Monday, August 29, 2016

Patrick Mahomes and the future of spread quarterbacking

There are dozens of different forces coming together to shape Patrick Mahomes' junior year at Texas Tech. Regular readers are surely well aware that I'm very high on Mahomes and Kingsbury producing another elite offense in 2016.

Here's a breakdown of what makes Mahomes special, why he's likely to lead an elite offense, and how quarterback evaluation and development is changing due to the success of talents like Mahomes.

Check it out at Vice Sports.

Picking Big 12 games against the spread

Last year I publicly humiliated myself by trying to pick some Big 12 games against the spread. I've decided to try and again with the week one games so that you can all marvel at how brilliant I am or else point and laugh at how horribly off my selections end up being. History says the latter is more likely, I guess we'll see.

Part of the problem last year is that when you don't actually bet and you just make picks for fun...you ignore home and away and take bad chances. I'm not going to change the part about betting, I think gambling is a foolish vice, but I'll try and make more measured picks and see what happens.

Baylor vs Northwestern (no line)


Obviously the Bears gonna roll the whatever NW St's mascot is's.

Pick: Baylor will win, can't guess against the line obviously.

Oklahoma -10 at (ish) Houston


Everyone's models on Oklahoma are based on what they did last year against a schedule that was decimated by injuries. Meanwhile the Sooners played four opponents a year ago that relied heavily on the QB run game: Tennessee, Texas, K-State, and Clemson. They went 2-2 in those games and looked out-toughed in the losses and vulnerable to the QB run game in every contest save for against the Wildcats.

This game is going to be a very useful barometer for whether the Sooners can match the hype this year or if they are still vulnerable to A) solid teams that aren't missing their QB or B) the QB run game. In a few weeks they'll face another barometer of whether they can hang with teams that also have elite talent (Ohio State).

In the meantime, I'm not giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Pick: Oklahoma wins but fails to cover.

Kansas State +15 at Stanford


Boy is that ever a lot of points for a team that's replacing their QB facing another team that normally overachieves but were devastated by injuries a year ago. It kinda looks like the oddsmakers just said, "okay so Arkansas beat KSU by 22 points and Stanford basically = Arkansas so..."

Stanford does return McCaffrey and will be playing from the comfort of their own stadium. It'll also help the Cardinal a great deal to have extra time to prepare for the Wildcat offense, which is pretty unique in college football. All that said, I think the markets currently (almost perpetually, really) undervalue K-State.

Pick: Stanford wins, fails to cover.


West Virginia -9.5 vs Missouri


Amongst my various non-consensus takes on the coming season is my firm belief that West Virginia is overrated and won't survive their grievous losses on defense from graduation/injury. Meanwhile, Missouri is probably going to be pretty good on defense and can't possibly be that bad again on offense with Drew Lock now solidly entrenched as the starter in a new system.

At the very least it seems unlikely that West Virginia's offense will be able to drop enough points to cover that spread but I think Missouri might actually have the better team.

Pick: Missouri wins outright


Oklahoma State vs Southeastern Louisiana (no line)


Only interesting thing here will be whether the Cowboys can run the ball or not. Last year doing so even against lower level competition was a real struggle.

Pick: Pokes roll


Kansas vs Rhode Island (no line)


I pause here to remind everyone that Kansas hasn't won a football game yet for David Beaty...people this could be it.

Pick: Celebration in Lawrence!

Texas +3.5 vs Notre Dame


Wow, the money must be pouring in on Notre Dame to give Texas that many points. I'll preview this one over at Inside Texas but I think most of the decisive match-ups in this game are either draws or favor the Irish save perhaps for Sterlin Gilbert vs Brian VanGorder.

Both of the possible Notre Dame starters at QB would start at Texas, for instance. That seems likely to have an impact on this game.

Pick: Notre Dame covers

The rest of the games aren't even worth mentioning. What do y'all think?

Imagining Alabama with Jalen Hurts as QB

Doing so is somewhat akin to downing a bowl of ice cream while watching scary movies, you're just setting yourself up for a sleepless night.

Of course he's just a freshman, so there will probably be growing pains. The Alabama offense isn't exactly high level sodoku though so there's a good chance he can gain a decent mastery of Kiffin's system and be rolling by the end of the year.

Read all about it over at Football Study Hall.

Previewing Auburn vs Clemson

I broke down how Malzahn's squad will have to find some answers in a hurry to take on the contenders in Clemson over at SB Nation.

I think Malzahn's fate was sealed when Sean White was named the starter because John Franklin III wasn't ready to take over. Unless this team has a really good WR and RB on the roster that no one's heard of yet (possible) who can command attention, I think this is Malzahn's last year at the Barn.

Funny thing is, I think the defense might actually be quite good despite hiring everyone's former DC, Kevin Steele. They looked pretty sound in the spring game and they have the right pieces to make his system work.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Texas' easier finish: West Virginia, Kansas, TCU

Over at Inside Texas I concluded my preview of the Longhorns' schedule with their final three-game stretch of West Virginia, Kansas, and TCU. Go there and you can hear my thoughts on how those teams look, how they match-up with Texas, and some extra insights on why the Frogs are a particularly tough challenge for the Longhorns.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Curious that there aren't more TEs in the Big 12

My man @The_Coach_A continues to crank out amazing articles at matchquarters.com on how modern quarters defense is played. The most recent one is on defending tight end sets. If you're a fan of most any Big 12 team save for Oklahoma or Texas this article is pretty relevant to how your team plays defense.

The only sense in which it isn't relevant is that the Big 12 doesn't use tight ends very often. Head official Walt Anderson was noting a new rule on tight ends and cut blocks at Big 12 media days and he said he struggled to even find cut-ups from Big 12 play where a team was even using a tight end.

Baylor, perhaps the ultimate spread team in the league, is one of the squads that most regularly utilizes the position. Kansas State does as well as they use just about every formation and position known to man.

You'll also note from the article the importance of the middle linebacker being able to play some coverage and move. I think one of the biggest revelations from the 2015 season was that some inside linebackers are now officially just toughened up box safeties. When Travin Howard is leading one of the league's best defenses in tackles playing middle linebacker at 190 pounds you have to rethink the position some.

Finally, if you're reading MatchQuarters.com regularly or you've watched Baylor or Michigan State play defense a lot over the last few years you'll note that there's little sense in offenses trying to create leverage around the box against these teams.

The shallow and active play of the safeties means that if one of these teams has laterally quick LBs who know what they're doing combined with downhill-filling safeties with a little bit of burst then there's no angle or leverage that can be gained which won't be quickly stymied.

It drove me crazy looking back at Jim Harbaugh's game plan for Michigan State last year when he kept trying to manipulate some angles for their run game when none of his backs had breakaway speed and the Sparty safeties were always going to arrive to clean things up near the line of scrimmage anyways.

You have to attack these aggressive quarters teams deep with the passing game. It's the only way.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Oh the places you'll go...if you have a lockdown corner in the Big 12

Just one. That's all it takes and your average, quarters-based Big 12 defense has a fantastic chance of playing good defense.

I'm not talking about a lead corner, or the guy who you say is the lockdown guy because he's the best guy on the team, I'm talking about a player than can take a receiver in man coverage without help and thrive. If you have that guy on your team, there are endless options for you to make hay against opposing offenses.

I've written that free safety is the most important position, because that guy can't be bad, but there's no higher upside to be had than having a true lockdown corner. A dominant defensive tackle is a close second but the Nebraska Cornhuskers were still good in 2010 after Suh was gone..okay, okay, so maybe they still had Jared Crick.

Nevertheless, if I had my druthers I'd still want the lockdown corner. Especially if my defense was based in quarters. Give me competence everywhere else and we'll be in good shape. The value to be had from having a superstar there is hard to even quantify.

For instance, I've had the debate a few times with people over exactly how good Texas Tech will be this year. They were fantastic on offense last year, finishing second in the whole country in Offensive S&P, but they also lost their LT Le'Raven Clark, RB DeAndre Washington, and WR Jakeem Grant.

Clark was a good player, drafted in the third round, Washington had consecutive 1k yard seasons and was drafted in the fifth round. Jakeem Grant was awarded the "Darren Sproles water bug trophy for most outstanding tiny person" for TWO different seasons.
All of those guys are big losses...but Texas Tech is quarterbacked by a guy in Pat Mahomes who can hit every part of the field with his cannon arm and they utilize a spread designed by Kliff Kingsbury. Their skill players are going to be operating in a ton of space on a regular basis, you don't have to be Randy Moss to thrive in that setting.

So despite those losses I have zero doubts that Texas Tech will again be highly effective on offense in 2016. I mean, just look at this:
The only way to handle offenses of the sort that guys like Kingsbury can put on the field is to limit the amount of space that they have to work in.

There are a few ways to do that, but if you have a lockdown cornerback your options in this regard expand considerably. Here's a glimpse into the schematic world of containment options afforded to teams that have a man-coverage guru...

Against the run


Thanks to the rise of run/pass option plays (RPOs) you can no longer afford to just be good against the spread passing attack OR the spread rushing attack, which quarters was otherwise a phenomenal means of accomplishing. You gotta be able to stop both simultaneously.

I outlined the easiest way to do this in my article listing the top run-support safeties in the Big 12. You get the boundary safety involved as a free hitter against the run game by asking the cornerback to handle any vertical routes by the boundary side receiver without help over the top.



But because you're on the boundary, the quick hitch or out is pretty hard to cover unless the corner is right up there on the cornerback. It's just such a short throw that even a noodle-armed QB can get the ball out there to hit the window. If the QB and WR are in sync with accurate tosses and that WR is hard to tackle for any reason (size, speed, sheer toughness) then you're going to struggle to avoid giving up easy gains. That means you're now also vulnerable to getting impatient and getting caught by the hitch and go:
Texas' abilities to nail quick routes to big John Harris in 2014 from Swoopes' cannon arm was pretty much the only thing that offense had going for them. The skinny post off play-action, run behind the safety is another lethal throw that's made possible from this style of coverage.

Anyways, a team that relies on playing off coverage on the boundary in order to involve the safety is at risk of either death by a thousand paper cuts on quick easy throws or seeing their players get undisciplined and caught by a double move or play-action.

The ideal solution is to do what Sparty used to do, what Alabama does, and what Baylor has tried to mix in and play press-man without help.
Now the routes and throws that the offense has to try and use to beat the coverage are much more difficult. You're talking about fades, back shoulder fades, or just really sharp breaks that are well executed in order to punish press coverage. If that press corner is elite then you're trading in really high efficiency throws for very, very low efficiency throws and it's happening to your most accessible receiver when the ball is on the hash mark.

I know, I know, I headlined this section about the run game and I'm just talking about the passing game. That's kind of the point though, lockdown corners that can truly lock down a top target's route tree can prevent offenses from punishing a loaded front.

The defense can now load the middle of the field and bring pressure on the run game from one or both edges by utilizing the nickel and/or the boundary safety. Against normal formations I'd argue the best value comes from having the lockdown corner over the boundary side receiver.

Why? Because the other outside receiver is harder to reach thus teams don't really scheme help to the far outside routes. If there's no help to free up then there's little advantage to using the lockdown corner there. The beauty this player offers against the run is the ability to maintain numbers in the middle of the field so that the offense doesn't have space to play in.

Against trips formations


Against a 3x1 set there's an advantage to be had from having a lockdown corner either to the field or the boundary. Again, the value in a lockdown corner is allow the defense to X-out a receiver, forget about him, and focus on stuffing everything else.

So having the lockdown corner aligned to the field can be valuable in allowing a defense like this:
You don't have the benefit mentioned in the above section of a lockdown corner in the boundary, taking away that easy candy, but on third and medium or third and long the defense could play cover 2 on the boundary. Cover 2 takes away the easy candy for the passing game, although it'd be pretty easy to run on unless that corner is a boss on the edge.

If you're reading the links on the side of this blog, you may have read this amazing post on trips coverages by Coach A. on matchquarters.com. He breaks down some of the specifics of these coverages and mentions this K-State version of the coverage:
K-State virtually never has the athletes to play lockdown corner. They sometimes put a lot on Morgan Burns last year and he was blazing fast but not really up for even what they did ask from him.

As I gleaned from looking at the best defenses of the second Snyder-era, when the Wildcats have been their best is when they have guys that can play off coverage techniques like the one above and then jump routes when the QB makes mistakes or tries to force a ball in without enough zip or accuracy. Duke Shelly is a really complete young DB that might fit that mold if he doesn't ever quite become a true lockdown guy.

The best place to have your lockdown guy vs trips is still on the boundary because then you can use the boundary safety in a variety of different ways to attack the offense. My favorite is the Sparty/Ohio State "solo" adjustments where he picks up the opposite field slot on deep routes and plays aggressively against the run:
This is why Gareon Conley is vitally important to the Buckeyes this year. If he lockdown the boundary they can deny the far hash due to the space on the field, deny the boundary receiver with Conley, and then have their supremely talented linebackers and boundary safety sitting in the middle of the field...
I like Michigan to win the Big 10 but Ohio State will be tough to beat if Conley allows those kinds of options and Meyer builds a strong offensive concept around Barrett. Neither of those are exactly "unlikely scenarios."

On the blitz


The best thing about the split field, quarters-based concept might be the blitzes. When a defense can play a conservative zone coverage to half the field and bring a wild, man-blitz on the other it really mucks up the reads for the QB and can lead to a bad day.

Normally when a QB sees a single linebacker or defensive back coming off the edge or up the middle, he expects to see a single-high safety coverage with man or match-up zone underneath. Not so with modern quarters defenses, who can play different coverages to either side of the field.

With the defense playing man coverage on the boundary, there's no longer a "2 over 1" or "3 over 2" advantage to maintain, which frees up someone to blitz. Many teams like to blitz the cornerback off the edge, but if he's a lockdown guy perhaps you want him locking down that receiver while the weakside LB or safety come after the QB:
The corner can also free up the opposite side of the field to bring pressure if the defense wants to use their freed up boundary safety to roll to the field to help out over there:
For the purpose of blitzing, it's helpful if the entire secondary can at least hold up in man coverage and offer something on the blitz, but a single lockdown player can still free up other players to help each other out.

Scheming advantages against good opponents, especially Big 12 offenses, is very difficult unless the defense has the following traits:

1. No weak links!

Everyone on the field needs roles they can fill and perform without committing egregious errors or being easily targeted. Weak spots will always be isolated and hammered by at least one opponent on the conference schedule.

2. Someone that tilts the advantage back to the defense.

This could be a defensive tackle that has to be double-teamed, a pass-rusher that can't be blocked without leaving a RB or TE home to block, or a lockdown corner that can allow the defense to shrink the field and reduce the stress of spread out formations.

If OU's Jordan Thomas, TCU's Ranthony Texada, or one of Texas' cornerbacks is up for this role in 2016 it could open up the world to their defense and equalize the advantages normally enjoyed by the league's offenses. If not, those teams will need to find advantages elsewhere.