Thursday, July 30, 2015

What can Louisville vs Auburn tell us about Baylor vs TCU?

I broke down Louisville and Auburn's week 1 match-up over at SB Nation.

One thing I talk about in that article is the "Blue-Sky" defense that TCU loves so much and which has frequently been ripped apart by Baylor's passing game. Louisville used that same defense, which uses the nickel and boundary safety as run-force players while asking the corners and free safety to play deep, to great effect last year.

Gerod Holiman had something like 27 interceptions playing as a free safety while James Sample led the Cardinals with 90 tackles playing in the run-support role. It's a great defense if the other team can't make you pay with the passing game.

You figure Josh Harvey-Clemons will now step into that boundary safety position and be primarily responsible for helping Louisville stop Auburn's run game. The big question will be, can Auburn's new passing quarterback make the Cardinal corners and free safety pay as Baylor frequently does against TCU?

It'll also be interesting to see if Cardinal DC Todd Grantham takes note of what smashmouth spread strategies have done to TCU's version of the defense and maybe adjusts his plan this year or carries a back-up plan in the event that Malzahn mimics the Baylor method for attacking the coverage.

Which Longhorns benefit the most from Texas' move to the spread?

Texas moved to the spread to better capture what's happening in high school football across the state and to make it easier to utilize the athletes they already have on the roster. But which ones stand to benefit the most, and which players are getting a tougher draw as a result of the schematic changes?

Read about it at Inside Texas.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dispelling the myth that wide hash marks help college offenses

They don't.

And those hash marks, amongst other factors, are going to complicate things for college spread passing attacks that want to emulate the success of the Patriots. Read all about it over at Football Study Hall.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

If Santa came to fall practices, what would each B12 team ask him for?

Fall practices always bring a surprise element to preseason prognostications that media and even coaches often struggle to account for.

Your typical preseason magazines are all written up after spring ball when the back-up players who have been in the program have already had their first crack at proving themselves worthy of filling the available roles for the following season.

However, these guesses always leave out the possibility of something major happening either in summer 7-on-7 drills or in fall practices that could have big ramifications for a team or even the entire league. It's difficult to anticipate how various freshman could impact a season before observing how they perform both in pads against college players and then on Saturday's in game situations.

There are also players and schemes that come alive in the summer and fall that no one anticipates. At this time last year no one would have guessed that senior Texas WR John Harris would finish 2014 with 1k receiving yards. In fact, no one would have necessarily guessed that he'd even start the whole year.

Coaches usually enter fall practices with a decent idea of what their team will be but also a wish list and list of goals that they know they need to accomplish in that time to have the kind of season that will everyone in their program is hoping for.

If Santa came and visited fall practices for every Big 12 team, here's what they'd all be asking him for:

Kansas: A spark of hope

This would most likely come from freshman QB Carter Stanley winning the job and demonstrating the ability to command the Air Raid offense. They also need some play makers to emerge at the skill positions in the worst possible way, to have a defensive line that can stop the run, etc. They need everything.

But nothing will invigorate their program more than finding a leader who they could start to build this program around.

Iowa State: A pass-rushing defensive end

Cory Morrissey was one of the better DEs Iowa State has had in the Paul Rhoads era and even he only had six sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. Sometimes the Cyclones are able to build reasonably tough defenses that can force you to work the length of the field, but they have never had the kind of impact player in their front who can inflict negative plays that prevent their defense from having to absorb punches all day.

One of their best ends, Mitchell Meyers, has been receiving chemo this summer for Hodgkin's Lymphona and somehow still participating in summer workouts. It's an amazing story and you wish him the best.

There isn't an obvious talent here that stands out as a guy that can lead the defense though.

Texas Tech: A free safety

New DC David Gibbs' defense depends on having safeties that can own the middle of the field and bring their hats to the action. He had some feisty, if undersized, safeties at Houston that were willing to bring the wood even against big, physical teams like Pittsburgh.

He's got a ton of options at Texas Tech, including returning starters JJ Gaines and Keenon Ward, but no one who has shown major potential to be an eraser that will make their aggressive system work.

Kansas State: A new "Cat" safety

Randall Evans has owned the nickel position at Kansas State for three years. In that time he's averaged seasons with 66 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, nine pass break-ups, two INTs, and two forced fumbles.

That's strong nickel production, and the K-State system also depends on this player being able to play both as a run-force defender on the edge and as a de-facto corner. It can be hard to find a player worth blitzing on the edge who won't also get whipped when you ask him to play man coverage outside.

The early favorite seems to be Nate Jackson, who played well at the end of the year and served as the free safety against UCLA totaling four tackles and two break-ups in that game. At 5'11" 185 he's well built to play corner but is he also about that run-force life? What will K-State do against 11/20 personnel teams that might meet their nickel on the edge with a fullback or tight end?

Whoever plays QB for them will probably just be the guy that best allows them to pound the ball on the ground and move the chains, but if their D takes a step back then the routes to victory for K-State start to hit roadblocks. They really need to find a good Cat safety, again I suggest they just slide over Danzel McDaniel if Jackson isn't up for it.

West Virginia: A left tackle and shuffled OL

Dana Holgorsen gave us this answer in his B12 media day presser. The goal in Morgantown is to move last year's left tackle Adam Pankey inside to guard to ensure that they can run the ball and eliminate penetration inside with his 6'5" 312 pound frame.

West Virginia often throws the ball either behind the line of scrimmage, or downfield but protected with play-action or RPOs that can slow the pass-rush. Still, their power/zone game really needs some punch on the perimeter to make things work and an athletic upgrade at tackle could give them a chance to feature left side runs in their playbook.

The biggest victory here would be upgrading at left tackle and at guard with the emergence of Yodny Cajuste to play outside. I wasn't impressed with his high school tape but he's generated positive reports since he arrived in Morgantown.

Baylor: A leader in the middle of the defense

In addition to being rangy and productive playing from his middle linebacker spot, Bryce Hager was also the leader of the Baylor defense and responsible for many of the calls and adjustments on the field.

JUCO transfer Grant Campbell is first in line to replace him with Aivion Edwards waiting as another option to take over there after he was unseated at will linebacker by Taylor "Rocket" Young. Baylor should see even greater production from their experienced safety tandem of Orion Stewart and Terrell Burt, Taylor Young is an eraser at will, and they might get more athletic at nickel as well with Travon Blanchard taking over. With all that returning talent and a big DL covering them all up, the Bears probably won't need someone as productive as Hager back at mike but someone still needs to direct the traffic from the middle.

Texas: A new number one receiver

The Longhorns need an offensive identity and to get confident, effective play from a quarterback and their offensive line. Everyone knows this.

However, they should be able to run the ball some with a QB run game, RB Johnathan Gray, and a much more experienced OL. But they have to replace John Harris and Jaxon Shipley outside at receiver or that running game will hit a wall against the league's better defenses.

Oklahoma: Their defensive mojo

Ever since Mike Stoops came back the Sooners have been plagued by non-aggressive game plans that set them up for humiliating defeats. Big game Bob has started losing big games in Norman, which was nearly unthinkable before Brent Venables left, and Mike Stoops has been shuffled around on defense and moved away from coaching the DBs which was once his calling card.

It's not so much their scheme that's rotten but the way they have failed to develop their corners or aggressively deploy their athletes. If they can't find a worthy corner opposite Zach Sanchez and get aggressive play from all of their big, experienced safeties and linebackers they are going to pack into the middle of the field then they could have a supremely disappointing season that spells the end of the Stoops era. Mike Stoops has been coaching without confidence since he was fired from Arizona, you wonder if he needs a sabbatical away from football of if he'll recover his magic in 2015.

If they don't make it work you'll have to start wondering if ol' Bobby might need a change of scenery to recharge as well.

Oklahoma State: Sturdy play in the middle

The only hiccup to OSU deploying a really strong defense in 2015 is whether they'll have players in the middle that can clog things up for the linebackers, do some damage with the interior pass-rush, and make sure that the Pokes aren't soft down main street.

With returning LBs Seth Jacobs and Ryan Simmons they really don't even need these guys to be phenomenal, just to be capable of holding their ground and making plays when they are there to be made. Young tackle Vincent Taylor is one they hope will offer even more than that while JUCO transfer Motekiai Maile will probably find himself doing the dirty work at nose tackle trying to command double teams.

If they get steady play from both, OSU could contend for the Big 12 title. If one of them is excellent then you'd really better look out for Gundy's Cowboys.

TCU: A boundary cornerback

We just talked about TCU's "Baylor problem" which is really the problem that all quarters defenses have in trying to keep their DBs from getting isolated in man coverage with poor leverage when facing smashmouth spread teams.

They should benefit from being able to continue to play field corner Ranthony Texada in man coverage on the outside and focus some of their focus and efforts inside. They'd gain even more versatility from seeing a boundary corner emerge that could allow them to be creative with how they deploy their weak safety.

Ideally this player would be able to lock up a no. 1 receiver in man coverage without safety help, blitz the boundary edge, or be a underneath defender that can force the run. Jason Verrett could do all of this but Kevin White was a real downgrade in the same role despite his solid play. If TCU has two corners they trust to play man on the outside then everything gets simpler and easier for their young safeties playing in the middle.

Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State all stand out as teams that have more answers than questions heading into 2015. Consider those the three favorites to win the league in that order followed by West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Kansas.

We'll see which teams were naughty or nice after fall practices conclude and this season finally gets underway.

Monday, July 27, 2015

TCU's Baylor problem

Most Big 12 pundits seem to be picking TCU to win the conference in 2015. On the surface, their reasoning is straightforward and sound and usually goes something like:

1. Baylor and TCU were close last year, oh so close, and TCU returns their QB while Baylor does not.
2. Sure, they'll both be good on offense and yes Baylor returns more on defense, but Patterson always just reloads on defense and will be fine while the returning players for the Bears D aren't all necessarily that good.

But there are a few problems with both lines of argument. For instance, the idea that TCU and Baylor were very close last year is something of a misnomer. Baylor had 780 yards of offense in that game to TCU's 485, they outrushed the Frogs at 5.0 ypc to 3.4, and out passed them with 9.3 ypa to 7.2

TCU built their lead, which was doomed to collapse, thanks to Baylor's three turnovers. In fact, this is the same way the Frogs had overcome the Bears in Waco in 2012, they picked off Bear QB Nick Florence four times while also recovering two fumbles. The 2012 Frogs weren't much better at stopping the Bear offense than they were in 2014 as Florence still threw for 14.2 yards per attempt although they did at least slow the run game down.

The Gary Patterson Frog defense of the last several years has really only been able to handle the Baylor offense by generating turnovers that prevent the Baylor offense from having enough possessions to bury them. Save for the 2013 contest, they've not really come close to figuring out how to stop the Bears from marching up and down the field and their overall offensive output compared to Baylor's in 2014 wasn't terribly close.

Winning by generating turnovers is great in theory, but can they rely on a similar extra possessions boost from their defense with five out of seven graduating from the defensive backfield?

The next problem with these lines of argument is that they give a lot more benefit of the doubt to Patterson's ability to consistently produce great defenses than to Briles' ability to consistently field a great quarterback.

Every quarterback Art has recruited to Baylor has either thrown for 4k yards in a season or is still in the program, waiting for their turn behind a QB who has thrown for 4k yards. Patterson consistently builds strong defenses, but Briles' own track record with QBs is arguably greater. Who's going to win the mental battle between Seth Russell and the TCU DBs?

Worried about Baylor losing their OC to Tulsa? Well Patterson loses one of his DCs to retirement. You can't assume TCU will reload and still have a great defense without also assuming that Seth Russell could very well produce 4500 yards of offense this year.

Finally, the game will take place in Ft Worth this year rather than in Waco. I'm not sure how much better the Frogs play in the Fort but it's definitely true that the Bears are a different team in Waco.

When this fierce young rivalry's history is examined it's clear that TCU has a Baylor problem, and the Frogs aren't going to surpass Baylor unless they find a better solution for stopping the Bears than hoping a very inexperienced defensive backfield can confuse and pick off the Baylor quarterback enough times to allow their own offense to win a shootout.

You can be sure Patterson has some solutions in mind, but whether they'll be ready to be employed in 2015 remains to be seen.

The problem

Teams that rely on quarters coverage as their main approach have a fundamental challenge when they play spread teams that are balanced with the run and the pass. Quarters is the ideal base defense for a team that wants to have the flexibility to vacillate between max coverage, heavy blitzing, or outnumbering the run and easily move their defensive backfield around to squelch whatever the offense is trying to do.

Their nickel structure allows them to blitz and play man coverage, play aggressive quarters coverage with active run-support safeties, or play two-deep/man-under coverage that eliminates passing windows.

However in everything but the 2-deep/man under calls, the TCU defense is designed to account for the vertical passing game by covering the vertical routes by the opposing receivers with the corners and two safeties playing what basically becomes off-man coverage.

Where quarters teams get into trouble is against opponents that will attack them with both the running game AND the deep passing game, especially a team like Baylor that runs RPOs that do both on the same play call. Against teams that have TEs on the field this is less of an issue as it's easier for the safeties to read run or pass before an in-line TE can get down the field. Against a team that has a slot receiver out wide? Different story.

Another problem for quarters defenses is that they prefer to play safeties that can help against the run as that's where the system draws strength, by being able to quickly involve them in the running game as 7th, 8th, or even 9th defenders in the box. On a normal passing play they are protected and supported underneath by the linebackers and down safety matching routes and funneling receivers into zones of the field they have leverage to defend. However, on a RPO or play-action play the linebackers and down safety are filling hard to stop the run and leave the safeties on islands.

As Manny Diaz says, "quarters becomes cover zero in a hurry against play-action."

Run-stuffing safeties like 5'10" 210 pound Derrick Kindred or 6'2" 194 (4.8 40) Chris Hackett aren't always great at picking up slot receivers in open spaces and playing them in man coverage. In fact very few DBs are excellent at that assignment, but quarters routinely asks them to perform in this role against balanced offenses.

Baylor is a very balanced offense and they love to put the TCU corners and safeties in difficult predicaments with vertical routes. So what's the solution?

Possible answers for the Frogs

1. Adhere to the rule of three by using a free safety that can play man coverage against slot receivers.

I typically call this position the "cover safety." This isn't really a viable 2015 solution for the Frogs unless they re-locate Derrick Kindred to strong or weak safety. He simply can't flip his hips and run with great slot receivers on deep routes:

Now granted that Sterling Shephard is the class of the league, but there are lots of guys that can abuse you from the slot in the Big 12 if try to cover routes like this with big run-support guys like Kindred. KD Cannon, Corey Coleman, Dede Westbrook, David Glidden, Jakeem Grant, Shelton Gibson, and Marcus Johnson all spring to mind and there are likely more waiting to emerge in 2015.

The other safeties battling for a chance to start in 2015 are:

-Kenny Iloka, another run-support specialist
-Ridwan Issahaku, a potential cover safety supposedly battling Iloka for the weak safety job
-Denzel Johnson, the heir apparent to Sam Carter at strong safety
-Nick Orr, a 5'10" 166 pound sophomore who can run who's listed as Kindred's back-up at free safety as well as a back-up at corner.

If Issahaku proves to be the next best safety after Kindred you wonder if he could play the free safety position and allow Kindred to slide over to weak safety where he'd no longer be asked to run with slot receivers in open grass.

There's also the problem of the corner position opposite Ranthony Texada where TCU needs another player to emerge to offer more coverage versatility. The weak safety won't be able to play aggressively against the run if the boundary corner is yet another DB who can't be trusted to stay on top of deep routes against good vertical threat receivers.

2. Adhere to the rule of 3 in a particular anti-Baylor strategy

Generally the Frogs have preferred to handle Baylor by playing to stop the run and trusting their safeties to keep the ball in front of them and generate some turnovers. I think I'v demonstrated above that asking Kindred or Iloka, or even the corners, to be able to stay on top of players like KD Cannon or Corey Coleman without giving up scores simply isn't realistic.

They could go the other way, and try a dime package out against Baylor that would employ Kindred or Iloka as a linebacker while playing a cover safety like Orr or Issahaku at free safety.

They might get pummeled by the Bear run game but this could be a strategy worth investigating if the young safeties on the roster could handle it.

3. Scheme pressure to hide warts

This was the TCU strategy for covering up David Glidden and stopping him from running option routes in the seam against Kindred:

Glidden still had five catches for 59 yards and was probably more open against this look than Daxx Garman realized, but the Frog pressure hurried the Cowboys' throws and forced Glidden to waste valuable time finding open grass.

The key for this was that Sam Carter bring effective pressure, the strongside linebacker be capable of covering out wide like a strong safety, and Kindred still had to be able to play over the top of a vertical although this protected him from the receiver running a two-way go that would force him to flip his hips and accelerate.

The Frogs are going to want to find some blitzers in their defensive backfield in 2015 to help dial up pressure to move the QB's eyes away from weak spots and hurry his reads. If they find a really good one that might be enough to protect them from failing to observe the rule of three, although Baylor's WR spacing make this much tricker than does the rest of the league.

4. Dial back the aggressiveness

You might call this the "Kansas State option" and then you might be immediately suspicious of embracing a strategy utilized by a team that is often beaten senseless by Baylor.

Basically the K-State option is to have your linebackers and safeties play the pass first on RPOs and play-action and then try to close ground and stop the run after ensuring that the Bear WRs don't get to run vertical stem routes without getting bumped or re-directed into the safeties first.

TCU might have a better chance of pulling this off than K-State because they actually disguise their looks and they might have a faster defensive backfield than do the Wildcats in 2015, although that wasn't necessarily the case last year.

The long-term strategy for Patterson seems to be, and should be, to get faster in his defensive backfield so that he continue to ask his safeties to play man coverage at times without worrying that this will result in Baylor scoring 21 points in seven minutes.

A player like Mike Freeze might have been groomed as a safety in previous years but now he's going to be playing in the box as a linebacker for Patterson. A glance at TCU's 2015 or 2016 recruiting classes suggest that grabbing more speedy little athletes who can turn and run is going to be a point of increased focus for the Frogs in the coming years. If your defensive strategy is geared around putting as much speed on the field as possible, what happens when you're getting burned? You have to double down with more speed.

Gary Patterson has a Baylor problem, and it's not at all clear that he'll be able to solve it in 2015. His defense once had the perfect blend of speed and physicality, but the emergence of smashmouth spread systems in the region like Baylor's is going to result in teams continuing to probe the soft spots in the vaunted TCU defense. These issues aren't going away, and if TCU wants to have staying power they'll have to do more than hold onto their hot new Air Raid offensive staff.

They'll need to solve the smashmouth spread and get the right kinds of athletes in their secondary to make their system work in 2015 and beyond. Until that happens, this pundit is picking Baylor to win the Big 12.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Texas returns both starting safeties in 2015...can we build on this?

Over at Inside Texas I give a scouting report on Texas safeties Dylan Haines and Jason Hall and talk about how their complementary skill sets could allow Texas to build something effective in 2015.

In a base cover 3 defense, the greatest value is going to come from either having two swiss army knife safeties who are both good in multiple roles, or in having two guys who can specialize in the respective roles of box safety and deep safety.

After a successful run in Madden on a recent vacation with my brother in law last weekend I came to appreciate the great value in having a dominant box safety that can be a rover in the middle of the field and attack offenses. The ultimate example would be Troy Polamalu, who was all over the place.

If you have a great strong safety in a game of Madden, just control him yourself and pick coverages where he blitzes or plays as a robber in cover 1 or middle hook/zone defender and then sic him on whatever it is that your opponent loves to do.

The ultimate deep safety would be Ed Reed. He could drop deep and deny the middle of the field to the quarterback and allow the rest of the defense to be aggressive.

Obviously if you combined such players, specialized and as they are, you'd really have something. The offense may know more or less which will be doing what but there's still plenty of variety a defense can bring and they can control the proverbial "middle of the chessboard" in a way that will make offense very difficult.

The legion of boom at Seattle has this with Kam Chancellor (the box safety) and Earl Thomas (the deep safety). Each is one of the best at his respective craft in the entire league. When you add Richard Sherman to that combination you basically guarantee a good defense just by having solid role players in most of the other positions.

Texas isn't going to quite have that in Haines and Hall, but they may have a poor man's version of it that could end up being pretty special before all is said and done. Click the link and read all about it.

Wisconsin's hybrid 3-4/2-4 defense

The Badgers never seem to lack for two types of players: big, mauling OL and tweener/hybrid defenders who are both tough and smart.

Their 2015 roster has some hybrid defenders that offer them the ability to play their normal 3-4 defense with SS Caputo as a middle of the field robber or mix in a 2-4-5 spread-busting set that relies on the ability of bizarrely athletic, 6'6" free safety Tanner McEvoy playing as an eraser.

Their hybrid players and hybrid scheme should make them an interesting nemesis for the Buckeyes on the opposite side of the Big 10 conference in a possible Big 10 championship game re-match.

Read all about it at Football Study Hall.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Michigan tries to overcome their struggles with the zone blitz in Harbaugh's opener

I've previewed Harbaugh's opening game against Utah over at SB Nation.

There are essentially two main keys to Harbaugh's offense, one is that they have the players to impose their will in the running game. The other key is having a TE that can execute a variety of routes in the middle of the field and make his West Coast passing concepts work.

They seem to have the latter in Jake Butt, whether that OL is ready to start knocking people around and whether their QBs understand it all well enough to wield the system remains to be seen. As an Ann Arbor resident I'll be watching with interest.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Tight Ends, Reindeer, and the 2015 Oklahoma State offense

Everyone in the Big 12 is looking for tight ends or other ancillaries that can allow them to control the middle of the field without sacrificing the ability to put another athlete on the field that can score when they touch the ball.

They'll often vacillate between which of the three main types of tight end they'll use based on what their roster has to offer. Many times teams will just use walk-ons or players that were hard-nosed but too slow or unskilled for the position they were recruited for and convert them into situational blockers.

Sometimes a team will find a guy that can play multiple TE roles for his team that isn't a situational blocker but a centerpiece to the team, but programs often struggle to always have a player like that ready to lead the way. So they just do what they can and lean on other positions in their system.

In Stillwater, they now have an entirely different problem that is totally foreign to the rest of the league.

Striking it rich with the walk-on program

The 'Pokes happen to be returning one of the most versatile tight ends across the league in Jeremy Seaton, a 6'2" 250 pound former walk-on.

Seaton excelled as an H-back in 2014, occasionally played as an attached single-back TE, and virtually never as a flex. He's first and foremost a good blocker but with Mason Rudolph at the helm, Oklahoma State discovered that Seaton actually had pretty good hands and he caught three balls for 51 yards against Oklahoma and then four for 40 against Washington in the bowl game.

The 'Pokes also somehow found another tight end with their walk-on program in Blake Jarwin, a 6'5" 242 pound kid that was playing offensive tackle in high school before coming to Stillwater and demonstrating surprising receiving ability. In 2014 Jarwin was best as a flex TE or in H-back or attached TE spots that sent him on routes and avoided challenging blocking assignments.

It's worth pausing to note how extraordinary this is that a position which teams often struggle to fill has been filled so well by Oklahoma State with their walk-on program. This serves as a nice reminder that 18 year old athletes have rarely reached their potential, or even necessarily demonstrated what that potential might be over the next four to five years.

There are certain schools and programs that should emphasize their walk-on program and Oklahoma State is one of them. The state is loaded with good athletes who didn't seen a ton of development in high school and could explode after focusing on football in college. There's a reason that Craig Bohl signed four Oklahoma kids to come to Wyoming in 2015, he knows a good developmental project when he sees one and he sees a lot of them in Oklahoma.

Interestingly, Mike Gundy is now saying that they are looking for TEs that can play both as H-backs as well as out wide as receivers. That's pretty challenging, given the combination of athleticism and skills mastery over the blocks and routes necessary to play both roles. Also, it almost seems like dumb luck that they even found the players they have today, so it'll be interesting to see how they manage that moving forward.

For now the 'Pokes have a fantastic blocking tight end who can block from an in-line position, fullback position, or H-back spot and also run down the field and reliably catch the ball if thrown to. They also have a flex TE that can handle light blocking duties from an in-line spot or H-back role but is strong as a route runner/passing game match-up problem and very good in the perimeter blocking game. These players have perfectly complementary skill sets and could play together or in independent packages.

The dilemma

Now the 'Pokes face challenging personnel questions that will probably only prove truly challenging for the rest of the league to answer. How to divvy out snaps for all of their skill players?

You would think that the fact that the rest of the league isn't designed to stop dual tight end offenses (who is?) with complementary players like this would beg for them to see the field together. The problem is that a list of the top five skill players at Oklahoma State would have to include outside receivers Brandon Shepherd and James Washington as well as slot receiver David Glidden.

Although he's only 5'8" 185 pounds, Glidden is a guy that's tough to take off the field as he's nails running option routes in the middle of the field. Washington emerged last season as the best vertical/speed threat on the Cowboy roster and Shepherd is a big, athletic target on the outside that many opposing defenses may have to double.

Who comes off the field to get both tight ends out there?

Now as we discussed in the article on the main types of TE, teams routinely sacrifice playing an extra weapon in order to get more blocking on the field because having the ability to run the football helps the passing game considerably. There's a point, which is hard to measure, at which good blocking from a TE or FB that boosts the run game will aid the remaining receivers on the field more than having another explosive athlete lined up out wide.

But most teams seem to find that sweet spot with three receivers on the field, not two, and then there's another problem for Oklahoma State. Unless an unproven player like Rennie Childs or JUCO transfer Chris Carson emerge at running back, there's no tailback that Oklahoma State would be excited to feature from a double TE set.

There can be no doubt that it wouldn't be hard to make any of the RBs on the OSU roster look better by playing them in a double TE set but would that offense be better than one with Glidden, Shepherd, and Washington all on the field?

So what's to be done?

The solutions

The obvious solution is to say, "what of it? We'll just play packages!" and feature whichever personnel groups are best for attacking a given opponent.

Incidentally, this was the plan at Texas in 2014. The Longhorn roster had an excellent blocking TE in Geoff Swaim who excelled as an attached blocker or H-back and then some other bodies at the position and they also had some spread sets. Although they had particular injury issues along the OL and at QB that complicated the entire season, the attempt to be multiple at Texas was a disaster.

Whatever Oklahoma St. does with their packages they need to keep one thing consistent: Mason Rudolph needs to be the focal point of the offensive identity. It'd also be a good idea to observe the classic college strategy of running only a few main concepts from a wide variety of formations. This way, the core players and Rudolph are always doing the same things but they can mix and match personnel based on what works best that Saturday.

With that in mind, here are some packages that could no doubt be effective for the 'Pokes as they look to make the most of their absurdly strong collection of skill players.

Package 1: Spread-I with Jarwin on the bench

This was a highly effective set for OSU last year and I've argued it's the best set in football right now for its ability to overwhelm defenses by threatening either side of the formation with the 2-back run game and then using the three-receiver set to punish defenses over the top.

It's a particularly effective set for the 'Pokes because Glidden is so good at attacking the seam, Shepherd is too big for most boundary corners to handle without help, and Rudolph and Washington have the necessary speed and arm strength to hit deep throws to the wide side of the field.

One particularly nasty play they've run from this set is a dig-post combination that is perfect for attacking cover 4 defenses, which are a favorite around the league.
The OL and H-back simulate an inside zone "slice" play where the H-back kicks out the unblocked defensive end while the OL gets a double team inside, but in this instance it'll just be play-action. On the backside, Shepherd runs a vertical stem with the option to either run a go route or a comeback if he's getting soft coverage that he can't run past. Many opponents will drop boundary safety down to help against the run. In that event, Shepherd is going to get 1-on-1 coverage outside that will usually result in the corner playing off and conceding the comeback or hitch.

To the field they run a sort of double post combination except that Glidden has the freedom to choose when to break inside based on where the open spaces are in coverage. With the nickel and linebackers sucked in by the play-action it's very difficult for the safety to cover him on this route and nearly impossible for him to do so while also helping the corner defend Washington on the post.

A huge chunk of the productive passing plays for OSU last season came on this play.

Package 2: Double TE set with Shepherd or Washington on the bench

If OSU still wants to feature the passing game while getting both tight ends on the field they may actually prefer to play Glidden over one of the outside receivers simply because he's so reliable running option routes.

One option in this personnel grouping is to use Seaton as an attached blocker while Jarwin lines up as an H-back that gets motioned around to force coverage adjustments for the defense and create match-up problems.

Here's a concept that OSU was experimenting with towards the end of 2014 that could play a bigger role in 2015:
The play goes from featuring two tight ends opposite two receivers to motioning Jarwin into space with the receivers, which should immediately trigger the defense to start worrying about a zone/bubble screen RPO.

Instead, Jarwin runs an in-route against (probably) the nickel while Glidden runs a deep route isolated on the free safety in tons of open grass. Most defense like to respond to a trips set like this with "special" coverage but that locks up the outside receiver with the corner, Jarwin with the nickel (size match-up problem alert!), and allows the deep out by Glidden to get isolated on the free safety.

If your QB can hit that throw and the slot receiver running the route is good at double moves (as Glidden is), that's very difficult to defend. There are multiple concepts available in this set where Jarwin could serve either to block for the speedy Washington on a perimeter screen, be a big target on 3rd and medium or short, or just occupy coverage defenders and get Glidden or the other receiver in a favorable match-up.

Package 3: Run the dang ball

If Oklahoma State does want to use the double TE set to just run the ball and then try to throw it over the opponent's head then they'll probably leave Glidden on the bench to get Shepherd's size and Washington's speed in play on the outside.

With the hires of TE coach Jason McEndoo and OL coach Greg Adkins, there's an unmistakeable sense that OSU intends to move towards "God's play" in the run game and feature the Power-O play.

McEndoo did this a great deal from double TE sets at Montana State and with Seaton's blocking ability it wouldn't be hard to do the same at Oklahoma State. Here's how that would look against the standard Over fronts much of the conference uses:
The first thing to note is that the opponents would have to consider playing a third linebacker rather than their nickel, which could be a challenge since Big 12 teams don't design their rosters to put three good linebackers on the field very often. However, playing a nickel on the edge carries great risk when trying to stand up to Jarwin on the perimeter.

Seaton takes on the more difficult task of kicking out the defensive end while the rest of the line blocks down and the left guard pulls inside of the kickout block and clears a path down the middle for the running back.

If OSU has a particularly good runner he could also threaten the cutback lane on the left and the 'Pokes could look to avoid having that backside safety fill the lane and allow the linebackers to fly to the football by either blocking him with the X receiver or having that receiver run a skinny post that Rudolph would have the option of throwing if he saw the safety fly downhill.

With Seaton on the field to handle the kickout block, Jarwin is free to bully smaller players where he can excel. If the Poke OL and RB are good this could become a very easy way to set up the outside receivers on vertical routes with play-action or RPOs. If they aren't then this becomes purely a situational package for when the 'Pokes want to run the football.

There's no point in putting great emphasis on a package that doesn't benefit Rudolph and the passing game because that's the dynamic that is going to win Oklahoma State football games in 2015.

Package 4: Throw the dang ball

It stands to reason that if the five best skill players for OSU turn out to be Seaton, Jarwin, Shepherd, Glidden, and Washington while the strength of the team is Rudolph throwing the ball, then OSU should probably have a package that plays all of them at the same time.

I alluded to the possibility of this package in my preview at Inside Texas of how OSU appears to match-up with Texas in the upcoming season. This is not a set that you see very often in the college game as few teams look to spread the field in order to feature tight ends because few spread teams have the tight ends to make this an appealing package. Arkansas has been the closest in recent years but their QB was Brandon Allen rather than Mason Rudolph.

New England made this package famous back when Gronk was emerging as a superstar and Aaron Hernandez hadn't yet been found to be a violent criminal. The ways in which New England could alternate between sending five good receivers into patterns or feature max protection for Brady drove Rob Ryan crazy when he faced them as the Cowboys DC.

The Oklahoma State Cowboys could try to be as complicated as the Patriots in how they use their spread passing game and make that the foundation of the Rudolph offense, or they could keep things simpler for now and hope to build a run game. This QB is only a true sophomore with less than half a season under his belt after all.

Teams would inevitably attempt to attack this package with blitzes, and the Cowboy OL was pretty bad in 2014, so in addition to having plays where Seaton and/or Jarwin stay in to block, it would need to have simple ways to attack the defense that get the ball out quick.

One way would be to combine the bubble screen where Jarwin is a lead blocker for the slot receiver with the dragon concept on the backside:
This would not be an easy formation to blitz for opponents. If you bring blitzers off the weakside then the QB has an easy read to punish you with the slant or the check down to the H-back's flat route.

The screen would be hard for opponents to defend from any set as you'd have Jarwin as a 242 pound lead blocker going out against a nickel corner who really needs to handle his block well to offer anyone else on the defense a good chance at making the tackle before the 'Pokes get a nice gain. It's just a shame they don't have Tyreek Hill anymore to utilize on plays like this.

If the 'Pokes want to get more vertical they could use motion or just move Jarwin around to create match-up issues for opponents and then go deep.
This combination would allow Jarwin and Glidden to attack the safeties deep while Rudolph picks which side to attack based on match-ups or how the safeties align. The spot route by Washington running into space that the middle linebacker is trying to cover could also be an appealing target.

Finally, they could leave the "Cowboy backs" in to create a max protection look while sending the receivers deep on the same go-dig-post combination we saw from the spread-I formation:
While this set wouldn't have any play-action to help draw in linebackers, it would make it very difficult for opposing edge rushers to find a way to get to Rudolph. If the young QB has all day then you'd just rely on the quality of the receivers in conjunction with Rudolph's arm strength and accuracy outside the hash marks.

The 2015 Oklahoma State offense

How successfully Mike Gundy and Mike Yurcich incorporate their rare collection of skill players and put Rudolph in positions to succeed could have a HUGE impact on the 2015 Big 12 season.

The Cowboys are returning a ton of young talent on defense that should allow DC Glenn Spencer to mix and match his personnel in tons of sub-packages for attacking Big 12 offenses. Additionally, the league's 2nd tier of teams behind TCU and Baylor has a fair number of holes. Oklahoma and Texas in particular have big questions at QB that could hold them back from reclaiming their traditional roles as contenders.

If the Cowboys can build an offense where Rudolph can thrive while playing good defense, they could be in the mix for the Big 12 crown. The Pokes actually get both TCU and Baylor in Stillwater, and avoiding trips to Waco is generally a fantastic way to finish with a lightly blemished conference record.

So will the best way to build an offense around young Rudolph be to give him weapons and options in the passing game and unleash him? Or to go big, pound the ball on the ground and let him continue to grow by attacking defenses off the run game? 

Go big or go home, Gundy, opportunity knocks.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The three types of modern tight end

The tight end position in a spread offenses has always been a tricky but potentially devastating dynamic to the system. When a spread system has a tight end that can block on the edge or go out for routes it puts the defense in an impossible bind as they determine how to match-up or what schemes to play.

New England has demonstrated this capably in the Rob Gronkowski era, with a player that creates nightmare match-ups all over the field. When a defense has to scheme to cover the tight end, it makes it rather easy for the wide receivers to get open. When a defense has to scheme to stop a running game, ditto.

Within a spread construct teams will also use a TE in the backfield as an H-back, essentially like a fullback, to create blocking angles and lead escorts for their ballcarriers, and as a flex player blocking or abusing DBs on the perimeter.

There's really no better foundational piece for a spread offense than a tight end who demands attention in the middle of the field AND lends credible aid to the run game.

Of course, this player is a total rarity. Even at the pro level the tight ends who are match-up nightmares in the passing game are rarely also great blockers. Go to a power run game oriented program like Minnesota and you'll still see their featured weapon, Maxx Williams, being spared from executing the more difficult blocks in their scheme.

As I've written over at Inside Texas concerning the 2015 Texas tight ends, there are basically three types of tight ends in the modern game. I'm going to go into further detail here to talk about each kind and the types of concept where they boost an offense.

The single-back TE

This is the traditional use of the role and requires a player who can line up in an attached, in-line spot and block on the edge. This player is generally long (6'3" or better) and heavy (240+) enough to grapple with defensive ends. This is very challenging since the TE doesn't get any momentum or often even a favorable angle to help him out and because the defensive end is often one of the best athletes on the field at projecting explosive power in a short distance and time frame.

A really great single-back TE who can grapple with an end is invaluable on zone schemes for allowing the offense to single-block a DE with him and thus allow the OL to double team the defensive tackles on tight zone:

Or he can help them to dominate the edge on wide zone by helping the tackle reach the end before advancing to take out the linebacker or safety that gets there first.
I've drawn both examples with pass options attached of the sort that teams often use to punish teams for trying to involve the nickel in run support underneath.

On the tight zone run the offense is typically looking to hit the cutback lane, so most teams like to use the bubble screen to force the nickel to stay wide and be unable to fill that gap.

On wide zone run the X receiver can block the most dangerous secondary player on the edge so offenses will often use that Y receiver to run into the area of the field that the middle linebacker has to vacate while racing to beat the reach blocks by the OL.

A tight end who can be trusted to go war with a good defensive end like this is usually not an exceptional receiver, and some spread teams will have TEs that they put on the field for these instances when they want to be able to run the ball while sacrificing this position as major tool for attacking the middle of the field in the passing game.

If he is a great receiver, then he is invaluable to a spread offense for running any number of routes to the middle of the field and requiring defensive attention. From the 2x2 set we have above the tight end could cause damage on vertical concepts like the smash route against teams that tried to cover the deep weakside zone with a safety:

Or on ball control concepts like "dragon" where the QB can read the flat defender and throw a quick route to the TE or drill a slant to the outside receiver if the flat defender runs to cover the tight end:
Just between those two concepts the offense can attack a wide variety of defensive coverages. If the defense plays their strong safety down tight to help stop the run then he'd better be able to flip his hips and run with the TE on the smash route.

If they want to play with the safety deep, how effective is the weakside linebacker going to be at getting over to help close the window for the slant on the "dragon" concept?

There's really nothing better than a great, dual-threat tight end.

The Flex TE

Teams often do have success in transforming a big high school wide receiver or tight end into a weapon in the passing game at the college level, but teaching them all the routes that a good TE needs to master to be a weapon in the middle of the field often means that his development as a blocker is neglected.

Additionally, guys who excel at getting open in space aren't always built for war in the trenches either physically or mentally even if they are good at being tough-minded at taking blows after they catch the ball.

Many spread teams with a big TE that is a match-up nightmare in the passing game but not a dynamic blocker will then ask, "why ask him to get his hands dirty or put him in position where he can get chipped by a defensive end? Why not send him out wide to run routes or block for WRs?"

This player then helps the run game either by requiring the defense to send numbers to stop the bubble screen, or in the manner that a slot receiver would help the offense, by running routes in the seams that distract linebackers and cause them to vacate the box.

Here's an example of a flex TE wreaking havoc in the screen game:

And here's a flex TE doing work in wide open spaces, who's going to cover him on a timing route like this? Will the middle linebacker get over? Can the nickel avoid getting boxed out by a bigger player?
A TE that is a difficult assignment for a defensive back or linebacker is bad enough but when he's flexed out in such a way that he can motion around and force the defense into non-ideal coverages then he becomes lethal.

An experiment for the Madden fans out there:

Pick a team with a great receiving tight end and then line up in formations where he's on the field in a normal alignment, then audible into four or five WR sets and see if you can get him lined up outside running a deep route on a linebacker, safety, or tiny corner. That was fun, wasn't it?

Now imagine this tactic being utilized at the college level.

The H-back

Usually if teams have a 6'5" 250 pound tight end that can block they'll stick him along the line of scrimmage to help brutalize defensive ends. However, for teams that rely on gap schemes or who have tight ends that are smaller in size (maybe 6'2" 240) they aren't going to get as much bang for their buck by using their main ancillary blocker in that way.

Instead they'll back him up to an H-back position to allow them to run two-back zone or gap running schemes. In a zone running game he can be effective as a lead blocker for the quarterback on the edge, trapping DL and allowing the OL to get double teams, or serving as a lead blocker for the running back between the tackles:
In a gap scheme he's perfectly positioned to get a running start to execute the kick-out block on a defensive end, a very difficult block for an in-line TE to attempt, and allow the guard to lead the running back up main street:

The consequence here is that from his H-back position behind the OL this player isn't able to run vertical route stems and is relegated to running flat routes and serving as a check down option unless he's motioned out wide as a flex TE.

He can still be useful there, such as on this popular modern bootleg play that plays off the way in which teams will regularly have the H-back work across the formation to block the defensive end or arc around and pick off the linebacker:
Instead of executing one of those normal run game tasks he turns and stretches the defense out to the flat and serves the offense as an option for easy yardage if the defense doesn't get anyone out to cover him or pulls defenders wide and short and allows a receiver to get open.

The offense can also still run concepts like "dragon" on the backside with the H-back running wide to the flat to create a window for the QB to fire the slant route:
The H-back is a major boon to a spread team's run game by allowing them to target different parts of the line of scrimmage while still putting three receivers on the field. More importantly, he's much easier to find than either the 6'5" 260 pound freak who can dominate a DE on one play and then beat a linebacker in coverage the next. He's also easier to find than the 6'4" 230 pound match-up nightmare that can flex out all over the field and run past big people or bully smaller ones out wide as a receiver.

Many Big 12 teams are now content if they can find a good blocker to serve as an H-back and are thrilled if he can do anything else. In our next post we'll talk about a Big 12 team that had such modest ambitions and ended up with a treasure trove in their tight end meeting room.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Jerry Kill's Minnesota Gophers and building your defense outside-in

Over at Football Study Hall I broke down the Minnesota Gopher defense, an aggressive cover 4 scheme that a utilizes wide-9 strongside end and wide 5-tech weakside end as well while getting after Big 10 offenses.

Despite the fact that every member of the secondary besides corner Jalen Myrick was a 2-star athlete, the Gophers have a pretty good unit and corner Eric Murray in particular is a strong player. I again renew my objection to the notion that the service rankings are particularly insightful or valuable.

When a defense has two good corners they can build around it gives them all kinds of flexibility within quarters concepts to swarm an offense's best features, attack with the blitz, outnumber the run, and free up the linebackers and two interior DBs to run to the football.

While taking notes on the likely 2015 Gopher secondary I asked for an opinion from Space Coyote, the brilliant man who runs Breakdown sports, which is one of the most in-depth X's and O's websites in existence and entirely devoted to Big 10 football. You should check it out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Myth-busting popular perceptions of 40 times

We pause in our regularly scheduled discussion of Big 12 preseason thoughts to talk about the ubiquitous 40 time, everyone's favorite barometer of player ability.

It hardly matters what position a player occupies on the field, the 40 time is always mentioned as a relevant factor. People even ooh and ahh when an OL can post a 4.75 in the 40 and there's a general sense that this metric is our ultimate test for overall athleticism.

There are just a few problems with the 40 time. You see, it's not an all-inclusive test that can tell us how great an athlete a given player is and what might be worse, the average college football fan's mind has been polluted by bogus 40 times.

There used to be a very amusing game you could play called "watch that kid get slow!" in which a player would have a listed 40 time of 4.4 on the services' website coming out of high school, go to college, and then be invited to the combine four years later where he would promptly run a 4.7.

Take Oklahoma linebacker Travis Lewis. On his Rivals page you'll see the number "4.34"but at the NFL combine he barely made it under 4.9. What happened? Did he get slower?

Probably some, Lewis did play through some injuries and judging by the photo he clearly gained some weight, but it's still safe to assume that he could never actually run a 4.34. The freshman Travis Lewis who had well over 100 tackles for OU was probably a 4.6 kid at best, but that was more than fast enough.

There's another game you can play where you take the 40 times that colleges offer for their star players and then compare those to the 40 times they run at the combine. Baylor is a serial offender, and Art Briles insisted to everyone at Big 12 media days in 2014 that Petty had the athleticism of an NFL linebacker with a 4.6 40 time.

Yeah...maybe on your stopwatch but not under the laser-timed parameters at the NFL combine where he ran a 4.87.

Nowadays we have an added resource for providing more consistent, laser-timed 40 times to the world of college football recruiting. Nike's SPARQ testing which measures an athlete's 40 time, shuttle time, vertical leap, and power ball toss. It's become invaluable for filtering out the truly elite athletes from the kids who post normal, strong numbers and for filtering out the nonsense that is peddled.

The only problem? College fans hear that a WR they thought was awesome only runs a 4.64 and freak out. "SLOW! DO NOT WANT!"

So let's just do a little bit of myth-busting about 40 times:

Myth #1: Football players that can run the 40 yard dash in >4.5 seconds are common

The 40 times offered for fan consumption by high schools, recruits, colleges, and agents are almost always totally bogus. You basically have to add at least two tenths of a second as a rule of thumb in anticipation of the speed-inflation that is rampant in reporting.

Does a HS player say he runs a 4.4? Maybe he's a 4.6 guy. Is he claiming a 4.6? He's probably about a 4.8 guy when laser-timed. Sometimes these players aren't even lying, those are just stopwatch times that are not as consistent or harsh as the laser-timed numbers that you get at the combine.

But not everyone tracks the speed inflation, or realizes that at the NFL combine college football's most freakish athletes always end up running in the 4.4 or 4.5 range that nearly every skill player claims.

Jamaal Charles, who is far and away one of the fastest players in the NFL, ran a 4.38 at the combine. Do you really think that half the wide receivers on your favorite team are even close to as fast as Jamaal Charles? No. They are not.

Myth #2: Football players and their teams or representatives self-report accurate 40 times

They do not. Not even close. It is now common for players to include "SPARQ verified" results on their HUDL pages because it's understood that anything else is going to be garbage.

Myth #3: Successful players that can't run 4.5 or better are the exception to the rule

Here's a common exchange that will happen on recruiting message boards.

Fan 1: "Oh, this receiver only runs a 4.6. DO NOT WANT!"

Fan 2: "Oh yeah, well Jerry Rice ran a 4.71 so I guess you wouldn't want Jerry Rice on your team."

Fan 1: "Rice is the exception that proves the rule."

Well Rice isn't the exception that proves the rule, actually. Lots of players have been successful in the NFL without posting impressive 40 times, much less in college. Sometimes you'll hear averages like "the average NFL safety runs a 4.55" or something to this affect, but averages are exactly that, and that's the average number for players measured at the combine who are generally the cream of the athletic crop. What's the average 40 time for hall of famers?

Ed Reed, long known as one of the rangiest and most explosive athletes to play the game, ran a 4.57 at the NFL combine. Perhaps this is why he slipped to the end of the first round despite proving to be a HOF player.

Somehow, his lack of ability to perform a tenth of a second better in a straight line race run without pads on did not disqualify him from finding success as a pro.

Myth #4: 40 times are a reliable test of playing speed

As we've just observed with Ed Reed, they are not. This becomes plain enough to see when you consider the typical movements and context of a football player in actual game scenarios. He's rarely running in a straight line, he's rarely moving at an all out sprint for a full 40 yards, and he's wearing pads.

This is a reason why the SPARQ numbers add a little extra value in that they ask a player to demonstrate raw athleticism moving laterally (shuttle time), throwing a ball without the ability to use their legs (power ball toss), and moving explosively summoning power from the ground up (vertical leap).

Even then, these numbers don't always indicate the true athlete behind them. There is a technique to running a good 40 time that players will pay trainers to help them master before they attend the combine. A player could go from a 4.65 to a 4.51 simply through technique and jump up a dozen spots on the "fastest at his position list" but still be the exact same player on a football field with no added speed.

40 times always have to be considered in light of film study. Richard Sherman is a classic example, who couldn't break a 4.6 at the combine. But if you watched film of Richard Sherman at Stanford how often did you see him get whipped due to lack of speed? Sure enough, after entering the NFL, Sherman emerged as one of the top corners in the nation.

Players that can diagnose what's happening on the field and perform the kinds of movements that allow them to react quickly and efficiently are the best athletes on the field, and SPARQ numbers may or may not capture that ability.

Myth #5: 40 times are useless

Well easy there, they still have value. Namely, laser-timed 40s give us a universal standard of basic explosiveness and speed moving forward in a straight line that can be applied to multiple players.

There are also a few rules of thumb that can be applied from a 40 time, take Bryce Petty for instance. If you watched Baylor in 2013 or 2014 you knew that if Petty escaped the pocket he was not at all quick enough to evade good tacklers, nor fast enough to win the sideline and put everyone in his rearview mirror.

But if you didn't have that game film and you did have his combine number: 4.87, you could safely assume that this isn't a player that could pull away from other athletes on the field.

Conversely, if you hear that a wide receiver or running back can run a true 4.4 and they have impressive film to match, now you know that they aren't just dominating bad competition. They truly have game-changing speed that you know will translate to the higher levels of play.

So with all that said, here's a handy guide to the kinds of numbers I suspect are about average in the Big 12 at various positions. Keep in mind that the best player isn't the one with the best 40 time, it's the one who's actually the best at performing tasks on the field, so if a player is slower than my guessed average that doesn't mean he couldn't still be the best. Chris Hackett and Paul Dawson (4.93) approve of this message.

QB: 4.9
It's just not that hard to do some damage with your feet at QB when guys are killing themselves just trying to reach you and you can simply sidestep them and escape before running in the direction of people who may have their back turned to you.

For a QB to be really dangerous on a zone read play his shuttle time is the more important metric. A QB that can run 4.6 or better is going to be a nightmare on typical QB running plays.

RB: 4.6
Breaking away from defenders in open grass really only requires about 4.6 level speed. A 4.6 sprinter will not be caught from behind save for by an opponent with an angle or with truly elite speed.

OL: Who cares?
Shuttle time is more valuable here as the only time OL are even in space is on screen passes where you just want them to be able to move laterally well enough to get in the way of guys in space.

TE: 5.0
Jace Amaro ran a 4.74 and was virtually unguardable in the Big 12. Most TEs are just blockers that are reasonably fluid cutting into open grass. Anything better than 5.0 indicates a guy that could become a real handful for LBs and Ss who are already at a size disadvantage when covering them.

WR: 4.7
These guys benefit from knowing where they are going before the defense does. Guys that can run a 4.6 and run good routes are often capable of getting behind a defense and beating them over the top.

DT: Who cares?
One thing a good 40 time on a DT could indicate is explosiveness that might mean he's got a first step that would be very hard for OL to handle. A good vertical leap is a safer indicator.

DE: 4.8
Ends often need to be able to offer pursuit in space, chase things down from behind, and are hopefully better athletes than either the OL blocking them or the QB evading them. Remember, the kind of short-area explosiveness that really matters here isn't always captured in a 40 time.

ILB: 4.9
Again, short area explosiveness is the real killer here. Being able to quickly diagnose plays and cover short areas with speed and power is the name of the game. Texas' Keenan Robinson, a notoriously quick and capable linebacker in coverage, ran a 4.79 at the combine. Ask any Big 12 team from that era if Keenan Robinson or Travis Lewis would offer their roster an athletic upgrade and they'd say yes without hesitation.

OLB: 4.7
By outside linebackers I mean nickels, space-backers, or just guys that have to run on the edge. Teams generally put some of their quickest players here.

S: 4.7
Chris Hackett was very good for TCU last year and then shockingly ran a 4.83 at the combine. OU's Tony Jefferson ran a 4.73 and that's generally closer to the rule of thumb for deep support players. Unless he was trying to track down Tavon Austin he was feared across the league coming downhill in run support.

CB: 4.6
These guys need to be the quickest on the field since they are covering opponents in wide open spaces who already know where they are going. Again though, players that are faster than 4.6 are much more rare than commonly assumed and the ones that are that fast aren't always particularly good at football.

You'd like to have all 4.4 guys in the secondary, like the 2005 Texas Longhorns, but if you have 4.6 guys at corner and safety who know what they are doing and can can backpedal or shuffle, you can shrink the field just fine.

Again, these are just representative of what I think the average player runs. Each team will probably have guys at multiple positions that have above average speed...maybe they are also above average football players.

Arizona State vs Texas A&M preview

As a Texas fan with a fair amount of disdain for both the Aggies' traditional, pseudo-militaristic culture and Sumlin's hilariously opposite free for all culture.

However, I have great admiration for their offensive system and am curious to see how they'll do this upcoming season after bringing Chavis aboard to build a real defensive culture that can make something of their explosive offense.

In week one they face Todd Graham's Arizona State Sun Devils and I've previewed the game over at SB Nation.

Studying Graham's defense I finally understood why so many coaches love the TCU 4-2-5 defense for it's blitz package. The Sun Devils are one of the most aggressive teams I've ever watched and they make full use of the overlap between man and zone techniques that already exist in quarters coverage in order to bring a wide variety of pressures.

They can and will drop back and play "Cover 5" or two-man under, and they probably use mostly special coverage as a trips adjustment, but their base defense is really to bring pressure disguised by a quarters concept and to attack both the run and the pass.

I bet that against 80% of the teams on ASU's schedule, the opposing QB and OL aren't savvy and good enough to beat their pressure. The Aggies may prove to be an exception, and will have ways of responding to the pressure that may force the Sun Devils out of their usual approach. At the very least, they'll need to play a true nickel as I mention in the article.

Their "bandit" or boundary safety Jordan Simone is probably one of the more underrated DBs in the country. He's fantastic at helping direct the havoc, cleaning up runs and passes with open field tackling, blitzing, and picking up not-too-difficult coverage assignments.

I'd be curious to see a Big 12 team adopt a similarly aggressive approach, it'd probably require Dime-style personnel and excellent coaching/intelligent players to pull off. Perhaps we'll see it if Graham is successful in taking down the Aggies.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Let's try this one more time: OU looks to get the most out of Eric Striker

Our preview of Big 12 defenses continues at SB Nation with an explanation of how OU will try to get the most out of Eric Striker in his final year.

My preseason All-Big 12 team

Who doesn't love a preseason ranking list? Granted they are often rubbish and the layouts make no sense in the context of the modern game.

Last year I had my first chance at submitting a preseason All Big-12 ballot at the Big 12 media days although I didn't get the same chance to provide input for the much more meaningful postseason All-Big 12 list. Anyways, this year I don't have a ballot so I'm going to offer one up here.

Since I'm not now constrained by their nonsensical offensive and defensive designations I'm going to offer my own positions in an attempt to provide comprehensive 11-man rosters that actually reflect the personnel that Big 12 teams will actually deploy in 2015.

1st Team Offense

Quarterback: Trevone Boykin, TCU
His combination of athleticism and arm strength is a deadly pairing in the Air Raid and he's the most well-established quarterback in the conference.

Running back: Aaron Green, TCU
Green took over at RB down the stretch last year and quickly piled up 922 yards on 7.1 yards per carry. His ability to jump step accelerate quickly through creases makes him particularly explosive in TCU's zone concepts.

Ancillary (TE/H-back/Fullback): Glenn Gronkowski, Kansas State
I had Gronk on my 1st team ballot last preseason, although I overestimated his usage on RPOs as a receiver as well as how big of a role the run game would have in the Wildcat offense. Given the likely increased role that the QB run game will have in 2015 you can expect Gronk to be a big factor.

Deep threat outside receiver: KD Cannon, Baylor
Cannon is probably the best deep threat receiver in the conference, he can absolutely fly down the field and also has flypaper hands.

Slot Receiver: Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech
This little waterbug added vertical routes in the middle of the field to his reportoire last year which already included serving as a deadly weapon in the Tech screen game.

Possession Receiver: Corey Coleman, Baylor
Baylor doesn't exactly have "possession receivers" but Coleman is a guy that they'll look to target with screens, intermediate routes, and comebacks in addition to deep shots. He was close to dominant in this role last season when healthy.

Left Tackle: Spencer Drango, Baylor
The best pass-protection tackle in the league and a capable run-defender as well.

Left Guard: Blake Muir, Baylor
Attacking the left side of Baylor's OL will undoubtedly prove to be a challenge in 2015, particularly after they prepare this fall against their own "Rocket-Groot" defense.

Center: Joey Hunt, TCU
Although not massive or especially powerful, Hunt is very adept within TCU's zone running game and excels at getting low to help the guards drive defensive tackles off the ball before finding linebackers on the 2nd level.

Right Guard: Kent Perkins, Texas
A rare bright spot in Texas' 2014 season was when Perkins faced overmatched opponents and absolutely mauled them. At 6'5" 330 he's an impossible load for most B12 DTs and is now ready to make a leap in his 2nd year as a starter.

Right Tackle: Hal Vaitai, TCU
TCU's run game requires that the tackles have the quickness to handle blocking ends in space and control them without assistance. Vaitai was very strong here in 2014.

1st Team Defense

True Defensive End: Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State
The massive end for the Cowboys was borderline dominant in 2014, even against the powerful OTs for Oklahoma who could not handle him.

Nose Tackle: Hassan Ridgeway, Texas
In addition to being capable of taking on double teams, Ridgeway had six sacks last year as a RS Sophomore. He's the best DT talent in the conference.

Defensive Tackle: Davion Pierson, TCU
Pierson was very strong in 2014 playing opposite Chucky Hunter and will now be asked to anchor a depleted TCU front.

Rush-End/LB: Pete Robertson, Texas Tech
The Big 12's reigning sack leader from 2014 who was an absolute terror despite not playing with personnel that could protect him from the focus of protections, set him up to rush in obvious passing situations, or cover opponents long enough to give him time.

Cover-backer: Nick Kwiatkowski, West Virginia
I just coined this term for an inside linebacker who is asked to do more in coverage. Kwiatkowksi is a converted safety who excelled at pursuing the ball from the inside out in 2014. Think weakside linebackers here.

Plugger-backer: Ryan Simmons, Oklahoma State
I just coined this term as well for traditional, mike-type backers. Simmons is entering his 3rd year as a starter and is going to fly to the football in 2015 behind a solid DL with years of experience on knowing how to diagnose running plays.

Space-backer: KJ Dillon, West Virginia
I coined this term some time ago to describe nickel players that are basically linebackers with the athleticism to play in space. KJ Dillon is arguably more of a "big nickel" but either way he's the best in the conference with Sam Carter moving on to the NFL. He's physical, can blitz the edge, and can play man coverage on slot receivers.

Cornerback: Ranthony Texada, TCU

Best guess is that TCU plays a lot of "special" coverage against trips and just cancels out the field receiver with Texada. He should be brilliant in coverage this year, but he's too small to play boundary corner for Patterson.

Cover-safety: Steven Parker, Oklahoma
Granted that Parker is really a nickel, but this is how I condense a league that has at least 12 commonly appearing positions into an 11-man roster, by putting nickels that are going to be used more for their coverage than their linebacking on the edge in this spot. Parker flashed in 2014 and should excel in 2015, which will be of great help to the Sooner defense.

Support safety: Dante Barnett, Kansas State
This is my term for traditional safeties that will be asked to do things like filling the alley and playing in deep zone. Barnett is quick to support the run but very solid in deep coverage as well.

Cornerback: Kevin Peterson, Oklahoma State
My cornerbacks can be trusted to play outside without a lot of help but unfortunately neither of these guys are the most physical CBs in the conference.

2nd Team Offense

Quarterback: Seth Russell, Baylor
I literally just erased my attempt to justify putting Pat Mahomes in this place, don't be shocked if the Tech QB dominates this year. But Russell's similar level of athleticism combined with the fact that he'll be playing on a loaded offense means that he's going to put up huge numbers.

Running back: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
This was a tricky one, as the Sooners are moving away from their 21 personnel downhill approach from 2014 to go Air Raid in 2015. Still, Perine should dominate between the tackles behind what will still be a solid OL. Shock Linwood will contend here as well.

Ancillary (TE/H-back/Fullback): Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
The flex TE for OU is going to be a difficult match-up outside and could be a real threat either catching balls in the red zone or blocking on the edge for perimeter screens.

Deep threat outside receiver: Josh Doctson, TCU
At 6'4" with good hands, Doctson is just really hard to handle out on the sideline. A nod to the B12's fastest WR, Kolby Listenbee here. You can't really play both Doctson and Listenbee with a safety over the top, which is going to make them a load in 2015.

Slot Receiver: Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma
He was totally dominant at Blinn last year and has the kind of "all-spark" quickness in all directions that will make him murder in the slot for Lincoln Riley this year. Practice reviews from OU insiders describe Westbrook as better than Shephard...which is really saying something.

Possession Receiver: Sterling Shephard, Oklahoma
Yes, OU is loaded with skill talent and should be really hard to defend if they can find someone at QB that won't turn the ball over every third series.

Left Tackle: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
A close victory over Texas Tech's Le'Raven Clark awarded for Whitehair's run game prowess.

Left Guard: Boston Stiverson, Kansas State
If KSU doesn't find some success running the ball in 2015 my list is probably going to look really stupid. Study that playbook, Jonathan Banks.

Center: Kyle Fuller, Baylor
Ty Darlington at OU is like a slightly lesser version of Joey Hunt while Fuller brings a little more power to the equation with his ability to cave in DTs on down blocks in Baylor's gap-oriented run game.

Right Guard: Nila Kasitati
Kasitati owned a time-share at guard last year for Oklahoma and will take over as the featured run-blocker on their 2015 line. Perine will be running behind him all year long.

Right Tackle: Marquis Lucas, West Virginia
Lucas had a kid this offseason and is looking to have a big 2015 to set him up for pro opportunities. That's a powerful motivator for a guy that was already really solid. I'm not betting on anyone else.

2nd Team Defense

True Defensive End: Shawn Oakman, Baylor
The difference between Ogbah and Oakman is, somehow, about 5 inches/20 pounds and consistent effort and technique. Teams should be totally unable to run on Oakman this year but I'd like to see it first.

Nose Tackle: Andrew Billings, Baylor
The most powerful player in the Big 12 enters his 2nd year as a full-time starter and his junior year at Baylor. He'll have to be double teamed every play. Shout out to KSU's Will Geary here though, another very powerful plugger.

Defensive Tackle: Travis Britz, Kansas State
If Ridgeway ends up playing 3-tech instead of nose he'll command this spot. If he stays at nose there's a chance Texas' Poona Ford or Paul Boyette could grab this spot. In lieu knowing that information, Britz is a senior who's been very good now for two years.

Rush-End/LB: Eric Striker
Oklahoma has been forced to move him back to the line of scrimmage, although "extraordinary space-backer" was probably a better fit for his talents. I'd have him higher but I'm not sure how 5'10" 210 works against outside zone or power.

Cover-backer: Taylor Young, Baylor
"Rocket" could have well over 100 tackles this year playing behind Oakman and Billings and I'm betting he also adds around 5 sacks. Good chance he finishes above Kwiatkowski.

Plugger-backer: Elijah Lee, Kansas State
Head nod to Tech's Micah Awe and OU's Jordan Evans but KSU's pass-rush specialist is now going to be playing in the box as a linebacker where his length and explosiveness could lead to a big year. I'm guessing they let the other LB take on more of the coverage assignments but we'll see.

Space-backer: Denzel Johnson, TCU
Fantastic athlete who's been studying under Sam Carter for two years now and will finally take over here for the Frogs. He's a shoo-in to be an impact player.

Cornerback: Duke Thomas, Texas

Really the only hang-ups for Thomas are "can he avoid the mental errors that plagued him in 2014" and "what happens when he's 'the guy' charged with taking on opponent's best receivers?" He's a great athlete, a physical player, and he'll have a chance to make 1st team.

Cover-safety: Dravon Henry, West Virginia
Technically Henry is going to be playing a lot of deep centerfield but he'll also regularly be playing man coverage in DC Tony Gibson's aggressive blitz schemes. He was very solid last year as a true freshman, look for a jump in year two.

Support safety: Karl Joseph, West Virginia
This is his 4th year as a starter and Joseph has already safely established a reputation as one of the biggest hitters in the league. He's also versatile with the ability to play deep zone or man coverage. The West Virginia secondary is just plain loaded.

Cornerback: Daryl Worley, West Virginia
Lockdown corner who needs to have a full season free of either incidents or injuries. He's a big guy at 6'1" that the Mountaineers will undoubtedly find very valuable for handling all the big receivers in the league this year.

That's all folks, thoughts?