Thursday, March 31, 2016

Can Texas finally find an identity on offense and defense this offseason?

It's just possible, but of course it'll depend on what the staff decides at QB and how Tyrone Swoopes and Shane Buechele develop this offseason. Read about it for free at Inside Texas.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

How well will Sitake's strategies match BYU's talent pool?

You can't just run any offense or defense when your roster is all married white guys and big, fearsome Islanders although your options aren't necessarily bad. Over at Football Study Hall I explain how well Sitake's plans could unlock the BYU roster.

Muschamp tries to clean up the mess in South Carolina

The Gamecocks under Steve Spurrier had good defenses for a nice stretch, but in the last few years they really came apart at the seams.

Now they're bringing in Will Muschamp to try and fix it. I'm willing to bet he'll be successful, though whether or not he's figured out how to oversee a successful offensive program remains to be seen.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Is basketball going to start sending more athletes over to football?

I think so, there's an obvious trade of personnel that makes sense for both sides, read about it here.

How Texas will use the TE position in 2016

I noticed two interesting things while writing this article, which you can read for free at Inside Texas.

The first is that Texas is starting to build a legacy of fielding absolutely mauling blocking TEs over the last few years with Caleb Bluiett taking up the mantle of Geoff Swaim and freshman Peyton Aucoin waiting in the wings.

The second is that the state of Texas doesn't produce a ton of top-ranked TEs. Why is that?

Is it that Texas HS offenses don't use the position as much as other states? That there are fewer 6'4" 230+ pound young men at Texas playing offense? That the position tends to be poorly evaluated? (Rice's success suggests perhaps that it is)

Something interesting I'll be probably be theorizing on in the future.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

What to watch for this spring in the Big 12

While most everyone likes to downplay spring football and really start talking in the fall, when interest is up and teams are really determining their lineups and identity, spring practices are still when most starters are really established.

The guys that take over in spring when everything is simplified to a fundamental level and base install is the name of the game are generally the ones that determine the team's identity over the summer and into the fall.

Here's the main developments and positional battles I'm keeping an eye on in the Big 12 this spring:

The eyes of Texas are still on the quarterback

For Texas it has to be the QB position, which will set the ceiling for what this team can become and determine whether Charlie keeps his job. You can read some of my breakdowns on that positional outlook at Texas here.

May not get to the QB Sooner than last year but it still needs to be fast

Sterling Shepard was a phenomenal WR and probably underrated last year due to sharing the spotlight with Josh Doctson and Corey Coleman, but OU can replace him in the passing game "in the aggregate" as Brad Pitt says in Moneyball by targeting Mark Andrews more inside and up and comers like Jeffrey Mead outside.

The bigger issue in my mind is replacing Eric Striker's pass rush and overall versatility on defense. In addition to being the best pass-rusher on the team, Striker (and safety Steven Parker) allowed Oklahoma to play some base 3-4 personnel against spread teams thanks to his ability to handle playing in space.

When I want to get a glimpse of what's going on in Okie-land, I always turn to who recently had some notes on the solutions here.

It would seem that rather than playing another space-backer and using the 3-4 as much this year they'll just play more 3-3-5 nickel with Will Johnson essentially replacing Striker. That leaves just one edge- or outside-backer on the field for the Sooners, Obo Okoronkwo. He'd better be a very good pass-rusher for this to work out.

The rest of the Sooner defense I'm projecting to end up being either "stout" or "possibly dominant" depending on the position.

Breaking the defeated streak will require an impact receiver

Kansas needs to find a skill player on offense that can threaten defenses. The Jayhawks leading receiver in 2015 was Tre' Parmalee, who had 41 catches, 599 yards, three touchdowns, and was someone I'd never heard of in my life before looking up those stats for this blog post. He was a senior in 2015, so I'll probably forget about him pretty soon as well.

It sounds like they'll be counting on A&M transfer LaQuvionte Gonzalez to be the guy next year who causes match-up problems in the passing game.

Godspeed, LaQuvionte.

They've got some interesting TEs on campus like Kent Taylor, Ben Johnson, and Jace Sternberger that might also arise in the coming seasons, although my view here is clouded by the fact that they did some work against Texas last year by throwing stick routes to Taylor when he was matched up against the slowest linebacker in the Big 12.

Lots of work with combo blocks for Campbell's Cyclones

How do you make the most of an offense with Joel Lanning at QB, Allen Lazard at WR, and Mike Warren at RB? With inside zone and a TE/H-back who can move around, block at different angles, and get out into the flat as a check down target for Lanning on play-action rollouts.

There's a ton that Iowa State could do with inside zone to set these guys up for success with zone read, rollouts, and deeper play-action shots, and as a guy who came up from Mount Union you can be sure that Matt Campbell knows it.

The only problem is that Iowa State's OL was obliterated by graduation, injuries, and transfers and the only returning starter (LT Jake Campos) was injured for the start of spring practice.

The Cyclones can't sit back and let Joel Lanning try to win them games throwing from the pocket unless they are okay with only winning three games next season, they need to get the run game going. That means that this young OL is going to be drilling combo blocks on inside zone all spring and they'd better get pretty good at it (or some other run scheme) or "Midwestern football" isn't coming to Ames, IA in 2016.

Can Tech's safeties make a tackle?

Word on the street in Lubbock is that there's a position battle at strong safety between Keenon Ward and redshirt freshman Payton Hendrix. This is key because Tech was horrendous at safety last year and really needs to find some guys that make an impact in the alley if they want to win any games next season.

Jah'Shawn Johnson was alright at free safety, and since he was a 175 pound redshirt freshman last year, I'm inclined to believe he can continue to grow and become a worthy player. Payton Hendrix was a guy I thought was a worthy tackler in high school so it'll be interesting to see if he can make a dent.

Their front was devastated by graduation but NBD, they weren't good last year. Losing Pete Robertson hurts but Notre Dame transfer Kolin Hill is ready to go there and should be solid. The biggest issue for their defense next year is going to be that sophomore D'Vonta Hinton is going to start and immediately elevate their play at inside-backer from a D to a B+ or higher.

Tech will be better on defense next year, bank on it, but they need these position battles at safety to turn out well.

K-State's "cat" safety

Assuming Dante Barnett is back and on form in 2016, the biggest question for the Wildcats might be at "cat safety" which is their nickel position.

Now granted the Wildcats lost 4/5 of their OL, including star left tackle Cody Whitehair, but that offense is going to be much better next year when they have a real QB depth chart again. The departed OL were mostly JUCOs and former walk-ons anyways, there are always more of those coming up the ranks in Manhattan.

But losing Randall Evans at nickel and failing to get great play from replacement Donnie Starks was an under-appreciated part of the problem for the 2015 Wildcats' disappointing season.

The Wildcats actually ask quite a bit from that position, the player doesn't need to be great at anything but he does need to be good at a lot. In particular this player needs to be able to play some man coverage on a slot AND be a good force defender.

Starks was alright in coverage and poor at forcing the run, which shouldn't be a huge shock since he's about 5'10" and 180. That can be a tough gig.

When your nickel isn't a great force player that can contain ball-carriers within a narrow alley that sets up the safety behind him to look really silly when he's trying to close with speed on a moving target. When that safety trying to hit a moving target is Sean Newlan? Forget about it.

The free safety (KSU calls it their "strong" safety but whatever) who is typically trying to navigate that space should be Barnett next year, so that will be a major upgrade, but the Wildcats still need to set him up better underneath with their force player.

The candidates are Donnie Starks, who played the position last year but wasn't terribly good at it, Sean Newlan, who'd be a disaster in man coverage, and...

K-State needs to figure this out in the midst of replacing their best cover corner (Morgan Burns) and finding some more safeties after Kaleb Prewett left the program. My money is on Sean Newlan winning the strong safety job while promising young Kendall Adams backs him up and Barnett is backed by one of the incoming JUCOs.

That TCU run game

Because they are an Air Raid team with a potent passing attack, people don't tend to talk much about the Frog running game. This is a mistake since they sprung Aaron Green for 1200 yards last year and Boykin for another 600.

Earlier this week on Twitter myself and the Frog Twitter community talked about all the returning talent at WR in Ft. Worth and mused that if Kenny Hill's life and work ethic are back on track that TCU could have a much better than expected passing attack.

What about that run game though? Hill is a solid runner but he's no Boykin, Green has graduated, and the OL is losing 4/5 of their starters. They did get some of the back-up OL some action down the stretch as injuries took out the starters and they do return fullback Trevorris Johnson and TE Buck Jones.

All of that helps, but how will the run game be in 2016 and is Kyle Hicks or any other TCU RB ready to be a feature back in this offense? That could be the facet of the 2015 TCU offense that's hard to replace.

Are there still great athletes in Stillwater?

Oklahoma State pretty much knows what they've got on both sides of the ball going into 2016. They return their entire OL (for what that's worth), their starting QB, their best receiver (James Washington), and their top running backs on offense. On defense they could potentially be pretty stout up the middle with their DTs back, fairly experienced LBs in Chad Whitener and Devante Averette, and both safeties and their space-backer Jordan Burton all returning.

They know who's likely to start at corner with Ramon Richards and Ashton Lampkin both returning with starting experience, they even know who's likely to step in at DE to replace Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean (redshirt sophomores Jarrell Owens and Jordan Brailford).

What we don't know is whether any of these guys, especially at DE or CB, have NFL caliber athleticism. Building an interior of stout veterans is very, very valuable, but you aren't dominating anyone without a pass-rusher and a coverage guy that can consistently win 1-on-1 match-ups.

I loved Owens and thought Richards and Brailford had potential coming out of high school...we'll see.

Hey Dana, about that contract extension...

West Virginia lost 2015's starting nose tackle and every single member of the defensive backfield. Granted Karl Joseph's replacement Jarrod Harper started eight games last year after the hard-hitting safety went down, but those are some serious losses.

I'm not sure what to even say here. We're talking about a defense that was good in 2015 but has been absolutely gutted and most now build cohesion and chemistry in their pass defense with all new players and without a particularly fearsome DL to help them out.

Meanwhile the offense returns tons of exciting pieces, including a very solid interior OL, but also returns Skyler Howard at QB. What's the ceiling for this offense with Howard at the helm and question marks at both tackle positions?

This is a year when West Virginia needs to win for Dana and they are poorly set up to do it. On the bright side, at least their 2016 schedule isn't designed to ruin them like the 2015 slate.

I'm interested in hearing about anyone that can be an impact player on the Mountaineer team, especially on defense where I'm not sure they have any such guys.

Baylor's alien quotient

The Bears need to find a nose tackle to replace Billings (uh...) and get some pass-rush (Brian Nance, you ready, bruh?) and really need to upgrade their play at cover safety (spring highlights are heavy on Chance Waz getting abused in that spot).

But it's probably safe to assume however all that shakes out, the Bear D will be "alright" and the big issue will be who "the man" is now that Corey Coleman has gone.

I've mentioned in this space before the Manny Diaz "alien quotient" which ultimately determines whether anyone can defend Baylor or not. They're going to get their WRs in 1-on-1 match-ups in space, the question is whether those WRs are good enough to abuse you when it happens. Do they have any "aliens" that just can't be handled 1-on-1?
Last year either Baylor only had one "alien" in Corey Coleman or else Stidham wasn't capable of finding the others because OU got away with shading coverage to Coleman and playing everyone else in what basically amounted to cover zero man coverage.

You assume KD Cannon will have another big year but who else is stepping up for the Bears? Besides rising players like Chris Platt and Ishmael Zamora, Blake Lynch is also getting some buzz.

Whether or not Seth Russell is fully healthy and ready to go come fall is another big question but honestly, I think Stidham would probably be really good even if the answer is "no."

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Briles "veer and shoot" vs other smashmouth/power spread Os


I like to use the term "smashmouth spread" for any spread offense that is oriented around Power-O runs and play-action passing. Originally "the spread offense" was associated with quick passing attacks that turned shifty white dudes bigger schools didn't want into dangerous weapons.

Although the approach of using 3-5 WR formations to run West Coast concepts found success, and is now common to many of the bigger programs, the knock on these teams was always that they were "soft" and couldn't run the ball or impose their will in an inherently violent game. It was often a fair charge.

The smashmouth spread offenses looked to reverse that problem and run the ball into the space afforded by using 3-5 WR formations. In particular, these teams like to do it with two-back runs like power and iso.

These cause a basic mathematical problem for defenses, how to keep those shifty guys lined up out wide covered but still be able to get the necessary numbers to the point of attack to handle the ways in which a play like "Power-O" or "counter" creates new gaps and brings blockers to the point of attack.
Points A and B represent spaces where the defense needs to be able to insert an extra defender to keep the play covered up. They need one to make sure that the cutback lane left vacant by the pulling guard isn't open but they also need someone to fill behind the weakside linebacker after he takes on the lead block from the H-back here.

Either that space-backer or one of the safeties is going to have to get involved, and when that happens the offense can run play-action and attack the now out-leveraged coverage with deep shots.

That's the smashmouth spread in a nutshell.

Briles takes all of this a few steps further. He uses wider splits then anyone else, he looks to field the biggest, fiercest OL possible, he uses as much tempo as the rules and his players' fitness will allow, and he lives to take the kill shots.

At the end of the day, even many of the "smashmouth spread" coaches want to control the ball and run it down your throat methodically, they just believe that the best way to do this is from spread formations.

The veer and shoot coaches of the Art Briles tree don't want to control the ball they want to isolate all of your weak spots and then hit them over and over again mercilessly. Many coaches are looking to set up the deep ball for the right opportunity, to veer and shoot coaches every play where they can get a favorable match-up to throw a deep ball to is the right opportunity.

They'll also use plays like this more often:
They'll have whichever slot receiver has the best match-up go deep while everyone else just holds their defender and then that deep route will just run into open grass against an out-leveraged safety and the QB will throw it up to them. They practice to make these as high-percentage as possible and they take them early and often with multiple different concepts.

The extreme spacing and stresses of the veer and shoot often make it so that the coaches and QBs go into a game knowing which receiver will be open and they'll go ahead and stare them down without fear, knowing that the spacing and leverage will do the work and all they have to do is throw a good ball and it's six points.

Dealing with the extreme stresses they put on you can become simplified by their cheats but only if you can be sure to always have favorable match-ups both in the box and out the same time...on every opposing skill player.

If not, that's where the ball is going. That's how this offense works and how it's different than the broader realm of smashmouth spread systems.

Put another way: Smashmouth spread teams are various tribes of plains Indians, the veer and shoot folk are the Comanche.

Monday, March 21, 2016

As promised, a breakdown of the 2015 Katy Tigers

Over at Football Study Hall I broke down the 2015 Katy Tigers defense that tore through Texas HS football this last season like a tornado.

In this space I want to add just a few extra notes on that defense for the particularly curious minds that are eager to learn more about this legendary unit.

First off, I casually mentioned that they base around a "3-4 weak eagle" defense but then spend most of the time talking about how they play their cover 4 to keep everyone in key positions.

The "weak eagle" front means that they will slant or align the weakside defensive end into a 3-tech position and the strongside end into a 5-tech position. The outside linebackers basically become either the weakside 5-tech or the strongside 9-tech.

They also had a fairly diverse collection of blitzes that they'd fire at teams and they'd break their rules against empty formations and finally move Jovanni Stewart out wide to nickel while relying on their inside backers to blitz. Lake Travis tried to attack that look and found little to no success.

Here's a look at the defensive starting line-up:

All of these guys were good in their niche, but only five of the seniors received D1 offers and only one of those came from the Big 12 to Stewart, who I think was clearly the best player on the unit. There wasn't more D1 talent on this team than most any other big time, 6A Texas HS power.

Wisconsin offered both safeties and Paddy Fisher but they elected to go to Northwestern (Fisher and Whillock) or Houston (Wilder). The current Cougar D under Orlando Brown is very similar to the Katy defense and is also a 3-4 based unit backed by cover 4.

I think a lot of the safeties but there's no doubt that this defensive scheme set them up well for success and I wouldn't have bet on either of them showing similar dominance in the Big 12 though they may prove to have been B12-caliber in the right context.

Bethley was very good and has already received offers from West Virginia, Texas A&M, Baylor, Houston and Nebraska. He may prove to be the best player to have come from this defense but my money is still on Stewart.

In 2016 they'll have to adjust, of course, because the 2015 unit was led by eight seniors. Replicating 2015's tactics and success will require finding new cogs at those positions but in particular they need pass-rushing to replace what Stewart brought with his 10 sacks.

I don't know if the new safeties will be as reliable as Wilder and Whillock, you'd have to bet against it, but they sure won't look as good if they aren't protected by a pass rush. It wouldn't seem like a bet that they'd find another nose-tackle who could command a double team like Woodring but Katy seems to have an unlimited supply of sturdy DL so there I would stay away from that gamble.

Their DE pairing of Matus and Bethley will probably be dominant and perhaps even afford them the opportunity to bring only three pass-rushers regularly, we'll see.

As I alluded in the column, the big challenge for 2016 Katy will probably come in their season opener in Austin against the Westlake Chaparrals, who are led by QB and Texas-commit Sam Ehlinger.

Westlake is replacing almost all of their receivers from a year ago, but you still figure they'll have to deal with the fact that Ehlinger is nails in the pocket and capable of throwing strikes down the middle of the field with a pass-rush in his face.

Thanks to Ehlinger's running ability, the Chaps run some "ultimate spread formation" stuff and can put maximal stress on a defense. I doubt any other Texas team has a better chance at breaking the containment strategies of the Tiger defense.

I might be more intrigued by that game on August 26th than any of the Big 12 slate of games in 2016 and it's not just because Westlake has much better prospects in 2016 than do my Longhorns. If you don't love Texas HS football you're missing out.

Dino Babers brings the veer and shoot to Syracuse

Read about Babers' "wild, wild west" offensive scheme and how it will play at Syracuse in the ACC at SB Nation.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Mark Richt and the Miami O

Last year I liked Georgia to make the playoffs. The defense seemed likely to be very good in year two with Jeremy Pruitt while the offense was returning Nick Chubb and several OL.

Turned out Richt and his new OC, Brian Schottenheimer, weren't able to get their QBs up to snuff and they fell apart offensively. Richt was fired for that mistake, which was rather ridiculous though I think there's a chance new coach Kirby Smart will prove to have been a good hire.

Anyways now Richt is in charge of Miami and I broke down how his fantastic and somewhat unique pro-style system could translate there.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Modern football's favorite play

Over at Football Study Hall I broke down how different teams make the curl-flat route combination a foundational piece of their passing game.

Everyone uses this play a ton in the Big 12, even Baylor who's wide splits are poorly suited for the play. Josh Doctson was fantastic at running the curl route last year and Oklahoma State had a lot of success throwing them with Mason Rudolph last year and almost certainly will again in 2016.

I hope not to see Texas attempt too many of these in 2016 unless Shane Buechele is ready to take over the offense.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Looking at Texas' returning cornerbacks for 2016

I'm not sure another Big 12 team is better situated at cornerback for either 2016 or 2017 then the Texas Longhorns, who saw a pair of 6-2 freshman emerge in 2015 in Holton Hill and Davante Davis.

Over at Inside Texas I explain how these two can impact the Texas defense and what needs to happen for the Longhorns to improve in pass defense. Check it out for free.