Football

Inside the Gameplan: How to win the Big 12, a guide for new hires

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Welcome to the Big 12, (new Texas staffers)!

(New offensive coordinator) you’re going to love coaching Sam Ehlinger and the skill talent on this roster! The world is your oyster. Your challenge will be sorting out how to maximize this unit and optimize the design.

(New defensive coordinator)…take a long look at that paycheck. Take a minute to imagine something you’ve always wanted, perhaps a boat or a vacation home, now take another moment to consider some investment options. You’ve just made one of the riskier career moves in college football and that paycheck is your golden ticket to either medicate or overcome whatever happens to you next.

The Big 12 is currently on course to becoming THE toughest league in college football, if it were not already there. There may not be the same firepower as the Big 10 East or the SEC West, but there’s not as many breaks either. Most every staff in this conference will gameplan you for all their worth and their efforts will sharpen and intensify as the year progresses and everyone learns from one another. Additionally, you’ve entered the league before a season in which every team will return a quality starting quarterback save for Kansas and Oklahoma. Kansas may rectify this anyways via the transfer portal and Oklahoma will be plugging in a young gunslinger named Spencer Rattler that may prove to be their most deadly talent yet.

Winning this league is very difficult, even if Oklahoma is making it look relatively easy, but escaping from the middle tier is even harder. You’ve jumped into a deep bucket full of enormous crabs and it’s going to take your A game to get out.

Winning on defense

Alright (new DC), the first thing you gotta do is stop the ruhahahhahahahaha!

Not really. The first thing you need to do from week to week is identify the receivers and passing concepts from the opposing team that can make you look like a moron when the camera finds you after they’ve scored their fifth touchdown of the day. You need to figure out how to stop those players and plays, either with bracket coverage or ensuring that you have good matchups in place, perhaps both. Once you’ve worked out some coverages and packages that will give you the best chance to avoid a 300+ yard passing day, then you can worry about whether those packages are also sound against the run (sound, not necessarily ideal) and narrow things down from there.

Texas Tech this season has regularly run a power-read play-action pass that did a lot of damage to multiple teams. They don’t even run power-read! Your players will want to bite on the pulling guard and dive in to stop it regardless of whether you’re indoctrinating them to “STOP THE RUN!” or not. You actually need to de-program them and train them to dot their i’s and cross their t’s in the passing game first before worrying about tackling the RB. If you think a player has too much on his plate between balancing his run and pass assignments, he probably does. You need to figure out how to help him focus on one or the other.

The last three guys came in here with a plan to flip the script on all these explosive passing attacks in the Big 12. They were going to confuse and harry opposing QBs with zone blitz schemes that moved Texas’ athletes into different positions and blitz paths in order to dominate games with aggression. All three of them started off a little more conservatively, ultimately leaning on cover 2 or drop eight schemes in year one before dialing up the aggression in subsequent seasons. All three ended up getting taken apart and collapsing mentally under the pressure of the round robin schedule while doubling down on aggressive tendencies.

To avoid becoming crab bait you’d do well to study their failings, but the biggest key is that you need to adopt a much more humble approach. Texas’ higher level athletes have yet to allow them to turn the script on Big 12 offenses and make them play defensively. What’s more, the aggressive and confusing zone blitzes they tried to use to achieve that vision tended to make Big 12 offenses MORE aggressive as they hunted the non-blitzers on the back end asked to hold up in space. Meanwhile the zone blitz schemes mostly only confused their own defensive players with the changing assignments and roles.

I’m not sure what schemes you relied on to get here but I have a couple for you to study. The first is the inverted Tampa 2 defense that Iowa State developed and both Texas and Baylor then stole. Texas only flirted with the scheme without committing to it since the IT2’s drop eight system is antithetical to the zone blitz structures preferred by your predecessor. There are a few problems with this scheme, beyond its conservative structure that you should be viewing as though it was a modern wonder of architecture. One problem is that it asks a lot of the DL without featuring the classic sort of DE/OLB edge-rusher which you have unique access to both on your existing roster and future rosters to come if you aren’t fired. There are pass-rush opportunities for a good DL in this scheme but it’s hard to maximize a lighter, edge-rusher. Another problem is that you need to commit to the structure and “bend don’t break” nature of it in order to wield it.

Another scheme worth studying is the one that Pete Carroll developed for the NFL that made its way back to college football recently up in Ohio State. The 4-3 Under with nickel personnel and matchup oriented, cover 3 schemes. Keys to the Seahawk system have included simplicity that allows athletes to play fast, above average range and coverage savvy at every position, and DL techniques designed to protect the linebackers and allow them to be more like safeties. To stop the Air Raid styles in the Big 12 you need a defense that has a similar design. Those offenses install their whole playbook in three days and then nail down the techniques, reads, and tweaks on a deep level from there. Your defense needs to have a similarly simple structure and then also a similar flexibility to allow you to match the high level details of these offenses.

Let’s talk personnel. Your current roster has four players that you’ll want to make the most of in order to have success. The first is Joseph Ossai, a 10-sack edge-rusher waiting to happen that spent 2019 playing off the ball linebacker to make room on the field for safeties or else to execute roles no one else could. He’s a bit raw in the pass-rush department but he has ideal length and explosiveness for the task and he’s now over qualified at the sorts of coverage drops that would be a sticking point for your typical DE/OLB prospect. If opposing offenses aren’t constantly concerned with his whereabouts on the field, as they weren’t when he played as a will LB this past season, then you’re not going to make much of this season.

Next up are a pair of hybrids named DeMarvion Overshown and B.J. Foster. Both of these guys are the sorts of players with the explosiveness, range, and violence to be no-brainer killers in a spread league. They each spent the last season either moving to multiple positions or on the bench with injuries in service to your predecessors “confuse and attack!” philosophy. Your job is to figure out their ideal position and then teach it to them so they can start playing fast and surprising opponents not with the position they are playing after the snap but their range from within a set position. By the way, the right answer for both of these guys may be “linebacker” as crazy as that may sound. They’re both Kam Chancellor types who blur the lines between safety and linebacker positions and ideally your defense will be designed to feature as many players like that as possible.

Finally there’s Caden Sterns, a rangy and highly intelligent safety whom you’re going to want to drop deep more often than not. Think Earl Thomas here, if Sterns is spending games in deep zone jumping tendencies and punishing QBs for any failings in timing and arm strength on deep throws, you’re going to like the results.

There are some other obvious pieces on the roster like Keondre Coburn that I trust you’ll discern how to deploy. I’ll just note that you have inherited a roster with several big, technically proficient DL and big, fast, but undeveloped athletes behind them. Ideally you’d use the former to protect and set up the latter.

Winning on offense

(New OC)…this is the fun job. Don’t allow Tom Herman, that new DC giving you the side eye, or any local media to tell you differently. Your goal in every game is to score as many points as you possibly can. Who’s problem is it if both defenses have to defend 80-90 snaps? Answer; not yours, unless you fail to use those numerous snaps to light up the scoreboard.

For an uncomfortably long period of time, Texas has fashioned itself a power football team. Despite nearly winning a National Championship in both 2008 and 2009 by relying on a mobile QB repeatedly finding the same receiver running option routes in spread sets, the lesson Mack Brown took and that everyone accepted was that Longhorn football should be defined by a downhill run game. Since 2009, here’s how Texas’ passers have looked compared to the Big 12 champion signal caller:

Decade of Texas vs B12 passing.jpg

You see what I mean? Remarkably, that Sam Ehlinger fellow is still around for you. He’s known for his toughness and smarts but he’s grown considerably as a passer over the last few years and ran more of a passing-oriented system in high school where he married the Air Raid style of spread passing to the power run game by serving as his own feature back. As you can tell, he’s been far and away the closest thing Texas has had this decade to a B12 championship QB.

Thus far, the Big 12 has consistently been won by teams with a potent enough passing attack to carry them through the difficult schedule. Offenses tend to win the day in football and great spread passing is THE hardest thing to defend in the modern game. If you have a great spread passing attack, you can count on that week after week.

Great defenses? They always get lit up at least once and sometimes when you can least afford it. The only team in the decade above to win without a high level passing attack was the 2012 Kansas State Wildcats and they technically split the title with Oklahoma, whose QB Landry Jones threw for over 4k yards. The Wildcat formula involved playing great defense but they still had the ability to win shootouts thanks to QB Collin Klein running the ball 207 times for 920 yards and 23 TDs. Oklahoma hasn’t technically won the 2019 Big 12 title yet but if they lose it’ll be to Baylor, who’s leading passer Charlie Brewer has thrown for 2935 yards at 8.6 ypa with 20 TDs and six interceptions. Not elite, but not bad either.

Your goal for 2020 is to win the league by fielding the most explosive offense in the league, which is best approached by mastering as potent a spread passing attack as you can imagine. The fans are going to be on you about your backfield, which includes a pair of smart and tough runners named Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson and then a dazzling freshman named Bijan Robinson. You should note that while Ingram and Roschon are willing and capable blockers with good hands in the passing game, the QB lead draw is potentially your best run scheme.

Your real concern isn’t making sure that any of those backs get the touches that fans think is necessary, your concern is making the most of the younger skill players on your roster. Brennan Eagles, Jake Smith, Jordan Whittington, Brayden Liebrock, Marcus Washington…those are the mouths you’ll need to feed if you want to win the league and go down as a Longhorn hero.

For the better part of the decade Texas has tried to be a power-spread team without the sort of blocking TE that makes that offense work. There were a few exceptions, notably 2013 when a brute named Geoff Swaim was around and 2018 when they had Andrew Beck. You may find someone that can serve in that role but you should be looking beyond.

Jordan Whittington and Brayden Liebrock were a pair of high school receivers that could create tremendous matchup problems for opponents because of their unique blend of quickness, route running skill, hands, and size. Whittington is 6-1, 215 pounds, and extremely twitchy. In Texas’ power-spread, particularly in light of a lack of RB depth, they tried to turn him into a running back and he got hurt and was lost for the year. Liebrock is 6-4, 230 pounds and spent his freshman year bulking up and learning to block for the first time. It’s time to uncage these birds and let them fly around on the perimeter, using their size to bully DBs trying to cover them and their quickness to run circles around LBs.

Out at receiver, Jake Smith, Marcus Washington, and Brennan Eagles are supremely talented young players that were restless a year ago waiting for their turns in an offense that tended to only feature two-three skill players at a time with the RB always occupying one of those spots. The league is scarcely aware of exactly how deadly Texas could be in an offense that was designed to feed and feature the receivers with an experienced and accurate QB. You need to give them that wake up call.

On that note, Sam Ehlinger is your most essential component here. He has the savvy and talent to make you look like a genius if you let him. His brain power and film study has thus far been reserved for checking the offense into better protections or into runs when things look dicey in the passing game. If you equip him with motions, tempo, and formations to help him read defenses and then authority to audible into passing plays you’ll scarcely have to do much on Saturdays save for issuing a few suggestions on the headset and ensuring that postgame libations are properly cooled.

Provided that you work well with the offensive line coach and give all your charges up front a lot of high quality reps in your protection schemes, you have a very fun season ahead of you. However, it’s all riding on you. We all know that even if that new defensive coach turns in an extension-earning performance this schedule is still liable to hang 40 on him now and again. You can try to mitigate that by helping him with a slower pace or you can lean in and hang 50 so that it’s academic.

So ignore fans clamoring for “muh power run game,” ignore the head coach or OL coach if they call for the same, and ignore the DC if he whines about tempo or the difficulties of coaching in shootouts. Just keep reloading and firing and when the dust finally settles everyone will be happy with the results.

Good luck.

History major, football theorist.