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Texas fans were recently able to hear from all of the new staff that will be trying to restart Longhorn football into the new decade and preserve Tom Herman’s place in it. Thanks to online availability and Precocious Joe Cook’s transcriptions we now have a wealth of quotes and thoughts from the new coordinators on scheme, philosophy, and fit to the existing Texas roster.
Parsing coachspeak can be very difficult and sometimes fruitless, but generally coaches do tend to give some things away if they get questioned at detail on what they believe in or plan to do, particularly if you study how they approached things at their previous stops. After studying film from the past for new coordinators Mike Yurcich, Chris Ash, and Coleman Hutzler I have a better idea of what they’re planning for the coming year.
The other new coordinator
Linebacker coach was arguably the most important position coach hire facing Texas this offseason. That was certainly the case once Yurcich and Ash were settled on as the new coordinators. You can track Texas’ boom/bust cycles on defense over the last decade by whether or not they had good, upperclassmen linebackers on the field.
It has to be noted that aside from 2010, Texas ran zone blitz defensive schemes throughout the decade under Manny Diaz, Charlie Strong, and Todd Orlando that always put a major emphasis on LB playmaking. The new scheme is not a zone blitz scheme, nonetheless having experienced LBs certainly helps in facing Big 12 offenses that love to attack the position.
With Juwan Mitchell and safety convert DeMarvion Overshown as the favorites to hold down the two jobs in the 4-2-5 defense they’re building, Texas is swimming against the current of the decade somewhat in terms of that translating to a good unit. Mitchell was a part time starter a year ago and the scheme will be new to him while linebacker will be new to Overshown.
Technically Chris Ash and Coleman Hutzler are listed as co-coordinators. It’d be easy to cynically suppose that Hutzler’s listing as a Co-DC was a part of justifying a big enough salary to pry him away from South Carolina and Will Muschamp to try to coach up a shoddy LB corps in a single year with everyone’s jobs on the line. By that same token, if those are the stakes then perhaps Hutzler also wanted to have a greater command of how things would work up front in order to make the move into the swirling waters on the Forty Acres.
At any rate, Hutzler had some comments about LB deployment the other day that made it seem like he might have co-DC-esque input into how the front will be structured. In particular he noted that the Will would tend to shoulder more coverage responsibility than the Mike linebacker, which wouldn’t necessarily be true in Ash’s Rutgers/Ohio State system.
The Muschampian method of LB deployment that Hutzler hails from involves having a Mike and Will linebacker with the Mike linebacker aligning to the open B-gap (behind the nose) and the Will to the open A-gap (behind the 3-technique). That means you can end up with an alignment like this…
…where the “middle linebacker” isn’t in the middle of the two OLBs (counting the nickel) in the strict sense.
With the announcement that DeMarvion Overshown will be playing the Will linebacker spot, it would appear that they’ll be asking him to use his speed to play the A-gap while minding receivers. That can be a lot of ground to cover, moreso than if your assignment is the B-gap, but playing range is Overshown’s greatest skill and he’ll get to play behind a 3-technique.
The front can be set in different ways to try and match the Will onto the tougher coverage assignment but the challenge becomes what do you do against motion and against trips? In our diagram above, if that H slot receiver motioned over to the boundary how would the D react? Would the nickel chase him? The safeties rotate? Or would the mike linebacker bump out to cover him while the nickel had to move inside?
How does the D align if the Y is another slot receiver and he’s outside of the box? What if there remains a TE but he aligns opposite the three receivers? It’s likely that DMO will find himself in alignments like this:
Overshown is capable of getting well above average width and depth from an alignment like that if he gets a pass read, but it’s still a challenging task for him and also for the nickel and strong safety who are put into a lot of space. Muschamp used to do it this way at Texas and get away with a lot because the strong safety was Earl Thomas…then it was Blake Gideon and things slipped.
What’s the nickel doing?
What you have to worry about in a 4-2-5 defensive structure is teams isolating your weakest coverage defender against a vertical route 1-on-1. Art Briles, that scoundrel, did a lot to show offenses new ways to accomplish that aim. Here’s a couple of particularly popular methods right now for isolating a nickel defender:
The defense has three options for how they want to play this. One way is to ask the Will linebacker to play it pass-first and carry that dig route by the H receiver so that the strong safety can hang back to help the nickel against the post. Another way is to have the free safety drift over to help so the defense can have safeties on top of both slot receivers while the corner is left defending Z on an island.
The third way is to ask the nickel to defend that post route without inside help from a safety, which can be a really good way to give up six points. With Overshown as your Will, option A is clearly the best. His specialty is closing through the wash from depth against the run to make tackles earlier than you’d expect.
Here’s one of the other main plays you worry about:
This play was a favorite for LSU last year and Baylor has mixed it in at times. The chief threat from this concept is the slot receiver running a fade route with tons of open grass to get outside against the nickel. There are other route combos that arrive at the same result, this just happens to be a common one.
The best way to stop this is by having the strong safety sell out to stay over the top on the fade but that’s trickier than you’d think. If that unobstructed stick route by the H receiver gets vertical enough that will hold the strong safety’s attention and not allow him to get over the top. If you want the strong safety to be able to sell out to drop down the hash you have to slide the free safety over and leave the cornerback on an island against the Z receiver or leave the will linebacker on an island with NO help over the top on the H receiver.
Or you can play a nickel that can turn and run with a slot in all that space and deny the fade route, which is exceptionally difficult. Spread play-action can also exacerbate all of these issues and lure in linebackers or safeties in ways that leads to the nickel or strong safety being asked to try and run with slot receivers racing downfield at full speed.
Welcome to the world of four-down, nickel defense against the modern spread, where having only two deep safeties starts to restrict the options for the defense.
At the nickel, Texas revealed two tidbits at the press conference. The first came from Tom Herman announcing that Anthony Cook would get some work at the position. Cook has always had a knack for processing information on the field, short area quickness, and physical play. His move to nickel makes a lot of sense, particularly in contrast to asking him to turn and run with outside receivers in these press schemes given his lack of elite recovery speed. A slot fade is still tough, but at least he offers more versatility against some other combinations. The other interesting tidbit came from Chris Ash who noted all the roles the nickel might play on this defense before conceding that they might play someone different on first and second down than on third down.
If the plan is to play a run-stopping DB on first down, Texas had better find a boundary corner that can play on an island to allow that free safety to shade over and help against all of the vertical route combos opponents will throw at them on 1st-and-10. If the plan is to play Anthony Cook and have DeMarvion Overshown hang back to help against the pass, there are more options. The main strategy on defense in 2020 will be to challenge receivers with press coverage, make the QB hold the ball, and buy time for Joe Ossai and the DL to get home. That will help, but some of these inside vertical routes that have revolutionized the Big 12 can create some quick reads and dangerous situations for the defense that press coverage outside won’t address.
Tweaking the offense with Mike Yurcich
There were some mixed messages from new OC Mike Yurcich on the degree to which the offense will be “his.” Reading between the lines it sounds like he’ll tweak the existing Tom Herman offense, much like he did for Mike Gundy (and less so for Ryan Day), and call plays.
Questioned on maintaining Tom Herman’s rigid adherence to 11 personnel, Yurcich responded with the old Mount Union mantra, “players, formations, plays.” The idea behind this philosophy is that in a given year you determine who your best players are, which formations create good matchups for them, and then choose plays from there. In other words, Texas’ preference for staying in 11 personnel may indeed be a relic of the past, or it may not depending on the development of the tight ends on the roster.
I think we’ll see Texas continue to use 11 personnel a lot but also package together some new personnel groupings on offense to feature individual players or to attack opponents.
Tempo was another hot topic. Herman started things off by mentioning that Yurcich had already brought a more advanced up-tempo system with him to Austin, meaning that when Texas rushes to the line in 2020 they’ll probably have more up their sleeve than the unbalanced, inside zone “touchdown play”. Yurcich added that he sees the advantages of tempo being the ability to rob the defense of the ability to deliver detailed instructions from the DC to the players on the field based on the offensive formation, and to exhaust good DL.
For 2020 a crucial detail will be how this dovetails with some of Yurcich’s comments on his new “signal caller” Sam Ehlinger.
“Toughness, for one,” Yurcich noted when asked to describe what stood out to him about his new QB. “…there’s a lot of football IQ going on, he has a high football IQ, and you know he has a good business mind as well so it doesn’t just pertain to football. But he’s a very intelligent man, to say the least.”
After noting some of Ehlinger’s running and throwing skills, Yurcich continued “he can manage the game really well because he can get you out of bad plays, he knows where the defense is, tremendous vision, so he’s the total package.”
Over the last two years, Herman tended to use Ehlinger’s football IQ and the tempo package in order to try and carefully control games in a mode similar to Floyd Mayweather with his defensive approach to boxing. To avoid big shots early, score points, extend the contest, and win with efficiency down the stretch. In 2019 Texas ranked fourth nationally in third down conversion rate at 48.9%, in 2018 they were 14th at 46.38%. Ehlinger’s ability to keep the chains moving while protecting the football has been perhaps the defining (positive) trait of the program.
But to win the Big 12 in 2020 Texas needs to pair that savvy with tempo to give Ehlinger the opportunity to not just check the Longhorn O out of bad situations but to check them into good ones. Authorizing Ehlinger to check into vertical passes of the sort we detailed above as potentially problematic for Texas’ new 4-2-5 defense could be the key to this team gaining an edge in a loaded league in 2020 and finally securing the elusive Big 12 title. It’s time to let the Big 12’s biggest heavyweight start looking to go Mike Tyson on some of these opponents.
Spring practices and additional pressers will reveal more, but there’s a picture coming into focus for what Texas will be in 2020.