Gabriel’s Horn | Tracking The Offense

The Texas offense, if you just received an ill feeling in the pit of your stomach, it’s understandable. This offense has fallen further than Watson’s 2014 offense. Of course, I’m referring to it’s S&P+ rating. In case you need reminding or your fandom came just after Watson’s short tenure. That is terrible. To all Longhorns fans, I say this, there is hope. The remaining defenses on the schedule are all equally bad, if not worse. This will likely result in a ‘dead cat bounce’ for the Texas offense. Meaning, it will be a temporary improvement due to the quality of its opponents, not in the quality of its play. The problem, two of the remaining offenses on the schedule are very good, West Virginia and Texas Tech. While their defenses are rated poorly, the fact that they can score if the Texas defense isn’t having their best day should concern you. All that said, let’s track some ‘focal points’ and see where this offense is headed. I will also provide some suggestions for improving the offense conceptually. Keep in mind, they are based on my opinions and how I view offense, especially in the Big 12.

Let’s first discuss the cognitive dissonance within the Longhorns fan base. You have two major narratives that are contradictory. EVERY Texas Football fan agrees that THE biggest problem is the offensive line. If you are of the opinion that this position group is critically hindering any meaningful production and improvement, that contradicts the competing major narrative that Tim Beck is THE biggest problem. Now, as Texas fans, there are surely ‘gray areas’ that can be hashed out, but you have to agree both positions on the whole are contradictory. Add to that, Herman, the ‘mastermind’, has a system that likely entails exactly how he’d like calls made per situation. What you’re seeing is the administration of Herman’s vision or lack thereof, yet, much of the criticism isn’t cast his direction. Why is that? Do you think that it’s because that criticism would threaten too many fans’ current worldview of their new shiny head coach? Anyhow, let’s not scapegoat here and instead, let’s try to take an honest look at the variables that contribute to the offense’s lack of production. I’ll address some below.

Key Dynamics

New System – This isn’t too big a deal in my opinion. However, the nature of it differs from what you saw last season. Herman’s philosophy is much more ball-control oriented than Sterlin Gilbert’s. Also, it may be more technical up front, as the Gilbert-Mattox system entailed a streamlined downhill scheme. Both utilize run-pass options however, Herman’s system involves less direct deep shots and more quick and intermediate stretch pass concepts. Another obvious difference, the receiver splits. Herman opts for more traditional spacing outside. How much this matters is up for debate.

Offensive Line – Things changed drastically, in a hurry here. Hodges left. Elijah Rodriguez was injured. Jean DeLance left the program. Patrick Hudson was injured. Then the worst, Connor Williams’ injury against USC really put this position group behind the 8-ball. It didn’t stop there, the football gods passed kept dishing offensive line injuries like Oprah! You also saw injuries to starters Zach Shackelford and Jake McMillon. In a nutshell, the backups backups were forced into action, a football calamity. This, by my estimation, is THE biggest issue and it persists.

Quarterback – It was clear the offense wasn’t executing at a high level from the start. Only when they collected themselves during the Maryland debacle did they manage to finish some drives and score touchdowns. The problem, Shane Buechele’s injuries began game one too, forcing true freshman, Sam Ehlinger into a starting role, sigh. Sam showed some promise and his youth is his time as a starter. Then, he too suffered a head injury against Oklahoma State, continuing the offense’s rash of injuries.

Tight End – More of the same occurred at the tight end position. Senior tight end, Andrew Beck, suffered a season-ending injury in Fall camp. Then, backup Garrett Gray was also injured early in the season. This forced Herman to play two unproven players, grad-transfer Kendall Moore, and true freshman, Cade Brewer, a players that surprised most Longhorns fans and has been a mainstay since his first opportunity. Moore, on the other hand, has disappointed.

Running Back – Hopes were high for Chris Warren and Kyle Porter. That is until they were rendered mostly useless by the perpetual poor blocking up front. Also, much more is desired from a young man Chris Warren’s size. A big athletic back like Warren should play with much more conviction, with and without the ball in his hands. Porter has the opposite problem, he plays hard, but he’s small. When you don’t possess a stand-out quality, you look a lot worse than you are behind bad blocking. In comes the freshmen, Toneil Carter, injured (seriously!) and Daniel Young. Carter possesses great speed for the position, stand-out athleticism. Whereas Young possesses size, sweet feet, good vision, and balance and great body-control. If you can’t tell, I’m high on Young and it’s a great Texas name.

Injuries have plagued the Texas offense, from the beginning. You have seen 3 players along the offensive line who were never expected to contribute at their respective spots this season. Namely, Derek Kerstetter, Terrell Cuney, and Denzel Okafor have been thrust into very uncompromising sitations. This has left the offense, conceptually, in a straight-jacket. After all, what do you run if you can’t count on the offensive line properly blocking run or pass? This has hurt the quarterbacks as well, both literally and figuratively. Though it’s been impressive how each dealt with the situation this season. The backs, part of the problem is the solution. If your veterans aren’t getting it done and your freshmen are more talented, well, you play them. The receivers, they aren’t immune to criticism and their production is also harmed by the lack of performance up front. It’s a mess, to say the least.

Focal Points – This has been just as surprising. Coming in to the season, I was suspected players like Warren, Johnson, and Foreman would be focal points the staff could reliably plan around for consistent play. That has changed. Now, the focal points are a bit more dispersed. All of the following are contributing in a big way, Hemphill-Mapps, Humphrey, Joe, the freshmen backs, Cade Brewer, Johnson, Leonard, Heard, and now Burt. Look for Herman-Beck to open the offense up more and spread the ball around.

What do you do about all this? That’s the question the staff keeps trying to answer week in and week out. I thought it funny when Herman mentioned ‘no one-on-one blocks’. Talk about Rocket Surgery, what a pain in the rear it is to engineer most concepts to prevent one-on-one blocks! What I think he was referring to was the offensive line, because they do manage to lose an incredible amount of one-on-one blocks. The receiver blocking has improved outside and Herman was correct to mention getting the ball out quick more often, throwing to the perimeter. All that’s well and good, only, it’s not good enough, not against the league’s better defenses. Fortunate for Herman, they don’t play another one the remainder of the year. That’s great!

Key Suggestions

I spend most of my time studying offense. It’s simply more fun in my opinion and it’s how came to love football in the first place. Texas’ current issues revolve around an offensive line that fails to run block with any consistency. That is the main issue the staff needs to work around. My suggestions follow.

Screen Game

Bubble – This has worked well for Texas. With receivers like Hemphill-Mapps, Humphrey, Heard, and Burt catching screens, Texas has seen dividends with this simple concept. It’s packaged with base runs and often executed as a pre or post-snap RPO.

Stop – This concept has also been successful, especially when run from a formation into boundary (FIB). It’s also packaged as an RPO and thrown to a receiver with grass and a blocker in front.

Tunnel – This has been awful. This one needs to be re-evaluated and my suggestion, take the offensive line out of the ball and run it quicker with receivers only. This will limit its utility, but given the many whiffs by the linemen climbing to block 3rd level defenders, it’s back to the drawing board.

Middle – Texas likes to run the Drag concept, you see both ‘Mesh’ and ‘Drive’ from Texas and this fits nicely into those concepts. You saw this past week, a non-call for pass interference was reviewed and the play reversed, Big 12 referees, y’all. An easy fix, have the opposite slot receiver run a quick out-breaking route or stem similar to ‘Mesh’ and get eyes on the screener. Only then can you block, once the catch is made.

Turn – Many times you’ll see off-coverage inside or outside. A simple solution I’ve been clamoring for, a quarterback check, receiver quick turn to the quarterback, and quick throw. It’s not likely to yield explosive plays, but for an inefficient offense looking for a higher early down success rate, it’s likely to yield 3 or 4 yards. This one has been most frustrating.

This fits in with other concepts. For the most part, the Texas offense is a simple RPO offense. When you have a passer like Shane, you can ratchet-up the screen and quick game and you’ll see me address more about that too.

Quick Game

Burst – On the surface, it seems Herman-Beck tries to use ‘stalk block’ techniques to disguise routes. That’s a great idea, but the offensive line doesn’t have time for that! Receivers need to come off the line with more burst and exhibit more aggression in their cuts, no slow-playing.

Hitch – Remember all the quick hitches from last season, gone! Much like ‘Turn’, Hitch is one of the simplest ways to gain easy yards. Again, when there’s off-coverage, this should be a no-brainer.

Slants – Herman-Beck scheme Slants. With both Shane and Sam in, both have executed Slants pretty well. They are excellent against man-coverage alignments, coverage up close outside.

Pivot – This goes back to the first point. What gets receivers open is turning coverage’s hips and leveraging position. Texas likes to run Slants or ‘Ins’, but when Pivot comes about, the receivers aren’t aggressive enough in their movement. Again, see the point, ‘Burst’.

Speed-Out – Texas also runs this concept well. Again, they don’t do everything bad. Instead, it’s my opinion that every little amount of space outside needs to be taken advantage of, to improve efficiency.

Drag – This is another concept Texas runs well and you see them run ‘Mesh’ quite a bit. I’d like to see it schemed more as an immediate quick outlet when space is available over the inside receiver. You can even scheme ‘rubs’ with it. Get guys open quick.

Those are some quick game concepts. There are others like Stick and Curl. The point here is, Texas’ weakness is running the ball. They have to scheme more screens and ‘quicks’ along with base runs to attack both numbers and alignment.

Run Game

Inside Zone – By now, this should be Texas’ ‘bread and butter’. Only, with all the injuries along the offensive line, even the ‘base play’ cannot be run with high expectations. What’s more puzzling, the Texas guards are also getting beat, the more veteran players. As Herman stated, this is where you focus on double-team blocks and allow your backs to find creases. The tight end often inserts to take out the extra box-defender and the back is asked to make a two-way read based on either a defensive lineman’s post-snap positioning or a linebacker’s flow. This will quickly grow into Daniel Young’s specialty. He has the feet, the balance, the vision, and the quick burst to gain yards.

Dart – I’m not sure of the nomenclature here, but Herman-Beck unveiled a tackle pull scheme against TCU. It allows for double-teams and adds a number to the play side. I liked this mainly because the tackles are having trouble base-blocking. This gets them on the move and still allows for the tight end insert. Stick with this scheme as it also lays groundwork for the return of Connor Williams.

Outside Zone – Texas needs to clean up this scheme and use the play side tackle to pin a defensive lineman inside while pulling the guard around. This gives it more Sweep or G-Lead character, but it should help alleviate blocking the stretch play.

Keep it simple and have the offensive line only block these three schemes against all fronts. The aim is to look outside first, then give. The run game is secondary to the screen game now, it has to be because the offensive line cannot be counted on for any consistency run-blocking.

Drop Back

Attack – One day on the ’40 Acres’, Herman’s offense will work. That day is currently a long time coming. Texas possesses some extreme athleticism outside, size too. Whether it’s to attack deep or open up short or intermediate zones, it’s my opinion the safeties in these ‘quarters’ defenses should be attacked quickly and vertically. It’s also important to note that these attacks fit in with the RPO model. If you’re not going to attack the safeties, you’re not giving them reason to hesitate against the run, screen, and quick game. Also, you’d be surprised how many safeties panic and interfere downfield.

COBRA – Texas tends to see a lot of Standard Down pressure. More COBRA concepts need to be schemed-in against opposing defense’s blitz patterns. What the acronym means is Come Off To Best Receiver Available. This also fits in with the quick game ideas, as those are typically the routes chosen to attack vacated space. Whether they be quick outlets to the back or to receivers, there need to be options. Remember the idea of ‘tagging’ the 3rd Fix? That applies here.

The current drop back passing game yields mixed results. Note that Texas only scored when they attacked deep against TCU. In my mind, it warrants more exploration. The current Verticals and 3-Level (Herman’s baby) concepts have yielded little fruit with regard to explosive plays. It’s my opinion that this offense could see improvement over the next few weeks, because the defenses get ‘easier’. That bodes well for a struggling offense, one that has had very few breaks up to now, let alone continuity.

N.B.

Stack & Bunch – It boggles my mind as to why fans haven’t seen more Stack and Bunch sets from Texas, both compressed and split-wide. You see Bunch at times, but hardly ever Stack. These formational concepts place unique stresses on a defense. If and when compressed, they hold the possibility of slowing a rush or preventing a blitz. Also, the variety of different blocking angles available may provide a boost to the running game. Lastly, these sets often provoke predictable responses from coverage, as defenses often don’t plan many checks against these looks. Add to that, Stack split wide often yields both space for the run game and pass game, short and deep.

So, did I just change the whole offense!? They already do some of this. My point is to emphasize different aspects of what they already do and to add a bit more nuance. You can do all that while still keeping it simple for the offensive line and tight end. They need all the help they can get. As always, let me know what you think in the comments. I’m well-aware that I’m biased when it comes to offensive football. It’s my opinion that this league requires a more aggressive approach. You tell me!