We’ve talked big picture about what Joe Wickline and Shawn Watson’s offensive creation will look like, but we won’t come to an understanding of the 2014 Texas’ offensive potential without examining how our tailbacks will fit into the system.
In the run-heavy, ball control system that Charlie Strong prefers and Wickline is tasked with building, the play of the Texas running backs is essential in building scoring drives that will allow UT to keep pace with the Big 12’s explosive offenses.
There are five main competencies where the Texas RB’s will need to show proficiency in order for the offense to truly hum and avoid stagnation. We’ll evaluate how Texas’ four main RB’s, Daje Johnson, Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown, and Joe Bergeron fit into these different tasks.
The Inside Zone:
Inside Zone is likely to be the primary play for the Longhorns, if not in 2014 than in subsequent seasons, for its relentless approach to pounding the A and B gaps and imposing Longhorn will on opponents.
The key to running the play effectively as a tailback is to make quick reads of the interior DT’s and the linebackers,choose a crease, and then make the cut and explode through traffic:
Johnson is not a back particularly well suited to the Inside Zone because of his small size and subsequent inability to taking the pounding necessary to lead into linebackers in the hole. There’s simply no need for Texas to employ Johnson here and risk what he offers everywhere else.
Gray is a genius in either zone scheme because his vision and fakes allow him to manipulate linebackers in narrow spaces and explode through creases:
In this clip he aims for the playside A, sees the DL has clogged the hole but the linebackers are committed, cuts back inside of the H-back’s block and explodes right past the linebackers who likely would have been able to scrape back into position against a slower back. Of course, the Free Safety lights him up at the end but there was little Gray could do about that.
Here’s an instance of a typical Brown Inside Zone run:
His eyes lead him to the cutback lane after targeting the playside A gap and his shuffling feet get him to the hole with some forward momentum. However, he is easily caught and brought down.
Brown makes good reads on IZ and is very reliable about finding the creases, hitting them, and falling forward on arrival but he offers no explosiveness or great potential for big gains unless the play is exceptionally blocked. He has shown the ability to handle multiple 25 carry games, which makes him a valuable cog in the 2014 machine.
Then there’s Bergeron, who loves to hit the cutback lanes on Inside Zone and get outside as quickly as possible where he can punish smaller defenders in the open field.
Bergeron has two traits that Brown lacks: explosive lateral quickness to bounce outside, and the ability to blow by linebackers with his first two steps after making his cut.
Bergeron is also capable of playing games with the linebackers and countering their responses. On this play the linebackers flow hard to the cutback lane, and Bergeron sees this and responds by planting his feet and exploding through the originally targeted playside interior gap.
The RB Draw:
The Draw was a big part of the OSU attack and molds well with Inside Zone in how it emulates some of the same footwork for the OL and some of the same reads for the back.
Again, the emphasis is on reading the nose tackle and then the Mike linebacker quickly, making a cut and exploding through the hole.
Johnson has more value here because the Draw often comes into play against an aggressive pass rush and a box vacated by defenders looking to defend the pass. Consequently, there are more open spaces the offense is looking to exploit with speed.
Who can forget Gray’s run on an RB Draw against Oklahoma in 2013?
The initial hole was massive enough for any back, but Gray’s ability to exploit the open spaces available in the 2ndlevel make him stand apart on runs like these.
As with Inside Zone, Brown is capable of finding the crease and hitting it but he doesn’t do a whole lot for you after reaching the 2nd level. Bergeron again offers better explosiveness along with some better traits in other typical 3rd down play calls
The passing game:
The routes and receiving expectations of the running backs will be as simple as releasing into the flat and looking for the ball, releasing up the middle and turning for the ball, or flaring out of the backfield and catching the ball on the run.
In each of these plays, what’s essential is that the back can reliably catch the ball and then make something happen in the open field against defenders.
Johnson is brilliant as a receiver in these types of scenarios because he’s in the highest percentiles of athletes in changing direction, acceleration, and open field moves.
Here he takes a poorly thrown Case McCoy flare and effortlessly beats the hapless Cyclone linebacker trying to take away his crease for an easy 16 yards.
Gray, who of course is not probable for much of the 2014 season, is also a dynamic player on these routes:
Brown is not. Although he has reliable hands, again his lack of initial explosion and open field moves make him an unfrightening weapon in the passing game for any defense with good pursuit in the defensive backfield.
Bergeron is a solid target in the passing game with some dynamic abilities in the open field though less than Gray or Johnson.
We should call this skillset “freshman-bane” as it routinely keeps young backs off the field for offenses with a large reliance on the passing game.
Fortunately for Texas, the fact that Brown, Bergeron, and Gray are all upperclassmen means that each is more than competent in understanding their roles in pass protection. I’ve seen evidence on tape of willingness and competence from each in this role.
Johnson lacks the size and lower body strength to stand up bigger pass-rushers and should obviously be used as a restraint against heavy blitzing as a target of screens or hot reads.
Outside Zone was very good to Texas in 2013 and will likely be a prominent part of 2014 as well for a few reasons. First, Texas’ sole returning starter on the OL, center Dominic Espinosa, has great quickness that allows him to consistently execute reach blocks in the scheme. Secondly, Texas’ returning edge blocker extraordinaire Geoff Swaim returns and is joined by another very solid blocking TE in Blake Whiteley, and finally it’s the best play for Texas’ two best running backs coming into 2014 healthy: Johnson and Bergeron.
The play begins (for Wickline) with the OL taking their usual drop step and then quickly moving laterally. The running back is targeting the space just outside the playside offensive tackle’s hip (inside of the TE if the formation features one) and looking to see whether the defense’s force player is holding the edge against him and how hard the linebackers are flowing to the ball.
The best Outside Zone runners have the patience and vision to watch the play develop, and then the suddenness to beat the linebackers outside or cut inside of them and explode up the gut once they’ve made their decision.
This is a concept that favors the skills of Johnson, who excels at bouncing plays outside and moving with suddenness and explosion in the open field.
On this play Baylor fills the cutback lanes but their edge defender is hooked inside by the TE and Johnson is able to bounce outside. Then it’s just a footrace to the end zone and we know who wins that contest:
Gray is brilliant in Outside Zone as well and is possibly the best Longhorn at hitting the cutback lanes that develop from linebackers flowing too quickly to the outside:
His ability to cut so precisely and then accelerate into the creases those cuts land him in is elite.
Brown has the vision and the ability to hit lanes on Outside Zone. If you make it exceptionally easy for him, he’ll land some big shots for you:
As always, you can reliably count on Brown to hit the lane that’s available with body lean and forward momentum but explosive plays such as the one above against Oregon have to be made by the blockers in front of him.
On this clip of Bergeron running Outside Zone you can see the moment where he makes his read and explodes through the lane inside of the TE ahead of the scraping linebackers:
He then also makes another cut in the open field to finish the play in the end zone.
Draw and Zone can be run with a lead blocker, in which case it’s important for the back to be able to threaten and make use of the potential running lanes that don’t have the lead blocker. Ideally, the back can target one gap before cutting behind his lead blocker and thus also help get the linebacker out of position to handle the lead block.
Johnson is clearly one of the important weapons for the Texas offense in 2014 for his ability to transform Draw, flare routes, and Outside Zone into potential home runs at any given moment.
Gray offers a similar explosiveness along with the ability to pass protect and run Inside Zone but it’s possible that Texas won’t be able to count on either in 2014.
Of the remaining two veterans at the position for Texas, Bergeron offers the greater upside. He has the explosiveness and physicality to land harder shots than Brown while the last year has seen him add the quickness and vision to execute the main plays. Brown has a fascinating offseason ahead of him in which he’ll need to get in greater shape to offer a better option than Bergeron as the main back.
That said, there should be enough carries for both and Brown’s ability to reliably execute each of the concepts and create positive yardage, if not big plays, will undoubtedly make him a main contributor in the 2014 offense. If Brown’s commitment to the offseason workouts give him another step, all the better. Texas will need all healthy options to continue to grow and provide some big plays in 2014 for Strong’s ball control approach to work.