Inside the Gameplan: Mike Yurcich and the evolving vision for the Texas offense

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Tom Herman had to make one of the most important decisions of his career this offseason after “reassigning” Tim Beck from offensive coordinator. The obvious narrative that Herman has encouraged was that Texas needed an OC that could handle more of the play-calling and gameplanning load in order to free up the head coach to oversee overall program quality and culture. That’s certainly true, but Herman had a bigger challenge for 2020, which was to find someone to help the offense fully unlock their potential in a make or break year for his tenure and to make the most of being the flagship program in a state known for offense.

Entering 2020 Texas will have a senior quarterback and future NFL left tackle entering year four under the Herman regime. Thus far that regime has yielded zero Big 12 titles and only one appearance in the conference championship game. All of the titles have instead gone to the rival, Oklahoma, whom Herman is now 1-3 against after showing an early knack for giving them trouble that has seemed to fade over the last two matchups. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who’s been one of the main reasons Texas has been competitive against Oklahoma or in the Big 12 under Herman, needs to be set up to dominate in 2020. Otherwise athletic director Chris Del Conte and Longhorn nation will have some serious misgivings about trusting Tom Herman to oversee the post-Ehlinger era.

At first Herman zeroed in hard on Air Raid guru Graham Harrell, a move that would certainly have prioritized the maximization of Ehlinger, before ultimately backing off. Then he took Mike Yurcich from Ohio State, formerly of Oklahoma State, who’s background is with smashmouth spread systems. Both of those moves would have pushed the Texas offensive philosophy forward, each in a different direction.

Herman opted for the Yurcich direction for the offense and Texas has made offers to two new 2021 quarterback prospects in Sawyer Robertson and Garrett Nussmeier. Given their skill sets, which more closely resemble Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph than Sam Ehlinger, it’s clear that Yurcich’s vision for the Longhorn offense has the approval of the head coach. Recruiting is evolving as a result.

Ball control vs scoring

Herman’s “power-spread” offensive designs are oriented around using hurry-up/no-huddle tempo and spread spacing to make it harder for defenses to stop the offense from doing what offenses have traditionally loved to do, run the football. Herman has somewhat begrudgingly added run/pass options (RPOs) to the mix even though they introduce the possibility that the defense will choose to dictate that the offense throw quick passes rather than running the ball.

The vast majority of Texas’ run game calls are either variants of “tight” zone or “power.” The former play utilizes inside zone blocking with an emphasis on double teams on the backside and the RB taking an initial downhill trajectory before cutting back. The power runs, of which Texas has used traditional power, Y counter, and GT counter, all include down blocks at the point of attack and two players (either a guard and tight end or guard and tackle) executing a kick-out block and a lead block in between the down and kick out blocks. It’s all very forceful, “smashmouth” football meant to cultivate a philosophy and culture of imposing the offenses’ will.

Using quick tempo, spread spacing, and pass options all make it harder for defenses to bring numbers and energy to the box where the offense is pounding downhill with double teams and a rotation of running backs.

At least that’s the theory. It’s worked out okay for Texas for the last two years but modern defensive schemes have worked out ways to minimize the damage that power-spread teams can do by emphasizing speed and more “defense in depth” strategies like the inverted Tampa 2 schemes of Iowa State. The Cyclones regularly worked out ways to get their star sophomore linebacker Mike Rose in position to run free and tackle Devin Duvernay on quick constraint passes and had safety Lawrence White in ready position to come unblocked and tackle Texas’ RBs before they could find much space either.

Another issue for Herman’s power-spread is that they have failed to control games with the run game and defense but instead been drawn into multiple contests in which their D couldn’t stop the opponent and the power-spread didn’t give them the best chance to win a shootout.

Harrell’s Air Raid scores more points, but it’s still designed to control the ball with quick passing from spread sets. In the same manner that the power-spread uses formations and particular run concepts to try and isolate matchups in the trenches, Harrell’s Air Raid uses formations and particular pass concepts to isolate matchups on the perimeter. Instead of cycling through power backs running behind double teams, that system gets skilled receivers of different types in position to beat defenders with two-way goes and option routes.

Yurcich’s offense plays by different rules. Instead of trying to control the game with ball control and total team strategy, his units with Mike Gundy would just score as many points as they could. In their “smashmouth spread” offenses at OSU the run game would be a major component but the goal wasn’t to control games with runs but to force defenses to devote attention to the box so that they could fling the ball down the field, particularly to the outside receivers. The power football battles are all just a distraction from the real action down the field.

In Herman’s power-spread, Texas still fed receivers Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Devin Duvernay 86 and 106 balls respectively in 2018 and 2019 from the slot. They were ostensibly run game constraints on standard downs and then on third down Texas would get into more Air Raid style sets and formation them into favorable matchups so they could win at the chains on option routes.

In contrast Yurcich was feeding James Washington and Tylan Wallace for 74 and 86 catches in 2017 and 2018 at the right outside “Z” receiver position. They were getting deep play-action shots on standard downs and then the occasional Air Raid style looks on passing downs.

Texas’ third down passing game with Sam Ehlinger has actually been much more effective though than the Mason Rudolph offenses at OSU in the same situation. Those Oklahoma State offenses were lethal when attacking the full field on standard downs but sometimes struggled to overmatch opponents in situational play. They didn’t have the same knack for creating matchups on the perimeter and throwing route adjustments with precision. They also didn’t have Sam Ehlinger. But for Texas this was always just a component of a bigger strategy designed to use the run game to hold onto the ball and beat teams up.

Yurcich-ball with the Texas roster, present and future

There’s little reason for Texas’ personnel or run game formula up front to change, particularly if the return of Cade Brewer and Jared Wiley after another offseason improves the blocking and depth at tight end. They can still run tight zone and power runs but put more emphasis and variety into the play-action passing game that uses the runs to set up deep passing shots.

For the existing Texas roster that Herman had already recruited and developed, the Yurcich hire set them up to evolve the offensive approach without violently upending the existing system. Emerging skill talents like Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith are an obvious fit for a more vertically inclined approach on offense. Both excel at running by defenders where Humphrey and Collin Johnson did their best work at using their fluidity and length to present a target at the chains or on the sideline. Duvernay was a more obvious fit for the new style but he learned how to translate mastery of the system and ultra-reliable hands to surpass the production of either Humphrey or Johnson.

On the surface, Yurcich and the 2020 Texas roster appear to be an ideal fit. The hesitations are at the quarterback position.

In 2019 Sam Ehlinger did a lot of his damage throwing option routes, mesh combinations, corner routes, and slot fades. He can get through progressions quickly, throws a good lead ball outside, and excels at throwing to spots in anticipation. For the last few years his weak spot has been hitting the deep post that was a primary component to the Oklahoma State offense. He can develop an anticipatory feel for that throw like he has most every other but he doesn’t tend to rifle it into those windows. His overall passing game skill set is remarkably similar to Colt McCoy’s although they handle themselves differently in the pocket.

Ehlinger should have tremendous success in the Yurcich system, particularly if the new OC has a knack for setting up Smith and Eagles to find 1-on-1 matchups down the field. Ehlinger hit a lot of vertical routes last year and with an offseason to heal, work on those throws, and nail the timing with Eagles and Smith in particular, he could make one final leap as a passer. But this system could potentially underplay Ehlinger’s strength at executing a pro-style dropback game depending on how much Yurcich tweaks the playbook from 2019.

If the strength of the Texas offense in 2019 was the spread passing game featuring Ehlinger and Duvernay, you’d think the best play in 2020 might be to expand that beyond “passing down solution” to being the main thrust of the offense. Yurcich’s system instead will aim to circle back to the run game as the offensive foundation and simply try to raise the stakes for defenses in how they choose to defend it.

Down the road the Yurcich hire has other implications for Texas football.

Up till now, Tom Herman has recruited quarterbacks to execute the power-spread offense. The quarterback’s role in that system centers around mobility, toughness, and football IQ. Herman likes to scheme the offense an advantage in short-yardage situations with the quarterback run game that makes it easier to outnumber the defense at the point of attack. The third down package is built around the pro-spread passing game and asks the quarterback to throw with anticipation on option routes, scan through progressions, and scramble as needed.

Players like Sam Ehlinger, Casey Thompson, Roschon Johnson, and Hudson Card all fit this profile more or less to a T. All were effective in the quarterback run game in high school and possess a good mind and feel for the game.

The smashmouth spread that Yurcich is bringing functions more like the Art Briles Baylor offenses. The quarterback’s job is to force the defense to extend over the entire field via vertical RPOs and play-action attached to all of the run concepts. If he can run, great, Yurcich will utilize that. However, taller and strong-armed quarterbacks that can be trained to consistently hit throws to spots down the field and lead receivers beyond cornerbacks are the best fit for this system.

Ehlinger, Thompson, and Card all fit the Yurcich offense reasonably well but their skill sets made more obvious sense with the previous approach. For players like Ehlinger and Card, the new approach arguably fails to incorporate some of their best attributes. The upcoming 2021 class is now a major proving ground for the contrast in offensive vision. The Longhorns already had Jalen Milroe locked in but have been chasing hard after Garrett Nussmeier and Sawyer Robertson as well.

Milroe is actually an interesting blend of either approach. He only attempted 212 passes last year as a junior but they went for 2689 yards at 12.7 ypa with 29 TD passes to eight interceptions. He’s a speed demon at 6-2, 186 but one that tended to try and use his speed to buy time to throw vertically. Milroe had only 73 carries for 375 yards at 5.3 ypc and eight TDs in 2019 at Katy Tompkins. He might be akin to RG3 in a system like this, ideally leveraging his wheels to create extra time for receivers to get open down the field or giving himself more options on max protection/play-action schemes where there are fewer receivers running routes. Herman was surely drawn to his toughness and dual-threat abilities but you can imagine a future where he takes well to this system as well.

Sawyer Robertson is the most likely Texas commit of the new Yurcich offers and represents the higher end of quarterback prospects that this system is designed to weaponize. The Yurcich system is essentially what Robertson is already running at Lubbock Coronado HS. They use two main approaches on offense, one is to line up in four-wide formations that take advantage of Robertson’s decent athleticism and strong arm that allows him to buy time before hitting receivers when they eventually break open down the field. The other is a spread-I approach which pairs a power/lead run game involving a fullback with vertical shots on RPOs and play-action. He attempted 405 passes last year that went for 3914 yards at 9.7 ypa with 44 TDs to eight INTs.

This is the sort of system that made 4k-yard passers out of strong but marginally pro-caliber passers like Brandon Weeden, Bryce Petty, and Mason Rudolph. It’s not designed to draw in the best NFL prospects at quarterback in the Texas high schools and hand them the keys but instead to take the ones with a knack for throwing bombs and putting them in position to land knockouts. Had Texas been running this system when Garrett Gilbert took over the past decade might have looked remarkably different. It’s a very different way to play this game than we’ve seen from Tom Herman or really any previous Texas offensive coach.

Tom Herman had the choice to pursue a path that would emphasize the quarterback more as a decision maker and trigger-man for the offense or to commodify the position in a simpler set-up that maximizes the run game and surrounding skill talent. Hiring Yurcich was a move towards the latter approach, likely stemming from a desire by Herman to maintain an emphasis on toughness and the run game. How his new offensive coordinator now adjusts to coaching Ehlinger in the 2020 offense and recruiting Texas quarterbacks for the future will have a major, two-pronged impact on the future of Longhorn football.

History major, football theorist.