Saturday, January 30, 2016

Amazing advice for college recruits

Chris Hall is a God-fearing, salt of the earth dude who transformed himself from a 3-star recruit who lacked college-level strength to an All-American, Big 12 Champion, and nearly a national champion as well.

Now, he's been bringing some serious (and FREE!) wisdom for college recruits that don't fully understand what they're getting into in terms of going to play football on scholarship. If you want to know what it's like for a kid to be recruited to play football you need to read this series. If you know a kid that's being recruited, will be recruited, or is already on campus, you should encourage them to read this series.

It's addressed as a series of letters called "Dear recruit..." I think maybe we should call them Chris Hall's Epistles to the Recruits but that's just one man's opinion:






Thursday, January 28, 2016

Shane Buechele and his future at Texas

The Longhorns got a great QB prospect in Shane Buechele, the kind of savvy and gritty player that has been tormenting Texas at other Big 12 schools for the last several years while the 'Horns have wandered in the wilderness looking for signal-callers.

But what happens if he has to try and take over in 2016? Is he ready? I dug into his HS game against the Mansfield Tigers to see where Buechele is at in handling a tough, competitive game against a high level of competition. Read about it at Inside Texas for free here.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A glossary of modern Big 12 offensive positions

Alrighty, after cataloguing the various positions that you find in the Big 12 on defense, now it's time to talk about offensive players.

Remember, the value here is when a team has complementary parts and players that can fill roles. On defense, you'll sometimes find that a player can fill multiple roles, which has great value both for package versatility, depth, and also the defense's ability to bring disguises so the offense doesn't always know who will be where.

On offense, versatility is an even bigger factor. Many good players can fill multiple positions and, if they can't, they may have very limited value for their team. Let's begin.

Big 12 Offensive positions


The lead tackle

Every team needs at least one legit athlete on the OL that can be the key pass protector, that find and block defenders in space on screens or after releasing off the line, and that can even pull to allow the offense to run schemes like "dart" (like a power run but with the tackle pulling rather than the guard).

If a team has one truly good tackle they're usually in good shape so long as the opposite tackle isn't awful, obviously it's best to have two great ones but tall, athletic, 300+ pound dudes are hard to come by. Usually the team's best OL is the left tackle, unless they have an excellent shorter OL that is playing inside.

Examples: 2015 was a very strong season for tackle play in the Big 12 with Baylor's Spencer Drango standing out in particular. He was a great pass protector and their best lead blocker. Texas and OU are looking strongest here for 2016 with freshman Orlando Brown (redshirt) and Connor Williams (true) returning after very impressive 2015 campaigns.
Everyone's new favorite play, dart. Angle blocks, the RPO element (bubble screen if the outside backer stays in the box), and the best athlete on the OL is the lead blocker

The lead guard

If a team runs gap schemes, they need athletic guards who can find blockers on the run as well, and since most teams run zone and gap schemes it's nice to have one war daddy guard that you can always count on to run behind at key moments.

Examples: Patrick Vahe is this kind of player for Texas now, only a true freshman but already brilliant as a pulling blocker. West Virginia has had some good ones recently as well, much of the rest of the league relies more on zone blocking or the the "dart" concept drawn above.
Everyone's favorite way to unleash a mobile QB, with QB counter opposite a perimeter screen to the RB. However, the pulling guard has to be able to block that DE and ensure a lane for the QB off the double team.

The mauler

For teams that rely on zone blocking, it's not essential to have a guard or tackle who's great at executing lead or kick out blocks but instead they want a guy who can consistently control the DL without a double team, drive them off the line of scrimmage with a double team, or climb up to a LB off a combo block.

Examples: OU's Jonathan Alvarez was good in their outside zone scheme last year and is back in 2016. Texas' Kent Perkins is a massive mauler who can be counted on to create a crease where ever he is on the line. Kansas State's Dalton Risner has the potential to be an outstanding center that the Wildcats rely heavily on in 2016 and beyond.
There's only one double team on this inside zone run so the center needs to be solid at finding the LB while the RG and RT are ideally maulers who are driving the DT and DE off the line.

The obstacle

A Big 12 team is lucky if they have more than one of the above types of players who can consistently be expected to execute lead blocks or maul their opponent no matter who they are lined up against. The rest of the OL are generally just obstacles. Guys that can beat a good DL if working as a double team, that can get in the way and limit penetration, and guys that know how to put their bodies in the way of an opposing pass rush.

Examples: Every program wants every OL on their roster to be an obstacle by the time they're a redshirted upperclassman, such was the case last year for virtually everyone on Kansas State's OL (Whitehair was a lead tackle).
For a diagram just observe any of the examples above and check out the players who aren't specifically mentioned.

The fullback

The rise of the Pistol formation was a really big deal for the spread offense, not just because of the alignment of the QB and RB, but because the pistol offense was all about utilizing a FB and lead plays from the shotgun. It wasn't long before spread teams were realizing that using a fullback was a shot in the arm for the shogtun-based, spread-option offensive run games and an easy one to come by since six-foot, 220 pound guys that love violence are usually not too hard to come by.

The fullback needs to be a guy who's quick, big, smart, and tough enough to help in pass protection, catch the odd pass in the flat as a release valve, and to be a force executing lead blocks, trap blocks, and the all-important kick out block that keys the power run game.

A fullback can be an immensely valuable part of either a zone or power-based spread offense with either a dual-threat QB or a pocket guy.

Examples: Kansas State makes a lot of use out of their fullback and current starter, Winston Dimel, is the best in the league. Oklahoma's Trey Millard (2010-2013) was a phenomenal fullback who could carry the ball, execute lead and trap blocks in their zone schemes, and was a real receiving threat out of the backfield.
As opposed to "counter" where the guard kicks out the end and the FB leads, on "power" the fullback (F) has to open a lane inside the DE by driving him out of the gap. This is probably the hardest block for a fullback, if a team has someone who can consistently execute it they're in business.

The attached (true) tight end

I suspect that if they had their druthers, most spread teams would actually opt to play with a true TE if they consistently had players that could execute both the blocks and the routes the position calls for. However, most of the famous TEs you've heard of are often only average or even poor as blockers, and some of the TEs you haven't heard of are actually the better blockers. It's a demanding position and truly great ones are hard to come by and then leave early for the NFL.

In the Big 12, a true TE needs to be able to at least hold his own when blocking a DE and also to be able to threaten the seam as a receiver.

Examples: There haven't been many of late as most teams are flexing out their good receiving TEs and using their good blocking TEs as H-backs where they can execute multiple blocks. Kansas State still uses a real TE and Travis Tannahill was their last good one though Zach Trujillo was also solid. Jimmay Mundine of Kansas was pretty underrated two years ago.
The big advantage from having a TE who can block a DE without help (H) is that the rest of the OL can combo block both DTs and blow open holes in the middle of the defense. Virtually no Big 12 team has two DTs that can hold up to double teams, especially for a full game.

The H-back

The H-back is basically the same as the fullback only he aligns more as a stand-up TE who can move around from one side of the formation to the other. Some teams will use the H-back primarily as a blocker while other teams will also take advantage of them being off the line and mobile to flex them out wide to run routes. The H-back is often a TE-sized player and is ideally the best of both worlds (TE and FB) but is usually just a glorified fullback.

Examples: Oklahoma State uses Blake Jarwin a good deal in this role, Texas' Caleb Bluiett is probably the class of the league currently in terms of blocking. Iowa State would use EJ Bibbs here at times though he excelled primarily as a receiver.
The most important block for an H-back to master in a zone scheme is the trap or "slice" block of an unblocked DE on a zone run.

The flex TE

Some teams have 6'3"+, 220+ dudes that are match-up nightmares running routes in the middle of the field that aren't necessarily adept at executing a base block or combo block as an attached TE, nor the trap blocks asked of a H-back. In a spread offense, these players can often be protected from particularly challenging blocking assignments and simply asked to execute crack back blocks, perimeter blocks, lead blocks, and arc blocks so they can play on standard downs and be a big target in the middle of the field.

Examples: Iowa State's EJ Bibbs was one of the better flex TEs of recent times, Texas Tech's Jace Amaro was one of the greatest the league has ever seen. OU's Mark Andrews had a very solid 2015 and could have a breakout 2016 season as they look to replace Sterling Shepard.
There's not many better options for running dig routes in the middle of the field between a linebacker and a safety then a tall, sturdy target like a flex TE (H).

The feature back

The feature back is the guy who can stay on the field every down, is the master of the full complement of running plays in the system, and who offenses are looking to get 20-30 touches per game. This guy should be capable in pass protection as well as in running a few routes and catching the ball but the main key is that he knows how to find and help create holes in the run game. There's never a situation where an offense wouldn't say "let's get this guy the ball."

Examples: Samaje Perine of Oklahoma is the feature back of the league right now and one of the better ones we've seen in the last several years. Wendell Smallwood was approaching this and is now looking to be rewarded for his quality and versatility in the NFL. Mike Warren is a feature back who will undoubtedly be asked to shoulder the load in carrying Iowa State out of the cellar.
On a lead zone play like this, the double team has a rather poor chance of getting an OL up to that outside-backer unless the RB can threaten the B-gap to hold that outside-backer before cutting up behind the lead block. This is where a jump step and then first-step acceleration comes into play.

The utility back

There are lots of backs out there who are exceptional in one regard, but lack the total skill set to be a feature back. For instance, the guy who's great at spelling the main back but isn't a guy that can stay on the field every down, the 3rd down protection specialist, or the short-yardage power back who's too plodding to feed between the 20's.

Sometimes a young back is a utility back until he develops the skill set to become a feature back.

Examples: Devin Chafin of Baylor is a solid example of a guy who specializes in short-yardage settings because he's big and runs behind his pads. Winston Dimel of Kansas State is at times a utility back when he's not playing fullback.
Not sure why we don't see this play more often in the Big 12. It's like zone "slice" but instead of leaving a DE unblocked on the edge the offense leaves a tackle unblocked and releases interior OL to the 2nd level while the H-back or FB trap blocks the unsuspecting tackle from the side. Big 12 DL aren't used to worrying about this and the chance to get OGs and OCs on Big 12 linebackers should have more teams salivating.

The flex RB

There are different names for this position with perhaps my favorite being "a Percy Harvin-type." These guys are essentially option pitch-men in an era where offenses have more sophisticated ways to get them the ball in space than with the pitch. The relevant skill set here is of a player who is dominant with the ball already in his hands, like a running back, rather than a player who is dominant at getting open to receive the ball, like a receiver. He most frequently gets the ball through screens and sweeps but may also run some quick routes.

Examples: There are always tons of these guys in the Big 12, perhaps the next great one is KaVontae Turpin of TCU. Jakeem Grant started as a flex RB but grew in his route running and became an effective WR as well despite the fact that he was a tiny target. Turpin will probably grow as a receiver like Grant did. Joe Mixon of OU has the skill set of both a flex RB and potentially a feature back as well.
This is the Stitt sweep, where the QB just tosses the ball forward to a flex RB running past him on jet motion (H) just before the snap. In this example it's combined with outside zone blocking. It's hard for the defense to adjust to the jet motion in time to avoid getting outflanked making this a perfect way to unleash a speed demon on the perimeter.

The ISO WR

This would be the kind of WR that opposing teams have to defend very carefully and choose whether they're going to double them to stop a deep bomb or play off coverage and hope they don't get burned after the catch. This WR needs to be dangerous after the catch if opponents play off but his main threat is from taking the top off the defense and winning 1-on-1 match-ups outside either with leaping ability, pure speed, or exceptional route running.

Examples: Josh Doctson and Corey Coleman were both guys in 2015 that offenses would try to get isolated and defenses would do all they could to avoid it. West Virginia's Kevin White was this guy in 2014. In 2016 Baylor is hoping KD Cannon, Ishmael Zamora, or some other unproven youngster becomes the guy, elsewhere around the league Texas' John Burt and OSU's James Washington are very good bets to fill this role. West Virginia's Shelton Gibson is a better passing QB away from becoming a household name...the league is always stocked with excellent WRs.
If the corner can't handle Z here, who is isolated on the backside, without the help of the strong safety ($) it really limits how the defense can address passes to the wider side of the field or get numbers in the box to stop the run game. The preferred tactic for stopping the run these days is to drop that $ down in support.

The possession WR

Not every WR is a dominant deep threat, some guys are just great route runners with fly paper hands that can be counted on to get open. A program would hope that every WR on their roster who doesn't become a deep threat or flex RB would grow enough in their route running to become at least a solid possession WR. The best possession WRs are the ones that can line up all over the field at different positions and run the full route tree so the offense can always put them in position to get open on crucial third downs. The combination of an ISO WR and a great possession WR (with a good QB with whom they have chemistry, obviously), is virtually unstoppable at the college level.

Examples: I might get roasted for this but Sterling Shepard was more of a possession WR than an ISO guy as his greatest strength was moving between the slot and outside positions and being a target for Mayfield on crucial downs. The Shipley brothers at Texas were both outstanding possession WRs, although only one of them was able to fully show his wares (Jordan) as the other (Jaxon) played with bad QBs. David Glidden of OSU was probably the next best after Shepard in 2015.
If a Big 12 offense doesn't have an ISO WR to attack the boundary and keep that strong safety deep, they can put a possession WR in the boundary slot (Y) and have him run a 7 route (deep out) to attack what is normally more of a run-support defender. In an era dominated by cover 4, the 7 route has become a major tool in offensive playbooks.

The pocket QB

The way that QBs are described and evaluated these days has got to change, because the assessments you often see tend to pidgeon-hole ever QB as either a "pro-style" or "dual-threat" QB and there are tons and tons of players that don't fit either profile.

One of the most obvious flaws is that "pro-style" QBs like Jared Goff, Bryce Petty, or that Tom Brady fellow tend to be exceptional in the spread offense while the "pro-style" West Coast offense has always thrived with a QB that can execute on the run like Colt McCoy, Steve Young, or Aaron Rodgers.

So let's find some new terms, shall we? Let's go with "pocket QB" for a QB who is at his best making reads and decisions from the pocket and stressing the defense with his arm. This guy needs to have vision, toughness, accuracy, and arm strength throwing from back there.

Examples: Mason Rudolph is the best pocket QB in the Big 12 right now and was arguably the best in 2015, other great ones have included Bryce Petty, Landry Jones, and Sam Bradford. Kansas' Ryan Willis is one to watch for the future as he flashed some potential in the midst of a "defeated" 2015 season for the Jayhawks, Jarrett Stidham might fall into this camp as well although he's pretty athletic.
The pocket QB needs to be proficient throwing routes outside the hash marks like the "curl-flat" combination. This is a concept that spread teams use to get the hi-low, curl-flat stress on a defense by having a slot run a post route to occupy the safety and then reading the space-backer (or nickel as the case may be) to see if he protects the curl window and gives up the flat route or chases the flat and gives up the curl. Either way, the QB has to make the read and throw a long pass from the pocket.

The running QB

A spread team that has a pocket QB is going to protect and set up their run game primarily with RPOs (run pass options) like the many examples above in which the QB can either hand off or throw a quick bubble screen or quick pass based on whether the defense loads the box or stays wide to stop the pass.

A running QB is going to bring advantages to the offense through what he can do with his legs. There aren't too many running QBs in the Big 12 who can't throw, but there are always several who are defined by their ability to run the traditional option (hand off or run rather than hand off or pass) or to create space and throwing opportunities outside of the pocket.

Examples: Although he's a great passer, I would tend to describe Baker Mayfield as more of a running QB than a pocket guy since he's doing most of his damage buying time, running the option, or scrambling and sometimes struggles to be patient in the pocket, probably because he's too short to see clearly from back there. I'd say the same for Pat Mahomes of Texas Tech and Jake Waters of Kansas State. Texas' Jerrod Heard is very much a running QB to the extent that he may be moved to a new position in the Gilbert's, pocket-oriented offense.
For my money this is still the best way to unleash a running QB, the zone read play with a H-back or fullback executing an arc/lead block around the edge for the QB. It can also be accompanied by lots of rollout passes where the QB can find targets on the run.

The dual-threat QB

Every single stinking QB who can run around is always described as a "dual-threat" QB, even if their ability to read a defense and beat them from the pocket is virtually non-existent, as it was for Texas' Jerrod Heard or Iowa State's Joel Lanning last season.

The term "dual-threat" should be reserved for QBs that can consistently burn you from inside or outside of the pocket.

Examples: You know who's a true dual-threat QB? Trevone Boykin, who was good from the pocket and hell on wheels when he left it. Pat Mahomes could reach this point but I'm not sure if he will unless he focuses more on football in the offseason rather than baseball. I'm curious to see if Kansas State's Jesse Ertz proves to be solid in both respects although I doubt he's ever elite at either dissecting defenses from the pocket or on the run.

Future Texas commit Sam Ehlinger is a legitimate dual-threat QB who's two greatest skills currently are throwing fades and dig routes from the pocket OR finding creases between the tackles on downhill run concepts.
This is a DC's private hell. Double slants on the boundary, Y-stick to the field, either of which could be hard to defend without having the linebackers play the run very conservatively, and then the option for the QB to pull it down and run a draw if they do so. This is how Deshaun Watson led Clemson to the final.

That's about as comprehensive a summary of the various positions you find in the Big 12 as I can get. In the coming weeks we'll start to break down the 2016 Big 12 recruiting classes and discuss how each recruit fits into his team's system and what position/role they're likely to grow into.

If you have any questions about specific players (not 2016 kids as we'll address those soon anyways), positions, or concepts fire them away in the comments.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The most important position on defense

It's now the free safety, read all about it at Football Study hall.

Different teams will define which safety is "free" and which is "strong" by different criteria but for fun, I'll rank the guys that played what I would define as the "free safety" position in the Big 12 last year.

1. Derrick Kindred, TCU

Kindred was far and away the best free safety in the Big 12 last year, often playing in an aggro-quarters scheme that put a lot on his plate which he held down fairly well. I wouldn't call him an elite FS, though he might have made an exceptional weak safety for the Frogs, but this position was awful in the Big 12 last year.

Team defensive S&P rank: 59th

2. Ahmad Thomas, Oklahoma

I wouldn't say Thomas was particularly exceptional either, but he was positionally sound, made tackles, and managed to pick off three passes and break up three others. Thomas benefitted tremendously from playing with good corners and other safeties who could play man coverage as well as a pass rush that all served to make his job easier.

He'll have the former again next year but if he doesn't get a good pass rush in front of him don't be shocked to see him have some tough moments in 2016.

Team defensive S&P rank: 16th

3. Dravon Henry, West Virginia

This one is tough as we are choosing from a lot of flawed candidates at this point. Henry was good at playing over the top and preventing anything terrible from happening to West Virginia down the seams but he lacked the range to have a lot of impact in the run game or breaking up passes.

Team defensive S&P rank: 28th

4. Tre Flowers, Oklahoma State

Flowers finished the year with 83 tackles, two INTs, and eight pass break-ups while manning an "aggro-quarters" FS role in the OSU defense. Of course, the Cowboys weren't that great on defense this year despite having a good pass-rush but Flowers held up reasonably well.

Team defensive S&P rank: 64th

5. Dylan Haines, Texas

From here on out you're looking at pretty flawed players. I'll say this for Haines, he finished the year with five interceptions and three other break-ups because he's very positionally sound and knows how to make the most of the talent around him. He's too athletically limited to excel here though and is only useful as a stopgap so far as his teammates can protect him, much like Ahmad Thomas.

Team defensive S&P rank: 66th

6. Nate Jackson, Kansas State

The Wildcats moved Jackson to FS when Dante Barnett went down and it grievously hurt their defense. Jackson was a useful utility man for the Wildcats and actually played well when moved to the nickel in the bowl game so that speed-challenged FS Sean Newlan could step in, this is simply a demanding position.

He did break up six passes and was solid in coverage, he simply wasn't able to be a great alley-runner and run game eraser for the 'Cats, which their "bend don't break" strategies really need.

Team defensive S&P rank: 83rd

7. Qujuan Floyd, Iowa State

Floyd is one of many guys on this list who'd probably be valuable DBs if not having to play in the extreme spacing of the FS position against good spread offenses. Iowa State would often move CB Jomal Wiltz to this position at times to have a better coverage player available and Wiltz was actually fairly solid, at least in coverage.

Team defensive S&P rank: 68th

8. Fish Smithson, Kansas

Ditto to Floyd, a good tackler and valuable DB who was miscast as a free safety where he was forced to operate in too much space. Smithson finished the year though with 111 tackles, two INTs, and three break-ups.

Team defensive S&P rank: 123

9. Chance Waz, Baylor

The Bears did what they could to keep Waz safe and in deep 1/2 zones or even 1/4 zones with Orion Stewart rolled over from the boundary or Blanchard playing more conservatively to help him bracket slots. Despite being shielded whenever possible, Waz failed to make any INTs and broke up only three passes. He's a solid athlete who can tackle and might become a good player in the future but he limited what Baylor could do in 2015.

Team defensive S&P rank: 65th

10. Keenon Ward

Texas Tech was horrendous in the middle of the field last season. Horrendous. They tried Ward, Nelson, and Gaines here but there was just nothing doing. If not for Pete Robertson, some decent DL, and solid corner play from Nelson, Madison, and Bethel this team would have ranked dead last nationally.

Watch their tape though and you'll see them get beat up front often and then you'll see a lot of mistakes that become disasters.

Team defensive S&P rank: 121st

Lots of low S&P ranks for the Big 12 defenses last year, no? That's partly because FS play was poor. With Dante Barnett back for K-State, young blood emerging at Texas, and some of the more promising guys listed above return, things should improve in 2016.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What will Texas' OL look like in the veer and shoot offense?

I have a look at how Texas' OL philosophy is changing under Sterlin Gilbert and new OL coach Matt Mattox while examining the fit of the roster they are inheriting and the 2016 recruits they are bringing in.

Read about it for free at Inside Texas.

Also, if Texas were to steal Pat Hudson from Baylor that would both turn this Texas OL class into an embarrassment of riches while dealing a serious blow to the Bear class but there's only a chance that this happens.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A glossary of modern Big 12 defensive positions

After National Signing Day, that holy day of college football fandom, we're going to dive into the Big 12 2016 recruiting classes player by player and explain how they all fit into their new programs. It's going to be awesome and you're not gonna wanna miss it.

Before we get there, I think it'd be helpful if I explain what different positions in the Big 12 these days actually look like.

The most important thing that is most frequently overlooked in recruiting and team building is that the different players on the field have complementary skill sets and roles. Understanding those skill sets is important for understanding whether a recruiting class will fit together and over-achieve their rankings (Baylor, TCU) or whether they will under-achieve (Texas...).

So here's a sort of glossary and descriptors for some of the positions you find in the Big 12:

Big 12 defensive positions


The nose tackle

The demise of the nose tackle has been heavily exaggerated. Teams need a guy in the middle who can command a double team and protect the linebackers from getting run over by free releasing OL. The rise of RPOs in which the OL is run-blocking while the WRs run routes combined with the fact that teams tend to get the ball out quickly means that having a great pass-rusher at every DL position is overrated but having sturdy space-eaters is not.

This guy does need to have some stamina to hold up against tempo and of course it's great if he can rush the passer. The defining aspect here is less where he lines up (0-tech, 1-tech, 2i-tech, or even 3-tech) and more what he's asked to do. Your nose tackle is the guy who's asked to eat the double team by design.

Example: Baylor's Andrew Billings was a phenomenal nose tackle last season, Kansas State's Will Geary is one of the better looking ones for 2016.
Nose tackle in a 3-tech alignment


The interior disruptor

Some teams will align their more disruptive DL as the 3-tech but in an Over front he might also end up as a 1-tech or 2i-tech on the backside where he's free to shoot a gap and try to make a play in the backfield while the three-tech is trying to stop a tackle or guard from blowing away the inside-backer.

Example: This kind of player is perhaps most rare in the Big 12 since the league's smaller demographic pool makes it harder to find 280+ pound players who are also great athletes. Oklahoma's Charles Walker is a really good one though.
Interior disruptor in his natural habitat as a 3-tech on the weakside


The protective DE

With this designation I'm talking about strongside 5-technique guys and odd front (3-4, 3-3) 4i-technique guys who's job requires facing double teams from TEs and tackles, to slide inside and fill interior gaps, and to generally help protect conflicted linebackers from getting killed inside.

Example: Kansas State will use their DEs both as pass-rushers and as protectors and Jordan Willis was effective here last year and will likely also be in 2016. OU uses Walker in this role to an extent but he's often fairly free to work inside.
Protective DE as a 5-tech inside of an opposing TE

The edge-rusher

There are defensive ends, who may get to blast off the edge in passing situations but have responsibilities to hold up the point of attack and protect linebackers on other downs, and then there are guys who are put in position to always attack.

The latter is the edge-rusher, who generally has one of three primary responsibilities. One, to get into the backfield and tackle whomever has the ball. Two, to be able to also drop into a shallow zone, typically just as a flat defender. Three, to contain the edge in the event of a quick pass or run.

The Big 12 loves to create this specialized role because it's the easiest way to get athletes in position to attack offenses.

Example: Eric Striker started here but then was moved wide to become a particularly disruptive space-backer due to his lack of size. Many of the better pass-rushers in the Big 12 last year were true DEs like Emmanuel Ogbah.

Watch for Texas' Naashon Hughes and Derick Roberson to make noise here in the future, also Rick DeBerry and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo of Oklahoma.
Edge rusher in a stand-up 9-tech where he can attack the edge or drop into the flat

The inside-backer

Just as teams still need nose tackles, they also still need at least one guy in the LB corps that can blow up a lead block, battle with guards, and control the gaps between the tackles like an old school linebacker. Some teams will opt to have two linebackers who are more versatile, like the outside-backer described below, but if you have just one you can always align him to the more difficult coverage assignment and then leave your true inside linebacker to focus on stuffing the run.

He should still be capable as a zone dropper or chasing RBs in coverage but he doesn't need to be a space athlete, the priority is that he's good at smashmouth football. This guy is defined most by being tough and smart.

Example: Kansas State uses Will Davis in this role and he's alright. Notre Dame's Manti Te'o was one of the best at this we've seen in recent years but Alabama always has good inside-backer play, most recently from Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster. The Big 12 hasn't been great yet at specializing one linebacker for this purpose and consequently we haven't seen a ton of great players in this role in the league since they've been driven out by the spacing of spread offenses.

Senior season Steve Edmond at Texas is perhaps the best in recent memory.
Inside-backer who's primary assignments are the A-gap and covering the RB

The outside-backer

Teams are usually playing two classic linebackers now but one of them is often playing in a fair amount of space with serious coverage responsibility. That's your outside-backer.

This guy needs to be effective at typical inside linebacker roles, like filling interior gaps, beating blocks, and blitzing the A and B gaps. However, he also needs to be capable when it comes to picking up a RB or inside receiver in man to man coverage, or playing pattern-matching zone in space against horizontal stretch concepts. This is where your more athletic LB goes unless he's devastating on the edge, in which case he should probably be edge rusher.

Example: Kansas State has made Elijah Lee their outside-backer and he's taken to it pretty well thanks to his lateral agility and ability to run in space and blitz but still fight blockers at 6'3" 218 pounds. He'll likely get much better at it with another year of experience in the myriad assignments that this position can draw.
Outside-backer who's primary assignments are B or C gap and boundary slot receiver

The space-backer

As I've detailed in this useful piece over at Football Study Hall, different teams use different types of players in the nickel position to handle spread teams. Teams like Baylor, Oklahoma State, and now Oklahoma like to use what I call a "space-backer" which is a linebacker who can line up in the field and has the fluidity and speed to play in space but who's still a linebacker in skill set and not a DB.

By that I mean that his strengths are playing underneath zone coverage, blitzing, beating blocks on the edge, and tackling in space.

Example: Oklahoma State's Shaun Lewis was a great example of this, a 5'11" 225 pound little fireball that excelled at blitzing the edge or blowing up bubble screens. Ohio State's Darron Lee is one of the better space-backers I've ever seen, Eric Striker was moved into this role as a junior and has excelled.
Space-backer who's assignments are defending the edge or playing zone in space

The nickel

Other teams prefer to play someone in the nickel that can play more man coverage. This player might still blitz the edge or have to beat blocks and make tackles in space but he's more of a true DB than the space-backer. He might be more a particularly versatile and coverage-savvy safety or third corner who's extra physical player and may or may not be good enough in coverage to play outside by his lonesome.

Example: KSU uses a true nickel in their defense, last year they mostly used Donnie Starks whom I didn't think that much of to be honest (poor force defender). Texas' Duke Thomas was probably the best in the league in 2015.
Nickel position who's assignments are man coverage on Y and tackle in space

The free safety who aligns to the field

I'll have a column coming out soon on how this is probably the most demanding and most important position on defense in the spread era. The field safety generally finds himself operating in a lot of space with responsibility to handle vertical routes from slot receivers and TEs, which often requires playing at depth away from the line, but also to bring timely run support which requires tackling ability and a lot of range.

If this player is playing behind a nickel he can often be more of a rangy, tackler but if he's playing behind a space-backer then he needs to be very good in coverage.

Example: There is typically a glut of good field free safeties in the Big 12 since it's so demanding athletically. TCU's Derrick Kindred was the best in the league in 2015.
Field free safety who has to cover Y on vertical routes, play deep zone, and make tackles in the alley

The strong cover safety

This would be a safety who might align more typically to the field but who's generally playing more man coverage because his team plays more man blitzes or MOFC coverages like cover 1 or cover 3. He is lining up and covering the opposing team's inside receivers in man coverage as his most typical assignment so he's basically a nickel but he may also end up playing deep zone which you don't see as much from a nickel.

Example: Oklahoma's Steven Parker was the best at this role in 2015, Oklahoma State will use them as well but haven't had anyone as effective as Parker and would often use Kevin Peterson in this role in 2015 in passing situations.
Strong cover safety playing man coverage on Y, essentially the same as a nickel would

The strong boundary/support safety

This is a safety who lines up on the boundary, doesn't have to operate in as much space, and is always playing either deep zone over the top or dropping down into or near the box to provide run support and underneath coverage in a shallower zone or matched up with an inside receiver.

This is where you want a guy that can drop down, slice through the wash, and be an extra player to stuff the run. His major skills should be playing instinctively and making tackles.

Example: OSU's Jordan Sterns was effective in this role last year and this is where OU's Ahmad Thomas is at his best. This is the position where you can still see a traditional, thumping safety find a role on a team. Here or as a space-backer or even outside-backer.
Strong boundary safety playing the boundary edge and covering the TE/boundary flat

The boundary corner

Some teams play their corners left and right so that either corner might end up playing on the boundary or to the field depending on if the ball is on the right or left hash. Other teams will keep their corners glued to the right or the left side of the field to avoid getting burned by tempo when corners have to get to opposite ends of the field.

Regardless, the boundary corner has to have a little bit of nickel in him because he will often be a force defender on the edge or a guy blitzing the edge whereas the field corner virtually never has that assignment. Additionally, you'd like for the boundary corner to be excellent in man coverage so that you can either drop your boundary safety into the box rather than bracketing the boundary side receiver or else roll him over to the other side of the field to help cover all that space.

An elite boundary corner can be the foundation of a defense.

Example: Xavien Howard and Morgan Burns were two of the better boundary corners in 2015 in a year where the league was bereft of a particularly dominant DB. Oklahoma's Jordan Thomas might be this kind of player in 2016, although OU plays their corners left and right (the left corner often ends up on the boundary more often). Danzel McDaniel was great in the run support and blitzing aspects of this role but you didn't want to leave him on an island if you wanted to roll the boundary safety over to the field.
Boundary corner playing run-force on the boundary OR playing X in man coverage without help

The field corner

The field corner is playing in a lot more space than the boundary corner and while it's very useful if he's fast and good at open field tackling, he's most useful if he can take advantage of the wide expanse of field that a QB's passes have to cover and lock down the outside field receiver in man coverage without help.

Example: Zack Sanchez was good in this role although OU often had him on the boundary where he was just pretty good. Ranthony Texada has a lot of potential here for TCU. Texas' Holton Hill will almost certainly be the best field corner in the league in 2017 if he's not in 2016.
Field cornerback playing man coverage on Z, potentially without help

Got a question about a specific player and what position he plays in the Big 12? Ask away in the comments. We'll get to offensive positions in our next post.

Monday, January 18, 2016

I-Prognosticator: My 3 laws-safe thoughts on 2016's top 10

A favorite article in the world of college football punditry this time of year is to do a "too early preseason top 25" for the next year, which is always a satisfying (or infuriating) topic for all of the recent losers who are ready to move on to the future.

Rather than try to build a too-early list of my own, I thought I'd make some notes on the teams that are being popularly prognosticated to have strong teams in 2016. I went with SB Nation's cool "compilation top 25" list that tries to combine the lists that are coming out of multiple outlets. I'm only going to focus on the top 10 though because who cares past that, right? It's all about the playoffs now for the nationally competitive teams and if you aren't a playoff-competitive team it's all about winning your league or having what your tradition dictates is a successful season. The top 25 is an antiquated metric.

Before we begin, I think it's important to keep the following laws in mind as general themes to guide us in gazing through the crystal ball with any degree of confidence.

First Law of preseason prognostications: Team identity is king


How many starters a team returns matters considerably less than whether they have a roster who's key players fit together to form a team identity that role players can then fit around. For instance, the 2015 Buckeyes returned just about EVERYONE from a dominant 2014 team that hit its groove at the perfect time.

However, they didn't carry an established identity into 2015 but instead cycled through their two QBs and failed to figure out how to assemble the offense around the talents of JT Barrett until the rivalry game with Michigan when they landed on double TE spread sets that they then used to eviscerate the Wolverines and Irish.

If you see a team return key players that were important parts of the identity in the previous season, that's a good sign. If you don't, that doesn't mean that one won't be found in the offseason or even during the following season.

2nd Law of preseason prognostications: There's always a redshirt freshman waiting...


Following recruiting and practice reports is really the only way to nail down what's about to happen because there is always some rising star whom no one has seen yet that will turn out to be dominant. 2015's Alabama had Calvin Ridley, Marlon Humphrey, and Ryan Anderson break through in a big way. 2014 Ohio State saw Darron Lee and a rebuilt OL rise to dominance. 2013 Florida State was led by redshirt freshman Jameis Winston. Etc

In general, having a roster full of players who have been in the same program under the same coach for a few years is a better way to anticipate which team will have a good depth chart than looking at who returns the most starters.

3rd Law of preseason prognostications: Better know a schedule


Michigan sure looks strong for 2016 but they also play a schedule that takes them to Lansing and Colombus to play their main rivals for the B1G Eastern division. Maybe that's not enough to stop them but it's worth weighing. Similarly, it's usually a good idea to check which teams have to play in Waco before laying odds on who will win the Big 12 as Briles' Bears don't lose at home too often provided their QB is playing.

Now, the top 10:

1. Clemson

The Tigers are losing some big stars in their secondary with Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse moving on...losing NFL DBs from your secondary is a big deal. That said, it's hard to bet against Brent Venables and his established program there having another strong defense.

Clemson is definitely going to return much of their OL, receivers Hunter Renfrow, Artavis Scott, and Jordan Leggett (TE), and QB Deshaun Watson. The chances of that group not performing at a dominant level in 2016 are pretty slim. It's hard to overstate the abundance of these riches.

Dual-threat TEs like Leggett are precious, Renfrow is a guy with whom Watson has tremendous chemistry, Scott is an explosive weapon, and Watson's command of college-level defensive complexity is going to make this passing game nasty next season. Great choice for next year's #1 team.

2. Alabama

The Tide are going to be ravaged by the NFL draft, but there's a chance they'll return star players like OJ Howard (TE) and Jonathan Allen (DL), as ridiculous as that sounds. They lose Jacob Coker but big deal, they'll have Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett house-trained by next year.

Overall their offense actually returns a ton of talent, including future NFL LT Cam Robinson, and nearly every good receiver from the 2015 championship team. On defense they return a large number of very athletic DBs who played a lot of snaps in 2015 and with Allen and Anderson returning their pass rush probably won't evaporate either.

There's a reasonably good chance that Alabama could be better in 2016 than they were in 2015 if Allen returns...yes, it's true.

3. Oklahoma

All of the best parts of the 2015 Oklahoma offense were either young or at least due to return in 2016 save for leading receiver Sterling Shepard. The Sooners need to find a new go-to receiver for Baker Mayfield to fill that role, which is a big deal but seems very plausible.

What made Shepard special was that he could line up in the slot or outside, wherever OU wanted him in order to attack a given opponent in a given circumstance, and he ran reliable routes that he finished with reliable hands. OU has a lot of emerging weapons in their WR corps with shifty Dede Westbrook back (I foresee a move to the slot), flex RB Joe Mixon, and flex TE Mark Andrews back. They need someone who can get open outside and they should be ready to roll over the Big 12 in 2016.

Oh yeah, they also bring back both talented tackles and Samaje Perine.

Defensively they bring back 4/5 of a very athletic secondary including young studs Jordan Thomas and Steven Parker and plenty of talent and experience up front. The big question is whether they can replace the pass-rush that Eric Striker brought for the last three years but they've been recruiting OLBs to that end for a while now. With Baylor, OSU, and KSU at home and a resume-boosting preseason slate of Houston and Ohio State (of which the Sooners can afford to lose one game) OU are a pretty safe bet overall.

4. Florida State

2016 looks like a much stronger season for college football with the above three playoff teams returning so much and teams like the 'Noles lurking after rebuilding seasons. Let's start with some big time factors: FSU returns Dalvin Cook, his TE and FB escorts, the entire OL, and the team's top WRs.

Jimbo Fisher has a lot of leeway here on whether he wants to mimic Alabama's 2015 season and rely on stable play from redshirt senior Sean Maguire or to chase upside from one of the young QBs behind him. Personally I'd probably choose the latter as I wouldn't want to enter the playoffs against this Alabama team with Maguire as the guy.

Defensively they lose anchor Jalen Ramsey but have now had two years to rebuild their secondary in the image of their phenomenal 2013 unit. Sophomore Josh Sweat could lead a very talented front which will need some big time talents to be ready to go to replace Clemson as the ACC playoff rep.

5. Michigan

Michigan's case for inclusion is built around the fact that Harbaugh brings back TE Jake Butt and WRs Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. They need to choose a QB this spring to develop a rapport with this group over the summer and if they do...Michigan is going to have a lethal passing game that will go through the B1G like crap through a goose. Early money is on Houston transfer John O'Korn.

Defensively, Michigan is coming off a year in which they dominated offenses with a massive and deep front backed up by aggressive press-man schemes. They return much of that front next season, including the top DBs who made this approach possible such as safety Jabrill Peppers and cornerback Jourdan Lewis. This might be the most underrated team on the list IF Harbaugh can get All-B1G play out of their QB roster.

6. LSU

The Tigers should see an overhaul of their approach with OC Cam Cameron adjusting his "Air Coryell" offense into a simpler, smashmouth spread and changes are guaranteed on defense with Miles replacing Saban-disciple Kevin Steele with Wisconsin's Dave Aranda.

Dave Aranda is one of the finest DCs in the nation, and assuming his new country bumpkin charges are able to easily disseminate his pressure schemes like his over-achieving Wisconsin farm boys did, LSU should have a salty defense next season. Aranda should be shocked and pleased with the quality of DB play he'll have next year with guys like CB Ed Paris and SS Jamal Adams still on the roster.

Meanwhile, the Tigers return Leonard Fournette, QB Brandon Harris, WR Malachi Dupre, FB Bry'Keithon Mouton, and several guys along the OL. If they could just move away from their pro-style approach on offense, which is not a given, this roster could come together in a big way next season.

See what I mean about how loaded 2016's top 10 is? Any of the teams we've discussed so far could reasonably end up becoming national champions. Except Oklahoma.

7. Ohio State

At last we reach a team that doesn't look so strong to these eyes. Urban's Buckeyes were devastated by NFL attrition and also lost DC Chris Ash, whom Meyer replaced with the beloved Greg Schiano. He also hired an additional OL coach to allow OL/OC coach Ed Warriner to remain up in the booth with OC/QB coach Tim Beck.

I'd worry about whether all those coaches could co-exist successfully except that you know Urban is going to oversee the offense very carefully so it's hard to be too concerned. The bigger issue is the manner in which the Buckeyes' roster was decimated by said attrition. On offense they have two choices moving forward as they reload around JT Barrett, one is to maintain the approach that worked at the end of 2015 and play more double TE spread sets so that teams like the Spartans can't cheat numbers into the box to stuff their runs. But do the Buckeyes even have enough quality TEs to make that approach work?

The other option is to develop Barrett as a passer and find him a deep threat weapon to finally replace Devin Smith, the secret ingredient to the 2014 championship.

Defensively the Buckeyes should be strong but with mostly new starters in the secondary and no more Joey Bosa, Darron Lee, or Adolphus Washington it's hard to foresee as strong a defense as they boasted in 2015.

8. Baylor

The assumption is that Baylor will reload on offense, score a ton of points, and be back in the thick of it in the Big 12 with a shred of luck with QB health. I think those are pretty safe assumptions but it's still worth noting that 4/5 of the OL are gone and Baylor writers are penciling in a lot of JUCOs that aren't on campus yet to help fill the voids. New starters on your OL is fine but ideally they would be players who have been in the program for a few years. Also, they lose star LT Spencer Drango, the best part of both their protection schemes and their running game.

QB should be fine, whether Seth Russell successfully returns from breaking his neck or is supplanted by rising sophomore Jarrett Stidham. Losing Corey Coleman is rough but the WR corps is plenty talented to still be a load. The question is whether they have anyone that can beat good man coverage from a team with great DBs.

On defense they lose the overrated Shawn Oakman, the underrated Jamal Palmer, and MVP Andrew Billings. In 2015 the Bears were solid in the back seven provided they could get a pass rush and some double-team consumption up front, if DC Phil Bennett can't find the pieces at DL and LB to make that happen in 2016 then this defense could really slip.

Baylor's schedule takes them on the road in 2016 to Austin, Norman, and Morgantown. The first and third are dangerous but surmountable, the real challenge is besting Oklahoma for the league crown without getting to play them in McLane.

9. Notre Dame

This ranking feels more like a "hey, Notre Dame is always good" nod than something based on qualitative analysis of the roster. With QBs Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer both back and future NFL stud WR Will Fuller back I was all in on a strong Irish season, but when Fuller joined the rest of their offensive skill talent in leaving early I became bear-ish in a hurry.

Defensively, the Irish lose NFL players in DT Sheldon Day and LB Jaylon Smith and they don't return but two starters in the secondary. I'm not sure who VanGorder is going to build this defense around even if the star talent of Zaire (and is that knee okay) is enough to launch the offense back to the top.

10. Tennessee

Last year Butch Jones' overly-conservative offense and poor game management cost the Vols some key games that their strong defense nearly won for them, so he fired his DC...this should go well.

Fortunately for UT fans he hired Bob Shoop, one of the better rising DCs in the country who probably got out of Penn State at just the right time.

You have to admit that the Vols were still young last year and return a lot of what worked well in 2015, save for the secondary where they lose both safeties. If you believe in what Butch Jones is doing it's reasonable to conclude that they could take another leap forward this year and become an elite team.

Notable omissions worth keeping an eye on


Stanford brings back Christian McCaffrey, so I guarantee that they will have a good offense next season without Kevin Hogan. They also return several good WRs and do an amazing job of raising up OL in that program.

On defense they lose a pair of good DEs but return Solomon Thomas and a few key linebackers that were disruptive in 2015. The secondary should be solid with a few players returning and another year of Duane Akina coaching for the younger athletes in the program. Both of their safeties this year were converted WRs so there seems to be some upside in the future here.

Never sleep on Boise State, especially now that Harsin has his QB and has had a few years to rebuild their crucial TE roster.

Mark Richt is inheriting a ton of players at Miami and they seem to be flying completely under the radar right now, probably because they share a conference with obvious heavyweights Clemson and Florida State, but they dodge Clemson on the schedule (though not Notre Dame) and they get FSU at home.

Oregon has some nice pieces back on offense and in the secondary, it's all about how you feel D2 transfer QB Dakota Prukop can do taking over that offense and whether Brady Hoke can build a good 4-3 Under defense out of unique, 3-4 defensive parts. Personally, I'm skeptical.

Finally, although I mocked their process for choosing a HC it's hard not to notice that USC has a lot back from this past season, particularly in the secondary and with stud WR Juju Smith-Schuster. They're also replacing DC Justin Wilcox, who never impressed me, with someone yet to be named. There's some serious potential for improvement from this team if Helton can develop a QB out of what is surely a deep depth chart.

Friday, January 15, 2016

After that championship game it's now official

North Dakota State is the greatest dynasty in football.

4 facts about the future of the Big 12

The Big 12 now has the option of having a conference championship game and the annual expansion rumors about the conference every offseason are not going to decrease despite this new exemption. There's a lot of disagreement about whether or not adding a championship game is even a good idea for the league. It might have helped Baylor or TCU in 2014, although you wonder if either outcome to that final would have helped those teams get in over eventual champion Ohio State, and it could have hurt Oklahoma in 2015.

Overall, there's a lot of fundamental misunderstandings about the league and its out there and I think it'd be valuable to take a moment to reflect on same basic truths about the current climate that will dictate what the future of this league will be.

1. College football is dominated by TV money


College football is seeing inflated expenses and arms races that are threatening the financial health of multiple schools for the simple reason that it's immensely profitable. Schools get three major financial benefits from having big football brands, one is an increase in applications and enrollment as prospective college students unquestionably make decisions based on which University will give them a fun college experience and football plays heavily into that calculus. Another is increased alumni investment, as the college team becomes a vanity project for a particular community of professionals.

Finally, there's the TV money. In an age where live television is losing its appeal, sports are becoming exceptionally important to cable companies and TV advertisers. Most realignments over the last several years have been entirely dictated by TV money and the kind of broadcast contracts that could be garnered by different program pairings.

2. The Big 12 has a small geographic footprint and limited share of the nation's major TV markets


The Big 12 can basically be summed up as the state of Texas. While the Lone Star state holds 27 million people and the three metropolitan areas of DFW (six million people), Houston (six million people) and ASA (Austin/San Antonio, four million people) which are all major TV markets that move the needle, the other areas in the conference are bereft of large populations.

Kansas has 2.9 million people and no metro area with even one million people, Iowa is the same. West Virginia is a very small state who's program tries to pull in eyes from surrounding metro areas in other, heavily-contested areas like Pittsburgh. Oklahoma has nearly four million people but OKC is only 1.5 million people and the flagship program, Oklahoma, has traditionally been as much of a North Texas entity as an Oklahoman one in terms of alumni diaspora and TV markets.

Every other major conference in college football has a bigger population and bigger share of the valuable TV markets there are to be had.

3. There are no good expansion candidates that would significantly increase the Big 12's geographic footprint


Just consider the schools that often come up as possible additions to the Big 12 and you can see the desperate shape of the conference in trying to keep up in the arms race of expanding TV deals.

UCONN? Not only is Connecticut a terrible cultural match for the rest of the league and miles away from even West Virginia, will that really move the needle for the conference when they renegotiate the next TV deal? Cincinnati? Same story. BYU would be one of the better options but the Cougars may have better choices, are not a major program, and are in a different time zone than any existing Big 12 team.

There are no programs out there that will be suitable replacements for Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas A&M, it's all downhill from here for the league.

4. The league is built around Texas and Oklahoma


Fans of the league's smaller programs hate this point but the fact of the matter is that these programs include massive alumni bases, traditional fan bases, and are responsible for delivering the league the vast majority of the value on their TV deals.

This has a few complications for the rest of the league, the first being that keeping these two programs happy and uninterested in leaving for the Pac-12, Big 10, or SEC is of the utmost importance or else that TV money spigot is going to get shut off in a real hurry.

Additionally, the teams' rivalry is built around the Red River Shootout, a neutral site contest in Dallas' Cotton Bowl that takes place early every October. These programs do NOT want the possibility of facing each other in a prospective Big 12 championship game because this would dilute the "winner takes all" stakes of the Big 12's current biggest game.

That means they need to be paired in the same division if the league expanded and went into a divisional format...which combined with the fact that they'd also shared that division with the other Texas programs means that Big 12 divisions will perpetually be lopsided. There's little chance of building a non-OU/TX division that can regularly even field a top 25 team, much less a worthy foe in the Big 12 title game.

A conference championship game would simply become a speed bump that does little to bolster the case of the league champion or else a trap game that ruins the league's chances of a playoff berth. That's a lose-lose scenario.

When you consider all these factors it becomes clear that the Big 12 is going to exist for so long as it suits Texas and Oklahoma for it to exist. Because Texas is currently tied to the Longhorn Network contract with ESPN, that could be a while yet for the Longhorns but Oklahoma has little to hold them back if they got a better offer elsewhere (Big 10 West?) and then it would simply be a matter of time before it all came undone.

When the Longhorn Network contract is up, Texas will no longer be tied to it and could enter into an agreement to be a part of a league network if they wanted to move on to greener pastures. There was a time when Texas was pushing for a greater league emphasis on league deals but the rest of the conference was happy with how things stood, now everyone is tied down to bad deals and making poor short-term decisions while the rest of college football is thriving.

I love watching this league, but news like the possible addition of a championship game doesn't change the fact that the future of the conference isn't too bright.

Friday, January 8, 2016

National Championship preview

Over at SB Nation I've completed my preview of the National Championship game between Alabama and Clemson.

As good as Deshaun Watson and Clemson's offense is, it's hard to see them scoring a ton of points on this Tide defense which features their best pass-rush of the Saban era.

On the other hand, I'm no big believer in a simple Alabama offense guided by Jacob Coker teeing off on a talented, complex, and laser-guided Brent Venables defense either.

I see the game coming down to turnovers and it's hard to project how that could turn out. I'd like to bet against Coker trying to unlock the Clemson defense but Alabama QBs are generally exceptionally stingy with the football, especially in big games like this.

Lotta prognosticators are expecting Alabama to win in the 4th quarter after beating down Clemson with their run game...I see that as possible, but so are the chances of Clemson's pace allowing Watson to break loose late in the game.

It's probably going to be Alabama unless the Tigers can force some fumbles on sack/strips or on special teams.

Monday, January 4, 2016

This Bama DL...

We've not seen anything like it before from the Saban era.

Out of curiosity I looked up the sack numbers for the 2015 season and was shocked by how many Tide DL (or DE/OLBs) had put up big time numbers. In particular they are capable of playing a four-man unit on pass downs consisting of Jonathan Allen (12 sacks), A'Shawn Robinson (3.5 sacks), Tim Williams (9.5 sacks), and Ryan Anderson (6 sacks).

Combined those four players managed to get 31 sacks this year. When you compare that total to the numbers posted by the best four DL or DE/OLB of any other Saban era you get a sense of how much improved this Tide pass-rush was over previous iterations.

Some of those units, such as the 2012 group or 2009 group, were at their best when blitzing a linebacker (Mosley in '12) or nickel (Arenas in '09) and not from simply utilizing basic four-man pressures or stunts.

The leap in two years from 2013's total of 13.5 sacks to this season's 31 is truly remarkable and a testament to how well Saban is starting to adjust the Tide roster to the demands of the spread era.

I think this is primarily attributable first to the emergence of Jonathan Allen as a dominant interior pass-rusher. That dude is blazing quick inside, he draws a ton of attention that can then no longer be sent outside to help the OTs, and many interior OL simply lack the hips and base to pick him up on a stunt.

It's also attributable to the fact that their DE/OLBs are more explosive this year than they've been in recent seasons. At 6'4" and 6'2" respectively, Williams and Anderson are also guys that are designed more for rushing the passer from a three point stance than playing all of the assignments typically asked of an Alabama 3-4 OLB.

It was only a matter of time before Saban stopped stockpiling as many interior DL and stout, run-stuffing LBs in order to also mix in some DBs and pass-rushers. Now we are starting to see the fruit of those efforts.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Baylor's single-wing offense and spread football's final destination

Over at Football Study Hall I broke down some of Baylor's single-wing offense they used to bludgeon the Tar Heels with in their bowl game.

As good a strategy as this was for Briles the response from Gene Chizik was equally bad. In particular, he emphasized a strategy that required much greater safety play than his team could offer.

The importance of good safety play is increasing regularly in today's game as a dominant safety tandem in a cover 4 scheme can really spell the end for even the most brilliant and balanced spread offenses. The great challenge will come when more teams adopt the Kansas State style of single wing spread football.

When the QB is a good, sturdy inside runner and an effective passer there are no easy answers.

If you watched Westlake this year, who featured Texas QB commit Sam Ehlinger at QB, you saw a team that went all the way to the 6A state title, even beating Allen on the way, based on an offense that fused the single wing with the Air Raid. The Galena Park North Shore team that finally took them down had to do so by playing a lot of what basically amounted to press-zero coverage with everyone in the box or jamming a Westlake WR.

Fortunately for them, they had the athletes to play press coverage and survive against Westlake's Air Raid while always having enough numbers in the box to limit Ehlinger's runs. Had Westlake's best WR been healthy it probably would have been a different story.

This style of football is coming back to the main stage, it's only a matter of time. We'll see glimpses of it in the playoff final when Clemson will undoubtedly give Watson 20 carries or more against Bama.

Early thoughts on the first round of the playoffs

Many recruiting writers love nothing more than to extoll the importance of recruiting. It's rather self-serving, honestly, as they are basically pumping up the content they produce as the be-all and end-all of football analysis and coverage.

Consequently, Alabama result against Michigan State is being heralded by some as the triumph of recruiting over development. It's not, in reality, but is instead the triumph of well-coached exceptional talent over well-coached good talent. Call me back when a decently-coached team of 4/5-star underclassmen take down Michigan State.

However, there's no doubt that Alabama looked like a terrifying dreadnought in that game. There were two aspects to their victory which were particularly horrifying and which should keep Dabo Sweeney up at night over the next week.

First was the pass-rush that Alabama put on Connor Cook. Jonathan Allen should be a first day draft choice and his ability to get pressure inside on Sparty's OL completely ruined their entire offensive scheme, particularly their normally very effective pass down defense which depends on spread sets.

Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson are also both effective pass-rushers, Alabama hasn't had anyone like any of these guys since the last time they won a title, and they made mince-meat of Sparty's right tackle Kody Kieler.

I'll have to see how they fared against OU's DL but I'm not initially optimistic about the ability of Clemson's OL to stand up to these guys and keep Deshaun Watson clean.

The other horrifying aspect of the game was how well Jacob Coker responded to the inevitable challenge from Dantonio to win the game without simply handing off to Derrick Henry 30x and watching him run for 200+ yards.

25-30 passing at 9.5 ypa is no joke, and his ability to avoid interceptions (or intentional grounding calls) hearkened back to Saban Alabama QBs of old who have always played with well-drilled turnover-avoidance habits in big games.

I detailed before the game how Alabama would need to attack the schwerpunkt of the Spartan defensive structure to relieve pressure off the run game and score points, or else run the ball into loaded fronts.

They did this most effectively with Coker connecting deep to the slot receivers, which is the best way to attack aggressive quarters teams like Sparty, and completely rolled up the Spartan phalanx. Coker was accurate and hit a few tight windows over the course of the game. Clemson should be concerned.

The other side of the bracket went more or less how you might have expected. Watson was given repeated chances to run the ball and went for 145 yards on a Sooner front that was pretty beat up and exhausted before the third quarter even began.

Losing Charles Walker surely hurt the Sooners badly, as did the long-true fact that they play a 3-4 defense but feature athletes at ILB rather than stone-walling dudes like Reggie Ragland or Reuben Foster who can stop the forward progress of a climbing guard or power-back. That doesn't tend to matter much in the Big 12 but it matters in the playoffs.

They also got bit by the injury bug, with RBs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon both going down over the course of the game and leaving Baker Mayfield to try and beat a good Clemson secondary and pass-rush by himself. But there was no doubt in this game that Clemson was a superior squad and they physically beat the tar out of the Sooners for four quarters. Stoops' squads have never handled that particularly well over his tenure.

Clemson will now try to bring their QB-run game against the Tide in the hopes that Saban still doesn't have the answers for this style of offense. There's going to be a lot of people pushing the idea that he doesn't and that this is the way to take down the Tide...I think the actual result of this game is probably less exciting than that.

Previewing the 2016 Texas DL

Texas hasn't had a dearth of interior DL like they will in 2016 since the 2009 season and things were in better shape then than they are now.

How can the Texas staff build something up front that can protect a still young secondary and LB corps next season? Well first we have to examine what they are working with roster-wise. Check out my summary of the DL roster at Inside Texas.