If you’re like me, the Spring Practices held you hostage like a 6 year old in December. Each day we’d open up a little cardboard rectangle and chew on a few second hand chocolaty tidbits from one site or another. But it was never enough.
Oh, Calendar House.
Your time is coming.
One day I will devour your sweet, chocolately window eyes.
Each practice nugget was just a sad consolation prize for not being able to actually get eyes on the team and process things in person. The Spring Game arrived and sent our brains into a Christmas morning carnival frenzy for information. Now the sobering wave of nausea hits us like a kid’s book masquerading as a Nintendo cartridge. The presents are all opened, their allure forsaken. But worry not young lads these gifts are not done giving… some of these new toys are the slow burning variety.
Shoddy analogical flashbacks aside, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the Spring game and I’m feeling feisty about Longhorn football these days. Texas has upped its game with the new coaching staff and I’m going to try to keep pace by teaching myself as much as I can about what we are doing on offense and defense. The idea behind these write-ups is to help me pin down some ideas (and learn in the process) and hopefully to help raise the level discourse for those who are just as interested in the mechanics and strategy of the game as they are in the personnel and emotion.
My disclaimer is that I am certainly not an expert: my knowledge of football resides in the back alley between an avid fan and a high school football coach… everything I know about football is the result of reading, observation, discourse, and a hell of a lot of inferences. I welcome any corrections or discussion about anything I put out there. But if you question my authority, I will backhand you like a foster child. I kid, I kid. Despite what I hear all the time (it’s not rocket science!), I don’t find college football to be simple at all. In fact, I think it’s every bit as complex as any multivariable calculus that I’ve dealt with and much more fulfilling to investigate. And just like calculus there are people who can do it, people who actually understand it, and people who have mastered it enough teach it well. Think of me as a semi-lingual engineering student who is helping you hack your way through the heat equation.
Now that I’ve eroded what little trust we had built, let’s take a look at a few things Harsin showed us in the Spring Game. I should note that my initial read of the Spring Game in person was that we were fairly vanilla on offense. However, in breaking down the scrimmage play by play I am impressed with the glimpses of play packaging and the diversity of attacks that we have incorporated in such a short time. If we truly did hide a majority of what has been installed, then Harsin works very fast. My gut tells me that we focused on the plays that we have repped the most, and also mixed in with a few plays that are relatively new/exotic (just to see how the players responded). I have no idea if that’s true, it’s just what I would do if I had scripted it. Operating under that assumption, I infer that one of the building blocks for this season to be the Power O running play. We ran it more than any other play during the scrimmage. Let’s start by just exploring the intent and execution of the play and see where it takes us.
The basic idea of the Power O is to give the playside offensive lineman blocking advantages by having them block down the line and allowing them to create a crushing wall that will seal off the backside defenders and create space for a running lane right up the middle of the defense. Extra blockers (read: tight ends, h-backs and fullbacks) on the playside will then help kick out the playside defenders. Triumphantly, the backside guard will pull across the formation and will be the lead blocker for the running back through the hole. If well executed, the play creates two walls of blockers pushing outward from each other with a huge lead blocker barreling through the playside tackle gaps to clear the way for the running back. Picture a 1980’s Schwarzenegger beefcake grabbing your right wrist, blocking your left hook, then head butting you right in face. The biggest keys to the play are dominating the down blocks and timing the second level blocks to give plenty of space for the lead blocker to do his thing.
Here’s a diagram of the first version of the play we ran (second play) in the Spring Game. We motioned the H-back right before the snap of the ball into essentially an Offset I.
Assignments to notice:
- The playside guard’s block down: the playside guard has to dominate here to help open up the hole and to prevent penetration that will impede the backside guard’s pull. If you can’t get reliable execution on this block then play doesn’t really stand a chance.
- The playside tight end’s block on the defensive end – this can be a challenging assignment for the tight end because he needs to gain inside leverage on the defensive end and force him outside or at least hold his ground. If the defensive end gets inside he can cause a massive traffic jam in the hole. The tight end is often assisted by the defensive end’s desire to gain outside leverage (hence stepping himself right into position to be sealed out of the hole).
- The playside tackle and H-back – these guys need to get to their blocks in a hurry. Hesitation in the hole will create a traffic jam and confuse the lead block from the pulling guard and the read from the running back.
-The hinge block from the backside tackle – this is to prevent penetration from the backside defensive end who could potentially make it down the line catch the play from behind.
Alright, enough with the build up. Here’s a cut of the aforementioned play:
You may notice that Chet Moss jumps the play pre-snap and causes some congestion in the hole. Paden Kelly actually does a nice job of getting a partial block on Moss on his way to his assignment (weakside linebacker, Aaron Benson). Kelly sets Trey Hopkins up for a perfect kill shot on Moss (in which case the play probably goes for a much bigger gain) but instead Hopkins gets confused and just blows up the first thing in his way (that headbutt needs to land on someone’s face). The first thing in his way happens to be Barrett Mathews whom he tosses out of the way before taking over his assignment. This does raise the question of what happens when a defense starts jumping the B and C gaps to try to take away the Power O? We will explore this idea in much detail later.
However, before we move on notice a few more things about this play. Rewatch the clip and pay attention to that key block from the playside guard (Mason Walters). He comes down the line and absolutely murders Greg Daniels. David Snow also does a nice job of displacing his assignment, Taylor Bible, even though he loses his footing without finishing the block. Give these guys time and reps and the play is going to get really powerful.
Let’s get a taste of what the Power O looks like when it’s run a little closer to specification:
When you watch the Power play run repeatedly by a team one thing that really stands out is the physical impact of the play. The inside zone and outside zone (which we will explore at some point) are important parts of most offenses… they attack the defense at many gaps simultaneously and test the defense’s discipline and coordination in space. Gap plays like the Power O are just the opposite… they are a staged assault on one spot of the defense and they require the defense to charge that one area and step up physically.
So what happens when teams decide to start taking away the Power O from us? Even when we start executing the play at a high level, defenses will still be able to take the play away if they commit to it. As Chet Moss showed, if you get jump into the hole early and cause some congestion, the Power play can be marginalized.
The Power play is designed to allow the tailback to follow his lead block from the guard and make one cut off the lead block and go. As the players run this play more and more, the ball carriers will learn to read lead blocks better and better (remember that some of them haven't consistently run with lead blockers in years, if ever). So one natural response is for the running back to try to bounce the run out or cut the run back if the hole is congested. However, this is really not the intent of a play its just a way for the running back to try to salvage the play rather than jamming it into a hole that isn’t there. If this happens too often it can lead to the running back hesitating instead of hitting that alley with full confidence.
Also, Bouncing it is not the preferred architecture, Dude.
Alignment adjustments, please.
A more formal response is to adjust the assignments in the play to take advantage of players trying to jump the gap. Take a look at the Power O diagrammed from another alignment:
The new alignment triggers the defense to change it’s alignment and this hands the playside defensive end assignment to the tackle. The tackle collapses the defensive end toward the inside and the two quicker outside blockers (the tight end and the h-back) attack the linebackers. This action naturally widens pull for the pulling guard, changing the attack point of the play slightly. The beauty of this is that it doesn’t require and special instructions to pull it off, it’s just the natural dominoe effect of changing the alignment of one player. It’s also one of the reasons why Bryan Harsin probes with his alignments so much. Even though he may not have snapped any plays from this alignment yet, he’s seen that this defensive alignment is available to him if he wants it. Let’s check out the results:
Chet Moss is still creeping, but he fails to create the congestion and confusion he did previously. The assignment shift has him getting attacked earlier in the play and his impact is greatly lessened. In addition to adjusting the Power to keep it viable throughout a game, there’s also the more important response: building off of the Power to punish overplay, create hesitation and encourage false steps for the defense. Most defenses can take away a primary play.
The question is, will it be worth it for the defense? Think of the Power O as a body shot… you can block it easily enough but in order to do so regularly you are going to expose much more tender meat. You want to stop the Power O? You need to commit at least one linebacker to hitting that gap hard as soon as the ball is snapped, and that’s going to leave you exposed to other threats. Bryan Harsin gave us a few glimpses of how he will build around the play in the Spring Game and I have a few thoughts of my own. If you were watching the X receiver closely in the above clips, you probably picked up on at least one play that is packaged with the Power play. Building off the Power O is the subject of Part II in this series, which will include a lot more diagrams and clips to geek out on. I’ll wind this post down with a few architectural views about the implications of the Power O as a base play in our offense.
I don't resent the running game like my predecessor
Harsin didn’t choose the Power O as part of our new base package on a whim. He selected it because he spotted our fiercest offensive talent right now (the inside of our offensive line) and wanted to put them in a position to make devastating blocks. It also gives our pair of tackles very winnable battles with a backside hinge block or a playside assault on a linebacker. Most important of all is that the Power O represents a culture change for a group of blockers that have been just trying to survive the defense for their entire tenure at Texas. If you want your offensive line to be aggressive and physical you have got to achieve it through a marriage of scheme and preparation... the attitude must be present in both. Bryan Harsin’s first big choice in his playbook reveals that he is intent putting his offensive linemen in a position to win instead just surviving. Running this play over and over again (and it’s companion plays) will help our offensive linemen transition from a unit that has been seen as a liability into the unit that is the heart of this team.