Inside the Gameplan: Sark week

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It’s Sark week in Austin.

Texas’ new head coach Steve Sarkisian has arrived after about as well-hyped a week as could have been hoped for. Longhorn fans spent the week lead-up to Sark’s introductory press conference indulging speculation about his staff and learning more about his explosive offense before watching him drop 52 points on the Ohio State Buckeyes’ heads in the National Championship game.

You’re not likely to hear this anywhere else, but Sark is entering more tricky waters facing Big 12 defenses and strategies than he did against Notre Dame and Ohio State in the 2020 playoffs. The Fighting Irish and Ohio State, each in their own way, relied pretty heavily on playing some simple, base defenses with high level athletes to give them an execution edge. Each unit had stout, upperclassmen defensive tackles who could make life hard on opponents, linebackers with NFL athleticism (Pete Werner, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah), and mostly hoped to keep people in front of them in the secondary. Both units deployed a 4-3 and either escaped disaster against Clemson’s passing attack by dominating in the box, or else didn’t escape disaster against Clemson’s passing attack.

While you won’t find as many NFL defenders up front on Big 12 defenses (although there are a few), you’ll find vastly more sophistication of defensive strategy. These Big 12 defensive coordinators can’t coast through their schedule by calling base and relying on blue chip recruits to make it work. The challenges of coaching in this league are such that defenses have grown increasingly clever and they aren’t unfamiliar with all of the RPO/motion tactics Sarkisian will be bringing to Austin.

For Sark to match his Alabama production in the Big 12 will require both savvy deployment of talent and also some continued tinkering with the scheme.

The RPO spread approach

There were four major factors at play in making Alabama’s offense so effective this season.

First was the system and sequencing of the offense under Sarkisian. Alabama was built around RPOs. On a down to down basis you had to be able to handle their wide receiver talent and inside running game at the same time. They wouldn’t allow you to try and defend them piecemeal. From there, the rest of their offense was designed to punish the way teams would play the RPO game. Sark understands the game theory inherent in spread offensive philosophy on a deeper level than a lot of other coaches.

Secondly, the offensive line was tremendous. The Tide had four returning starters from the 2019 offense and some of these guys were either high level athletes like Alex Leatherwood or were exceedingly powerful like the 6-3, 350-pound Deonte Brown or the 6-2, 330-pound Emil Ekiyor at either guard position. Don’t forget 6-7, 360-pound right tackle Evan Neal, either.

Third, Mac Jones was well developed within the system as a redshirt junior who’d spent two offseasons with Sarkisian and been the starter for several high-stakes games in the 2019 season before taking over for 2020. I actually expected Jones to start over freshman Bryce Young but the extent of his mastery over the offense was shocking.

Fourth and finally, DeVonta Smith was a lot more than a 4.4 track star with good hands. Alabama used him much like Texas did Devin Duvernay in 2019, making him a primary target in the RPO game, and also made him their primary deep threat receiver once Jaylen Waddle went down. What made him deadly was how good he was in so many different routes and alignments. The Tide were able to plug in different talents and skill sets at multiple positions because they had a few core players like Smith who were skilled and knowledgeable enough to move around to different positions and dominate.

Matching this formula in Texas will come down a few key areas that need to come together over the course of the offseason.

Step one: Install the system

A fair amount of what Alabama was doing in 2020 will translate at Texas in 2021 relatively easily. The Tide spent a lot of time running schemes designed to make the most of mobile, receiving tight ends who weren’t necessarily going to offer an awful lot as bruising blockers in the box. Najee Harris’ ability to make consistent gains and challenge opponents if afforded any space in the box was a crucial factor, as it is for all RPO spread teams. Texas could scarcely be better equipped to match this essential dimension with Bijan Robinson entering his second offseason on the 40 Acres.

Texas’ quarterbacks will spend their first spring practicing reading the leverage on individual defenders in the RPO game and making accurate throws there and in the accompanying play-action strikes. They’ll get a nice boost in this pursuit from the considerable decline in their run game responsibilities.

The goal will be to create spacing in the box like this…

…so Bijan Robinson can dominate games. But this requires making the perimeter RPO and play-action game lethal enough teams decide to take some chances yielding space in the box. Ohio State is playing cover 2 in that clip from 4-3 personnel (I know, I know) and when the six blockers all connect on the six defenders in the box it’s up to 230-pound Justin Hilliard to tackle Najee Harris in space coming from the opposite hash. If Texas can generate situations such as this one a few times a game for Bijan Robinson, they’ll blow up some defenses.

Step two: Rebuild the offensive line

Things are in better shape here than expected after Texas’ young back-ups stepped in at the end of the season and mauled Kansas State and Colorado. Were those defensive fronts topnotch units playing their best ball? No, but those were real games and you can’t fake athleticism.

An early guess at the Texas offensive line for 2021 looks something like…

LT: Andrej Karic
LG: Junior Angilau
C: Jake Majors
RG: Isaiah Hookfin
RT: Derek Kerstetter

…with Christian Jones, Tyler Johnson, Denzel Okafor, and Tope Imade all in the mix as well. If Kerstetter is back there’s little reason to even hunt for a starter in the portal unless there’s obvious, big time talent in there. The sort of “round out the depth chart” additions you typically see aren’t really necessary, particularly if Kerstetter returns. Even if Kerstetter is moving on there’s eight players here who can be trusted to play quality snaps in a game with another good offseason. It’d be hard to upgrade with the transfer portal unless an NFL-caliber athlete was available.

Step three: Sort out quarterback

A mastery of the RPO game is essential to this offense. Texas has only ever dabbled in RPOs the last few years, occasionally allowing Ehlinger to execute them (at a high level) only to scrap them if key receivers (Collin Johnson) were unavailable. Keeping the run game and Bijan Robinson free from having to evade extra second level defenders is the core of the Sarkisian offense. Sark wants to force teams to either attempt to hold up against Bijan Robinson in conservative two-high defenses or else attempt to play man coverage and face play-action shots and crossing patterns.

It’s a different set of skills than was being asked of the quarterbacks under Tom Herman with a higher priority on pocket passing and quick, accurate throws to the perimeter.

Reading the leverage of read-key defenders in the RPO game and delivering quick strikes is the name of the game, then hitting the play-action shots (relatively easy but ideally involving strong arms) and progression passes in the dropback game.

Casey Thompson was torching Colorado in the play-action game and threw some RPOs in high school, and Hudson Card is a natural athlete who shouldn’t struggle to master the footwork and accuracy to make this system work. However it’s rep intensive, like running the pick’n’roll, and they’ll need a good offseason in which they zero in on the top receivers early in the process. It’s timing and chemistry intensive so the sooner Texas chooses their John Stockton and gets him throwing passes to the Karl Malone, the better. I wouldn’t really be shocked if Sarkisian added a transfer either, just for 2021, even though Card, Thompson, and Charles Wright all project fairly cleanly to this system.

Step four: Find the bell cow receiver

Texas has a number of receivers that can be very dangerous in space due to their speed. Joshua Moore caught nine touchdowns last season and proved himself a lethal vertical threat when put in position to use his speed and ball skills down the field. Jake Smith and Jordan Whittington are obvious talents in the slot, the former with the ability to execute some double moves down the field and the latter with some real shake on screens and sweeps. Then there’s also Kelvontay Dixon, the 10.71 100m track star who effortlessly ran by the Colorado defense for a touchdown in the Alamo Bowl.

Joshua Moore is the most obvious candidate to receive some of the attention Sark gave to Smith in Tuscaloosa in 2020. After Moore the smart money would be on Jake Smith as another major target, as he’s shown a more complete skill set as a receiver than Whittington, but don’t sleep on Kelvontay Dixon. Obviously Troy Omeire or whoever wins the split end receiver position along with the tight ends will also get their share of looks.

There’s not really enough targets to go around for the whole cast of skill talents Tom Herman left behind in the stockpile, particularly when you remember Bijan Robinson will be the No. 1 option. The nature of the RPO offense also requires a high level of chemistry from the quarterback and top receivers and tends to lead to Pareto distributions: DeVonta Smith finished the year with 117 catches for 1856 yards and 23 touchdowns. These bellcow RPO spread offenses typically ask the best receivers to wait their turn until their skill set has filled out enough to serve as the go-to option. Then they are rewarded in spectacular fashion.

Overall the situation is vaguely similar to 2016, the last time Texas installed an RPO offensive system. They were never able to really master the dropback passing game and the play-action potency came and went based on how well opponents could take advantage of the poor pass protection. However, Shane Buechele’s ability to make quick RPO tosses and some savvy use of 12 personnel allowed the Longhorns to run D’Onta Foreman for 2k yards and score 31.9 points per game.

It’s harder to exploit Big 12 defenses in space than when facing teams like Ohio State or Notre Dame who are unused to getting overmatched on the perimeter, but there are opportunities in the box. Big 12 defenses chosen for speed and flooding the backfield with athletes can be susceptible if the offense can blow open holes and fire a 220 pounder through them who’s more athletic than the safeties trying to catch and tackle him.

New challenges await Sarkisian but there’s a clear process for handling them.

History major, football theorist.