Monday, August 31, 2015

Can a finesse spread team win the SEC?

I tackled that question over at Football Study Hall.

The article is about Ole Miss, I could probably just as easily be talking about A&M who have also struggled to build a smashmouth culture on either side of the ball.

It's hard to have a team identity geared around running the ball down someone's throat if your main identity is about throwing the ball, protecting the QB, and getting the ball to fast skill players in space UNLESS the pass game is more directly built around the success of the run game.

For the smashmouth spread teams, for instance, play-action and RPOs serve as the main core of their passing game. For finesse spread squads like A&M or Ole Miss, the run game only needs to be capable of punishing teams that don't play the run honestly and dare them to test their mettle running on an undermanned box, or to give them a good chance in short-yardage scenarios.

I think these finesse spread teams can find ways to make to accomplish that goal without having to become full blown, smashmouth spread teams. Read all about it with the link above.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Bill Snyder throws the kitchen sink at the Big 12

As a coach who likes to oversee a vigorous and efficiency-based ball control offense, Bill Snyder loves to work with senior quarterbacks.

In 2012 the Wildcats had an offense built around senior QB Collin Klein's talents that went 11-2 while winning the Big 12 title. In 2014 they had completely re-worked the offense around Jake Waters who went 9-4 and fell just short of helping Snyder capture another league crown in the vacuum left by Texas and Oklahoma's failures.

In 2015 the Wildcats are going to have to completely rework their system and they're going to need to do it around a different talent than either Klein or Waters. The leading candidate to be the man is redshirt freshman Jesse Ertz, a former 3-star recruit from Iowa who lacked offers from either of the state schools there. Typical Wildcat.

With leading skill players Tyler Lockett (106 catches, 1515 yards, 11 TDs) and Curry Sexton (79 catches, 1059 yards, 5 TDs) also gone the K-State offense will necessarily have to look much different in 2015. The Big 12 looks pretty tough in the coming year, but there can always be opportunity for K-State to do better than expected if they are well positioned to take advantages of opportunities that come up in the season.

How might their staff build a new offense that could put them in position to seize advantage if injuries or failures occur elsewhere in the league?

The 2014 K-State offense

Let's start by just looking at how Snyder-ball was adapted to make the most of the Waters-Lockett-Sexton triumvirate that headed up the Wildcat machine in 2014. Their statistical profile is of a team that could run the ball with a measure of effectiveness when they needed to but really made their money throwing the ball and particularly with Waters scrambling and either finding an open receiver or taking off and picking up yardage:

The Wildcats had a variety of ways to accomplish their aim of getting Lockett and Sexton in space to run routes, indeed Snyder always has a wide variety of ways to do anything.

One option was with heavy formations that could threaten a defensive front's ability to get enough numbers to stop the run. Here's a fun example:

Since the QB run game is a major part of the K-State package, even with a smaller guy like Waters in the game, Snyder and his staff would load the box with a TE and a pair of fullbacks to threaten the defense with the possibility of a single-wing type running play where the QB runs behind eight blockers.

How are you going to stop that, even with an eight man front? By loading the box in response.

But now the defense is serving the real goal, which is to try and create space for the receivers. The diagram above is a route combo that Sexton and Lockett would run a lot in 2014 and it basically amounts to them running downfield and looking for open grass. With all the extra blockers on the field, especially when they would play Gronk at running back like I've depicted here, and Waters' quickness the Wildcats were often able to buy their QB and WRs time to get open and connect down the field.

Snyder would also go with spread sets to accomplish the same goal:
Stuff like this, a bunch set with three receivers stacked to one far end of the field is the kind of thing K-State loved to use to get a free release for their receivers and a chance for Lockett or another WR to find themselves in open grass.

The goal is always to do what it takes to get the best players in position to do damage. Many coaches today go for a very simple, system-based approach with self-contained answers and constraints but the Wildcat offense is much more extensive and geared around having tons of ways to stress and attack opponents.

They have a spread passing game, pro-style concepts, and single-wing running plays all available to them to basically hit their opponents with their best players in as many ways as possible.

Jesse Ertz and the Wildcat assets in 2015

In determining what kind of offense K-State will have in 2015 the first most important question to answer is "who is the QB and what can he do?"

If Jesse Ertz is the man, what is his skill set? In high school, Ertz operated a spread offense which appears to have been absolute voodoo to his Iowa opponents.

A 6'3" 190 pound athlete throwing to receivers who know what they are doing, and can catch, is generally going to do pretty impressive things in a spread offense at the high school level. The big question is whether he's just a solid system QB or someone with elite skills that will translate to the Big 12 where defenses are developed and groomed to stop spread systems.

Based on his film, very little about Ertz stands out except that he's quite decent at just about everything. He can get the ball out quickly and on time, his accuracy is good, arm strength is solid, he can throw on the run, and he is fairly quick and built thick enough to take a few hits.

If he's smart and hard working in the offseason, and quick thinking on the field, there's reason to believe he could handle a very extensive chunk of the K-State offensive package. But he also doesn't have any particular skills that opponents will worry about.

He can operate the spread passing game, presumably with time he can make the checks and calls at the line to get the Wildcats in the optimal plays, and he can run the ball in the single-wing sets so Ertz might be the ideal man to operate an extensive K-State offense built around a strong supporting who's the supporting cast in 2015?

Up front the OL returns a wealth of experience, save for the center who incidentally makes all the line calls and is the brain trust of the group. They seem to be trying to get Risner up to speed there which is as sure a sign as any that they think he's one of the more talented and intelligent players on their roster. They groomed and played BJ Finney early before him.

This is a group that is solid in run-blocking despite the negative press they got for their performance last year. The design of the run schemes is to limit penetration and use angles created from a diverse playbook to help the players out. When they need help in pass protection Snyder will just bring in tight ends, fullbacks, and running backs to help them out and you'd better believe all those players know how to perform in those roles before they are allowed on the field. There isn't a ton of punch in this group but they aren't bad either.

At RB the Wildcats have a three-headed Cerberus led by returning starter Charles Jones, who was solid in 2014 while playing hurt much of the year, hard-running walk-on Justin Silmon, and ultra-quick redshirt freshman Dalvin Warmack who was lauded as potentially being the next Darren Sproles (by myself and others) when he was recruited.

Depending on how much more explosive Jones is when healthy, what you have here again is a group that can do a lot of different things but may not be dominant at anything.

The ancillaries include fullback Glenn Gronkowski, who's very versatile, emerging fullback Winston Dimel, and a cast of tight ends who will doubtlessly be solid blockers and average running routes.

Rising senior Kody Cook said this WR corps could be as good as last year, at least as a group, which is frankly hard to believe. With Cook, Stanton Weber, and Kyle Klein they have the typical cast of white dudes with solid hands that know what they are doing. Deantre Burton has plus speed and good size (6'2" 205) that could make him dangerous on the outside and perhaps the most intriguing player on the roster is redshirt freshman Dominique Heath.

At 5'9" 175 and blazing fast, he's on the Tyler Lockett development plan. They'll use him running underneath in 2015 or on special teams and hope that his athleticism and hands become dominant after a few years of instruction on running routes. In the meantime, he'll probably be a useful but limited part of the toolbox.

They all seem useful, but it's not clear that opposing defenses will feel the need to bracket any of them.

The Wildcats also have some very explosive running QBs in freshman Alex Delton and JUCO sophomore Jonathan Banks that could figure in to the single-wing/QB run schemes much like Daniel Thomas and Daniel Sams did in the past.

Everywhere you look on the K-State offensive roster you see competence, quality, and versatility but nothing truly exceptional.

Prognosis: Kitchen sink offense in 2015

In the past, Snyder's offense has basically been a "bellcow" offense, meaning that the team has one great player who is milked dry of value and production. I've tabled the bellcows who have summed up Bill Snyder's 2nd reign as King of Manhattan:

As K-State beat writer Derek Smith noted, "This is kind of a unique situation for this Snyder Era. Not sure he's had an offense like this since his early years. If Snyder/Dimel can engineer a competent offense this season, it'll be something entirely different than what we've gotten used to over the last six years."

If Snyder doesn't have a feature of his own team to emphasize that leaves one other thing for him to focus on...your weaknesses. And he's going to throw everything at you, even the kitchen sink.

(GIF made by @Nick_Pants)

The expectation for the 2015 K-State offense should be that they'll be extremely multiple, very disciplined, and that they'll have exacting game plans with all kinds of stuff designed to milk every drop of value from their young cows by allowing them to pasture where ever it is that you least want to see them.

Will that be enough for them to be bowl eligible? Win eight games? Contend for the league crown?

Let's just pencil them in for 7-5 and see what happens.

Scattershooting what's likely to happen in the upcoming Longhorn football season

I wrote a "don't be surprised if..." piece over at Inside Texas offering a few different expectations for the upcoming season including what I think will happen to the young Texas OL in South Bend, how DeAndre McNeal will be used in the offense, and other scattershot nuggets.

Check it out here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Alabama embraces the spread/RPO revolution

I've got a longform up at SB Nation about how Nick Saban is rebuilding the Alabama football team around new strategies designed to allow them to dominate the new era of spread football.

One of the major developments is how Saban is equipping his offense, at least his QB, to be able to cycle through the OODA loop and be equipped to make adjustments in the heat of the moment after the snap. RPOs are the way that is accomplished.

One thing that'll be interesting to watch in the future is whether defenses start to design their coverages around muddying up RPO reads so that QBs have to hold the ball and (hopefully) panic. We'll get into that later.

Another nugget from that article is that Malzahn is apparently in Saban's mind, hence his move to channel Belichick and embrace becoming an offensive team.

You can find lots of my 2015 SB Nation previews here including a piece on how Baylor will use their massive TE and changes to the POP pass that will occur as a result of changes in rule enforcement.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The art of bending without breaking: Norm Parker's lasting influence

In this post I looked at some 2014 defenses, including S&P's no. 1 rated Clemson, and noted how they used Norm Parker's cover 6/fundamentals-focused approach to choke out college offenses.

Few things really expose a college quarterback like trying to beat cover 2. However, having a boundary corner who can hold up against the run game is a prerequisite to playing this defense on non-passing downs.

Kansas State and Texas are the two teams most likely to be able to regularly employ that strategy in 2015 although TCU is surely hoping to find a boundary corner that can allow them to mix it in.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Texas needs Daje Johnson to replace TE Geoff Swaim

Geoff Swaim was quietly one of the best players for Texas in 2014 and some scouts were so impressed by his blocking ability that they said they'd draft him to play OL were he a bit bigger.

Texas fans noticed him mostly for dropping some passes against Oregon in the 2013 Alamo Bowl but he was a brilliant blocker that made the run game go for two consecutive seasons. Texas doesn't seem to have any TEs on the roster who are ready to replace him, so they're going to have to use Daje Johnson.

That's right, 5'10" 178 pound Daje Johnson is the best answer for how Texas can replace the production lost when Swaim graduated and departed to the NFL. Read about it here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Notes and developments around the Big 12

As nice as it is to keep tabs on spring practice, where many starting jobs are won or lost, fall two-a-days are where teams really hammer home their identity and depth chart after offseason drills and a chance for freshman to prove themselves.

I'm going to collect some notes and thoughts on stuff that's been floating around on different Big 12 teams. If you're looking for Texas coverage, I'm doing lots of that over at Inside Texas with a column coming out in the morning on how Texas can use Daje Johnson to replace their departing tight end Geoff Swaim.


If you want to stay abreast with inside info on what's going on at Oklahoma, you can actually do it for free courtesy of the Football Brainiacs. Here are some of my thoughts on stuff they've reported.

They don't seem to have QB settled at all, which is surely concerning for them because their skill talent is absurdly loaded for 2015. Dede Westbrook could be a dominant slot receiver, Sterling Shephard is back, Samaje Perine is back, and practice reports make Joe Mixon sound like the 2nd coming of Barry Sanders.

This is why so many people have Oklahoma 3rd on their preseason Big 12 ballots or as a "darkhorse" (LOL, how can this ever apply to Oklahoma?) Big 12 contender.

There doesn't seem to be anything unexpected brewing in Norman for this coming year, the big thing to watch for will be whether their QBs can avoid turnovers (not a strong suit of Mayfield or Knight in the past) and whether they can get the kind of coverage they need at corner to aggressively deploy their big, physical safeties.

Actually, we still don't know if their DL will be good sans Jordan Phillips, whether they can protect Striker in the run game with a great 3-tech, or whether years of coaching from Tim Kish will actually make their experienced LBs any good this coming year.

For all their talent, I'm thinking Bob Stoops' culture has stagnated and will underachieve again. Perhaps Lincoln Riley buys him more time, like Harsin did for Mack Brown, perhaps not. It's defense that will drag them down, a Stoops team that can't win with defense doesn't have long term sustainability.

Kansas State

As noted in this practice report, the Wildcats seem to be figuring out their depth chart in multiple spots. Jesse Ertz is leading the pack at QB, and given that he's actually a really quick runner in addition to being a solid passer that's probably a good thing for Snyder's bunch.

They seem to be very fond of their WR corps even though they just lost two 1k yard receivers in Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton. Kyle Klein and DeAntre Burton seem to be the focal points but the fact that they brought former walk on Stanton Weber to Big 12 media days tells me he might figure in prominently as a slot receiver.

Apparently Dominique Heath got 1st team reps at receiver in that practice, and the 5'9" 175 pound speedster is probably their next Tyler Lockett if he can learn to run routes with similar precision. When Lockett was just a young lad they'd go five-wide, send most everyone deep, and then let Lockett find open space underneath where Klein could hit him on a slant or out route. You'd guess Ertz or whomever and Heath could also find success with that play.

On defense they seem to be leaning towards Donnie Starks at nickel and Sean Newlan at free safety, which is interesting since Nate Jackson and Kaleb Prewett were thought to have the inside tracks on those jobs in the spring. K-State fans have been buzzing about Newlan for some time, a former track star who's been learning to play safety after serving as a QB in high school.

Another Kansas HS star, Tanner Wood, has ballooned to 263 pounds (played at 235 in high school) and is probably going to feature prominently at DE this year. This dude set a HS record with 659 rushing yards in a single game...greatness seems inevitable for him.

If someone underachieves in 2015 K-State is, like always, probably a good bet to be one of the teams that benefits and does better than expected. Their defense looks like it could be quite good and if they have a credible passing game they'll be much more dangerous than expected.

Oklahoma State

Victor Salako seems to have locked down the left tackle position, as expected, and allowed Michael Wilson to move to guard. That this actually worked out is a big deal and will have a major impact on whether they can build a good offense around their skill talent.

The other incoming transfers seem to be getting well reviewed as well, which is important because they need DT Motekiai Maile and RB Chris Carson to fill holes in their team left by departing seniors. The fact that Indiana transfer CB Michael Hunter seems to be doing well just seems unfair given how much depth they already had at corner.

Oklahoma State is a pretty good looking football team and my own preferred darkhorse candidate rather than the Sooners.

Texas Tech

Still no word on whether star freshman Pat Mahomes will win the starting QB job from Davis Webb but you figure he will, even as good as Webb was last year.

Word from their summer workouts seems to be that Keenon Ward is one of the guys at safety with Justis Nelson also drawing positive attention at corner. They've moved Gaines to corner, which probably makes Nigel Bethel the odd man out, while Tevin Madison is locking down the nickel spot.

In Gibbs' 46-inspired system the goal is to feature coverage at the nickel and corner spots since they don't have to be as active in run support. Thus, it's not a big deal to have a little guy like 5'10" 166 pound Madison at the nickel whereas in a scheme like Oklahoma State's they want a bigger, space-backer type there. They still need Ward to prove he can erase things in run-support but if they have three ball-hawking DBs in Madison, Nelson, and Gaines that's a promising start. The number one thing Gibbs is going to want to achieve is to leverage Robertson's ability to bring pressure into interceptions on the back end.

A really big info bomb is that Mike Mitchell has moved from weakside linebacker to Pete Robertson's rush-end position. That's big both because it might open the door for D'Vonta Hinton to start at linebacker and because it might indicate that Tech's ability to bring pressure won't fall off a cliff when Robertson takes his face paint to the NFL.

Rika Levi is working to get into the NFL and has received positive reviews. He's a massive dude that can move pretty well, the issue for him has always been getting his weight down and conditioning up so that he can perform multiple explosive movements in a game rather than just a few snaps worth. A big year from him would have a major impact for their run D, which is usually crappy. Everything I read about him makes me think David Gibbs is going to turn out to have been a fantastic hire for Kingsbury.

We all know the offense will score points.


The main stories coming out of Waco seem to revolve around Seth Russell lighting things up in a scrimmage, which is par for the course for a Bear QB, and various 61-58 trolling by their team.

The big issue for them is simply if Russell can take care of the ball and if they get better corner play. Russell takes up the torch and Xavien Howard becomes a lockdown corner? They're probably going to win the league. If not, well...


The Frogs seem to be counting on freshman LB Mike Freeze coming through for them in a big way, which I would find concerning as a TCU fan, especially given that the DBs flanking him at strong and weak safety will also be new starters. I'm just not sure how good this interior will be but I will say this, Denzel Johnson (strong safety) and Mike Freeze are athletic talents that will probably be really freaking good before all is said and done.

Obviously the big thing is that there keep emerging new stories of how Kolby Listenbee has stepped up at WR and Boykin knows the offense like the back of his hand now. This group is going to score a lot of points and the defense is at least going to be solid...that's been a Big 12-winning recipe in Waco a couple of times.


I refuse to pay attention to this Kansas team until they win a game or they are about to play Texas.

Iowa State

Marco Rubio probably isn't going to push Sam Richardson at QB for the Cyclones. They're hoping South Carolina transfer Jhaustin Thomas, a 6-5 265 pound end, can help them replace Cory Morrissey at right end. As I've noted many times, the Cyclone defense really needs some pass rush at end to make their system work as intended.

Another worry for the Cyclones is that they'll have to heavily involve Sam Richardson in order to have a good running game and it seems clear at this point that he can't really take the punishment to carry a run game over the course of a season.

West Virginia

One thing I love about Holgorsen and West Virginia is that they don't mind telling the media what they are going to do. Not an overly secretive bunch, they're more worried about executing their system than whether or not opposing coaches can find out from the local media that they're back in the 3-3-5 defense. Anyways, they've released a depth chart.

They've listed Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood at different positions, so you can probably expect them to play a lot of 20 and 21 personnel with Smallwood moving all over the place and serving as a featured weapon in their offense. Kevin White's brother Ka'Raun is already listed as the starter at X receiver so that should be interesting. It's not yet clear, evidently, if Cajuste will allow Pankey to play inside at guard or not. That's pretty crucial as they need to be good at guard and running the football to get the most out of Smallwood.

JUCO DE Larry Jefferson doesn't seem to be the answer to a weak pass rush since he's currently 3rd team, it'll probably have to be Nwachukwu. The secondary still looks good but you wonder if the LBs and DL can get a pass-rush or not.

There's a lot of "wait and see" for me with this team but it's possible to see things breaking pretty positively for them.

When does the season start again?

Cardale Jones gives Ohio State the best chance to beat the Hokies and their 46 defense

The article I alluded to in the last post is now up at SB Nation. Check it out here. My suspicion is that the Buckeyes will roll with Cardale Jones rather than JT Barrett for his ability to punish an aggressive Hokie game plan by throwing the ball downfield and beating man coverage.

I think you're going to see more and more smashmouth teams look to land pocket QBs rather than grabbing dual-threat guys like Urban Meyer and Gus Malzahn have done in the past. Why? Because a defense is more over-stressed by a guy that can throw outside the hash marks on RPOs and down the field on play-action than they are by a guy that can run option with the RB.

The first thing Chad Morris did when he took over at SMU? Land Elite 11 passer Ben Hicks. The first QB signed by Tom Herman at Houston? "Pro-style passer" Bowman Sells.

As the smashmouth spread sees it's influence in Texas expand you'll see this trend continue as coaches look to take advantage of the state's supply of good passers to complement their physical run games.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Is the 46 nickel defense the answer to the smashmouth spread?

Last year Virginia Tech went all-in on an aggressive anti-spread strategy with the 46 defense and used it to upset the smashmouth spread Ohio State Buckeyes on their own turf in Columbus Ohio. I have a forthcoming column at SB Nation that will dive into that match-up and how it might play out in 2015, the issue is far from settled.

But in this space, I'd like to talk about the 46 nickel as a possible answer to the smashmouth spread in general.

The Hokies' successes

Ohio State fans will be quick to note that their OL was young and JT Barrett was playing only his second game ever as a Buckeye QB when this happened, but it remains the case that Virginia Tech choked out their offense in that game.

Barrett was 9-29 passing with 219 yards at 7.6 yards per pass, one TD, and three interceptions.

The 7.6 yards per pass number is good and was the result of the fact that the 46 is a very aggressive defense of the "break don't bend" variety. The Buckeyes landed a deep shot or two as well as a slant route that went 53 yards for a touchdown. However, the overall inconsistency of the passing game in the face of loaded boxes made it very difficult for them to maintain drives.

The Buckeyes ran the ball 40 times for 108 yards with Barrett accounting for 24 carries and 70 yards while Ezekiel Elliot got the ball only eight times and produced 32 yards. The Hokies strategy was able to take the ball out of Elliot's hands and force the Buckeyes to try and flank them on the perimeter. Urban Meyer struggled to do so.

So how does this work?

The 46 Nickel

The 46 defense was made famous by Buddy Ryan's 80's Chicago Bears teams that won the 1985 Super Bowl. The idea was to cover every single opposing offensive linemen with a defensive player to make winning the line of scrimmage difficult for the run game, to apply pressure to the offense, and to allow the middle linebacker and strong safety #46 Doug Plank to run to the football free from advancing OL.

Rex and Rob Ryan have modernized and used the defense since in the NFL, most famously in Baltimore with Ed Reed sitting on the back end to clean up anything that survived the pressure cooker they created up front.

Here's what a 46 nickel defense can look like against the smashmouth spread's favorite formation, the spread-I.

Let's briefly talk theory and roles:

On the edges you have a Sam and Will DE/OLB player like in a 3-4 defense, except that they rarely get dropped back into coverage in this defense but instead get to focus on controlling the edge and forcing the ball between them.

This has the nice effect of freeing up the corners and nickels from any primary responsibility for run defense so they can focus on playing (usually) press-man coverage on the wide receivers.

Inside you have two tackle/strongside end players in three-technique positions who are attacking the guards and making it impossible for them to get to the second level. You also have a nose guard attacking the center who's often a two-gap player.

This is where the 46 could really do damage today as teams often use smaller (6'2" 290 is about average) quick thinking players at center who can make line calls and survive the brutality of the trenches by being involved in double teams with the guards. It's very difficult to double team any of the DTs in the 46, so that center is almost always on his own.

The middle linebacker might have to take on a lead block now and then, but he and the strong safety (or rover in V-Tech's terminology) are mostly going to be running free to the football. The ball is going to be funneled right to them more often than not but it's essential that they reliably be in position to make the tackle when that happens.

As Bud Foster himself has noted, the boundary corner and free safety probably have the toughest jobs in this defense. The free safety needs to prevent back-breaking plays and be in position to clean up anything and everything that breaks through the wall. Virginia Tech often moves him around to either play up tight to the line of scrimmage to be an 8th man in the box to stop the run, as a robber in the middle of the field to sit on intermediate routes, or as a very deep centerfielder.

The boundary corner is working in isolation against what is often a top receiver without deep safety help and he can't play too loose unless he's really consistent on breaking up slants.

I'd add that the nickel has a tough job too since he and the free safety often have an eye on the run game and he's working in a lot of space against the slot receiver.

Stuffing the smashmouth spread

The smashmouth spread is largely built around attacking the middle of the field with inside zone and gap schemes like power. The offense is trying to space players out so that they struggle to get their hats to the A-gap with leverage to avoid getting blasted by the OL, FB/TEs, and the ball carriers. Hence the "smashmouth" element of the system.

The 46 nickel's "bear front' makes it very difficult for any of these schemes to work effectively. Let's start with the zone read play with a lead blocker for the QB:

The edge contain player, "W" in this diagram, stays wide so the QB hands off to the running back. The defense only has a double team in the cutback lane inside of that "W" so that's where the RB needs to go. However, the defense knows this and the mike can easily scrape back into that lane with the strong safety and free safety following closely behind him. There's very little chance of the tackle coming off that double team of the 3-tech and reaching the mike backer in time.

The defense forces the offense to work within narrow spaces with the wide contain players and then it becomes very hard for the offense to win those battles because so many DL are working against single team blocks while the middle linebacker and safeties are flowing to the football without having to worry about running into OL.

Let's look at power now.

Pulling OL against the 46 is fraught with peril because you leave open the possibility that the backside DL will blast through and tackle the RB from behind. The QB could pull the ball and force the weakside contain player (W) to hang back but there's still the chance that the backside DT blows through the attempted reach block by the tackle.

Meanwhile, the offense still has no major advantage at the point of attack. The double team is going to really struggle to release an OL to the strong safety or middle linebacker before they clog everything up and if the strongside contain player (S) is good at squeezing the block by the fullback (H) than the ball is bounced outside and your "smashmouth" scheme is now featuring a RB running parallel to the line of scrimmage.

Normally the smashmouth spread punishes the defense for sending numbers to the point of attack aggressively with run/pass conflicts created by RPOs, but there are no easy RPO answers to this defense because the secondary, other than the free safety, don't have primary assignments against the run. The only players that could be attacked in conflict are the middle linebacker and strong safety and since they are keying the back and the tight end/fullback respectively, they're going to know what's up pretty fast.

Problems for the 46?

The "all or nothing" approach of the 46 makes it possible to do real damage in the run game IF the offense can find ways to get enough leverage to make that happen. This can be accomplished primarily by getting more receivers in action so that the front is reduced.

That can be done in a few ways, one is just to motion a player out of the backfield so that the defense only has one support player left in the box to fill gaps with.

The "dread wing" offense can always find ways to overstress a defense. However, even now a spectacular player at the nose tackle position who just beats up the center can wreck this play. The defense could also drop the free safety down closer to the box to get their numbers advantage back.

It all comes down to how well that nickel and those corners are doing at holding up in coverage outside, and that's where you can really attack the 46 defense, with the passing game.

There's not much point in using the two-back run game against the 46 since you'll never get angles or advantages at the point of attack like with normal defensive fronts, so the first response to the 46 should be to space it out with four receiver sets.

The defense's only answer for this kind of alignment is to play press coverage, in this instance particularly on the X and Y receivers, and hope that the pressure of a five-man rush combined with tight coverage on quick routes prevents the offense from being able to pick on any of the multiple match-ups they have in space.

A slant route that gets open can mean six points in a hurry against this defense and it's not terribly hard to get the weaker coverage players ($ and M) in some tough spots:

"Rub" and switch routes designed to beat man coverage become a major challenge in this scheme where the offense usually knows what they're getting.

The limited options left to the defense from playing aggressively at the line of scrimmage makes you wonder if this defense can work against the more pass-savvy smashmouth spread teams and whether it's a non-starter against an Air Raid squad of the sort you often find in the Big 12.

Will we ever see the 46 in the Big 12?

Despite the Air Raid being the more dominant strain of spread offense in the Big 12 over the smashmouth spread, for now at least, the 46 may have a future in this league and actually already does find some use.

Many defenses actually do regularly utilize the 46 defense, but without lining up in the basic structure. Instead, they get there via the man-1/fire zone. Many fire zones serve to create the same kind of 5-2 or 5-1 defensive front that features wide contain players, 1-on-1 match-ups for interior DL (or blitzers), man coverage outside, and a deep safety sitting on top.

3-4 teams in particular have very little trouble creating 46 fronts with the blitz. The difference is that they can try to scheme their blitzes to avoid leverage disadvantages or to try and create extra penetration by disguising who's playing which positions.

Every Big 12 team's favorite anti-spread defense, cover 4 with man coverage outside, bracket coverage on the inside slot receiver, and the backside safety playing in the box could quickly rotate into the 46 after the snap with a blitz:

Teaching the defense to shore the soft spots in the 46 is less of an issue if the offense doesn't know it's coming and can't easily target those soft spots with play calls.

What would be truly fascinating would be if a team made the 46 alignment a big part of their base defense and supplemented it with coverage calls designed to shore up soft spots:

Voila! We're back in Cover 2. Or, if the defense wants to alternate between attacking the line of scrimmage and loading up the deep field with pass defenders:
There are few things spread teams hate more than trying to throw the ball downfield against Tampa 2, making it a nice complement to the uber-aggressive 46. All of a sudden the underneath routes have space to operate in but the offense is trying to force the ball downfield against three deep defenders.

As more and more coaches find that the only way to consistently beat good, modern spread teams is to be capable of outscoring them, more teams will adopt aggressive defensive strategies that can either get them the ball back quickly or yield a quick score that still picks up the pace of the game and gives them a chance to wear out the opposing defense.

Whether teams utilize the 46 as a base package, something they show now and then, or something they get to via the blitz don't be surprised to see this classic scheme find some utility in the modern game.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Texas' goals for fall camp and "the Diaz doctrine"

Over at Inside Texas I explain what this team needs to get done in fall camp in order to have a chance to win more games (>6) than last season.

I also mention that the Texas defense will probably rely on "the Diaz doctrine" as a general strategy for stopping opponents in 2015. The Diaz doctrine is essentially to use blitzing to inflict negative plays that kill drives and rely on this for the purpose of stopping teams from scoring.

The key is that the defensive backfield can tackle and prevent the inevitable instances where the offense finds a soft spot in the blitz and get a player out into the 2nd level from resulting in explosive plays and scores.

Diaz accomplished this in 2011 when he had Texas playing a lot of 2-read cover 4 on non-blitzing downs and Blake Gideon, Manny Acho, Keenan Robinson, and Kenny Vaccaro were all tracking down loose ball carriers in the middle of the field. Texas is going to need the 2015 group to have some similar athleticism and tackling ability at safety and linebacker.

Although this method was not effective later on, the Diaz doctrine is actually based on a very sound principle. The offense can do well on a given play, but they are inherently limited by the 3-down structure. If you give up a 12 yard gain on 1st down, the damage is already done and the defense can write it off up until they get their backs to the red zone. If you inflict a 2-yard loss on 1st down, it's now 2nd and 12 and you have a major advantage as they need to start making progress.

We'll see how it goes, should be a fun season.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How often do JUCOs actually start for their new teams?

According to some research I did over at Football Study Hall, the answer is that only about 1/4 of the time do incoming JUCOs actually start in year one and offer "immediate help."

Monday, August 10, 2015

Paul Rhoads' conservative Cyclone defense and their 2015 prospects

Paul Rhoads is in dire straits at Iowa State, where they've struggled to even reach bowl eligibility for the last few seasons. Last year was a low mark and it was largely because their defense, the pride of the program, finished 119th in defensive S&P.

The Cyclones had the 124th rated rushing defense, 81st rated passing defense, finished 119th on standard downs, and 66th on passing downs. The last stat was "achieved," if you can even say that about ranking 66th nationally, due to their Cover 5 defense and their 3-4 package both of which brought an ultra-conservative approach to defending the pass.

The major problem with the Cyclones was strictly personnel, meaning they lacked talent. Their two starting safeties, Kamari Cotton-Moya (FS) and TJ Mutcherson (SS) finished 1st and 2nd on the team in tackles with 77 and 76 respectively. The LB corps, which has normally paced the unit, was riddled with injuries all season with main starters Jevohn Miller, Luke Knott, and Jared Brackens serving as the main cogs but only combining for 14 tackles for loss and one sack between them.

Their defensive line also struggled to impact games and DE Cory Morrissey was the only one consistently making plays in opposing backfields.

The Cyclones simply lacked veteran talent in 2014, especially up the middle at DT, LB, and S.

Paul Rhoads' recruiting strategy is largely dependent on snatching up 2/3 star players from California, Florida, or Texas that he can slip past the major programs. Many people talk about how college football recruiting is all about learning to tap these three states but this is totally ridiculous for a program like Iowa State.

Particularly the attempt to target Florida and California, which every other program in the country is also mining. The Cyclones play regularly in Texas which helps their recruiting there, but how is Iowa State going to end up with any of the good athletes from Cali or Florida?

By taking risky players that other programs don't want to take a chance on. This hurt Iowa St last offseason when they lost a pair of truly athletic defensive tackles in Rodney Coe (Illinois) and David Irving (California) to offseason troubles. They also had a large number of JUCO transfers in 2014 that were expected to fill big roles on the team such as DL Terry Ayeni, Dalyou Pierson and Gabe Luna, LB Jordan Harris, and S Devron Moore none of whom played particularly well in 2014 and some of whom had to redshirt.

They tried to play their usual bend don't break strategies in 2014 but their tattered LB corps and young safeties provided a brittle interior that tended to break pretty easily when bent and the DL could not inflict enough negative plays on opponents to make up for it. The team finished with 15 sacks on the year, 10 in conference play, which was the lowest total in the conference (West Virginia was 9th with 12 sacks).

The Cyclones played mostly brands of Cover 4, like much of the conference, but they mix in a good deal more Cover 5 than many other teams, which is two-deep safeties with match-up zone underneath. They'd also play some Cover 3, often when bringing pressure with their zone blitz package which only yielded 1.5 sacks from their defensive backfield.

Iowa State would be at their best in 2015 if they can get their "bend don't break" defense working properly relying on the following schemes and players:

The plan to stop running teams

When the Cyclones want to stuff opposing run games they have a pretty straightforward method for doing so, to drop the free (boundary) safety into the box, play the boundary corner over the top of the outside receiver, and simply outnumber the run.

Unlike the TCU Horned Frogs, who will often drop the nickel and safety deep but have them attack the line of scrimmage quickly after the snap, Iowa State will often just park those players close to the action from the onset.

It's difficult for a running team to get much traction against this look as the free safety and sam "hy-backer" (the Iowa State term for their nickel/lb hybrid player) are close to the action and can easily fill cutback lanes or force the ball inside to the six man box.

Principal actors

The boundary corner and strong safety have arguably the toughest jobs here in regards to coverage and the strong safety often lines up very deep but has to be able to make a play on the slot receiver if the offense throws a screen pass on an inside zone/bubble screen RPO (run/pass option) play.

TJ Mutcherson (Florida) had the range to do this and would likely have become a star before he graduated but he got kicked out of the program. JUCO transfer and senior Qujuan Floyd will now fill that role and he also has some credible range and ability to break down and make tackles in the open field.

Nigel Tribune has been the boundary corner for the last few years and he wasn't quite the lockdown guy that they were surely hoping he'd be in 2014. However, he did have three INTs and 13 pass break-ups and is only just now entering his junior season. There's a chance Tribune is one of the better corners in the Big 12 in 2015.

The free safety and sam linebacker need to be strong run defenders in the box and on the edge respectively. These assignments require some lateral range to make tackles as well as fast recognition and some explosive power to blast through the wash and bring people down.

Jarnor Jones is likely the man at sam and he's a guy that's been playing nickel and boundary safety at Georgia Military Academy. He's 6'2" or so and fluid so he may bring better coverage ability and perhaps he can even use his length play a press alignment over the slot rather than apexed between the slot and the OL. He's another of those good athletes that Rhoads took a flyer on in the hopes that he'd stay out of trouble while in Ames.

Kamari Cotton-Moya returns to man the free safety spot after leading the team in tackles as a RS Freshman there last season. KCM was definitely solid last year and is listed as being three pounds heavier now at 6'1" 197 rather than 194, which is fairly minor but could be a good sign as one area where he needs to grow is landing bigger hits and driving back ball carriers. He should be more experienced in recognition now that he's had a full season and offseason as the expected starter whereas he was rushed into the role before 2014.

The plan to stop passing teams

Here's where the Cyclones are a little more unique and perhaps even ahead of the curve in the Big 12. In passing situations or even against spread to run teams with dangerous passing games, the Cyclones spent a good deal of time lined up in Cover 5.

This could look a little different based on whether they are facing a 2x2 formation or a 3x1 set.

The safeties line up deep and play over the top of everything while the underneath defenders play match-up zone to eliminate easy short and intermediate throws. They tend to allow crossers underneath and ask the linebackers to break on those routes.

The major key is how they account for the loss of an extra run-defender they suffer from dropping both safeties deep. They overcome this loss by two-gapping the weakside end inside to cancel out the B-gaps.
The result of the two-gapping technique is that their linebackers are better covered up to run to the football without getting put in crippling run/pass conflicts.

Occasionally they will also play a 3-4 package and use the middle linebacker to spy the QB or to be a 4th pass-rusher while matching up all of the receivers underneath with a nickel package:

Principal actors

The safeties both need to be useful for breaking on deep passes and cleaning up anything that gets through with reliable tackling because the nature of the two-deep structure makes it easier for the offense to find creases in the middle of the field with the running game.

The defensive ends are a major part of this scheme for two major reasons. First of all, this defense is designed to take away the QBs primary reads by bracketing all the short routes with zone and playing over the top with the safeties, which yields positive results IF the defensive ends can take advantage and rack up coverage sacks.

However, the strongside end also has to do some two-gapping to make sure the front isn't porous against the run so he's generally not going to be adding as much pass-rush.

Trent Taylor returns to man the left end position in 2015 and he could be pretty solid after coming on towards the end of 2014. At 6'2" 257 he has some size and power to grapple with right tackles against the run. The right end spot will probably be occupied by Dale Pierson who was half-decent as a pass-rusher last year. The Cyclones' ace in the hole is actually incoming JUCO nose-tackle Demond Tucker, who's only 6'0" 287 but was the JUCO DPOY last year with 13 sacks.

A glance at his HUDL reveals an explosive player that might have been asked to cut weight and play linebacker in a different era. With one of the ends two-gapping, that will ironically require that the DTs pick up the slack in rushing the QB and the hope is that Tucker can handle that role.

The middle and weakside linebackers also have a heavy burden in this defense to cover ground from sideline to sideline, either cutting off the routes of inside-breaking receivers or flying back to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. After a year of settling into the new scheme with a redshirt, Rhoads is really hoping that Jordan Harris can be a leading tackler at middle linebacker. The Cyclones haven't been particularly good here since Jeremiah George left, although Jevohn Miller was solid for a few games before getting injured, and the prospect of sending Kane Seeley back out there is surely terrifying to this coaching staff as they fight for their jobs.

Luke Knott has been a solid weakside linebacker for these guys but a hip injury took him out in the spring and has really left his whole career in question. Into that vacuum stepped this person:

His name is Levi Peters and he's a 5'10" 215 pound walk-on who missed much of last year due to injury and then won the starting job in the spring. Coaches say it was neck and neck between Peters and Knott before injury settled the issue. I hope the best for Knott but I'd really like to see that beard in action this fall.

Prognosis for 2015

If Iowa State suffers a rash of injuries again in 2015, or they have to kick out what talent they still have for various off the field infractions, they're going to be terrible again. But they have a chance to be solid with these schemes if certain players pan out.

In summation: Jordan Harris has to own the interior as the middle linebacker, Demond Tucker needs to bring some pass-rush to the DL, Floyd and Cotton-Moya need to be flying to the football from their deep alignments, and Tribune needs to make a leap and become a lockdown corner.

If all of that happens? This could actually be a very good unit. If not? Paul Rhoads may be building a different defense as a DC in 2016.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Michigan State and the pro-style offense

I tend to think Michigan State could end up being one of the better teams in the country next year and I've written about how they'll approach building an elite offense in 2015 over at Football Study Hall.

The 2015 Spartans are going to be a very interesting team for a variety of reasons, many of which I detail in the article but some of which I'd like to break down for you right here.

1. They're going to test the value of the skill player.

There are absolutely transcendent running backs and wide receivers out there, but super productive skill players are often more the product of circumstances than extraordinary individual talent. RB Jeremy Langford and WR Tony Lippett were great players to be sure, but might it be relatively straightforward for the Spartans to plug in new athletes without skipping a beat? We'll find out.

2. They are a pro-style offense that knows how to attack defenses.

People often think of pro-style systems as being simple and brutish with the offense basically just trying to knock people out of the way. I've probably contributed to that perception by using terms like "manball" and noting that the foundational principle of the spread is to use spacing rather than big bodies in the middle of the field. I stand by that, but none of that means that pro-style teams can't be clever and scheme advantages for their players.

What's more, when a defense faces a cleverly designed pro-style offense they are often at a double disadvantage in that they aren't used to facing either the size/physicality or the specific tactics. The key is that the team be able to be balanced and throw the ball from run-blocking sets and finding the ancillaries needed to make that work is difficult enough that many teams just don't even bother.

Well the Spartans have the tight ends to make this system work.

3. They're going to bring their aggressive "MEG" Cover 4 defense back for another go round with some top spread offenses.

Ohio State and Oregon both managed superiority over the the Spartans' supposed "no-fly zone" in 2014 with their passing games and they'll do it again if Dantonio hasn't found a way to adjust. I've written about some things they'll try to do to shore up their defense, it'll be very interesting to see how effective they are.

Most important is the play of their corners, who are likely to be Arjen Colquhoun, a 6'1" 192 pound field corner, and rising star Demetrious Cox a versatile 6'1" 200 pound DB they're going to plug in at boundary cornerback. I happen to think their safeties RJ Williamson and Montae Nicholson are going to cause big problems for opposing teams if they are free to aggressively attack them. The spread teams will go after those two but if Cox and Colquhoun can approach what Waynes and Dennard did two years ago then the Spartans will be pretty tough to outscore.

I'm not sure if the Spartans will ever play the kind of lockdown defense they played in 2013 due to the proliferation of the spread to the north, but if they continue to play "very good defense" and continue to produce balanced offensive attacks like they've had recently than they're going to be very, very good overall.

If it weren't for the presence of Ohio State in the Big 10 I'd probably have Michigan State as one of my favorites for the 2015 playoffs. Even as it is I think they have a chance to get there, it starts with taking vengeance on the Mariota-less Ducks in Lansing on September 12th.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wisconsin vs Alabama preview

It's up at SB Nation. Much more to come on Alabama and their updated offense in the weeks to come. I think Saban is doing an impressive rebuild there of their roster and overall strategy but I'm not sure if they can survive their losses from 2014 on offense and beat what could be a very good Badgers team.

How Texas will build around Malik

Texas recruited a player in Malik Jefferson with the speed of a cornerback, the power of a DL, and the blitzing ability of a star linebacker. When I noted the rise of the elite athlete at inside linebacker I described guys like Malik as players that may have played as running backs in the past but really he's a freak box safety/OLB hybrid of the likes that football has rarely seen. Evil Roy of Oklahoma is probably one of his closer comps.

He can have value for Texas by being able to take on a wide variety of assignments from an inside linebacker position. Read about it at Inside Texas.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Seth Russell edition of the Baylor offense

Some thoughtful person calling himself John Hawkins edited all of Seth Russell's snaps from 2014 into one 19 minute video which can be viewed here. Russell played a ton of snaps over the course of the season and not just garbage snaps. He had to beat Northwestern State on his own (I know, I know) and was entrusted with protecting a lead against a furious Texas Tech comeback attempt when Petty got concussed.

He even got a couple of snaps against West Virginia for some reason that I can't remember when Baylor was down and trying to comeback.

Russell got enough snaps for us to be able to make a few solid conclusions about who he is as a QB and player and what the Seth Russell edition of the "veer and shoot" offense will look like.

Seth Russell the runner

Art Briles often liked to talk about Bryce Petty as though he was this freakish athlete who could just as easily have been a star at defensive end or linebacker as he was at QB. He was frequently credited with being able to run a 4.6 at 6'3" 230.

This athleticism was never particularly evident on the playing field however and Petty was rarely used as a runner (in comparison to previous Baylor QBs) and wasn't terribly effective when he was.

While his combine numbers of a 4.87 40 and 4.13 shuttle were reasonably solid (the latter number is actually incredible, and frankly quite shocking) he didn't seem to actually have much quickness in taking the edge or getting up to speed from a standstill in the shotgun. Perhaps he was playing hurt much more frequently than it was let on, who knows? Whatever the case, he didn't add much dynamics to the Baylor run game.

Seth Russell is a different animal, he's quick to the edge and he has another gear when he hits the open field. Whenever he entered the game Baylor brought back their favorite play from the Nick Florence/Lache Seastrunk offense, the power-read:

I drew it up here as Baylor ran the play against the SMU Mustangs. The idea is to leave the DE or OLB to the playside unblocked and account for him via the option. If he goes wide to stop the running back sweep the QB keeps the ball and runs behind the pulling guard. If he stays home to stop the QB, then the RB can get wide on the defense and look to run over or around some DBs.

Gus Malzahn popularized this play with Cam Newton but Baylor ran it reasonably well with Nick Florence and TCU used to do nice damage on this concept with Andy Dalton at the helm.

The trick with this play is that it requires a tough QB who's willing and able to take shots from a linebacker or a safety, he needn't necessarily be that quick although it sure doesn't hurt. Russell is "only" 205 but he's a tough runner who can actually cut the run back against the grain and find openings.

Russell's tape in 2014 also shows him running zone read and QB draw effectively. He looks like he might be a 4.7 guy or faster, he's almost as quick as Colt McCoy moving laterally out of the pocket with perhaps an extra gear to pull away thanks no doubt to having long legs (6'3") that chew up yards quickly when they get going.

Seth Russell is a dangerous scrambler who throws pretty well on the run but...well we'll get into some of his deficiencies in the next section.

Seth Russell the passer

Russell has a strong arm and a quick release, both of which are immensely valuable in the Baylor system. While Briles' "veer and shoot" offense makes reads simpler for the QB and sets him up for ridiculous statistical seasons, the wide spacing of the wide receivers doesn't do him any favors against an effective pass rush and it requires that he make quick throws with good velocity.

You'll never see a QB with a weak arm thrive in this offense, he'd get picked off trying to throw the field bubble screen. So, Russell definitely has that going for him, between his arm and his legs he's got the tools to operate every part of the Baylor offense that we've seen as of yet.

Because of his quick release and his familiarity with the offense, Russell has already proven he can operate Baylor's RPO offense quite well. These concepts are a God-send for smashmouth spread offenses that want to emphasize passing acumen at QB so they can hit homeruns with the vertical passing game but can't always find dual-threat QBs that excel as passers and runners.

The RPO constrains the anti-spread run game by punishing them for bringing numbers to stop the run with a QB option to throw a quick pass into the zone or assignment area that should have been handled by the extra run defender.

Russell's quick release and ability to throw without always having his feet set make him effective on these concepts and he also seems totally comfortable reading the conflict defenders:

The big questions are whether he can throw with anticipation and accuracy, and what he does when teams are actually able to take away his easy reads. As infrequently as that happens, it happens often enough to impact Baylor's goal of winning the Big 12 championship and trying to get into the playoff.

Oklahoma State looms as at least one team that could muck up the works for Russell with their secondary, and while TCU has struggled some with Baylor's offense they've also had success confusing its quarterbacks into throwing game-deciding interceptions. If Texas finds an offense throw them into that discussion as well, ditto West Virginia if they find a pass-rush.

The 2014 film sheds some light on how Russell might answer the two big questions, "can he throw with anticipation" and "what does he do under duress?" He's likely to improve in both facets after an offseason of receiving first team reps but he's not just raw, unmolded clay. His existing tape can still tell us what his potential might look like.

2014 was a mixed bag for Seth in throwing the vertical routes that really make the Baylor offense go. The idea with these concepts is that the QB needs to identify the deep coverage and then throw while anticipating where his receiver is going to break to find open grass. RG3 sometimes struggled, believe it or not, to throw these routes and instead preferred to wait for the receiver to break open before throwing the ball.

He could make that work, because he could buy time in the pocket with his ludicrous speed and throw the ball 40+ yards downfield and hit a moving target without first setting his feet:

For the less athletically gifted QBs that have followed RG3, it's been more important to be able to throw the ball where you believe the WR is breaking. Seth Russell is probably the closest Baylor has come to RG3 in terms of ability to move around in the pocket and throw on the run, but when he's tried to push the ball down the field while doing this he often makes questionable decisions:

You notice the amazing ability here when Russell pump fakes, holds onto the ball in a collapsing pocket, and then escapes but then you notice how off the throw is and how poor the decision was to attempt it.

Over and over again on tape you see Russell exhibit some fearlessness when he's throwing the football but in the Baylor system that can be dangerous when the QB is pressured and all of his targets are a mile away downfield. The two things Russell will need to iron down to please Briles this offseason will be making sure he doesn't miss the open touchdown passes that will inevitably be available to Coleman, Cannon, and co. and avoiding turning the ball over when under duress.

Seth, if you don't have a guy coming back to you then either scramble or throw it away.

Russell was good enough at hitting open receivers on deep routes in stride in 2014 to suspect that he might be great at it in 2015.

Prognosis for the 2015 Baylor offense

Seth Russell is a better runner than Petty, a capable deep ball thrower on a team with a lot of deep ball weapons, and a strong practitioner of the RPO game. When you combine those skills with a team that is returning the entire offensive line, three good running backs, two massive tight ends, and the best WR corps in the conference it's hard not to expect big things.

In particular, it seems that it'll be very difficult to stop either the Baylor running game or their play-action vertical tosses. However, it could all be undone if Russell doesn't learn to read defenses and avoid mistakes.

Bryce Petty threw only 10 interceptions in two seasons as a starter, that's what is possible in this system and that's what it's taken to win back to back Big 12 championships. It sometimes appears as though Briles could train a monkey to throw for 4k yards in this offense but unless Russell can do that without turnovers then that production may not hold off TCU or Oklahoma State from stealing the title belt.

Monday, August 3, 2015

West Virginia: A 2015 darkhorse Big 12 contender?

The West Virginia Mountaineers are pretty easy to overlook heading into 2015. Their QB Clint Trickett is gone as are his two leading receivers, Kevin White and Mario Alford, who had 1147 yards and 10 TDs and 945 yards and 11 touchdowns respectively.

The Mountaineers also lose their leading pass-rusher Shaq Riddick, who had 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks a year ago.

Four big pieces from a team that was 7-6 last year.

Perhaps the most concerning facet of the 2015 West Virginia football team is that they have to play games in Norman, Waco, Ft. Worth, and Manhattan. It'd be harder to put together a more difficult Big 12 road slate, especially for 2015.

The schedule alone is almost an immediate disqualifier for considering the 'Neers as serious B12 contenders, even if all of those players mentioned above were returning.

However, when you look a little deeper there are some aspects to this team that make them intriguing. There's a chance that even if they can't win the league in 2015 they might spoil someone else's season and even finish with something in the range of 8-10 wins.

Despite their unimpressive win total, WV had a solid S&P ranking of 40 from a year ago. This was a pretty good offensive team and a pretty good defensive team with two defining traits that made them feisty on both sides of the ball.

First, they started Mario Alford and Kevin White opposite of each other as their X and Z receivers. Most Big 12 defenses don't even have a scheme that allows them to double both outside receivers unless they drop eight players into coverage. Nevertheless, most teams probably wanted to double both receivers. Alford ran a 4.43 40 at the combine while Kevin White ran a 4.35 and is 6'3" 215 to boot. These were horrifying match-ups.

Trickett wasn't healthy enough throughout the year to allow them to fully maximize this advantage, but they still did plenty of damage.

Second, everyone in their secondary could play man coverage and tackle reasonably well, which allowed DC Tony Gibson to bring a wide variety of blitzes and have a safety net from their deep coverage. They weren't amazing up front and didn't get as much play-making out of that versatility in the form of sacks and turnovers as you'd hope for, but they were able to do enough to be more than a nuisance to opposing offenses.

There are three defining traits about the 2015 Mountaineers that could make them pretty feisty again in 2015, maybe even strong, maybe even contenders.

Defining Trait 1: That secondary

They're all back and I have them as the 5th best group in the nation. When you combine playing another year in Tony Gibson's 3-3-5 with likely growth from free safety Karl Joseph you have a recipe for this unit to go from picking off 10 passes in 2014 to as many as 15 or 20 in 2015.

Perhaps what they do best is allow West Virginia to blitz aggressively and make explosive plays difficult for opponents when playing one of their numerous varieties of three-deep coverage.

Defining Trait 2: Offensive speed, again

West Virginia always recruits lots of speed, it's the name of the game for them as their entire offensive system is predicated around getting fast guys in space and allowing them to get to work. Even after graduating two of the fastest receivers in the Big 12 they are confronting opponents in 2015 with two of the faster players at their respective positions.

Shelton Gibson hasn't seen much playing time yet but Dana Holgorsen called him the fastest player he's might suspect this is just hyperbole since in addition to coaching White and Alford he's also coached Tavon Austin, Justin Blackmon, Wes Welker, and several other Air Raid heroes.

However, take a look at Gibson's hudl and you'll see what appears to at least be another 4.4 type burner if not the absolute speed demon Holgorsen was selling at media days.

Then there's Wendell Smallwood, a very effective back who can also catch the ball out of the backfield. Smallwood ran for 722 yards in 2014 at 4.9 ypc with another 325 yards receiving.

Back-up QB William Crest is apparently going to get in on the action as well as Holgorsen looks to involve his speed in some kind of RB/WR hybrid position. The Holgo-Raid is simple enough that it shouldn't be too hard for them to incorporate all the speed on the roster.

West Virginia can run a wide variety of formations and schemes in 2015 with their personnel but some of them will really put some explosive speed on the field. When you factor in QB Skyler Howard's ability to pose a threat as a runner you can't afford to ignore then you have a team that can really put stress on opponents.

Defining Trait 3: Some experience in the middle

In addition to being able to deploy one of the most athletic skill groups in the entire conference, West Virginia also has some experience returning in the middle of the field. They'll attack the middle of the field on offense with RB Rushel Shell, TE/FB Cody Clay, LG Adam Pankey, and OC Tyler Orlosky who all offer some power and a year of experience.

On defense their LB corps of Kwiatkowski, Barber, and Petteway is one of the most experienced groups in the country and will be playing behind a DL of Christian Brown, Kyle Rose, and Noble Nwachukwu that have also all played a lot of Big 12 football.

In the Big 12 you want to be athletic on the outside and experienced on the inside, West Virginia checks both boxes on both sides of the ball.

There are four questions for this team that will determine if West Virginia can actually make something happen and break through with an eight win season to save Holgorsen's job.

Question 1: Can they throw the ball downfield?

Skyler Howard's one big failing in the bowl contest with A&M was misfiring on some vertical throws that the Aggies left open to the 'Neers. A lot of these types of throws, such as the fade, are just about timing and muscle memory so there's a good chance that Howard will make up ground here in 2015.

Of course, he may not be able to set his feet and nail the timing if WV can't find a left tackle to keep him upright, which they hope to have in Yodny Cajuste.

There's also the question of whether Gibson's speed or Daikiel Shorts' size (6'1") translates to WV having a deep threat with which to make teams pay for trying to load up the box or sending pass-rushers to knock over Howard.

The answer to the blitz last year was pretty straightforward, throw a fade route to Kevin White. The solutions in 2015 may have to be more nuanced.

Question 2: Who steps up on the weakside?

West Virginia played a wide variety of fronts in 2014, including a "46" style look that used their sam and will linebackers up on the line as edge/contain players while playing "buck" safety Karl Joseph in the box.

Other times they'd drop Joseph as an edge/contain player while shifting their linebackers over to the strongside, their 3-3-5 personnel afford them a great deal of flexibility. The key is finding another OLB opposite Kwiatkowski that can play the edge or in the box as the weakside linebacker.

Ideally they'd find a player that could play as a 9-tech and take the edge, be a player opponents have to account for stunting inside on the blitz, be solid and aware in underneath coverage, and understand how to fit runs between the tackles.

It's a diverse role and West Virginia uses some disguise to set up their LBs for success by allowing them to appear where unexpected and be shielded from targeted by opposing game plans.

Shaq Petteway is the man who's next in line and at 6'0" 230. He's not exactly what you'd picture as the ideal fit but if he can be explosive in the pass-rush and versatile in his skill set he'll have a chance to make a lot of plays in 2015.

Question 3: Is there an impact player on the defensive line?

With Shaq Riddick gone the biggest question on defense is who will take advantage of the 1-on-1 match-ups afforded by DC Gibson's blitzing schemes. Nose tackle Kyle Rose is more of a space filler who will work to keep their LBs clean and Christian Brown will serve a similar role as a tackle/end.

None of the linebackers necessarily stand out as guys that will contribute a lot of pass-rushing acumen to this team, which leaves the end position vacated by Riddick as the most likely source of play-making.

Nwachukwu had eight tackles for loss and four pass break-ups a year ago and has been praised as being potentially dominant but merely inconsistent, which for a redshirt sophomore was still fairly reasonable. He'll need to finish plays in 2015 and get to the QB, there's really not another solution if he can't do it except to play another DE.

The LBs and DBs already need to finish more pressures on the QB when they blitz before you ask them to also replace Riddick's production. When you also consider how often Gibson relies on a three-man rush it becomes clear that they need a breakthrough from their DL.

If West Virginia can't pair an ability to play aggressive coverages and experienced safeties with pressure on the quarterback they will not achieve their potential to force turnovers in 2015 and their defense may not be as good as it needs to be.

Question 4: Can this team win on the road?

It's hard to imagine West Virginia having the kind of season that would signal a breakthrough without them winning a big game on the road. None of their home game opponents are necessarily high profile enough to really count for much unless Texas or Oklahoma State have big seasons.

Winning on the road requires ball security, team communication, and preparation that are usually marks of a veteran team. West Virginia is that, except at QB where Skyler Howard has not yet experienced what it's like to identify coverages or blitzes while 50k+ fans are screaming at him.

West Virginia will always score points with Dana Holgorsen at the helm. His spread-I/Holgo-Raid offense is great at putting stress on defensive systems and utilizing the speed that he's successfully stockpiled in Morgantown. He's taking on the challenge of coaching the QBs personally to make sure this season goes the way it should for West Virginia.

This is the best defensive personnel he's had since he took over the program, if they can make a leap and play top 25 level defense while Dana reloads the offense this could be a very good team.

If not? Dana might become a hot commodity as an OC hire after West Virginia's new athletic director throws him out. Should be fun to watch, especially for fans of teams with big question marks of their own in their offensive staff.