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It’s hard to top the 2016 Orange and White game for being one of the most revelatory spring scrimmages Texas has ever had. I had two substantial takeaways from watching it, the first was the biggest and more obvious one. Within a drive or two it was clear to me Shane Buechele would be named the starter in the fall. Texas had just installed the “veer and shoot” offense, which I was well familiar with after observing it closely at Baylor. It was a system that used the passing game to set up the run.
The passer clearly wouldn’t be Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard in such a system, not if there was a superior passer on campus. Within a few drives Buechele was making throws we hadn’t seen from a Texas quarterback in years.
My other takeaway was a little more subtle. With Buechele throwing the ball outside and a rebuilt offensive line operating on limited boxes in space, Texas was going to be able to blow open some holes from time to time, especially off tackle in the alley. Then they were going to fire 6-foot, 250-pound D’Onta Foreman or 6-foot-3, 250-pound Chris Warren into those alleys… and Big 12 defensive backs were going to have to tackle them. This seemed to me a pretty substantial advantage Texas would wield over the course of the season.
As it turned out, it’d be one of Texas’ only advantages as Foreman ran for 2,000 yards on a losing team. The 2021 Longhorns are likely to have a few more areas where they potentially match up quite nicely against most Big 12 opponents. Particularly, areas of the field where the Longhorn athletes have the right combination of size, skill, and athleticism to overmatch opponents and tilt the odds in Texas’ favor.
This is how a program like Texas can and should hope to consistently win a league like the Big 12 where most of the other programs can’t recruit the same caliber of athletes. However, the league is known for effectively gameplanning to highlight each team’s matchups whereas Texas has often struggled to employ strategies which would make their athleticism apparent.
But Sark and the new staff put a greater emphasis on gameplanning matchups than Tom Herman did and there are a few they could lean on in the coming season.
Defensive matchup advantages
Texas is poised to be very athletic on defense this season. While Texas had not been recruiting to Pete Kwiatkowski’s 2-4-5 nickel concept under Tom Herman, their success finding some options in the transfer portal will allow them to run the system and thus necessarily gain the advantage of getting more speed on the field.
Inside linebacker seems likely to involve David Gbenda and DeMarvion Overshown, a pair of <4.6 sprinters, to work with the two outside linebackers. While it sounds like Blake Gideon and Terry Joseph will be working to realize something closer to Duane Akina’s old “four corners” philosophy in recruiting future safeties, the current crop is not slow either, so the team should be fielding as many as nine defenders with some legitimate ability to run.
The two areas where Texas looks most promising and athletic are cornerback and defensive tackle. Out wide, D’Shawn Jamison and Josh Thompson have an awful lot of experience covering Big 12 wide receivers in a variety of coverage schemes and each also have NFL speed. In fact, when Chris Ash was hired and brought his press-quarters base defense it made Jamison and Thompson the de-facto favorites to win those jobs because of their speed.
The Chris Adimora we saw playing effective man coverage against Utah in the 2019 Alamo Bowl also appears to be back and taking command of the nickel position. Between those three, Texas can make life very difficult on opponents trying to feed their athletes on the perimeter. It’s hard to overstate how tricky the game can become for spread offenses when everything starts to come more difficult in the passing game because they can’t find a sucker to punish in space 1-on-1. This effect is increased by DeMarvion Overshown playing Mike linebacker and B.J. Foster playing in the boundary.
Even if opposing offenses play with empty formations, it’s hard to find a matchup where the receiver isn’t covered by someone who can run 4.6 or better.
Another trickle down effect from Texas being so athletic and experienced on defense, particularly at cornerback, is how it frees up the safeties. We got a nice, inadvertent(?) example of this recently when Jaydon Blue shared a scrimmage clip of Bijan Robinson breaking a long run against the Texas second team defense.
Because the play involves a pancake block and a big gain by Bijan, the strong design of the run defense is made less obvious. The Jack and X-backer both keep the play inside, the Mike linebacker run blitzes and kills the ability of the outside zone run to actually get outside, and the Will is able to position himself to defend the cutback lane while leaving his initial area of responsibility to be cleaned up by the strong safety.
Had the slot receiver not motioned to run a bubble screen to the opposite side of the field, it would have been the nickel serving as the extra man over the top for the defense while the strong safety checked the slot in the boundary.
The defense is designed to be able to maintain good matchups in the passing game and choke off easy throws to space on the perimeter while also allowing the defense to get an extra man in the box over the top. Of course if it doesn’t work for whatever reason, the free safety is left to clean things up. In this example, the second team defense was out-executed by the first team offense. Bijan happens.
This leads us to the next big matchup advantage for Texas which will serve this particular roster well, one which is particularly rare in the Big 12. Most teams in the Big 12 would be thrilled to have one of Keondre Coburn, T’Vondre Sweat, or Alfred Collins in a given year. Finding game-changing athletes who weigh over 300 pounds is difficult. Everyone wants them and you’re typically not finding or recruiting them without having some sort of plan for fending off much bigger programs. Art Briles’ biggest recruiting victory at Baylor was arguably landing 4-star nose tackle Andrew Billings, who played on all of their best teams in Waco.
The design of Pete Kwiatkowski’s 2-4-5, evident on the example above against their own offense in a scrimmage, is designed to force the offense to find running lanes inside. Running the ball inside is difficult against people like Keondre Coburn or Alfred Collins.
This is going to be a challenge for Big 12 offenses in 2021. If the outside linebackers set the edge properly and the linebackers are able to learn to play with the right positioning and team leverage, opponents are going to have to try and power the ball through the 300+ pounders PK has inside and they will struggle to do so.
Current Big 12 strategy invests a lot in moving the ball down the field with run/pass conflicts and hitting weak spots in space or else running over undermanned fronts. By having considerable matchup advantages to match receivers in coverage while playing overpowering defenders up front Texas can essentially tear multiple pages out of opposing playbooks.
Offensive matchup advantages
Texas doesn’t have as many advantages on offense. They’re not hopeless by any stretch of the imagination but there aren’t really any blooded, NFL-caliber skill athletes outside. Everyone has high hopes for big time athletes like Jordan Whittington, Kelvontay Dixon, Josh Moore, and Troy Omeire (to name a few) but these guys don’t have a lot of banked game reps yet nor much time in Steve Sarkisian’s offense.
The main advantages Texas will have in 2021 are around the box.
One of the key advantages the Longhorns will have, which is somewhat understated, is their combination of athleticism and experience up front.
Texas had issues on the offensive line in 2021 but a great many of them related to one of two significant factors. The first was a lack of cohesion and familiarity with the new schemes implemented by offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, both in the run game and in pass protection. The outside zone run game was also not a terrific fit for an interior line of Junior Angilau, Derek Kerstetter, and Denzel Okafor since the former two struggled to execute reach blocks. A bigger issue was the not infrequent assignment errors in executing some of their protections.
The second big factor was Christian Jones being inexperienced and still unskilled as a collegiate offensive tackle. He was an obvious gem in recruiting, a 3-star recruit with NFL athleticism and size but simply a lack of any training or reps in kick-stepping due to playing in a run-heavy offense. Texas fans will always wonder what might have happened had Herb Hand been able to let Jones develop another year by inserting Jake Majors at center from the outset and allowing Kerstetter to continue to hold down right tackle.
Anyways, those notable struggles belied some strengths of this unit. In particular, once they inserted Majors at center and began to master outside zone this unit started to look dangerous. Here’s a couple examples of the always athletic (tested at tackle for years) Denzel Okafor working with Jake Majors on outside zone plays.
Texas is running at Kansas State nose tackle Drew Wiley, who was a 6-foot-4, 300-pounder the Wildcats had been developing for years. Wiley had nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on the year, he’s no scrub.
Okafor used his long arms to get his left hand in his pads and Majors was quick enough to take it from there, reach him, and shove him out of the way. The obvious highlight here is Bijan Robinson’s balance and burst, but Texas controlled the front and created the opportunity because of the potency of the Okafor/Majors combo block.
There’s a similar effect on this play, Denzel Okafor uses his quickness and long arms to give the backside 3-technique a jab and Christian Jones takes over from there, once again sealing a cutback lane.
The interior trio of Denzel Okafor, Jake Majors, and Junior Angilau have banked a lot of reps in the outside zone scheme together now and have a lot of traits and knowhow for executing the quick combo blocks which give it life and open up the deadly cutbacks. The Big 12 is loaded with nose tackles and defensive interiors who rely on quickness and movement rather than power. If Texas can negate the movement with an athletic and cohesive interior offensive line, there will be hell to pay.
This in turn sets up Texas’ best advantage, Bijan Robinson operating against safeties and linebackers in the box.
In almost every game of 2021, Bijan Robinson will be the best athlete on the field. Texas’ outside zone scheme is the simplest for the running back but on those plays, and certainly on schemes like inside zone, gap, or duo, Stan Drayton will be teaching Bijan how to set up his blockers and manipulate linebackers to help create creases.
Again, the Big 12’s defensive fronts is long on linebackers who look good when allowed to play clean-up behind coordinated stunts and slants up front designed to funnel runs and screen their movements. If Texas is covering those up and forcing linebackers to engage in chess matches with Bijan or fighting through blocks then you’re going to see some mismatches get exposed.
When Mack Brown lost to Nick Saban after losing Colt McCoy early in the National Title game, he sent Texas on a mission to better emulate the Crimson Tide. First Mack tried to install a similar, running back-based offense, then boosters connected to Texas tried to install Nick Saban. Now 10 years later, Texas has hired as head coach a former offensive coordinator who’s connected to both of the Longhorns’ Championship game appearances and while it may not necessarily be his preference, he’ll likely start his time in Austin with the defense + run game formula Texas has long been chasing. It’s where Texas’ athletic advantages will exist in 2021.