Inside the Gameplan: Spring Game Preview

Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

As I’ve argued before, you can learn a great deal more from a spring game than many realize. I knew from way back that walk-on LB Trent Tanking would inevitably become a starter at K-State based on spring game performance and word out of their practices has him leading the team in interceptions.

I noticed Jake McMillon was one of the better run-blockers in last year’s spring game before we realized he was in line to replace Patrick Vahe. I had Auburn’s D pegged as being vastly improved last year after watching how sound and confident they had become in the spring. I saw past Tyrone Swoopes’ supposed growth back before Charlie’s inaugural season when I realized they’d called off the dogs, the second team dogs no less.

What the spring game shows us are the bare bones of a team, who’s at the top of the pecking order, what the most basic formations and calls are, and how well the team knows to execute those calls. There are layers and layers of context in spring games that you have to sort through which include vanilla play-calling, blue jerseys for QBs, play-calling designed to entertain or practice certain looks rather than being designed to win the contest, and often key players being held out. Nevertheless, an x-ray of the team’s bare bones can still tell you a great deal about the team’s identity.

Here’s some of the bones I’m hoping to get a look at in this x-ray.

X-raying the skull: Where are the QBs right now?

Putting together all the different practice puzzle pieces to make a picture of the 2017 Longhorns right now has it sounds like Shane Buechele is the clear leader but primarily due to his overall mastery of the playbook and his consistency. Those things being equal, it would seem that Sam Ehlinger would be the guy.

The first glance at the skull will be to verify this diagnosis and the next to try and get a sense of how far behind Ehlinger is in terms of executing the playbook and protecting the ball. One way I intend to evaluate this is to check out the passing of these two guys when throwing to the boundary.

Evidently the staff is planning to keep Collin Johnson as the boundary WR at all times this upcoming season, in keeping with our expectations that he’d be a major part of the offensive identity this season. As I’ve noted, the smashmouth spread needs an inside runner, a speedy constraint weapon to use in space on the perimeter, and then the ability to punish teams when they play man coverage in order to free up a safety to deal with those problems.

There’s no better place to have your coverage-beating trump card than on the boundary, so naturally that’s where Collin Johnson will go. Any given defensive adjustment to attack or adjust to what Texas is doing elsewhere will be hamstrung if they need to leave the boundary safety in position to bracket Johnson. To force that kind of defensive response though, QB1 needs to be able to hit Johnson consistently and in time on hitch routes, slants, post routes, and most importantly the fade. If the QB can consistently hit back shoulder fades down the field to his boundary receiver then the boundary safety can’t hedge much and really has to be all in up his business to help take that away. It looks like Johnson (6-foot-6, 215) and Lil’Jordan Humphrey (6’5” 220) are plan A and plan B to accomplish that result for the obvious reason that it’s hard to stop fades to people of that size.

Lil Jordan Humphrey at spring practice. (Joe Cook/IT)
Lil Jordan Humphrey at spring practice. (Joe Cook/IT)

If Buechele is consistently ahead of Ehlinger in identifying opportunities and throwing to these guys, he’ll be the man in 2017, as that will set the stage for the rest of the offense.

Buechele’s work in the run game is secondary to that, QB run game is a trump card you don’t need to play if the boundary safety is sitting 12 yards deep on the hash mark every snap. That said, the next big question is where these two guys are in terms of making good, quick option reads and getting the ball to the right spots at the right times. That’s the nuts and bolts of this offense and where Buechele is presumably ahead and needs to remain consistent. If Ehlinger is the guy nailing the fades to the boundary and dictating to the defense then an ability to be consistent with the nuts and bolts will inevitably elevate him to QB1.

X-raying the back bone: How is Texas looking in the trenches?

This is where you really start to get into some of the “zero-sum game” calculations that make spring game evaluations difficult. Texas has often tried to hide deficiencies in the past by playing 1s vs 2s but in reality this often has the opposite effect. You should be able to assume that 1s will dominate 2s while feasting on mistakes and if that doesn’t happen without either exceptionally banal or unaggressive play from the 2s then your no. 1 unit there is probably not going to thrive against the rest of the Big 12’s no. 1 units. See the Texas offense in the 2014 and 2015 spring games for examples.

Fortunately we do have some fixed variables to start from in this one because both lines are returning several starters that have played in a lot of games. We already know that this OL can maul people on the left side, that the right side has been porous against the pass-rush in the past, that Poona Ford has the capacity to be disruptive but can also get caught and washed out, and that Chris Nelson is a solid run-stopper. That’s all been demonstrated from game film.

So if we see Malcolm Roach wreaking havoc on the left side, for instance, that’s a better indicator of a high ceiling in 2017 than if he abuses the right side. If we see a young guard like Elijah Rodriguez or Pat Hudson get movement on Nelson or successfully stave off a nice Ford stunt those are similarly positive indicators.

What we really need to know is whether Texas has depth inside to survive injuries (they need to find one guy that could realistically be a starter at either guard spot) and whether they can send five guys into pass patterns without worrying that poor play at RT is going to cause a turnover or an injured QB. If they can find an RT that won’t make them worried about that as well as a third guy that can credibly offer a similar solution to injuries at either tackle spot…that’d be great. Probably they’ll have to make six-man protections an emphasized part of fall two-a-days though.

Poona Ford. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Poona Ford. (Will Gallagher/IT)

On the DL we know that this group has the ability to do damage on stunts and slants because we’ve seen most of the major actors here and we’ve seen them do really well in those circumstances. That means that they can provide a nice test of whether the OL is coming along in picking stuff up, just as DL resistance in base schemes to the straight ahead power of Connor Williams, Patrick Vahe, and Jake McMillon will be instructive on where that unit is at.

An ideal scenario is probably one where we see Roach get the best of Connor Williams a time or two, wreck shop against the RT, but then see that RT pick things up well against everyone else. That could mean Texas is okay at RT but potentially has All-Americans on both lines…that’d be nice, you can build a good team around that without needing to be Mensa.

X-raying the hips: Linebacker and safety play between the hash marks

This is probably the realm of the game where Texas has been the most deficient over the last couple of years. You can’t play consistently good defense in the Big 12 if you don’t know how to play fast and confident within your assignment against basic level runs and passes. Offenses in this league are designed to force the linebackers and safeties to play in a lot of space while worrying about a lot of different things, they can chew up undisciplined or unsure units.

A crew of defenders that know where their help is against a given block, run, route, or route combo and can work together is going to be much more effective than a group of insanely talented athletes that don’t. The reason TCU, Oklahoma State, and K-State regularly have solid defenses is that their coaches know how to teach team defense and they’re usually rolling in new veterans in the interior five (LBs, N, and Ss) that have been through base install a few times. Oklahoma State is usually only talented enough to take away one thing at a time but they can definitely take it away when they want to.

The best Texas was able to do last year was make teams work their way down the field against cover 2 and then hope to tighten down in the red zone. Denying certain runs or pass schemes between the 20s would have required that the linebackers and safeties knew what they were doing in base calls and they didn’t.

We’ll have a pretty good idea after the spring game if these guys know what they’re doing in base calls because that’s pretty much all they’ll be doing. They should be diagnosing the offensive plays and charging hard and fast into their assignments or there’s cause for at least some concern.

I’m guessing that the offense will at least run some simple RPOs (run/pass options) that combine gap/zone run schemes with bubble screens or other outside throws and that should give a great glimpse into whether this interior five are “attached at the hip” or not.

The key here is not whether the play is successful or not. The offense may be rolling out suspect blocking TEs that can’t block anyone or walk-on RBs that can’t make much trying to run away from Malik Jefferson in any circumstance. The key is whether the LBs and DBs play their assignments speedily and with good technique. If that is happening more often than not, then don’t worry about the results in the spring plays, things will come together in the fall when it matters.

It should be very interesting to see what happens Saturday and send the results to the lab for some Ianalysis the following week.

History major, football theorist.