Football

The Sark clinic

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A Sark clinic I think many of us have seen some clips from has now been posted in full on YouTube.

Some key nuggets I noticed.

First of all, me and Sark are clearly simpatico on the nature of modern offense and the current state of the give-and-take with offense and defense.

The foundation of his offense is the RPO game. Defenses respond to that by playing safeties shallower and sitting on the runs and quick passes, so Sark has a collection of play-action passes (play-pass is the preferred nomenclature today) designed to look like RPOs but actually intended to give longer protection so they can throw double moves and post routes.

Defenses inevitably react by playing more man coverage to deny easy RPO releases or guys running free, so Sark has drop back passes designed to beat man coverage. They run mesh, smash, and constantly have guys running crossing routes underneath to punish man coverage. A couple of Sark quotes from this clinic illustrate the thinking here:

“Not everything has to be vertical, vertical, vertical. I will say, I’m a firm believer, and sometimes people will laugh at me… I don’t like throwing the ball to a stationary target. Because I’m as slow or I’m as fast as Julio Jones at that moment.”

“You’re trying to defend RPOs. How are you gonna defend RPOs? Play man-to-man. Okay, if you’re going to play man to man I’m going to run away from you.”

“I haven’t called a curl route all year. Why would I?”

Notre Dame tried to play them in Cover 3, which he notes is a rarity today, and Bama did exactly what he said back in this clinic they’d do against such an approach. They threw RPOs underneath all day to wide open guys and wore the Irish out because they couldn’t close and tackle DeVonta Smith in space.

Defenses have employed man and tight match coverage over the course of this decade because they realized you can’t survive allowing a team to throw bubble and ‘now’ screens to a guy like DeVonta Smith. It’s way too easy for the offense. But the lethality of Sarkisian’s play-pass concepts throwing down the field forced Notre Dame to say “well…we’re going to have to try.”

The other option against RPO teams is to sit in Cover 2, which Sark promised to attack by staying consistent with the run game. This is the potential weak spot in the offense and where tonight’s matchup will be interesting. Against RPO teams the inevitable conclusion is to make the offense beat you by sustaining drives with the run game. Just as Duncanville attempted against Southlake Carroll in the 6A semi-final this weekend.

As Sark himself notes in this clinic,

“The game is about explosive plays. If you can’t create explosive plays it is really hard on offense. I don’t care if it’s in little league or in the NFL, to put 10 to 12 plays together successfully in a row without one of your guys screwing it up is really hard to do.”

It’s a good thing Texas has some young athletes on the offensive line and Bijan Robinson. Sark’s goal will obviously be to establish RPOs in the Texas offense along with their play-pass shots and drop back plays in order to make it extremely difficult for opponents to do anything but sit back and hope Bijan can’t beat them all day long. This is game theory and something I suggested would be the foundation of the Texas offense back in 2019, and it was to a point, but Texas clearly didn’t trust or develop their receivers enough to lean into it. Tom Herman’s fallback was always the quarterback run game and having the extra numbers in the box to run the ball. Sark is the polar opposite here.

Casey Thompson (Will Gallagher/IT)

“We are not a running quarterback team. We will not ever be that way. We believe in throwing the football and protecting the quarterback.”

Obviously with guys who could run like Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Locker, Sark would use the quarterback run game at times. I doubt he completely fails to utilize Casey Thompson or Hudson Card, both of whom are dangerous runners on the edge. However, it will never be the offense’s go to solution and don’t expect Sark to make dual-threat attributes a priority in recruiting.

He mentions in the clinic how his programs dove into the RPO game back at Washington after Locker graduated because the next man up was Keith Price. Sark explains how Price was a phenomenal high school point guard who could distribute and make quick decisions, so they installed the RPO game to lean into his strengths. Now it’s the foundation of the offense because the run game is still the foundation of the Sark offense and RPOs are the most efficient way to run the football on a down to down basis.

Now here’s the rub. He pauses at one point in the clinic to diss defensive coaches for emphasizing base defense and stopping two-back power as the foundation of their systems when those are not plays or systems they really need to worry about. Yet he also repeatedly emphasizes football will always be a physical game and clearly understands the modern RPO/spread world as being similar to nuclear armament. You make your attacks as “nuclear” as possible and eventually conflict just turns back into gritty, mano a mano ball in the trenches and the mud again because it’s too dangerous to do things the new way.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but eventually defenses will set traps and “defend in depth” like Iowa State does with their 3-3-5 “flyover defense.” What happens when the defense wants you to run the football and are building their strategy around the assumption you will do so while utilizing and developing tactics designed to stymie your ability to score while running the ball? Now you either need to be able to throw the ball anyways or you need to still have the power run game in your back pocket to consistently win across the field and punch the ball in when you reach the red zone. I think Sark understands this and will always want to have the power run game as a trump card. The Big 12 will do its damndest to challenge him on this point.

One thing I’ll be watching tonight is whether or not Ohio State properly understands this new reality and has a plan to make Alabama beat them down the field in the run game and then finish drives with points.

A couple of other nuggets:

-I’m learning from hearing multiple pronunciations now when the letter “a” is followed by the letter “g” in these Polynesian names that it creates an “ong” sound. So Tagovailoa sounds like Tonga-vai-loa and Uiagalelei like You-ong-a-la-lay. Maybe this is already obvious to everyone else, I don’t consistently listen to broadcasts when I watch games so I might be late here.

If I’m still a little off someone let me know but I found that helpful in mastering these new names. Kinda like a few years back when we were all figuring how to handle the silent N’s at the beginning of Nigerian names.

-Sark runs a fairly simple drop back passing system. He emphasizes it’s true progression-based passing. Route one: Open? Throw. Not open? Go to route two. Route two: Open? Throw. Not open? Go to route three.

-He also mentions back in this clinic before the season how Tagovailoa is an absolute maestro on RPOs and could signal adjustments of his own accord to the wide receivers, but wasn’t as effective in true progressions whereas Mac Jones was good at consistently going through his options. Personally I had a lot of doubts about how Tagovailoa would translate to the NFL where drop back passing is a bigger deal. It’s hard to know how Mac Jones will respond here when he isn’t getting so much time to throw but he’s a different guy.

-Part one of the quarterback battle this spring will be who handles the RPO game best. Then, it will be who can hurt teams throwing down the field on the play-pass concepts. Obviously Casey Thompson flashed more potential against Colorado than many of us (certainly me) really anticipated. My guess though is he may win the job initially but I wonder if he’ll hold off Hudson Card down the line. Thompson has some background with RPOs that will help him. Card is theoretically great at most anything but we haven’t seen much of it yet in burnt orange. We’ll see how things go.

-Power is essential at running back these days, not explosiveness. The nature of the game now is having a running game that can consistently move the chains when teams are playing off to stop deep passing. Like I’ve noted, this is pro-style Briles. The Briles Bears would regularly field bruisers who could power downhill off tackle like Terrance Ganaway. Najee Harris excels at subtle movements and making the right reads and consistent gains, and Stan Drayton excels at teaching this. Bijan Robinson will excel there as well, even though he obviously has some explosiveness to him Texas won’t discourage.

Even if Texas uses a scat back in the future I expect them to always maintain a power back in the stable, much like the dynamic USC had with Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

-Bama’s play-pass blocking scheme is pretty terrific and a key to their success. They basically start like they’re blocking the run only to back off into protection and use the running back to pick up any blitzer the run blocking assignments don’t account for.

-Sark seems to have a nice blend of confidence and firm conviction in who he is and what he teaches. It’s countered by a touch of humility resulting from his fall from grace at USC combined with a coaching career in which he’s sat at the feet of people like Norm Chow, Pete Carroll, Norv Turner, and Nick Saban. He mentions he tells his kid to go to Mater Dei and play at the highest level, whether he’s able to start there or not. Sark comes across as a guy who believes in being tempered by fire and competing at the highest level, which you certainly like to see from someone taking a job like Texas.

Cover photo: Screenshot from All-22 Breakdown video on Youtube

History major, football theorist.