Looking back, looking ahead

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By Ian Boyd, Inside Texas Special Contributor
Posted Sep 4, 2014
Copyright © 2019 InsideTexas.com

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Charlie Strong at the UT Spring game. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Texas’ victory against North Texas was perfect for revealing the differing strategies and starting conditions of the Texas offense and defense. Strong, Bedford, and the defensive staff inherited a richly talented squad on defense with years of experience but a lack of know-how, confidence, and ultimately toughness up the middle.

Looking back at North Texas

By employing straight forward schemes and using an install process that hammered home base concepts before adding complexity, they finally got Texas’ defense playing to its level of talent.

The Longhorns came out blitzing early and pressured UNT into oblivion in one of the more dominant defensive performances I’ve seen at DKR.

As much as defense is about training athletes to respond to an offense, offense is about the development of certain skills. Timing, throwing, catching, blocking, it’s much harder to build a great offense overnight.

As it happens, Shawn Watson has brought aboard a particularly complicated and intricate brand of offensive football in emulation of “pro-style” offensive tactics. These tactics take a certain amount of time to master and function best when all the starters have multiple years in the system.

In the midst of David Ash’s game, in which he was 19-of-34 for 164 yards with one TD and only 5.6 yards per attempt, I began to wonder if this was the right system for Ash. While he handled pressure adeptly and moved well on the run, he was hesitant on the quick, timing routes in the rollout and quick game that were intended to be the foundation of the Texas offense. Was this the right offense for Ash or was he better in Bryan Harsin’s “vertical or checkdown” based system?

Beyond that higher level question, the UNT game begged the question of can this Texas offense handle the blitz?

Several of the opponents coming up on the schedule, including this week’s BYU Cougars, love to bring pressure and disguises from all different angles. The young Texas line, in the midst of learning multiple run schemes and protections, struggled with things as simple as tackle-end stunts from the Mean Green DL.

Additionally, Texas didn’t rep many responses to edge blitzes. Within the structure of this offense, blitzes from different angles have to be mastered and handled by the offense through hot routes and checks by the receivers and quarterbacks. You are talking about a rep-intensive approach that relies on quick recognition and chemistry from the receivers and the QB.

Now we see that not only will Texas not have David Ash available to attempt to master this complicated approach, but the ‘Horns will have to rely on young Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard.

Even if the OL is able to master their protection schemes in one week, there’s no chance of Swoopes or Heard mastering a West Coast offense’s tools for handling the blitz. Instead, the offense will have to be re-tooled around what strengths do exist on the roster.

This team has two talented backs in the steady Malcolm Brown and the surprisingly healthy and still explosive Johnathan Gray. The team also has a young, inexperienced, but overall powerful and athletic OL that just lost their leader. Watson is also left with a fantastic blocking TE, another that can run routes and block on the edge, and finally a pair of athletic if hopelessly inexperienced quarterbacks.

The solution is simple. Get in big formations and run the dang ball with zone-read, power read, QB draw, packaged plays, rollouts, sweeps, and perhaps the occasional deep play-action bomb. Don’t make these QBs execute a pro-style scheme and most of all, rely on dominant defense to create opportunities for the team to win games.

Now as for winning that next game…

Looking ahead to BYU

The Texas defense has surely had this game circled for a long time now. Whatever they say to the press before the game, you know that each and every one of them has a year’s worth of pent up frustration and rage to unleash on the field this coming Saturday night.

For the most part, that’s a very good thing, but BYU isn’t a team that will just line up and smash into you. Texas’ anger has to be a smoldering, cold fury that’s carefully focused or else BYU will exploit it.

BYU’s offense has evolved since 2011 when it was a pro-style offense that couldn’t perform consistently well enough and was easy foil for Manny Diaz’s aggressive Texas defense. They’ve since gone in the direction of the HUNH (hurry up, no huddle) spread and have a full complement of very modern triple-option, packaged concepts, and POP passes.

You can’t defend this stuff with anger and toughness, it has to be with cold, focused fury that carries a team through careful preparation and lends the mental toughness to stay assignment sound regardless of what happened the previous snap.

Here’s an example of the kind of modern option play that BYU utilizes that is particularly tricky for defenses to handle:


If you’re playing traditional option rules against these modern takes on the option, in which the QB has a forward pass read, then you will get burned by the pitch.

Fortunately, Strong and Bedford are familiar with these approaches from their time at Louisville and have a strategy for handling such concepts.

The 4-3 Under defense that forms the foundation of Texas’ defensive principles is all about keeping the ball “inside and in front.” Well, how do you do that if the ball can go from being “inside and in front” of you to “across your face and over your head” with a flick of the wrist by the ball-carrier?

Normally the sam linebacker would look to keep the ball funneled inside of him, but on the BYU play above he’s responsible for covering that pitch player, so how can he attack the QB and keep him from finding open space?

The answer is by breaking old school rules about “stringing out” the option and relying on team pursuit to the ball. Instead, Texas will look to keep the ball in tight spaces.

Here’s an example of how that looks from the base 4-3 Under front. Given what we now know about Strong’s preferred nomenclature we’re going to label the strongside end “A” for anchor, the nose tackle as “N,” the weakside end as “F” for fox, the 3-tech defensive tackle as “T.” Middle, weak, and strong linebackers will be “M, W, and S” respectively. The strong safety is “$,” free or boundary safety is “B,” and the corners will just be “C” for now. If the nickel is in for the sam he’ll be “N.”

Here are the keys to executing this approach. First the unblocked defensive end on these plays has to take a wide path and force the QB to either throw the “pitch” or keep the ball and run past him. If the end can do that, he allows the linebackers and safeties to fill downhill rather than having to chase Taysom Hill into open space.

It’s one thing to be a mobile QB who attacks the edge and another to be one that cuts upfield where safeties and middle linebackers are coming straight at you. We’ll see how Hill responds.

Another result, besides forcing the offense to play in a box rather than in space, is that your sam linebacker is free to play coverage on the pitch player rather than assuming his normal duty of forcing the run back inside. The defensive end now accounts for that duty of forcing runs back inside.

Now, it’s also worth noting that BYU has some rather short centers on their OL with 6-foot-0, 280-pound freshman Tejan Koroma and 6-foot-0, 317-pound senior Edward Fusi as the two guys they rotate in the most. I’m as big a fan of Islander football players as anyone but those are some short and squatty guys for the task of trying to stonewall pass rushers. So, you wonder how they’d respond to Strong’s “raider” inside blitz package:

That center starts the play thinking he’s going to be double-teaming Tank Jackson like in the video clip above. Instead, he lunges for Tank to find the Texas nose tackle stunting outside while Edmond and Hicks are crossing paths and coming into either gap next to him at full speed…tackles for loss ensue.

The key for this play is that the strong safety, Mykkele Thompson, has to be effective dropping down and filling the run as a replacement for the middle linebacker. This is his big chance for redemption as Thompson was probably single handedly responsible for at least 100 rushing yards by BYU in 2013.

The Texas defense will be perfectly equipped and prepared this year. They have the schemes, the players, and it would appear they have mastered the fundamentals of how to play these modern offensive tactics and not only respond with sound defense but even to take the fight to the offense with aggressive fire zones. The vision of Manny Diaz finally fulfilled.

That said, the BYU QB Taysom Hill is a very strong andelusive runner and the Cougar passing game has grown considerably since last season. They’ll get their points, so Texas has to have an approach on offense that allows them to hang in there and punch it in when the defense gifts them with field position.

This is where the skill and talent of the BYU defense comes into play. The Cougars play a base 3-4 defense but it’s actually far more multiple and stunt-heavy than commonly assumed or understood. For every snap they ask a stout Islander to stand up the center there will be two more snaps where he’s stunting as the Cougars bring pressure.

Their secondary, specifically at cornerback, is the weak spot. If you can force their DBs to flip their hips and run downfield, they are vulnerable. But underneath them their linebackers and defensive linemen are very strong.

BYU will have a two-layered approach to Texas this coming Saturday but in either instance they’ll play deep, un-conflicted pass defenders that are looking to break on the ball. The first layer will be a base rush with 2-read coverage behind it.

2-read is a variety of quarters that plays the deep safeties over the top and asks the corners to either drop deep or stay shallow based on route distribution by the offense. Beating 2-read requires a QB who can push the ball downfield and beat the safeties. Technically, Swoopes has the arm strength to do this, but the second layer of BYU’s strategy will make that a questionable tactic.

That second layer is their own arsenal of fire zone blitzes. The Cougars have a ton of disguises, stunts, and blitz looks. They can bring pressure from every angle and their two outside linebackers, Brandon Kaufusi and Alani Fua, are very effective taking the edge or stunting inside.

They’ve also loaded their DE positions with smaller athletes for the purpose of bringing more movement and stunting rather than playing three big defensive tackle-sized players up front.

If Texas wants to ask Swoopes to drop back and attack a somewhat limited secondary down the field they’ll also be asking him to read disguised coverages, throw against deep defenders breaking on the ball, and understanding the protection in front of him to know when and where he has time in the pocket.

You can bet good money that Bronco Mendenhall would welcome such a strategy.

The other approach is to use an option heavy game planwith big personnel and see if Texas can lean on the small BYU front, protect the ball, and eventually wear them down.

The first key is to throw out much of the passing game. Is the other team blitzing? Run the ball. They are loading the box? Run option to get even numbers. Can’t run the ball? Throw a few safe rollouts or deep play-action bombs. This offense cannot afford to compromise ball security in attempts to move the chains or they risk putting the team in a hole from which it cannot dig out.

This may actually be a blessing in forcing the offense to simplify and adjust sooner to a dual-threat QB future, which is frankly much easier to build and maintain than a pro-style system.

As far as formations and concepts, Texas will probably spend most of their time in the double TE formations that were shown against UNT with this particular look seeing more action:

There are endless varieties of ways to arrange the players to create favorable match-ups, as BYU will attempt to show against the Texas defense. In this diamond look, Texas can either put McFarland and Swaim both on the field as lead blockers or use Gray or Brown in place of McFarland to increase the angles and running schemes that can be run from this formation.

On this play the QB just reads the unblocked “Jack” outside linebacker. If he stays home to stop the RB dive, the QB keeps it and runs around his two lead blockers. By loading up both receivers to the other side of the formation, Texas dares BYU to either completely ignore the passing strength or else leave themselves vulnerable to the run game.

Watson can also call bootleg, rollouts, all the base runs, and some play-action off these types of formation as well. The question will be which QB on the roster is able to make the right reads, make enough throws to keep the defense honest, and overall protect the football.
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