers are bracketing DeVonta Smith on this play, but the tight end insert looks like iso and the O-line takes initial forward steps to sell the run blocking. The nickel and safety both bite on the glance route which typically comes along with a run and Smith blows by for an easy six points.

Play-action shots and RPOs were what made Alabama deadly in 2020 and why DeVonta Smith won the Heisman Trophy. Getting there only required Miller Forristall to catch 23 balls for 253 yards and a score while splitting blocking duties with Kendall Randolph, who’s caught fewer balls at Alabama than Sam Cosmi did at Texas. The Longhorns have a lot of strong receivers at tight end likely to get involved in flexed out roles, but an offense built around a multiple run game for Bijan Robinson and accompanying RPOs and play-actions will need a true blocker in the backfield.

History major, football theorist.