Football

Inside the Texas Gameplan: Watson’s plan

Tyrone Swoopes vs OSU. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Tyrone Swoopes vs OSU. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Much of the focus around Texas football after Saturday night’s 2nd annual debacle against the BYU Cougars has been focused on UT QB coach Shawn Watson’s offense, which was nearly blanked by another good BYU defense.

While the Horns defense simply failed to play up the level expected by either the fans or even the coaching staff that sees them every day, the offense looked so miserable that Texas fans are left to wonder what hope there is even for bowl eligibility in 2014.

We’ll circle back to the defense in the future but suffice to say the recognition at the inside linebacker spots is not what this defense needs given the team strategy of keeping the ball “inside and in front.”

For this week, let’s talk about Watson and the plan for the Texas offense.

Competing visions

It’s hard for many people to assess what Watson is doing for the simple reason that they have a different vision for what this offense should look like.

For instance, were I in charge of this Texas offense, it would look considerably different. If you were trying to do all you can to win football games in 2014 you’d notice that Texas simply doesn’t really have anything on offense that’s going to create stress points for the defense. That’s a problem because, regardless of vision, that’s what good offense is all about.

You stress the defense in one area, they have to commit extra resources to stop you, and then you punish them for the over play. The Longhorns offense on the field Saturday night against BYU couldn’t create any serious stress points for the Cougars and certainly couldn’t punish them for how BYU played them.

The Texas staff was content to dink and dunk with Swoopes, hang around, and hope to steal the game. It became clear that this strategy probably won’t net many wins in 2014. If you want victories right now, you take a chance.

You put Jerrod Heard in the game to run lots of zone-read football, you call frequent deep shots where he has a hot route/checkdown and give him permission to take off running if needed, and you look to move the chains with the run and score with Heard’s playmaking and deep throws.

Here’s the problem; that’s not Watson and Strong’s vision for the future of this offense and they aren’t going to mortgage their future here in order to do something risky that might win games in 2014.

This is frustrating for the Texas faithful who didn’t endure the end of the Mack Brown era and eagerly wait for the 2014 season like it was Christmas morning in order to dump out their stockings and find a 3-9 lump of coal.

However, it’s the route that Watson and Strong are going to take. They aren’t going to overhaul their offensive philosophy to try and win games in 2014, they aren’t going to play the stock market with Jerrod Heard futures. They’re investing in bonds and waiting it out.

If you’re Strong and you know that you have to find a good QB within the next few years both to carry your program and to sell to the fans and boosters who determine your future, you aren’t going to risk it all on a 2014 season that’s going down the crapper regardless.

This staff wants to protect Heard’s development while teaching him Watson’s offense. Watson’s offense is about understanding the playbook, getting into calls before the snap, controlling the defense with your eyes after the snap, and putting the ball where it needs to go. You don’t get there by throwing raw QBs out on the field to run around and ad lib.

Consider the three scenarios:

Option A: play Heard now in an offense unlike what Texas will run in the future, waste a year of development for him and still struggle for bowl eligibility.

Option B: play Heard now in a new offense, completely ditch Watson’s previous strategies and playbook, and make up a new plan as they go along based on what works in 2014.

Option C: throw Swoopes out as a shield, see if snaps under the lights fast forward his maturation as a passer, and give Heard the precious redshirt and practice reps while you continue to make contingency plans for the future of the position.

If your goal is to run Watson’s style of offense, which it obviously is for this staff, you’re going to choose option C.

I or anyone else can criticize the overall vision for the offense but a rational and fair critique of the staff’s attempt to execute their own vision has to concede that what Watson is doing makes sense.

What is Watson doing?

Texas’ strength as a team was clearly going to be about lining up in double TE sets and running over the edge of the defense with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray while Ash kept the chains moving with quick game throws to Harris, Johnson, and Shipley and the occasional deep lob off play-action.

With Swoopes in the game as the QB, his number one goal was to protect the running game from loaded fronts and allow the run game to get going. This plan failed.

Why? Because Swoopes didn’t execute what he was asked to do? No, because the OL played terribly.

Here’s a look at part of the Texas strategy for trying to set up the run game for success against the Cougars:

Texas POP vs BYU

Why lookey here, a spread alignment mixed in by Watson, and what followed?

Swoopes POP

A POP play (play option pass) in which Swoopes is executing a read of the middle linebacker. BYU is showing a pass-D look in order to encourage the run with the intention to then swarm the ball.

However, this doesn’t work out for them schematically because Swoopes’ read is occurring after the snap. The mike commits to filling the B-gap, which is threatened by the double team by the center and left guard, and Swoopes flips it out to Harris for an easy nine yards.

Early in the game, Swoopes executed a few different plays in which he’d make a quick read and safe throw. When he doesn’t have to process a lot of info across the field and it’s about getting set and firing the ball, Swoopes has great ability to fit the ball into windows.

So BYU decided to take away the quick reads and throws and see if Texas could still run the football. They couldn’t, even against a reduced box. When Texas went with double TE sets? BYU attacked the edges with their outside linebackers we warned you about months ago and blew it up. When they spread BYU out and attacked the perimeter with the passing game? They kept the throws outside and contained and just rallied to squash a weak run game.

Coach V’s grades are a helpful starting point here but suffice to say Taylor Doyle can’t drive anyone off the ball, Kent Perkins’ talent hasn’t yet translated to RT, Jake Raulerson is still a pup, Marcus Hutchins is quick but raw, and Sedrick Flowers is a guy that should struggle for a spot on a quality depth chart.

There’s little to nothing for this OL to hang their hats on. Zone right? Can’t get any movement with Doyle at the point of attack. Zone left? These guys are still working out their combo blocks and you can’t trust the backside to maintain a cutback lane.

Power? You’re either asking Doyle to find the hole and drive block someone or you’re asking him to cave in some DL with Perkins, with whom he has little chemistry, so that Flowers can lead the way. They ran it the latter way against BYU and it wasn’t very threatening.

There’s no player that Texas can bank on running the ball consistently behind and the overall quality of the OL is so bad that they can’t consistently execute peripheral assignments on running plays.

So what does that mean? Well for one, it means that some questions by Texas fans don’t have good answers.

Why isn’t Texas running more waggle and bootleg plays? Because they require the threat of a run to have success and create favorable leverage for the receivers. There is no run threat here.

Why isn’t Texas running more play-action? Again, because there’s no run threat to keep the defense honest.

Why isn’t there more misdirection? What are you going to use to threaten the defense with? BYU rotated between an aggressive TCU/Bama style quarters coverage and cover 3, in either instance their secondary was playing soft but then committing to come downhill in a hurry.

They would have been happy to watch Texas’ plays develop before flying downhill without fearing of being obstructed by Texas blockers, who were inevitably still busy trying to figure out how to pass off DL and get off the line of scrimmage.

Why not more motion? Swoopes doesn’t know the offense yet, he’s simply not ready to command a dense game plan with dozens of audibles and checks at the line in order to exploit defensive alignments. Texas is running a ball-control, execution based offense without the ability to either execute or create explosive plays.

Finally there’s the deep passing game. Why didn’t Texas see more there?

First of all, BYU was not aligning its defense to give up quick reads and deep throws over the top. They were completely willing to sit on top of the short routes and make tackles or plays on the ball, trusting that the next negative run by Texas would kill the drive anyways.

Watson called a few deeper pass routes like “levels” that sends a TE or slot up the seam but Swoopes would inevitably check down to a hitch or comeback route on the sideline. If Texas could run the ball, you might be excited that Swoopes can throw the curl, deep comeback, and hitch with such zip but they can’t.

Another concern is Swoopes’ feel for the pocket, meaning that he has very little of it. Everyone can now see that Tyrone isn’t an explosive runner or scrambler. He still has a rifle arm on the run but he isn’t a decisive runner and he isn’t fluid or quick enough to make any precise cuts of the sort that, say, Taysom Hill was regularly making.

There was a play in which Hutchins redirected a pass-rusher upfield only to find that instead of stepping up into a well protected pocket, Swoopes had started backpedaling. The result was predictably negative for Texas.

So what happens when you can’t execute a ball-control offense because you can’t run the ball? What happens when you can’t get deep shots down the field because the defense is unafraid of the run game, the QB has no feel for pressure, he can’t read the whole field well and the OL isn’t very good regardless?

What happens is that you lose football games. Lots of them.

It’s a bleak picture for 2014 and you can’t help but immediately want to problem solve and find solutions in order to move the ball. Put in Heard! Get some explosiveness on the field and run the option! Let him look deep and then take off running! I’ve thought all of these things.

This is more or less exactly the formula TCU attempted with Trevone Boykin. It’s more fun and has more potential for winning some games this year but don’t count on the staff pulling that trigger.

Instead, they’ll keep on trucking with their original vision.

Wickline will continue to teach this OL how to block zone the way he wants. They’ll keep developing younger players with more power and talent than Doyle such as Darius James, Elijah Rodriguez, and Alex Anderson. When those players are ready to step on the field, they will.

Watson will continue to help Swoopes develop in the myriad of ways he needs to develop for his size and arm strength to be worth more than a completed curl route on a rollout.

Armanti Foreman and Lorenzo Joe will continue to get coaching on how to run college-worthy routes so that they can be trusted to see the field and add some athleticism and pop to this team.

Long-term, this staff is committed to their own vision for this football program and they aren’t going to abandon and mortgage its future in exchange for a few wins in 2014.

So how about this UCLA game?

All in all, Texas is pretty badly outmatched. UCLA may not be amazing on offense but they can move the football and score some points. Meanwhile, the Bruins defense is fast and their DL much too big and powerful for this young Texas group. No running game means no points for Texas and another tough defeat.

But while this staff will demand effort, improvement, and the best from this team, don’t expect them to be shocked or dismayed when this team isn’t yet ready for the challenge. They’ve done this before, they’re going to stick to the plan.

History major, football theorist.