Inside the Gameplan: Coaches and QBs

Jerrod Heard. (Justin Wells/IT)
Jerrod Heard. (Justin Wells/IT)

From 2008 to 2010, Michigan writer John Bacon had a chance to be embedded with Rich Rodriguez as he attempted to replace Lloyd Carr at Michigan and wrote the tragic tale of what followed in his book “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.”

Carr was a respected member of Wolverine tradition with the approval of Michigan football’s godfather, Bo Schembechler, after securing Michigan’s only national title in decades. Rich Rod was an outsider, brought in thanks to his offensive mind and innovative style that was quite different than the Wolverine tradition.

Former players and important boosters were hesitant to accept Rich Rod, who’d been brought aboard largely by the efforts of an AD who was more savvy about business then football. For his part, after helping bring him aboard Carr did little to support or help Rich Rod get settled or defend him as people within the program and a local paper relentlessly sought to bring him down. He maintained an office on campus during this time and even invited his players to all transfer out of the program after he left.

Ultimately, Rich Rod was done in by a failure to find a defensive coordinator who could implement his vision. Rodriquez wanted an attacking 3-3-5 defense but needed a defensive coach he could delegate this task to and failed to find one. His inability to get that side of the ball going kept his program from taking off, despite offensive success, and he was ultimately fired.

Does any part of this story sound familiar?

After an inaugural season with a weak 6-7 result, concluding with humiliating defeats at the hands of former punching bags TCU and Arkansas, Charlie Strong doesn’t have long-term job security in Austin.

His job is in no serious trouble right now, but he’s not yet earned any kind of goodwill that could protect him if 2015 and 2016 don’t offer some kind of results or major promise.

In particular, Strong needs his offense to get going both to buy time and enable a winning season in 2015 while he re-stocks the defense as well as to allow the program to reach its potential as a Big 12 champion and playoff contender.

After Tyrone Swoopes went full blown Jake Delhomme against TCU (four INTs, 1 fumble), followed by the entire offense putting in one of the worst performances in program history against Arkansas in the unfortunately titled “Texas Bowl”, Strong is surely sweating this crucial detail out.

Quarterbacks get coaches hired and fired.

David Ash. (Will Gallagher/IT)
David Ash. (Will Gallagher/IT)

After David Ash went down with his last football concussion in Week 1, Texas no longer had a quarterback on the roster who could lead the team. Instead of at least inheriting a senior with a possible medical redshirt season remaining who could lock down the position for two years, Strong found himself with a pair of young QBs in need of serious development and possibly miscast for the role he’d filled at Louisville with 1st round draft choice Teddy Bridgewater.

The resulting 2014 season didn’t yield any particularly hopeful solutions at quarterback, or even result in the team establishing an offensive identity, leaving Strong in an uncomfortable position heading into the offseason.

Strong has to find a quarterback to effectively lead the offense in order to finish above .500 in 2015 and have some hope of making a splash in 2016 to avoid going three-and-out as Rich Rod did.

The state of Texas has a sort of identity of its own, different from Bo’s “Michigan Man” culture and inclusive of more elements and factions than just the University of Texas although the Longhorns are the flagship program in the college football scene.

Unlike Michigan, the state’s lifeblood is high school football, which has produced many figures and leaders. Notable among them is Chad Morris, who enjoyed a long career of success coaching high schools before eventually taking over the suburban program Lake Travis and going 32-0 with back-to-back state championships.

He parlayed that success into a job as the offensive coordinator at Tulsa, was then hired by Dabo Swinney to lead Clemson’s offense, and was recently installed as the head coach at the once powerful SMU Mustangs program in Dallas, the capital of Texas football and veritable football mecca.

Meanwhile, a former Longhorn GA for Greg Davis named Tom Herman has also been climbing the ranks. Although born in Ohio, Herman floated around to Texas (GA), Sam Houston State (WR coach), Texas State (OC), Rice (OC/QB), Iowa State (OC/QB), Ohio State (OC/QB) where he won the first national championship determined by a playoff, and is now settled in as the head coach for the Houston Cougars.

While Morris and Herman were both top candidates to become Strong’s OC, neither worked out and he stayed with his faithful solider Shawn Watson.

Now, his failure to bring either aboard in his program has potentially created two political rivals for the biggest throne in Texas football. Strong, Morris, and Herman are all now looking to find the king-making QBs that will solidify their young programs and put them on the stage when the state’s premier college football program is looking for leadership for 2017 and beyond.

Charlie Strong: The frontrunner

As the current head coach at Texas, the job is obviously Strong’s to lose. However, he’s also looking at a difficult task in terms of finding a quarterback within the 2-year timeline he needs winning results within.

Barring a fantastic transfer or JUCO player emerging who’s ready and able to lead the Texas offense in 2015 or 2016, Strong is going to have to get by with his two oldest quarterbacks, Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes.

The interesting dilemma here is in the style that Strong and Watson both prefer within their offense. Ball-control is a key to their approach and they’re seeking to accomplish it by running highly efficient plays that avoid negative plays and stay ahead of the chains.

Like so many other ball-control tacticians, Watson gets there through the West Coast passing game combined with pro-style formations and a running game where Strong intends to feature big, power backs that can aid in staying ahead of the chains while setting up the passing game.

The crux of this approach is that the passing game becomes the means by which the offense gets the “explosive plays” that grab yardage in chunks and makes scoring feasible.

Texas followed this program in 2014, relying on Swoopes to be the engine that made the Longhorns go. He threw the ball 384 times last season while netting Texas 2,409 yards in the process at only 6.3 yards per pass.

Texas lacked firepower while Swoopes was at the helm and his late collapse raises the question of whether any other QB on the roster offers more in terms of play-making.

Given the departure of leading receivers Jaxon Shipley and John Harris along with Swoopes’ regression and Heard’s lack of expertise in a sophisticated passing offense, it’s not obvious that Texas can put together a passing game that carries the weight of putting points on the board.

Johnathan Gray. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Johnathan Gray. (Will Gallagher/IT)

There’s also the question of whether the team should be relying primarily on the QB in 2015 for explosive plays when names like Johnathan Gray, Donald Catalon, Daje Johnson, and Roderick Bernard are on the roster.

It would make sense for Texas to use its QB’s legs combined with screen/quick game pass options from spread alignments so that UT’s fast, skill players can carry the water for the Texas offense.

If they follow that approach, Watson and the staff will have to teach the QBs to become option facilitators rather than using the drop back passing game to attack defenses.

Strong could also mix in a little bit of option to help establish the run but maintain a focus on attacking defenses with the passing game and continuing to develop Swoopes and Heard, as well as the incoming freshman (transfer?), to realize that vision before it’s too late.

How they navigate these waters and whether they can get their QBs going will be fascinating to watch.

Chad Morris: Texas High School football’s favorite son

The black stain on Morris’ career, for Texas’ purposes at least, is that he holds a mathematics degree from Texas A&M University. Other than that, he has a fascinating history.

After following in Briles’ footsteps at Stephenville High school, Morris initially struggled to match Art’s prolific success in the West Texas town. Eventually, he got on the phone with another spread-offense mastermind Gus Malzahn, who was famous for going from the high school coaching ranks to the collegiate level.

Morris’ take on the spread is a sort of mix between Malzahn’s and Briles’, he bases around power-option football supplemented with passing options and motion to force opponents to crowd the line of scrimmage or attack downhill, then he throws over the top.

Because he utilizes lots of passing as a component of the option attack, Morris is less dependent on a mobile QB than another offense would be but he also doesn’t require his QB to make pro-style progressions in order to deliver the ball where it needs to go.

He’s very similar to that of Bryan Harsin and Boise State only with the tactics of option, up-tempo, and spread alignments featuring into the mix.

At SMU, he’s inheriting a cast of quarterbacks who all combined to lead the team to a 1-11 season that circled down the drain after head coach June Jones resigned for “personal reasons.” Matt Davis, a former Aggie himself, took the lead at the end of the season, perhaps because his athletic ability offered the Mustangs the easiest path to gaining yardage.

He’s also landed Waco Midway’s Ben Hicks, an Elite 11 participant that Trent Dilfer compared to young Auburn QB Sean White. A brilliant passer with mobility, vision, and great touch on the football, there’s a chance Ben Hicks is the next great Texas HS quarterback that Texas allowed to get away.

If he takes over quickly in Dallas and helps rebuild the SMU program, there’s a chance that he’ll help spring Morris back to central Texas to take the post in Austin.

Tom Herman: Wasn’t born in Texas but was smart enough to there as fast as he could

Tom Herman has become famous in Texas due to his ability to win a championship at Ohio State despite injuries to the first two QBs on the depth chart. Under Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes were running more of a power-option approach with some play-action mixed in but injuries to Braxton Miller and JT Barrett left them without a great runner at QB.

Although Cardale Jones made some key plays on the ground in Ohio State’s postseason, he did most of his damage in the passing game with an approach more similar to Chad Morris than Gus Malzahn.

Herman originally cut his teeth as a GA at Texas in 1999 and 2000 where he learned the art of preparing quarterbacks from Texas OC Greg Davis. He floated around Texas at Sam Houston State, Texas State, and Rice before becoming the OC at Iowa State.

There in Paul Rhoads’ program he was seeing some struggles before Urban Meyer threw him a lifeline and welcomed him to a top notch staff where the coaches’ different talents and insights had a multiplier effect when channeled together under Meyer’s overall vision and program control. The rest is history.

Herman is a member of Mensa International, which only accepts people who score in the 98th percentile on IQ tests, and interestingly he helped bring more of a smash mouth approach to Urban Meyer’s zone running game at Ohio State.

At Houston, he’s losing the once promising John O’Korn, possibly to Strong at Texas. It would be more than a little ironic if O’Korn ended up at Texas and led the Longhorns to a Big 12 title that catapulted Strong into a long-term deal.

Houston returns Greg Ward Jr, a dual-threat player that took over for O’Korn after the Cougars struggled early and will also add Utah transfer Adam Schulz.

There are some raw materials to work with here, as well as the opportunity to recruit the Houston area which is rich in athletes. He’ll no longer have OL coach Ed Warriner and midwestern boys to help him build elite OL, nor Meyer’s oversight, but if he can develop another stud quarterback in H-town, he may find himself in contention to take the reigns in Austin.

The narrative that is taking shape

Charlie Strong. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Charlie Strong. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Charlie Strong originally intended to run an Urban Meyer-style spread option attack at Louisville and brought aboard Shawn Watson for his experience teaching quarterbacks to run option reads along with West Coast passing.

When his first OC faltered, he installed Watson and they took off running a pro-style attack with Teddy Bridgewater. This was so successful, particularly when combined with Strong’s brilliant and physical Cardinal defense, that it launched Charlie into the big seat in Texas.

Now, he’ll have to figure out how to get his non pro-style QBs in gear, possibly by switching back to more of an option approach.

Meanwhile, two potential successors have settled in to lesser in-state programs and are looking to continue to make use of spread-option tactics native to the state to make bids for why they should be in charge of defining Texas’ offensive identity.

It may be that when 2017 comes around that Strong will have locked down the Texas job and a fat contract extension thanks to major success. Or it may be that he couldn’t find another QB, but Morris and Herman are out of contention due to failures trying to run their own programs without oversight from their old college HCs.

For now, each of these three men has the next two years to choose and groom quarterbacks that may have broader implications for the future of Texas football than anyone currently realizes. Will Strong embrace the Texas’ power-spread attack or blaze his own trail? If he gets lost in the woods will these spread-option gurus be waiting to steal his kingdom?

History major, football theorist.