Inside the Gameplan: Diamonds are forever

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Mike Gundy’s intention in hiring Dana Holgorsen after 2009 was to free himself up from play-calling and to update the already spread-curious Cowboy offense with fresh Air Raid principles. He heralded the arrival of “basketball on grass” to Stillwater but to the outside eye the ‘Pokes didn’t look particularly imposing heading into 2010. Holgorsen inherited a roster that didn’t have many of the big names that had driven OSU success in previous years like QB Zac Robinson (replaced by a 26-year old Brandon Weeden), WR Dez Bryant, TE Brandon Pettigrew, or LT Russell Okung.

The remaining Cowboy roster featured RB Kendall Hunter and several talented young RBs but was short on proven WRs to fill out the Air Raid playbook of spread formations. Ever the creative mind, Holgorsen found some solutions, including one that would come to be known as the “diamond formation.” By utilizing different multi-back formations, the Cowboys built a spread run game that propelled Hunter to 1548 rushing yards while setting up Weeden to throw for 4277 yards. Holgorsen left the following year but the OSU offense has maintained the approach to this day, including when they were coached by new Texas OC Mike Yurcich.

Yurcich and the diamond

With a RB roster that included senior RB Kendall Hunter (4,181 career rushing yards), freshmen Joseph Randle (3,085 career rushing yards) and Jeremy Smith (1,924 career rushing yards), and returning All-B12 (but not often used) fullback Bryant Ward, Holgorsen really needed to find ways to get all of these talented players on the field.

The ‘Pokes spent most of the season in 20 personnel, running “spread-I” sets that put Ward next to Weeden and Hunter behind them as an I-back while slot receivers like Tracy Moore and Josh Cooper ran around in the seams and flats to try and free up a relatively unknown receiver named Justin Blackmon outside.

The fullback Ward could insert anywhere along the line of scrimmage, leading between the tackles on iso plays, winding back to lead on cutbacks for inside zone, or securing the edge on outside zone. Opponents had to involve safeties to fit these lead runs behind the LBs, which then created opportunities on play-action.

Short on quality TEs, early in the year they experimented with some sets that put another fullback on the field in the diamond for short-yardage and goal line sets. Eventually 210-pound freshman Jeremy Smith had earned their trust to serve as one of the fullbacks instead of the non-Ward walk-on.

Smith was ready to go by the time they played Texas and the Cowboys wrecked Will Muschamp’s D in DKR with a variety of two and three back sets, using this diamond package on a few short-yardage and goal line plays. With the extra hats in the backfield they were able to run what amounted to power football on the perimeter with plays like these:

This one was almost like an old school veer play, the OL is blocking inside zone but the ball is going backside and the line ultimately just gets to hold the box players in place with favorable angles while leaving the nickel, middle linebacker, and safety to handle two lead blockers in space. Blackmon’s presence split to the field tended to hold the attention of the safety at least for a moment, which is all the Cowboys needed to set up the blocks by the I-back and fullback.

This one blurred the lines between “iso” and “power,” inserting Smith and Ward behind man blocking by Joe Wickline’s brilliant right side of Lane Taylor (6-3, 320. 1st team All-B12 in 2012 and multi-year NFL starter) and Levy Adcock (6-6, 320. All-B12 in 2010, All-American in 2011).

All of their multi-back sets with a fullback on the field made extensive use of iso and lead zone concepts while the multiple RB formations would hit the perimeter with swing screens.

When Mike Yurcich was hired by Mike Gundy he inherited the OSU playbook, which is still largely intact from what Holgorsen installed back in 2010, but he introduced RPOs to the mix. They started adding concepts like glance routes and slants to their two-back spread run game rather than waiting for play-action to take shots down the field when safeties bit on the run. He maintained the diamond formation and regularly used it as a short-yardage solution up until he left, making great use of it to spring J.W. Walsh to 13 rushing touchdowns in 2015 and then to clear lanes in 2016 and 2017.

Fitting diamonds into the Longhorn offense

Texas has an obvious reason to be interested in building multi-back formations. The Longhorns return three players that ran for at least 600 yards and seven touchdowns in Sam Ehlinger, Keaontay Ingram, and Roschon Johnson. On top of that, they potentially add back RB2 Jordan Whittington pending his health and offseason and 5-star freshman Bijan Robinson.

Additionally, Texas regularly uses their tight end “Y-back” position in a fashion vaguely similar to how Yurcich and the Cowboys would use their fullbacks. The main differences being that Texas’ TEs line up closer to the line and are more weighted to one side or the other. They run more tight zone than lead/insert zone schemes, and Texas doesn’t sub out their TE when they want to get into four or five receiver sets like OSU did. Instead they expect that position to be able to run routes in space primarily in order to help them match up their best receivers on LBs by using tempo. The downside of that emphasis on staying in 11 personnel and using tempo was that it’s been harder for Texas to find versatile TEs than for OSU to plug in local bludgeons (often walk-ons) to serve as punishing fullbacks that leave the field when it’s time to throw.

Lacking a good “Y-back” in 2019 was a crushing failure to the Longhorn offense. Cade Brewer was solid but a step down from Andrew Beck and ultimately was unhealthy when Texas played their toughest defensive slate of the year of TCU, Iowa State, and Baylor. Brewer returned for the bowl game, where he helped Texas run the ball 37 times for 231 yards on the Utes, and his successor Jared Wiley will only get better as he fills out his 6-7 frame. Those guys could be ready to offer Texas the level of play at Y-back that they had in 2018, or the team might need a fullback to boost their efforts.

There aren’t currently any fullbacks on the roster but both Ingram and Johnson could easily be expected to play next year at over 220. If either could learn to diversify their blocking skills, which seems likely enough since both have always been promising in this regard, then Texas could start to dabble into some interesting schemes.

For instance…

This is virtually identical to Texas’ tight zone play but with the tackle blocking back on the DE while one of the RBs leads up to the backside LB. Ingram is the I-back in this one although he and Roschon could be interchangeable at either spot. He’d press up to the A-gap and dart through if the MLB didn’t commit, or if he does cut back behind the lead block. Naturally you’d also want to give Sam Ehlinger the option to pull the ball and throw a slant to Jake Smith.

In case you’re a big fan of Roschon and feels this relegates him to fullback duty…

There’s dozens of ways Texas can draw this up to alternate who’s getting the ball and who’s serving as the fullback/lead blocker. Oklahoma regularly mixes in two-back sets into their playbook and just last year had a 230 pound RB named Rhamondre Stevenson that they had executing trap blocks on DL for zone plays. With selfless players like Johnson and Ingram and a devoted offseason, this could be possible for Texas as well.

This could also help some of the TEs prove worthy of getting some playing time. The more players on the field you have that are capable blockers in the box, the more you can rely on variety and disguise so that no one has to be exceptional.

If there’s a credible lead blocker in the backfield then the TE could slip down the field on POP passes, or really even if there isn’t. Texas has used this concept as a pre-determined read at times over the last couple of years in the red zone, but it could be a true option read from this 21 personnel set.

Here’s another one:

They could run their lead outside zone play for the “fullback” with the I-back leading on the perimeter and still have the TE executing an arc block to lead for the QB on the keep read. In both of these instances, the job of the TE as a blocker becomes easier because his movement doesn’t key the defense as clearly as in 11 personnel when he’s the only “move” blocker.” He’s not the only mobile piece that defenders have to worry about.

All of the multiplicity and disguise you get from having multiple backs who can credibly block or run just adds to the number of packages and formations Texas can mix in and all that adds to the threat of play-action. Mix in Bijan Robinson and Jordan Whittington and you can get into a lot of spread passing looks from here by using motion. At some point opposing safeties’ eyes become fixated on the backfield, leading to opportunities outside where (presumably) Jake Smith and Brennan Eagles are getting 1-on-1s against the cornerbacks.

This was the main value of multi-back formations for the original Cowboys, creating a run game and different actions that could hold the attention of safeties while Weeden completed 233 passes to Blackmon for 3,304 yards and 38 touchdowns over two seasons. We know that Mike Yurcich wants to throw the ball down the field and we know that Texas should lean on senior Ehlinger to carry the team. One way to get there would be to lean into having a deep and versatile backfield to bolster what was often a simple run game in 2019, freeing up space on the perimeter for Ehlinger and the wide receivers to go win games.

History major, football theorist.