Inside the Gameplan: Realizations from Rice

Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Everyone who watched Texas play TCU, Arkansas, and Notre Dame with a discerning eye knew that Jerrod Heard was going to play against Rice. There was no chance that Tyrone Swoopes would be deemed a major part of the solution, as he was in fact a primary factor in the underlying problem.

That problem has been Texas’ nearly complete inability to generate offense against good defenses.

The excuses for why Shawn Watson was struggling to produce a worthwhile product were a mountain high, but none of them were remotely adequate for explaining how a team that regularly recruits some of the fastest and most powerful athletes in one of the nation’s most talented regions was so clueless at attacking defenses.

Norvell was promoted to OC to fix that problem and immediately took steps to make it possible for UT to finally complete the following formula:

Great athletes + simple plan = POINTS!

When Norvell met with the press this week to discuss this new formula he didn’t hold back any punches.

Amongst his comments were that he had simplified the offense and was likely to simplify it even more, that the offense needed a smaller playbook so that they could master and understand the system completely, and that things needed to be as simple as possible for Heard.

“We don’t want to be a jack of all trades offense, we want to be known for something,” Norvell emphasized.

That means Texas is no longer aiming to be a “multiple” offense.

It’s becoming abundantly clear that Watson’s foray into the spread offense over the offseason included him throwing tons of concepts at the wall to see what would stick, which could hardly have been conducive to building an identity and helping the quarterbacks find confidence.

Norvell knows what the offense needs to be able to do, summing up the new philosophy as, “We want to be physical and we want people to defend the whole field.”

Texas Longhorn fans, welcome to 3rd generation dual-threat QB offense.

The Heard Offense

Heard fans should be thrilled that when his opportunity came, it came under the direction of Norvell rather than Watson.

The fact that Texas is now embracing the 3rd generation of dual-threat QB offense is the ideal for the redshirt freshman, and also a blessing to the whole of burnt orange nation. The philosophy of the 3rd generation is this:

The goal is to attack every part of the field with as few concepts as possible. The offense seeks to control the middle of the field with a physical run game while attacking the perimeter with screens and quick passes which are usually tied to the run game through run/pass option plays (RPOs).

With the entire line of scrimmage threatened, the defense is forced to either align more players close to the line, or else aggressively flow to the ball or risk allowing the offense to easily get the ball into the hands of fast people in space. At this point, the offense throws deep down the field with play-action.

It’s basically the philosophy of the classic power run/pro-style offense but with spread formations, tempo, and greater overall simplicity. Like the spread pick-and-roll offense in basketball that aims to create either lay-ups or open three-point jumpers, the offense is aiming for overall efficiency.

Another distinctive feature of the 3rd generation offense is that deep vertical passing plays also serve as de-facto QB runs in the event that the defense is able to cover the receivers downfield.

Let’s review the common defense that Texas is going to face in 2015 and where the pressure points are that the offense needs to be able to attack when throwing the football:

C4BS stress points

With the understanding that this is going to be how many opponents line up against Texas, this is now the best play in the playbook:

Texas 3-streaks or run

This play attacks stress points two and three with vertical routes that can undo the coverage in a real hurry.

Heard as a few simple options here, which is what Norvell had in mind when he said, “when Jerrod Heard drops back, he doesn’t need to be thinking of 20 different things, he needs to be thinking about his primary receiver, his secondary receiver, and then running, period…and probably running needs to move up.”

On this play, three verticals off play-action with max protection, Heard is generally going to ignore the outside receiver to the field unless Texas loves the matchup they have there, read the safety rotation, and then throw to the slot or boundary receiver based on who has a good matchup or leverage. If they aren’t open, he can take off and force the defense to account for him in all the space opened up by the deep routes.

When Texas can put Marcus Johnson in the slot and Burt or Foreman to the boundary, that’s going to make things difficult for opponents to matchup against. It’s also going to be very difficult for opponents to get pressure on Heard with this type of play because of the combination of max protection and Jerrod’s lightning feet.

This is more or less the concept Texas used on the deep touchdown passes against Rice with Heard throwing the go route to the boundary receiver in both instances.

Texas is going to need to be able to run the ball to create space for the young receivers to work in, otherwise opponents will drop people back into max zone and invite Heard to either throw into coverage or try to scramble against seven or eight defenders who all have an eye on him.

Good defenses will force Texas to add more variety, some option route running from the vertical receivers, and for Heard to be able to make checks at the line of scrimmage to get into the right call. But even against solid defenses, this offense is going to be able to score points by simple virtue of routinely getting fast players in space. Thank the good Lord.

Those other problems…

You have to assume that Texas will play more man coverage against Cal, as more two-deep zone would probably get them killed against the Bears’ experienced QB. That means Duke Thomas moving back outside, Bonney matching up against a slot with safety help inside, and likely more Boyd and Hill on the field as UT tries to shrink the passing windows for QB Jared Goff with athleticism.

Texas probably can’t stop Cal from scoring points, but with tight man coverage and effective pressure, they could almost definitely make them less efficient and force some punts that allow the Texas offense an opportunity to keep pace.

The pressure and overall play of the DL has been disappointing for Texas, but much of this is going to be resolved by getting Ridgeway into playing shape. When he’s on, Texas gains a force in the middle of the field that dominates 1-on-1 matchups and frees up athletes like Malik and Hughes to attack a depleted edge.

Additionally, Texas has players that are going to continue to grow and help answer the problems of loose coverage on the outside and lack of pressure at the line of scrimmage, but these are not the biggest worries for this team.

Hassan Ridgeway. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Hassan Ridgeway. (Will Gallagher/IT)

The biggest worries are that the best base defense for Texas, which is a 5-2 front created via the blitz, is missing some key components.

There are four layers to this defense, the first of which is the five players blitzing the offense.

Their goal here is to win 1-on-1 matchups in the middle and to control the edges with the outside rushers. With Ford, Ridgeway, Malik, and Hughes, Texas has lots of players that are effective in these capacities.

When the edges are controlled it allows the 2nd layer, the coverage players, to play matchup man and take away easy throws and passing windows for the QB. While Texas has struggled with Bonney facing top receivers outside, there are athletes on campus that are effective here and all of them are likely to continue to grow in skill and confidence.

The third layer is the safety sitting in deep zone, who needs to be instinctive and smart about taking away the QB’s primary reads in the middle of the field and then fast enough to close on the ball. Jason Hall and Dylan Haines have both been adequate here and Haines has flashed some real ability thanks to his ability to get in position to deny deep throws.

The problem is with the fourth layer, the two players that fill in behind the blitzers in the 5-2 alignment. Texas needs a true inside linebacker and a box safety that can play in the wash, control the space between the outside rushers, and make tackles in the middle of the field. Currently they have neither.

These responsibilities were supposed to go to Hall and Peter Jinkens, but Hall tends to make false steps and rarely fills in run support with the confidence he demonstrated on that famous play against Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine. Jinkens has always lacked the ideal size or instincts to play aggressively in the middle and is miscast trying to clean things up inside.

Since these are positions where experience and football IQ are at a premium, the fact that these veterans are struggling is very concerning for this defense and there may not be great solutions until 2016.

The first responses by the coaching staff have been to use Haines in the box more and to bring in Edwin Freeman as a counterpart to Malik at middle linebacker. Everyone can see clearly enough that Haines, as a former walk-on cornerback converted to safety in a moment of great need, is not a box safety.

Edwin Freeman. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Edwin Freeman. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Freeman is actually a former box safety who’s being converted into an inside linebacker, which is a duty that requires more in terms of beating blocks close to the ball which has been his struggle.

Everyone loves to throw darts at the roster in the hopes that there’s an easy answer to be found by simply plugging in a younger name at the position of need but the coaches are playing that game every day in practice and the fact that their first response is to turn to Haines and Freeman tells us something significant.

But since no one will be satisfied by that answer, here are some of the possibilities the staff is surely considering.

At box safety:

DeShon Elliott: Elliott is an instinctive safety who thrives in this kind of role and who’s major football experience has come here. He’s not healthy yet though and there’s no telling where he is in terms of mastering the playbook.

P.J. Locke: We’ve seen little of Locke yet so it’s hard to say how he might perform here but he’s not exactly a big, box player at 5-foot-10, 191. That said, he’s probably in line to audition here.

Adrian Colbert: What we’ve seen of Colbert suggests his greatest strength is playing deep and using his track speed to close on the ball in space, not reading flow and fighting through the wash to make tackles near the line of scrimmage.

Davante Davis: To my knowledge Davis has spent very little time here in his football career and is not likely ready to be used to plug gaps in the middle of the field. His skill set is much more in the realm of coverage.

Kevin Vaccaro: Vaccaro has actually shown some solid tackling ability on the edge and in space, but he’s small for a box safety and buried on the depth chart, probably for a good reason.

John Bonney: Another solid open field tackler and a very smart player but a smaller one who’s been practicing and filling needs on the outside, not the inside, which is a different world.

Kris Boyd. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Kris Boyd. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Kris Boyd: The people’s choice. This move makes very little sense though for a variety of reasons. For one, he’s more likely to be the solution to Texas’ inability to stop 3rd down conversions with his ability to play tight coverage. For another, he’s never played the position and his reckless spirit isn’t necessarily going to translate when he’s asked to play a new position with new angles and keys about which he currently knows next to nothing. Texas needs to play lockdown coverage against Cal more than anything right now, and Boyd needs to be used there before he’s used to replace Haines or Hall.

When you remember that the staff sees this season primarily as a building year and Boyd as the future at corner and Elliott as the future at safety, it leads to the likely conclusion that rather than stunting Boyd’s development by trying to teach him an entirely new position they’ll probably just wait on Elliott to get healthy. It’d probably take Kris at least as long to learn the role as it will for Elliott to get healthy and provide a more ideal option anyways.

At inside linebacker:

Tim Cole: Nope. Cole is a true inside linebacker, he’s just not a very good one due to athletic limitations.

Ed Freeman: How long until this converted safety learns to take on blocks like a linebacker? That’s probably how long it will be until Texas has an awesome complement to Malik inside. However, Freeman also offers another player that can be effective on the blitz so that Malik can be one of the 2nd level players controlling the run.

Anthony Wheeler: It’s hard to say where Wheeler is in his development right now. He’s behind Freeman on the depth chart though and has had less staff investment in mastering this position.

Breckyn Hager: The people’s choice. The people may be on to something here. We haven’t really seen enough from Hager to know if he’s got ideal lateral quickness, which was the big question for him out of high school, but we do know that he not only understands how to play blocks and control space in the middle but that he loves doing it.

Anthony Wheeler. (Justin Wells/IT)
Anthony Wheeler. (Justin Wells/IT)

Malik and Freeman would give Texas the most athletic LB corps in the Big 12, and that’s actually saying something, but Hager might be the more instinctive player who will undoubtedly continue to get snaps and opportunities to show he can be the answer.

Texas isn’t going to solve this problem over night but there are some fantastic long-term solutions and it’s important to remember that with Cal and Oklahoma State next up on the schedule, Strong has some time to shore up the run defense before facing a team (TCU) that can really exploit them in the middle of the field.

Norvell and Heard are in charge now on offense, and while the defense has flaws, only a panicked alarmist would choose to believe that Strong won’t eventually find answers there. Buckle up and enjoy the ride, Longhorn fans, this roller coaster is just getting going.

History major, football theorist.