FootballFootball Recruiting

Inside the Gameplan: Recruiting the offense

Zach Gentry at UTL. (Justin Wells/IT)
Zach Gentry at UTL. (Justin Wells/IT)

The Watson/Wickline offense is a pro-style offense but that term has become a catchall for any system that puts their QB under center and makes it a point to accompany them with fullbacks and tight ends. It’s not necessarily that descriptive of what the offense is trying to do or what’s actually occurring in the pro ranks right now.

Pro-style offenses at the collegiate level usually focus on the running game paired with a lot of play-action, screens, and other concepts that play off the base runs. This is how OSU operated with Wickline until the Holgorsen days when they were able to marry his run game to a spread passing game.

Occasionally you’ll find a coach that puts more emphasis on executing the drop back passing game with the run game serving as more of a constraint, like Jimbo Fisher, Greg Davis, or Shawn Watson. These coaches will regularly run the ball but it’s clear that they’re really looking to punish you with the passing game and the team’s strengths and personnel choices reflect that focus.

The challenge is always in finding the TEs and OL who excel at both the run and the pass when they aren’t layered together with play fakes or option plays. Finding five OL who are equally great in protection and run schemes is hard enough before you account for the practice time necessary to get them up to speed in the full complement of schemes.

This is where the Horns either needs Wickline to work magic or to move towards a more run-heavy approach that makes the passing game much simpler. Towards that end, one sure-fire way to make sure you have a simple run game that’s very hard to defend and can easily be meshed with a diverse passing game? Get a dual-threat QB and run the zone-read.

I’m going to breakdown the positions in the Texas offense under the assumption that UT is getting ideal players for each position AND aiming to include the zone-read as a easy path to run game success. In a given year it’s likely that each position won’t actually be up to snuff, but that’s actually fine as long as there’s enough game-changing talent overall to have a layered identity on offense that can’t be defended without yielding something Texas does reasonably well.

Positions in the Watsline offense

QB: Even if you weren’t hoping to use concepts like the zone-read, power-read, or QB draw to supplement the quick passing game or run game with option tactics, you’d still want mobility at QB in this offense for the purpose of executing the rollout passing game. Accuracy, vision, and overall football IQ are the next major components here with arm strength taking a backseat after a baseline has been reached.

The center: The center in this offense has to make the line calls that send everyone on the right path on running plays and gets the right protections called on passes. In Wickline’s version of the zone running game, there’s also a premium on being able to control a nose tackle without needing a sustained double team and to be able to reach and seal a linebacker at the next level. That generally means length and girth or else quickness and great footwork.

Guards: More or less the same as the center without the need to make line calls, and with a greater likelihood of having to control a defensive tackle and prevent penetration since 4-3 fronts are more common in the Big 12 than the 3-4. Texas is also still mixing in power and some pin & pull, which require guards that can pull and find targets in space.

Tackles: To run the full complement of Wickline zone plays as well as the man-blocking schemes that Watson likes will essentially require that Texas recruit players with offensive tackle specs for every position and then move the less athletic players inside to guard and the smartest of those to center. Wickline will often leave his tackles on islands on runs, save for “pro-style” sets, left to try and control DEs in space. Only the true athletes need apply here.

Kirk Johnson at UTL. (Justin Wells/IT)
Kirk Johnson at UTL. (Justin Wells/IT)

Running back: Executing the zone scheme Wickline favors is primarily about vision to see how blocks are developing and then the ability to plant and cut hard and suddenly up the field and through the creases. Texas likes to mix in schemes like lead zone and power that create potential cutback lanes that superior runners should be able to use to influence linebackers into spreading themselves too thin across the front while trying to account for every potential RB cut.

Beyond that, Strong also likes bigger backs that can carry a load and dominate the tempo of the game while punishing anti-spread defenders who are totally unused to filling interior gaps against lead blocks or taking on 220+ pound savages looking to run through them. This is a position where a true stud is a priority.

X/Z receiver: These spots are fairly interchangeable as they are both on the outside and Watson has already demonstrated that he’ll move his best receivers around to get them in good match-ups where they can be featured. Texas needs bigger targets here who can stretch the field vertically and run hitches, curl routes, and post routes. One of the players here should be a homerun threat after the catch while the other can simply be a big, reliable target that can move the chains.

John Burt at The Opening. (Justin Wells/IT)
John Burt at The Opening. (Justin Wells/IT)

H receiver: The slot receiver of this offense who potentially splits time with the tight end, h-back, or Z receiver. Texas needs a guy who has reliable hands, the lateral quickness to make cuts to beat underneath coverage, and an understanding of how to find leverage and open spaces underneath particularly on hot routes. That quickness should also translate to being a threat on screens and after the catch.

Tight End: The blocks that have to be executed at TE in this offense can be more or less challenging based on the alignment and opponent. The hardest job likely to come up would be to block a DE without help on a zone run. In the other schemes, the TE might have the opportunity to crash inside on a double team or pin block, which are easier to execute. In some instances the H-back can do the blocking while the TE releases upfield on a route or stalk block of a DB. In the passing game Texas is looking for a receiver that can attack the seam vertically and make cuts off vertical seams to get open underneath. It takes a true stud to excel in each of these facets.

H-back: The difference between the H-back and the TE spot in this offense is that the H-back is basically like a fullback, executing trap blocks on unblocked DL, leading through the hole, or arcing around to find targets at the 2nd or 3rd level. Texas will also send this receiver to the flats, on out-routes, or on the occasional wheel route. Their positioning in the backfield makes them less likely to run vertical routes unless in a bunch set or flexed out. You can stick your shorter or less talented receiving TE at this spot.

Fullback: Virtually exactly the same as the H-back position, Texas will probably only use this position when running plays that involve the position serving as a blocker or flat release valve or if they lack a good blocking H-back.

As with the defensive spots in the 3-3 Under D, you should be able to pidgeon-hole every player that Texas recruits into at least one of these classifications.

If the QB position is settled and the OL has some big, mobile players, than there’s a lot of ways the skill positions can sort out. It’s possible to have your best player at the H, X/Z, or RB positions as long as the other spots are competently staffed and there is at least one TE or H-back who can block and catch something thrown right at him.

Players with more limited skills will need to be complemented with excellence at specific positions.

For instance, if the QB is not a threat in the run game, it becomes more important that the RB is a stud and that the other players on the field can constrain a defense from keying in on him. If none of the receivers are deep threats, it becomes more important that the H and/or the RB are great at making big plays to help drives along.

The surest way to a limited offense that starts with the great foundation of a good QB with decent wheels and a strong OL is a bunch of skill players that are merely competent in a few disparate tactics, such as having TEs that are good blockers but weak at receiving, a plodding RB who can’t break away, and possession receivers at X, H, and Z.

It’s the nature of college offenses to make mistakes so one of the most important components of a good squad is a player that sets up scores that don’t require long, perfectly orchestrated drives.

A summary of the 2015 class thus far…

QB: Zach Gentry and Matthew Merrick both match the physical specs for this spot although neither are necessarily guys that could make big plays in the run game but both would force the defense to account for the QB. Merrick is probably closer to ideal in terms of accuracy and ability to see the field while Gentry is a raw ball of clay waiting to be formed.

Patrick Vahe. (Justin Wells/IT)
Patrick Vahe. (Justin Wells/IT)

Center: Garrett Thomas makes sense at center thanks to his obvious love for the game and his good feet, he’s the type you could see the coaches trusting to make the line calls. Vahe is a phenomenal prospect here due to his great quickness and ability to get low and go to war despite his shorter height. What’s the best solution to powerful BYU Islanders getting low and blowing up our OL? How about grabbing one our own?

Guards: Thomas could fit here as well as I doubt he’s quite athletic enough to stick outside. Weathersby was likely to be a featured guard of the future but that ship has now sailed. Vahe could figure in here as well but he’s more of a center in this scheme and you probably don’t want him grappling with long, quick defensive tackles who are good at getting upfield.

Tackles: Tristan Nickelson, Buck Major, Connor Williams, and Brandon Hodges all project initially as tackles. Looking to the future you’d guess that Hodges provides competition and depth at left tackle and perhaps moving inside if numbers allow it. Nickelson is a longer-term project that should fit in as a mauling right tackle but is a bit too tall to play inside. Williams and Major are big-time athletes that will battle to be the left tackle of the future.

Running back: I don’t think Kirk Johnson ends up on offense but if he did it’d probably be here or at the H. His HS offense was wildly different from what he’d be doing at Texas as more of an I-back so it’s not clear if he has the vision to thrive in Wickline’s schemes and would have to learn all the reads. Tristian Houston obviously fits here but he also isn’t an obvious stud in terms of vision although he has solid acceleration through the hole.

Rockwall RB Chris Warren at Tyler Lee in 2012. (Justin Wells/IT)
Rockwall RB Chris Warren at Tyler Lee in 2012. (Justin Wells/IT)

X/Z: John Burt fits here, if he stays. He’s a strong enough route runner and receiver to be a very good option on the outside, perhaps not a truly terrifying deep threat.

H: None.

TE: None…maybe Zach Gentry, I’m just sayin’! If he doesn’t pan out at QB, his big frame and solid athleticism obviously projects here. He’s not a TE recruit though and wouldn’t be moved here until later in his career ala Blake Bell if at all.

H-back: None.

FB: None.

Obviously Texas has a great deal of work to do here filling out the skill position slots with players that could be featured but the infrastructure is well stocked with two QB takes and an abundance of big movers on the OL.

Texas’ biggest need is for a feature back which makes Chris Warren perhaps the biggest priority on the board. Ideally Texas would be able to field lots of double TE sets, which makes TE the next priority.

Ryan Newsome. Justin Wells/IT)
Ryan Newsome. Justin Wells/IT)

Ryan Newsome is a really appealing player who could be a featured weapon at H or maybe even outside like fellow miniature WRs Brandin Cooks, Quan Cosby, and Mario Alford. Overall numbers at WR are the priority after these takes.

Overall, Texas has laid the groundwork for a very solid class provided that Charlie finishes with some playmakers. The good news is that the foundation and basic concept of this offense is one that should make it easy to adapt to feature different types of playmakers depending on who the Longhorns can get to campus.

Just so long as they fit into one of those positional types. Questions?

History major, football theorist.