Harsin Spices Up The Ground Game

Cooper Neill

How do you honor Darrell Royal? Innovate in the run game.

Texas honored Darrell Royal on Saturday - not just with 53 Veer Pass 2.0, but with the Longhorns' best all-around performance of the season. We arguably put an end to Iowa State's ‘un-blowoutability' in 2012, and there would have been no argument had we not left a goodly number of points on the field on Saturday. Despite those miscues, however, it was a tremendously heartening performance - not just for the defense, but for an offense that found a range of cool and creative ways to exploit a very sound and steady Cyclones D.

Our run game got into a funk against West Virginia, was one of many victims of the Mack Malaise in the Cotton Bowl, had some good moments mixed with hiccups against a completely pitiful Baylor D, and lagged for much of the game against Kansas. In our last two games, however, we've seen a resurgent ground game put it to a pair of solid defenses - though the stats haven't been gaudy, our run game has thrown a combination of punches that has served to keep our opponents on the ropes and while exposing their chins to some Mike Davis haymakers. While everything from simple execution to player growth to playcalling mix and aggression have contributed to that success, I've been very intrigued with some design wrinkles that Brian Harsin has added to a couple of our staple runs. I'm sure the man who tasked Emory Bellard with inventing the Wishbone was smiling down on some of the sweetness we displayed on Saturday.

Inside Zone - It's a Trap!

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On second and eight, we're lined up in 12 personnel with Malcolm Brown in the backfield, MJ McFarland as an in-line TE and DJ Grant Miles Onyegbule at H-back with Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley out wide on either side. With four legitimate receiving threats at the line and a capable receiving back in the backfield, the Cyclones have to respect the pass and aren't able to overload the box.

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At the snap, all those OL helmets are moving in unison - it's good ol' Inside Zone. That play has been a staple for us this season, but it's also seen more than its share of one and two-yard gains as things get jammed up at the line. But we've got a couple of interesting things going on here. First, you can see Donald Hawkins at left tackle ignoring the DE and starting to move right to the second level. Onyegbule is also moving counter to the line action, heading towards the field side as Case McCoy prepares to deliver the handoff. Could these two facts be connected?

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Indeed they are! In the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar, it's a trap! Onyegbule has come down the line to trap the defensive end, leaving Hawkins free to make a block at the second level. Dominic Espinosa also headed straight upfield and is about to make contact with a linebacker three yards to the good, and Josh Cochran has helped M.J. McFarland handle the boundary-side DE and is about to go hunting at the second level himself. But the real keys at this point are the two guards. Luke Poehlmann's DT wanted to get upfield to the boundary side, and he has obliged him by riding him totally out of the play. The potential trouble here is the other DT, who is engaged with Hopkins (hard to see behind Hawkins in this shot) and fighting his way into the hole. He could cause a traffic jam...

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...but instead we're about to get treated to a great example of a back working in concert with zone blocking principles. Hopkins has used the DT's desire to fight into the hole to gain leverage and start driving his ass towards the sideline, and Malcolm is already reading that key block and getting ready to cut off Hopkins' ass to the field side. Hawkins didn't exactly fly downfield, but he has alertly spotted #27 and is turning to seal him away from the hole. Neither Espinosa nor Onyegbule really make award-winning blocks here, but simply creating an obstacle was enough to defeat the DE while the momentum and positioning the linebacker used to dodge Espinosa will make it really tough for him to close down a hard-charging back.

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Sure enough, that LB misses by a mile and Brown is about to make first contact with a defender five yards past the LOS...

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...and finish the run with authority.

This blocking wrinkle does some really nice things to enhance our ‘standard' inside zone. Trapping the backside DE not only frees up your tackle to get aggressively to the second level, but it opens up a good deal of space - particularly if the DT next to him takes a lot of momentum into the middle. Unless the DE makes a really aggressive read and move towards the middle, he can also be handled fairly easily without the need for Rob Gronkowski-caliber blocking - a nice feature if we want to pull off this play while keeping a receiving threat in at H-back. The combo block from the other tackle also gives a big assist to the in-line TE - if we're able to consistently get good yardage with two ‘work in progress' blockers like Onyegbule and McFarland out there we will make some major hay up the seam with play action.

What else can we do to spice up good ol' Inside Zone?

Inside Zone - Turn On the Jets

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How about we throw in a little Jet Sweep action? First and ten, we're in 12 personnel again with D.J. Grant at H-back and Greg Daniels handling the in-line TE duties. Johnathan Gray is in the backfield, and Mike D is wide to the field side with Goodwin coming in motion from the boundary in jet sweep action. The Cyclones are responding by ‘bumping' their alignment over to account for the sweeper rather than pursuing him with the corner.

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At the mesh point, the ball is going to Gray but the threat of the sweep has held two defenders static on the field side. Both DTs are receiving some tough double-team love, and Grant is starting to move to cut off one of those field-side defenders. The toughest task right now is on Greg Daniels' shoulders, as he's singled up with the DE and needs to keep him from wrecking the play.

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Gray's momentum has been carrying him towards the middle, and the middle looks a mess. The DE is fighting hard inside to close down the hole, and both linebackers have held their ground to make things tough on Gray if he keeps heading that way. But you don't run for 205 touchdowns in 4A ball without A) knowing how to read your blocking and B) being able to do some special shit once you read it. Gray sees what's happening in front of him, and is in the process of cutting left off his left foot in a way that probably 20 or so people on the planet can manage.

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Sustaining zone blocks is a very good thing. Daniels has done so, and is using the DE's momentum to plant him in the turf and give Gray a perfect cutback lane. Gray has cut far faster than the linebackers can react, so they are both inside getting swallowed up as our OL come off their combo blocks. Grant is in prime position to cut off the defender who was held by the sweep action, and Gray has a nice hole...

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...which he predictably rockets through...

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...and gives some more love to Iowa State's safeties.

We had a stretch this season where we were enjoying some really nice success getting guys like Goodwin, Daje and DJ to the edge on the sweep. Defenses adjusted to attack that play with alignment, and there was a period where we weren't really making them pay for it. That period appears to be over - we really exploited Iowa State's reactions and alignments to sweep action in this one, including the 61-yard bomb to Davis where the safety was mysteriously absent from the downfield proceedings.

Of course, a guy like Harsin isn't going to be satisfied just tweaking one play - what does he have in store for our old friend Pin n' Pull?

Pin n' Pulling Out All the Stops

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Let's find out! First and ten, and we're in the same general setup as the play we just looked at. 12 personnel with Gray, Daniels (in-line) and Grant (H-back), Mike D split out wide and Goodwin coming down for the sweep. Iowa State is handling the sweep action with a ‘bump' response again.

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Same start, but now things are proceeding in a very different direction. Gray has hung back in the backfield, and is now receiving a rocket-type pitch. Even more interesting is what's happening on the line - while Daniels has the pin block, we see pulling action from ALL THREE of Espinosa, Poehlmann (subbing in for Walters at RG) and Cochran. While moving the guard is somewhat new for this play, one thing that remains the same is that the TE's block is key. Check out Daniels. Many a time this season, the Pin n Pull has been wrecked by the defensive end getting outside or - even worse - getting outside and driving into the backfield to foul up the pull. While the DE is fighting for that outside leverage, Daniels essentially has him stonewalled at the line and Cochran is getting a clean pull around him.

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As Gray is taking the pitch, Cochran is in great position to put wood to the force corner. Poehlmann and Espinosa have engaged the playside DT on the move, Hopkins has cut the backside DT and the backside DE isn't going to make it to this party in time. The keys at this point will be Daniels sustaining his block and just what we're going to do about that linebacker on the playside hash.

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Turns out we're going to do something pretty interesting to said linebacker. Poehlmann and Espinosa have basically executed a fold block, with Espinosa coming off the double team to loop around Poehlmann. This appears to be a fairly new wrinkle - almost all of our combo-type blocks this season have involved the playside OL coming off to get to the second level. This can make it tougher for the backside OL in that combo to keep the DT away from the play once the double-team ends. Adding the fold block as a wrinkle lets that playside OL keep the leverage advantage, while also exploiting the backside OL's agility (which Espinosa has in spades). What might have been a problematic upfield move by the playside DE is turning into a space-creating advantage as Daniels is again doing a tremendous job of staying engaged and driving his feet to use the defender's momentum against him. Now there's a good amount of space and Espy can nail that linebacker, but the safety right behind him is in good position to make this a short gainer...

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...until Gray absolutely horsefucks him with an inside fake. Both the LB and the safety have reacted to Gray's little inside cut...

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...which walks the LB right into Espinosa's block and leaves the safety chasing. Now it's a five yard gain...

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...which Gray turns into eight with good speed and a solid stiffarm.

One more? OK, one more.

Pin n' Pulling - I'm the Rocketman

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Now this is just sweet music, here. First and ten in the red zone, and we're in the exact same formation and setup as before. The defense is aligned a little differently, however, with an overhang defender outside and the DE now tasked with plugging things up inside. Will this wrinkle mess up what we're trying to do?

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Nope. It's the same backfield action as before - Ash is faking the sweep handoff and getting ready to rocket pitch to Gray. Our blocking is a little different this time, though - we've got the playside guard blocking down on the DT and we're pulling the backside guard instead. Daniels now has a much easier job since that DE wants to get inside, and Cochran has a nice angle to kick out that overhang defender. One worrisome thing is that it looks like Hopkins is about to stumble flat on his face, and both backside DLs look like they're getting a free run into the backfield.

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Hopkins is fighting for his feet, and Espinosa has a beautiful angle to absolutely ruin one of the linebackers. That backside DT is indeed coming free, but thanks to the rocket pitch wrinkle as long as Cochran is able to open up some good space with the kickout it will basically be a footrace between the DT and Jonathan Gray...

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...which has a pretty predictable outcome. Daniels' down block has created as soft an edge as you're ever likely to see, and Espinosa has absolutely gobsmacked the aforementioned LB. Hopkins has regained his feet...

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...and although you can't see him in this shot, his cut block is responsible for turning that Iowa State defender into a Flying Wallenda with his back to the runner.

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And from there the only thing that was going to prevent a TD was Johnathan Gray pulling a DeSean Jackson and laying the ball down on the 1 yard line.

We didn't break any long gainers in this one (with the positioning of Iowa State's safeties playing a big role there) but other than that our run game featured just about everything you'd want. We got ahead of the chains on early downs, converted numerous short-yardage plays, opened things up for the play action game and kept the defense guessing with tremendous schematic diversity. The way that our variants of both Inside Zone and Pin n Pull can create space for backs like Gray and Malcolm Brown to operate in makes this ground game a very lethal animal.

I'm sure DKR would approve.

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