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.

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