Before tackling the spring football story lines dominating Austin currently, let's finally wrap-up our examination of the approach the rest of the league is taking in their recruiting and consequently this spring in their practices.
In our last take I offered some descriptive "catch-all" terms to describe how teams find the players to fuel their system. In reality, it's all about the process, but you can understand those different processes by noting what kind of players coaches choose.
Now that Bob Stoops has finished overhauling his staff we can examine the Sooners and some of our other main competitors with greater understanding for what they're up to. First, let's go up north and examine the methods in Iowa, the state that produced Stoops.
Coach em' up
Look back at Iowa State's recruiting classes and you will rarely see them grab a fully grown defensive tackle or OL. This year's class for Paul Rhoads is headlined by a four star OL named Jake Campos who stands at 6'7" and 250 pounds. They often take several DE's in their classes and hope for them to grow into defensive tackles. On both sides of the line, it's easier to find the footwork and other traits necessary for success in smaller players who have not yet reached the stature and strength necessary to handle grown men in the trenches.
Technique and fundamentals are the name of the game up in Ames, and they are exceptional at transforming two and three star projects into disciplined players that hold their own in the trenches against the rest of the league. However, their defense has not been able to make the leap from "remarkably and consistently solid" to "dominant" due to their inability to find major impact players on the line.
This has usually manifested in a lack of difference makers at the skill positions or DE. It's hard to develop a gritty two star Iowan into a dominant pass-rusher, even if you can make him into a DT that protects the backers. They've done a VERY good job of building good run-blocking OL and produced a few NFL starters but that will only go so far if they are blocking for Steele Jantz.
I'm sure they've scored enough pieces here to continue to build feisty and competitive teams but it's hard to say if they have a star here that can lift them up from bowl-eligible scrappers to league contenders. If Rhoads gets them to the next level in any upcoming season it'll probably be with a QB or RB that wasn't a famous recruit and dominated out of nowhere.
Grab the best athletes
Essentially this is what Texas has tried to do with Mack Brown. Go get the most talented kids in the state and deploy them in schemes that allow them to out-athlete the rest of the competition. Unfortunately, there's always been another school in the league that has been able to find comparable athletes and then actually consistently develops and deploys them.
Now there's two.
Bob Stoops has struggled over the last several years with the improvements in recruiting at Texas A&M, the fact that constantly reaming Mack in Dallas hasn't made OU the favored destination for Texas kids, and the rise of programs like TCU. They've tried to remedy this by going national. With Pac-12 veteran Mike Stoops back on the staff they've looked west more than ever and are bringing in several SoCal DBs of impressive size and athleticism with their 2013 class.
As a general rule: Stoops grabs the most athletic and versatile kids they can find and then they force them to undergo their bootcamp offseason and camps with Schmidt and co. until they've grown and hardened into Texas-killers. They turn TE's into star offensive tackles (Lane Johnson), they'll pull in a kid like Gresham or Millard every other year who can play all over the field, they drill big-armed QBs into NFL first rounders with AirRaid-inspired practice regimens, and then there's the defense.
The OU defense is generally always a pack of aggressive and athletic intimidators. However, last year they really struggled in the front seven. Their linebackers didn't enjoy sitting on the bench so Stoops could play dime personnel and their assortment of unrealized upperclassmen (King, Washington) and unready underclassmen (Tapper, Grissom, Ndulue) defensive ends were unable to make the necessary plays to protect the legitimately excellent secondary.
For 2013, job one was re-stocking at DT, where the three main contributors all graduated. They pulled in our old friend Quincy Russell from the JUCO ranks and have back-flipping RS sophomore Jordan Phillips waiting in the wings...and then they have a big pile of undeveloped guys at the other positions. Most likely they'll be okay here in a few seasons but the 2013 OU defense will probably have to rely on underclassmen all over the field who are learning on the job.
This may be the best class in the Big 12, but it's hard to say if it will produce the NFL-caliber athletes that Oklahoma has typically had in the Stoops era. SoCal products Hatari Byrd and his teammate LJ Moore might figure into their rotation early. They also scored big time QB Cody Thomas, likely CB Stanvon Taylor, RB Keith Ford, and DE DJ Ward from their classic OK/DFW strongholds.
LB Dominique Alexander represents the further shrinking of the Oklahoma linebacker, fierce and fast kids who can meet the speed requirements of the league, although he may end up north of 230 before they finish with him.
The coaching hires Stoops made at defensive line and offensive line represent not so much an interest in drastically changing the Oklahoma approach, as Stoops still clearly believes in aggressive 4-3 Under defense and multiple formation Zone-run/AirRaid offense. Instead, Stoops has just infused the staff with fresh energy and great recruiters to make sure that the team maintains its athletic advantages in the trenches that have keyed Sooner dominance in the Big 12 era.
The much-discussed move to a 3-4 defense in Norman will probably simply look like Brent Venables 3-4 tinkerings, the same defenses they've always played but with DE/LB hybrids and featuring mostly Nickel/Dime looks. OU fans should relax, as I don't expect them to start 2-gapping their defensive linemen, none of which are built for that style. That would be a total departure from Stoops' defensive philosophy of "get their first with the most."
The other squad that looks for versatile raw athletes to fashion into dominant competitors through a strength and conditioning-led process of tempering and refining is the TCU Horned Frogs.
The TCU offense is your typical spread system that employs a run game similar to what you see in Baylor combined with a passing game geared towards simple reads and vertical threats afforded by spread formations. Basically the spread formation portion of Harsin's playbook. This simplicity and angle/leverage creating offense, combined with the ferocious and unforgiving nature of their practice regimen has produced some NFL talent on the OL.
In 2013 they took a handful of mostly three star OL to be the hammers for their offensive process and Kyle Hicks, former UT commit, as a potential feature back. The loss of Hicks was bad enough for Texas, but his likely success at TCU is particularly frustrating. With several years of the spread'em out and run Power and QB option run game in place, it's easy to build confident and effective run games provided a team has good athletes.
Running besides returning QB Pachall or someone like incoming freshman QB Zach Allen, Hicks will probably not struggle to find creases in which to exhibit his footwork.
On defense, TCU has made their living on speed, position changes, and development. The scheme really sets up the weakside defensive end for success and they've often filled this position through means such as moving a running back like Jerry Hughes here and growing him into a pass-rushing terror.
Recently, they've started to land major DFW prospects like Devonte Fields. It's absolutely Patterson's intention to build around DFW's talent both in putting in the time to find the region's gems that other programs overlook, and in grabbing premier prospects like Fields. In 2013 they actually found a four star DT called Tevin Lawson from LA to complement the rest of their haul.
Finally, perhaps the lifeblood of TCU football is the "5-spoke secondary" or 4-2-5 defensive alignment. Most of you should be well familiar with the TCU defensive system by now, but to rehash its basics: the defensive thrives on simplicity of execution and structure. They can create a million different blitzes and coverages out of their base concepts due to the way they split the defense.
The weak safety and weakside corner communicate how to cover their own side of the field while the strong safety (our nickel), strongside corner, and free safety communicate how to cover the other half. The front is the two linebackers and defensive line, who have their own call on a play that is independent of the secondary call. By divorcing the front and coverage and splitting the secondary, they can achieve greater complexity overall.
Despite that schematic strength, they still make their living with premier athletes. Most essential is that they find safeties who have the speed and physicality to play "2-Read" coverages. The essential component is a safety who can handle outside run-force responsibilities without getting beat over the top by a slot receiver. In the past, TCU hasn't had to share players like this with other Big 12 teams but now other teams are beginning to look for different skill sets in their safeties.
In the 2013 class, TCU pulled in six potential DB's who generally follow this description: 5-10 to 6-0, 170-200, and better than 4.6 speed. Once they have physical athletes on campus, they rely on their practice methods and scheme/system to develop them into skilled players. I think Cameron Echols-Luper and Ranthony Texada qualify as candidates to emerge as big stars in this system, if not "All-name all stars."
This is really a major key for both Oklahoma and TCU, that their process is strong enough to consistently mold athletes into football players, and frees them from having to find kids who are ready-made for college technique and strength requirements.
The Air Raid and no-huddle methods have allowed other teams to catch up to that approach on offense but other teams have struggled to match the success of Stoops or Patterson on the defensive side of the ball.
Their ability to perform the "position switch" as a regular means of finding rare players such as dominant DE's or Left Tackles is a shared trait with Iowa St and when combined with the recruiting grounds they've been frequenting (DFW, SoCal, East Texas) and successfully evaluating it allows them to put defenses on the field which can begin to take on modern offenses.
Don't worry, we'll return to Longhorn study now.