Inside the Gameplan: Twilight of the power-spread

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“In my opinion when you play such a unique defense back-to-back weeks, there is a fine line of saying, hey, we’ve got to — some of our base stuff is not going to be good, right, you say we can’t do X, Y and Z because they’re going to be in position A, B and C. So you say, okay, well then we need to do D, E and F. I think when you veer too — again, there’s got to be some of that. There has to be, or else you’re not going to move the ball.”
Tom Herman, November 25, 2019

The muddled nature of Herman’s explanation for why his offense was abysmal for the second consecutive game tells the story of why his own side of the ball has collapsed in the crucial third year of his regime. Both Baylor and Iowa State play defenses designed to handle the stresses of spread football and Herman has simply lacked answers in response.

Texas is going to finish the season with Texas Tech on Friday for the second time in Tom Herman’s tenure as the head coach. The other post-Turkey Tech game (2017) was notable for featuring a gameplan that anticipated an ability to power through an iffy Red Raider defense despite Texas’ own offense fielding one of the worst OL in program history and Syracuse transfer Kendall Moore at TE. Tech shut down Texas’ tight zone play and Kliff Kingsbury worked out Texas’ dime coverages late in the game before freshman Sam Ehlinger ultimately threw the game away trying to make something happen.

The odds of a deja vu scenario feel all too likely. This matchup gets at the heart of Herman’s struggles in Austin. The design of the Texas offense is to use spread spacing to isolate the Longhorn front against overmatched Big 12 opponents and then repeatedly trample them with the direct, inside zone run game. For much of the last three years, Texas hasn’t been trampling teams but instead routinely getting into third and longs that Sam Ehlinger has attempted to extricate them from with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Whatever happens against Texas Tech, the fact that Texas is back in such a familiar setting means that a re-evaluation needs to occur regarding Tom Herman’s offensive vision.

Urban Meyer’s investment

Urban Meyer pulled Tom Herman out of Ames, IA where he’d been the OC for Paul Rhoads for three seasons. He was at that time a bright young mind in the world of power-spread football who was recommended to Meyer as a useful agent for updating the formula that had produced the Tim Tebow offense and two national championships at Florida.

The big update that Herman brought to Meyer’s offense? The same tight zone play we’ve been watching serve as the undercurrent for Texas’ offense the last few years. Herman convinced Meyer that this extra physical brand of inside zone was going to better serve to control the line of scrimmage while the various accoutrements of the spread offense would prevent opponents from getting numbers to the ball to outnumber the offense.

In 2014 they had their big breakthrough in which they won the national championship at Ohio State, steamrolling big, bad Wisconsin and Alabama before bullying fellow “spread to run” Oregon in the final. Here’s a glimpse into their chief weapon Ezekiel Elliott’s trajectory over the 2014 season:

Zeke's 2014 rushing log.jpg

A big change occurred in those final three games, all of which were postseason games. Ohio State took on Wisconsin in the B1G title game, then Alabama in the semi-final, and Oregon in the championship game. The big change was at QB, starter J.T. Barrett was injured at the end of the Michigan game and replaced by Cardale Jones.

Take a look at how Michigan lined up against the Ohio State season finale while Barrett was still at the helm:

Michigan vs Zeke.jpg

The Wolverines are in 4-3 personnel with the free safety at about eight yards deep and playing flat-footed against the run and the sam linebacker crashing on the edge at the snap. JT Barrett completed 13 of 21 passes in that game for 176 yards at 8.4 ypa with one TD and zero interceptions. He did a lot of his damage hitting underneath routes from spread sets against those big Michigan linebackers who had their eyes on the backfield.

Here’s how Alabama lined up against Ohio State in the playoffs:

Bama vs Zeke.jpg

The Crimson Tide are in nickel personnel with the safeties 12 and 14 yards off the ball. Ohio State attacked them before almost every snap with change of strength motions by the slot and TE as well as slot sweeps, all of which forced Alabama to rotate their safeties and adjust their mental thinking on the fly before the snap. The play after this screen shot was an outside zone/sweep for Zeke that went for 84 yards and a touchdown.

Cardale Jones completed 18-35 passes in this game for 243 yards at 6.9 ypa with one TD and one INT. He did most of his damage on a few long crossing routes and go routes that led to Buckeye points in the first half. Alabama’s safeties couldn’t handle the stress of tracking Devin Smith and Jalin Marshall on deep routes while also closing the creases that opened for Zeke Elliott. Between that and the motions the Buckeyes were using, they were creating major spread stress to opponents and breaking them structurally with superstar Zeke in position to take advantage.

Jones’ numbers weren’t as good as Barrett’s, but the places where he was able to attack opponents on the field mattered. Defenses had to back off, allowing Zeke to dominate at the point of attack and explode in the final three games.

The Tom Herman show

The goal with power-spread football is to use the spacing created by multi-receiver formations to clear out the box so that you can pound the ball between the tackles and control games. Zeke accomplished more than that, which helped set up Herman to get a head coaching job in Houston. Interestingly enough, Herman inherited some “unique” tools to execute that strategy with the Cougar roster.

The main drivers of the Houston offense were 5-11/186 pound Greg Ward Jr, 5-9/182 pound DeMarcus Ayers, and the scrappy and unheralded 6-2/245 pound FB/TE Tyler McCloskey. In year two the Cougars were able to build more of a passing game without Ayers that featured Linell Bonner and Chance Allen, but it still hinged largely on leading rusher Ward, Jr.

Ward had 197 carries (including sacks) in both 2015 and 2016 and his ability to withstand that workload was crucial. Major Applewhite was pretty instrumental here but they employed much of the Herman system, moving McCloskey all over the place and creating space between the tackles to power the ball through. Ward’s ability and willingness to use his tremendous quicks to find openings between the tackles, his durability doing so every week, and the scrambles he routinely made to move the chains on third down allowed their power-spread to control the ball.

However, injuries to the OL in year two combined with a lack of a good inside runner aside from beat up Ward made it tough to control games in the trenches. Fortunately for Herman, the passing game did enough to get them through and the successful recruitment of Ed Oliver helped Todd Orlando’s defense go nuclear. The Cougars won some big games in 2016 before the staff headed North to Austin.

The plan in Austin to overpower the finesse oriented Big 12 with power-spread tactics initially had a good prognosis. Herman and his staff started recruiting the state’s best players, Yancy McKnight would beef them up into thick bullies, and then they’d go pound teams into submission. Sam Ehlinger was the perfect QB and joined the show from year one. Then there was NFL talent both on campus and in the easily recruited junior and senior classes of the Texas high schools that were coming aboard every year.

Just a few problems. One was the lack of TEs on campus that could make Herman’s brand of power-spread viable. In Herman’s system this guy serves as a mobile bludgeon in the run game to create schematic variety, double teams, and to punish nickel fronts. When it’s time to throw, he just needs to be a mobile set of hands to occupy a defender while better receivers work against matchups in space. When Andrew Beck was lost for the 2017 season with a fall camp injury, there was no one else around to fill the role and the offense cratered. Beck returned for a nice 2018 season in which Texas executed the system at a pretty high level while winning 10 games, then he graduated…

The first wave of replacements in the 2017 class were Reese Leitao and Cade Brewer. Leitao was nearly kicked out of the program and has never managed to master the physical side in order to bring the necessary smashmouth dimension. Brewer has fared better but was really more of a receiver in high school at Lake Travis and multiple injuries have delayed (or negated) his development as a blocker and sapped some of his explosiveness.

In 2018 they added Malcolm Epps, who decided to become a 6-7/230 pound receiver and try to run around little scrappy corners rather than trying to block defensive ends. For 2019 they got Brayden Liebrock, another receiving-oriented talent, and Jared Wiley who has the right mindset but also a lanky body that hasn’t had time to be filled out by McKnight or molded into a technician in the trenches. No transfers or position changes have occurred, even though a converted LB or DE (think Caleb Bluiett) would have unquestionably served the offense better than having the extra WR coach.

Another problem was the changing dynamic of the league. Herman’s introduction to the Big 12 took place at the same time as old AAC rival Matt Rhule, who had a similar vision to build a physical team up in Waco. One year after Herman was hired, Matt Campbell arrived to build a smashmouth team in Ames. Then last year Texas Tech and West Virginia hired similar “physicality and defense matter too” offensive coaches in Matt Wells and Neal Brown. Finally there was the ultimate repudiation of Herman’s approach up in Norman, where Lincoln Riley’s superior offensive acumen and established talent/development pipeline was cranking out teams that could overpower the league with scoring with or without competent defensive play.

Herman’s biggest problem has been the inverted Tampa 2, developed by Matt Campbell and Jon Heacock up at Iowa State and subsequently adopted by much of the rest of the league, including Rhule and Phil Snow at Baylor. Both of those teams utilized that scheme in the last two weeks to completely dominate Herman’s third-year Texas offense. The design of the defense is to drop eight defenders and take away deep route combinations and perimeter screens by alignment before encouraging predictable runs into initially light boxes that are quickly reinforced by the secondary closing quickly from initial depth.

Baylor IT2 vs Texas.jpg

Iowa State held Texas to 54 yards on 26 carries from this defense. Baylor yielded 191 rushing yards on 31 carries but a fair chunk of that came from Ehlinger scrambles that were tackled short of the marker and then the single Keaontay Ingram run that broke free for 68 yards. The Bears also had six TFL and five sacks and essentially shut down the Longhorn offense.

In both instances Texas was doomed by their lack of a physical TE in conjunction with the fact that both the Iowa State and Baylor DL personnel were more than up to the task of holding up in relative isolation against the Texas OL. Those fronts could certainly hold the point of attack long enough for the quick moving cavalry to clean up.

So Herman’s vision to utilize recruiting and McKnight to build units that could overpower finesse opponents in the trenches has been foiled by his own inability to mold a physical TE from a cast of finesse options and the sharpening focus on defense around the league. Herman’s spread run game tactics that were once novel and convincing to Urban Meyer for usage in conquering the Big 10 are old hat in the Big 12, where defenses have been evolving to deal with more advanced spread systems for the last decade.

So now what?

Texas has devolved in 2019, showing less versatility on offense and trying to default to out-muscling opponents that have proven difficult to out-muscle. In combination with the struggles of Todd Orlando’s zone blitz defense to handle modern spread offenses (particularly when the secondary is in the infirmary) that’s led to a team that may finish with a record no better than they had in year one.

To get better results in 2020, Tom Herman is going to need to drastically change his approach to clearing out space in the trenches or else seek to impose Texas’ will somewhere else. The inverted Tampa 2 defense, which has begun to emerge as the antagonist in the Tom Herman story, has challenged the Longhorn approach in a fundamental fashion. What has really troubled Texas is that the defense is designed to be able to send a safety to stop the run from multiple angles and often unaccounted for by the OL or TE.

There are only five defenders in the box against six blockers, but the defense can send the sam linebacker, nickel/middle safety, free safety, or boundary corner and they can send them in multiple combinations to get a sixth defender in the action and perhaps also a seventh or eighth. The teams running this defense may concede you some initial advantages in the box, but they’re going to close with speed to limit the damage in a way that Michigan, Alabama, or the AAC could never do. Combine that with schools like Iowa State and Baylor fielding DL like Ray Lima and James Lynch while Texas flounders at the TE position and you have more than a problem, you have a crisis.

There are two potential answers to this problem. One is to work out more RPOs, formations, and motions in order to control those off ball defenders and make them hesitate while prioritizing finding a great blocker at TE. Essentially to carry on the same vision but to do it better. The other answer is go the other way, spread opponents out even further and instead of asking them to cover ground to come downhill make them execute pattern-matching schemes and move in multiple directions while chasing multiple receivers. Essentially to pursue the direction that LSU and Clemson have gone in with spread passing, seeking to impose Texas’ will with skill and athleticism rather than brute strength.

Considering that the inverted Tampa 2 was designed to handle better versions of the offense Texas is running, the latter direction would be the better option. The problem is that it runs counter to everything Tom Herman’s Texas is trying to be. Texas is at a crossroads as a program, the next few steps could shape another decade of Longhorn football.

History major, football theorist.