Inside the Gameplan: Surveying the wreckage, looking for hope

Johnathan Gray. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Johnathan Gray. (Will Gallagher/IT)

The frustration of Longhorn fans after viewing the latest installment of the Leprechaun horror series can probably best be summed up as severe disappointment that this program is still so far away from measuring up to the national programs that Texas has always called peers.

While the outcome wasn’t exactly shocking, being live at the game you couldn’t help but feel the hopelessness as drive after drive failed and suspect that it was all nothing more than a re-enactment of the charge of the light brigade.

Re-watching the game presented a different, clearer picture. Most elements of the game weren’t near as bad as they felt live, with one major exception. There were problems but there are solutions that could very likely keep this team from enduring another losing season.

Defensive problems

These weren’t as bad as you would guess. There aren’t many teams of Notre Dame’s quality on the schedule, or even in the country, but there are definitely some things here that need work.

Problem 1: Role players asked to serve as cornerstones

This game provided a very clear picture of who Dylan Haines and Peter Jinkens are as football players. Protect them and allow them to flow to the football unencumbered by blockers or difficult matchups and they will make plays. Isolate them against good athletes without help and you can’t expect to come out ahead too often.

Haines had a tough night with three plays really standing out in particular. First was the initial Irish touchdown, where he was late to break on the post route by Will Fuller into the end zone. If you ask Haines to handle Fuller in space, and don’t disguise that you’re doing so, that’s the kind of result you should expect.

Next was the touchdown run by Josh Adams. In this instance, Texas was showing cover 6 but then rotated into cover 3 before the snap.

Duke Thomas failed to get outside of the slot receiver and consequently couldn’t force the ball into the alley where pursuit could more easily reach him. Haines had to adjust his angle on the run and was unable to breakdown and make the tackle. It was a bad play but it was typical of the kind of plays safeties make when team leverage is poor.

Kris Boyd and Jason Hall tackle Notre Dame. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Kris Boyd and Jason Hall tackle Notre Dame. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Finally there was the 66-yard TD pass to Fuller. This was cover 6 and while Duke failed to force Fuller inside to Haines, Dylan locked his eyes on Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire and failed to adequately oversee his deep half to stop Fuller from streaking down the sideline for the score.

Notre Dame’s run game revealed further limitations of Haines as well as Jinkens. The Texas staff still drops Haines into the box to replace linebackers at times rather than utilizing Hall, who can’t yet be trusted to make the right run fits.

Jinkens and Haines both struggled to contain running plays in Texas’ 5-2 fronts that brought Malik as a run blitzer. At times the Texas DL got reached or washed out ahead of them but when they found themselves in positions where they needed to be aggressive and explosive they often weren’t.

Against top opponents, Jinkens and Haines are under-powered options for controlling the middle of the field.

Solution 1: Better play around them

It’s frankly going to be hard to replace either Haines or Jinkens on this team, particularly Dylan because there aren’t that many safeties on the roster and he frankly might still be the best player at the position.

What Texas can hope to do is protect with better play around them so that they aren’t routinely put in position to try and beat top opposing athletes in isolation.

Texas DL obviously struggled some against the Irish OL, which has no peer in the Big 12 that even come close save for Baylor and TCU. With that said, they weren’t beat up nearly as much as many commentators have suggested and when you consider that Tank and Ridge are still getting in shape and that Texas’ defense barely got any rest at all in the 1st half, the picture looks more hopeful.

It’s a sad fact that Texas isn’t quite able to build around its two returning safeties to the extent that you’d have hoped for and it’s largely because the most dependable player back there is the one who’s most limited athletically.

Defensive problem number 2: Outside coverage

Kris Boyd in South Bend. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Kris Boyd in South Bend. (Will Gallagher/IT)

This defense defers a lot of stress outside to the cornerbacks. The field corner in cover 6 plays without deep help on the sideline and both corners do so in cover 3 and the blitz packages. “Don’t get beat deep” is the first rule of the game for these guys.

The staff made the baffling decision to move John Bonney, who was a brilliant tackler at nickel in the spring game, out to right cornerback, which is the spot that is most commonly isolated without safety help.

Meanwhile they moved the top coverage player, Duke Thomas, inside to nickel to help control or blitz the edge against Notre Dame’s option run game.

Evidently the staff likes Thomas so much that they want him to be wherever they feel the schwerpunkt of the game is going to be, which they anticipated being the QB run game. Instead it was Zaire going 19 of 22 for 313 yards (14.2 yards per pass!!!) and three touchdowns.

Bonney was clearly trying to make sure he didn’t get beat deep down the sideline and he’s still learning how to do so without surrendering too much space on the outside.

Solution number 2: Better game plans and more Kris Boyd

John Bonney is currently day-to-day with an injury sustained during the game and whenever he re-enters the starting lineup, it should be back inside at nickel where his tackling ability can shine while he still hammers down coverage techniques.

If Texas needs to keep Thomas inside and play another corner outside in Bonney’s place while he recovers, then Kris Boyd is the clear choice. He’s going to be the most hated man in the Big 12 before his career is over as he came in looking to dominate Irish players and let everyone know about it.

He’ll probably get beat by savvy technicians, of which there are more than a few in the Big 12, and perhaps have some assignment busts but he’s the right freshman to take a chance on. It’s very difficult for opponents to create space against Boyd as he’ll press them up with fear of getting beat deep because he knows he has the recovery speed to make up ground.

Connor Williams. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Connor Williams. (Will Gallagher/IT)

The likely All-American, Fuller, may have made Texas look vulnerable but this is still a secondary that is going to give Big 12 teams fits as they round into form.

Offensive problems

Offensive problem number 1: The offensive line

They were really bad, especially after the Irish took a commanding lead and forced the Longhorns to try and throw the ball to get back into the game. As we discussed in the game plan last week, Texas was never going to have a chance in this game if they couldn’t run the football.

A positive was that UT largely focused on running inside zone with as much variety as Watson could conceive of, which is the correct approach with a Joe Wickline offensive line.

The negative was that Texas is not yet dominant in this scheme and is often terrible in pass protection, particularly on the inside. The Longhorns have to be strong inside this year on the offensive line for two major reasons.

First, they have to be able to drive people and create rushing lanes on inside zone, which is going to be the foundational play for this season. That requires good work on the combo blocks inside and the ability to cover up big defensive tackles and reach linebackers.

Secondly, Texas cannot afford to be bad in pass protection on the interior. If your tackles struggle with edge rushers you can always slide the line or chip those players with a back or a tight end, but when the pass rush can come flying up the middle like this:

There’s nothing you can do.

Solution number 1: Reshuffle the lineup

Texas’ best guard is clearly Kent Perkins, and while he may be solid at tackle in run blocking (though definitely not in pass protection), he needs to be at guard where he can be a team strength. The staff seems to feel that Sedrick Flowers’ leadership requires that he be on the field but it’s hard to see why they would need a senior that struggles to protect against basic blitzes and stunts.

Freshman Patrick Vahe also struggles with some basic stunts and defensive movements and isn’t always effective when trading off defensive tackles on the combo blocks in order to climb up to the linebackers. However, when his assignment is to get low and drive a defensive tackle off the ball he flashes tremendous ability.

It’d be nice if the team could eventually play an OL of Williams-Vahe-Doyle-Perkins-Hutchins, with Flowers and Raulerson rotating in to keep everyone fresh. Perhaps Vahe will be relegated to backup for a while until he catches up to Flowers, which should take about a few weeks, if that. Whatever they do, the staff needs to get Perkins back inside.

Offensive problem number 2: Swoopes is broken

I expected the tape to show a total cluster on offense with absolutely nothing going right, receivers jammed up and unable to find space, and an offensive line that couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.

That definitely happened at times…but there was also a fair amount of this:

This is a concept that Swoopes was asked to master early in 2014 where he has “levels” to the field side and a curl-flat combination to the boundary.

In 2014, Swoopes was reading this play pretty well but often struggled to deliver accurate balls to the middle of the field.

In 2015, Tyrone Swoopes threw a go route, which no receiver on the field was running. He’s not under any great pressure but just fires the ball out to no one. You might speculate that he had the wrong play call, but this wasn’t an isolated incident of regression.

In the 2nd quarter, Swoopes came in for Heard after Jerrod got the air knocked out of him on a scramble. Facing 2nd and 14, Watson calls an RPO where Swoopes has a stick route to the field and a hitch route to the boundary while the OL blocks inside zone up the middle of the field.

If Swoopes sees the Irish loading up the box then he can punish them with either of those routes. The Irish drop a safety over the stick route, which means the hitch is open. Swoopes is able to recognize this fact:

In 2014, Swoopes regularly murdered opponents with laser quick hitch routes to John Harris on the boundary.

In 2015, Swoopes threw the easiest pass in the playbook a yard over his receiver’s head.

There were other plays where Swoopes had the hitch route available and wouldn’t throw it, as if he had the yips. You’re watching a player that has regressed majorly since last season and can no longer do much of anything save for scrambling for 3-6 yards if he has an escape route available up the middle. He’s shell shocked and playing with zero confidence right now.

Solution number two: Bench Swoopes

Swoopes was always going to be a project. He’s a quiet, unassuming kid from a small town with every raw physical tool but a mindset and experience level that needed a redshirt, time to build confidence and skills as an understudy, and then the opportunity to be the a caretaker of a good offense before being thrust into a featured position.

Jerrod Heard in South Bend. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Jerrod Heard in South Bend. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Instead his shirt was burned, the system has been changed on him every offseason, and he’s trying to carry a growing unit. We’ve probably ruined yet another one here.

Ty needs the chance to sit on the bench and perhaps get some counseling so he can process everything that’s happened, all the stress he’s been carrying, and whether he wants to be the QB at the University of Texas or if he simply feels that’s what he has to be. I think there’s a world where he might have been a good Texas QB but in this universe it doesn’t look likely that this will ever happen.

So it looks like it’s gotta be Heard. Jerrod was actually quite solid in very limited snaps and his 2nd drive went awry because of a blocking failure and then Gray not receiving an audible on 3rd down which led to a broken play and a sack.

Heard plays with confidence, perhaps stemming from the fact that he trusts his legs to give him options to make plays when things go wrong. The team has an obvious identity with Heard, they can focus on running zone read and RPOs while taking deep, play-action shots to Foreman or Burt.

That may produce some struggles against the better teams that can load the box to stop the run but a team with Heard, Gray, Daje, Burt, and Armanti Foreman on the field can execute a pretty simple spread offense and score some points just by virtue of having so much speed working in space.

Looking back at the tape it became clear that it’s not the scheme that the Texas coaching staff has to work on; the most important step is realizing that Swoopes is done and the Heard era has to begin now. If they don’t realize it before Saturday, Bailiff’s Owls are going to drive home the point with a tone that Charlie isn’t going to appreciate.

Choose wisely Charlie, the eyes of Texas are upon you.

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History major, football theorist.