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The 2020 season will hinge on what Tom Herman does with the vacant offensive coordinator office. This team has a few cornerstone pieces to build around on offense in QB Sam Ehlinger, LT Sam Cosmi (and two other returning starters on OL), RBs Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson, and a deep collection of young skill talents at receiver of which several could breakthrough with a good offseason.
The defense is facing a retooling in a new scheme with several position changes and techniques to learn. It’ll all need to be mastered in time to deal with a schedule that takes them on the road to Baton Rouge against LSU’s new pro-spread O and includes rematches with a half dozen or more returning QBs across the Big 12. There isn’t much hope of Chris Ash’s defense carrying the Longhorns to a conference championship and saving Tom Herman from the hot seat. Texas will need to be able to win some shootouts.
Graham Harrell was a fantastic candidate for that job. The former Mike Leach gunslinger who mastered “4-verticals” and throwing to Michael Crabtree so completely that he would ruin Texas’ 2008 season has shown a similar mastery in passing the Air Raid principles on to new generations. He helped Seth Littrell build UNT into a team with back-to-back nine-win seasons after a rebuilding year, then left to save Clay Helton at USC while Littrell’s Mean Green collapsed despite returning QB Mason Fine. Evidently Tom Herman wasn’t ready to fully commit to the Air Raid and so the search continues.
Fortunately for Herman, modern offense is much easier than modern defense and there are some other candidates out there that might be able to rescue his program.
Kirk Ciarrocca: PJ Fleck’s Greg Davis
PJ “row the boat” Fleck has been building up a resume as a sort of “CEO” head coach, like Mack Brown with a catchphrase. He’s an effective recruiter who managed to land the Western Michigan head coaching gig very early in life and with little experience as anything more than a WR coach (at the college and NFL level) and former recruiting coordinator. By all accounts, Fleck directs the team’s energy and culture while Kirk Ciarrocca fits the talent together into an offensive system. Ciarrocca doesn’t even have a wikipedia page and has been mostly behind the scenes while Fleck’s big personality is the main show, much like Mack Brown and Greg Davis.
The Ciarrocca (shuh-ROCK-uh) offensive system is an RPO spread that’s similar to what Texas showed at times in 2019 but is perhaps a little further along. The Gophers ran inside zone on a massive percentage of their snaps but QB Tanner Morgan pulled the ball on a much higher percentage of them than did Ehlinger in 2019 and threw a greater variety of routes as pass options. For instance, this play against Penn State:
The Nittany Lions are playing a base, 4-3 Under of the sort Chris Ash has run. The Gophers run the split zone variety of inside zone, the sam linebacker crashes to play the edge, and the QB punishes that with route combination designed to work against the corner and strong safety. Where Texas only just last year started incorporating routes beyond the bubble or hitch such as the slant, Ciarrocca uses things like this rub route to help get the Z receiver open on a dig.
With these sorts of route combinations, the Gophers regularly ran up against the limits of the “ineligible receiver downfield” on their RPOs. They also mixed in a lot of play-action and did it all from 10 personnel, 11 personnel, and 12 personnel. Tyler Johnson was their Devin Duvernay at H and he caught 74 balls for 1114 yards and 11 TDs. Rashod Bateman played the X as their Collin Johnson and he caught 57 for 1170 and another 11 TDs.
Ciarrocha passed an important test in their game with Iowa this year, in which the Hawkeyes accepted the smashmouth spread terms and had their defensive backfield sit on the pass options while daring the Gophers to try and work their way down the field with the run game. The Gophers mixed in some double moves and rub routes to try and get receivers open anyways and Tanner Morgan threw for 368 yards in a narrow 23-19 defeat.
Hiring Ciarrocha would essentially take Texas down the same offensive path that the departing Larry Fedora put them on, incorporating more aggressive RPOs and play-action to make the Longhorns into more of a smashmouth spread team that attacks teams down the field rather than being a power-spread, ball-control team. His system would very easily mesh with what Herman is already doing and he’d have little difficulty plugging in the existing skill talents into his own playbook. The main challenges would be developing the TE position (still) as he calls the same tight zone run game, and also pulling him away from Fleck in the first place. He may rather stay attached to that rising star rather than risk it all for a year with hot seat Herman.
David Yost: Raid-bro adjacent
Back in the late 2000s the spread offense really took off with Big 12 North schools like Kansas (Mark Mangino) and Missouri (Gary Pinkel) downloading the Todd Dodge playbook and even recruiting his QB (Chase Daniel) to execute that offense and give those programs a chance to keep up with the more talented programs in the Big 12 South.
At that time, Yost was the OC and QB coach under Pinkel at Missouri who built some Air Raid-ish offenses that produced a few big and impressive seasons. Some of their most notable accomplishments occurred in the Chase Daniel era where they won the North division twice in a row and went 22-6 for Daniel’s junior and senior seasons. Daniel threw for over 4000 yards twice working with star receiver Jeremy Maclin and flex tight ends Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman. The Tigers even had back to back 1000-yard rushers.
After a few more years and the switch to the SEC, Yost quit the Missouri program in search of better work/life balance and took a job coaching receivers for Mike Leach out at Washington State. A couple more brief stints at Oregon and Utah and he went to Utah State and bailed Matt Wells out of a hole he’d dug by installing a HUNH spread offense that catapulted them to 10-2 in the second season. Wells parlayed that into the Texas Tech gig and Yost came with him.
Yost isn’t a pure Raid bro, he believes in two principles for offense that keep him grounded to something more similar to Tom Herman’s preferences. For starters, he loves using TEs and believes in playing in 11 personnel ALL the time, if possible. Keeping a TE on the field allows Yost to run the ball on a nickel/six-man front when they need to (five OL plus a TE means hat on hat) and he advocates a hurry-up pace that is beyond that of most other practitioners. Yost wants to catch you in bad personnel and fumbling to get play-calls in to your defenders while his TEs move in and out of the formation. Texas was effective in that same game in 2018 when they had Andrew Beck, Yost would take that approach back up a few notches and find it easy with a QB like Ehlinger at the helm.
His track record of developing QBs within this system and adjusting to his personnel is quite strong. The 2019 Red Raiders perhaps didn’t overawe anyone but Yost got Jett Duffey throwing for 2840 yards in 10 games with 18 TDs to just five INT while adjusting for a TE roster that was comparable to the 2017 Longhorns when he initially arrived. Yost would be able to add additional creativity and flexibility to some of the best dimensions of the existing Longhorn offense, the HUNH spread from 11 personnel that can move fast, create matchups, and is aggressive about putting points on the board.
He called a slot fade into the boundary on 3rd and 2 against Texas that set up a Red Raider TD so Yost clearly understands the Big 12 more deeply than Herman. The fact that he looks like Harry Dunne from Dumb and Dumber and would inevitably spawn some viral memes could either be a source of great consternation to the fans or great joy.
Phil Longo: Power Raid bro
Phil Longo is technically an Air Raid coach but his coaching career, which really took off at Sam Houston State, veers a little more into smashmouth spread territory. Much like Dana Holgorsen, Longo really enjoys using the run game to create opportunities to throw down the field on RPOs and play-action. In particular, he’s big into the power game:
A difference between Longo and the Herman offense, which has also made use of power concepts, is the aggressiveness of Longo in pushing the ball down the field and the use of adjustable routes attached to the runs. RPOs are most effective when receivers are running adjustables somewhere, like the X in this diagram, and the QB can make a quick scan and throw guys open against 1-on-1 coverage created by the run blocking. There are some Art Briles-ish dimensions to Longo’s approach which is simple in some regards and amounts to having receivers run a lot of “get open” routes with a few options based on the coverage.
Longo has also made heavy use of QB draw RPOs, which are a no brainer with Sam Ehlinger. If the next OC of Texas doesn’t make lead draw RPOs a major facet of the offense that will be a colossal waste. That’s not a mistake Longo would make as he loves that concept.
Much of his current scheme, much like the schemes of these other guys, would be best served by having a couple of good blocking TE’s on the roster. 12 personnel is a typical bastion for spread teams looking to run the ball in short-yardage and having a back-up to your FB/TE in the event that he’s injured is generally a must or you risk something akin to the 2017 and 2019 seasons in Austin.
There’s a few solutions here. Maybe Luke Brockermeyer or another defender has the size and grit to try and root out DEs on power and tight zone along with the skill to catch a pop pass now and again. Perhaps Texas could find a JUCO or grad transfer. Or maybe Jared Wiley, Cade Brewer, and Brayden Liebrock just need another offseason and they’ll get there.
Mike Yurcich: Sith apprentice
Mike Gundy famously found Mike Yurcich on YouTube explaining some of the spread concepts they ran at FCS school Shippensburg up in Pennsylvania. He called him up, offered him a six-figure contract of the sort typical to B12 coordinators and that was that. Yurcich then spent six years with Gundy at OSU, learning how to execute that variety of Air Raid and Air Coryell influenced spread offense while adding his own option flairs here and there.
This last year Ryan Day called him up to work at THE OSU and he was able to bring some spread-option understanding to their mix as they adjusted their own Air Raid and pro-style influenced playbook to maximize transfer QB Justin Fields.
Heading into the playoffs, Fields has thrown for 2943 yards at 8.3 ypa with 40 TDs to one INT and added 647 rushing yards and 10 more TDs on the ground. Ohio State has been able to maximize Fields’ current blend of elite physical tools with limited ability to scan through progressions and read defenses. As for Yurcich, he now has some added expertise in the NFL’s favorite run play “duo” (comparable to Herman’s tight zone, really), and some of Day’s passing schemes.
Now what does a Yurcich offense look like without a spread guru like Gundy or Day looking over his shoulder? How big a role did he have to play in an offensive staff room that also included Kevin Wilson as the true OC with Day hanging around as well? It’d be hard to know the answers to those questions but at the very least it’s plain enough to see that he has a creative offensive mind and has been exposed to the processes, systems, and ideas of some of the best in the business.
Sean Gleeson: The padawan
After Day stole Yurcich from JV OSU, Mike Gundy went back to the well and plucked another creative young mind from the lower levels, this time nabbing Sean Gleeson from the Ivy League (Princeton). Gleeson has experimented with double TE (and double QB) shotgun spread formations in the past and this last year at Oklahoma State helped build an offense to feature Spencer Sanders.
Sanders is similar to Fields in that he has some exceptional physical tools but a limited mastery of the art of reading defenses and making progressions. They tried to keep things simple for him early on and set up opportunities to find Tylan Wallace on screens and double moves while creating an expansive zone-read game that absolutely chewed up the defenses on the schedule that didn’t have good answers.
If Gleeson has a deep and nuanced understanding of how to wield a modern passing game we haven’t seen it yet, his teams in the past have been more run-centric spread Os that used the passing game to maximize from a foundation built with the run. Another interesting feature to Gleeson’s resume is how short it is, he’s a young up and comer that has impressed some people along the way but would be in a big pond coaching at Texas under the undoubtedly super watchful eye of Tom Herman.
If the goal is to get an OC that can be trusted to handle more of the offensive planning so that Herman can focus more on big picture issues, Gleeson is a curious pick. The current Cowboy OC noted last offseason that Gundy gave him the office next to his and he originally thought it was a great honor before realizing that it served to make it easy for Gundy to walk into his office and yell at him all the time. Gleeson also has little expertise in mazimizing a QB with Sam Ehlinger’s acumen and skill level. To go from holding Spencer Sanders’ hand with gameplans and formationing teams into tough spots to stop him on the zone-read to then coaching Ehlinger is a significant change.
On the other hand, hiring Gleeson would serve to get some fresh ideas and creativity into the Texas offensive meeting room and he might have considerably more to him than he’s shown thus far in his career.
Chip Long: Power-spread 2.0
Notre Dame has run interesting varieties of spread offense ever since Brian Kelly landed there from Cincinnati. Kelly’s offenses previously were more akin to the types of units that David Yost was running at Missouri, with tons of passing and the run game something you turned to after getting the defense to vacate the box. At Notre Dame he’s swung in the opposite direction, taking advantage of the Irish ability to recruit NFL OL and TE and keeping them lined up in a three-point stance to mash teams downhill.
The Irish were having some struggles a few years back after that infamous “Texas is back!” season which ended with Notre Dame going 4-8 and he had to cash in his “what if I made changes at coordinator?” chips. He then hired Mike Elko from Wake Forest, who was quickly poached after a good 2017, and Chip Long who’d been working for multiple years with Mike Norvell at Arizona State and Memphis. Long had some early success, maintaining much of the previous approach but mixed in more more power/sweep run game designed to take advantage of their depth at tight end and QB Brandon Wimbush. Then in year two they bumped Wimbush to the bench despite starting the year with a big victory over Michigan in order to promote Ian Book, a scrappy and mobile QB of the sort you see annually in the Big 12. Think Charlie Brewer.
With Book at the helm they were able to mix in more RPOs and better play-action to make the most of a receiving corps similar to Texas’ in its deployment of several big bodied targets. A Chip Long hire would basically be one that infused the existing offense with some new ideas (such as sweeps and motion) and upgraded the quality of TE coaching. That position has been Long’s particular area of expertise and he’d no doubt enjoy working to develop Cade Brewer, Jared Wiley, and especially Brayden Liebrock. With Long at the helm Texas could also retain Tim Beck and retain his knack for recruiting and for developing better footwork and mechanics from smart and promising athletes at QB (Taylor Martinez, Tommy Armstrong, Sam Ehlinger, Ja’Quinden Jackson? Jalen Milroe?).
It wouldn’t be the sexiest hire given the overlap with Texas’ existing structure and Long comes with some baggage, he left Notre Dame on terms that remind of how Matt Canada keeps moving around from job to job. However, like Canada, Long has generated results at his previous stops and he managed to successfully work alongside similarly unpleasant Brian Kelly for three 10-win seasons and a playoff berth.
There’s a lot of options out there for Tom Herman. Some are iffy, some are solid, some are very promising and most of them seem to more closely match Herman’s preferences for how to build the unit. The consistent theme with all of them is that Texas needs to get their TE depth chart together this offseason either with fantastic coaching and development, position changes, or transfers.