Spring Clinging: Part I

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

Texas has a lot of tools in the backfield this season. Major Applewhite’s decision to slim down the running game will allow his experienced line to become experts in a few plays. By trying to thin out box numbers with more receiving threats, Applewhite is also putting the onus on his running backs to control linebackers and threaten all the interior gaps in the front.

If you missed it, check out Spring Clinging: A Primer where we touched on some of the key aspects of the new Longhorn offense. From here on out, with each installment in the series we’ll take a look at something I was encouraged by as well as something that concerns me based on the Spring game. We’re purposefully looking at extremes here in the hopes of garnering clearer insights.

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A Thing that Encourages Me: Johnathan Gray

Texas has a lot of tools in the backfield this season. Major Applewhite’s decision to slim down the running game will allow his experienced line to become experts in a few plays. By trying to thin out box numbers with more receiving threats, Applewhite is also putting the onus on his running backs to control linebackers and threaten all the interior gaps in the front. If the passing game can hold up it’s end of the bargain, Gray’s fluidity and body control should make him a star in this offense.

In fact, I don’t think a single player will benefit more from the changes on offense than Johnathan Gray. The new alignments and mesh points will put him in the heart of the play where his ability to come under control and change direction will be the focus of our running game. Additionally, his ability to motion out as a receiving threat folds in perfectly with our core inside-outside leverage concepts. Finally, his willingness and awareness in both protections and as a late outlet receiver make him a crucial part of our high-tempo, no-huddle aspirations.


Any time you are going to go simple conceptually, it helps if you have a dynamic talent to build around that gives you more than you have on paper.

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A Thing That Concerns Me: Decision Making

This offense is predicated on creating tension for the defense’s swing players. Texas has installed a number of run-pass packaged plays that are currently the rage in college football (and especially in the Big 12). These concepts are designed to spread a defender through alignment (usually the overhang defender), then gauge their positioning after the snap to exploit a numbers or leverage advantage.

In a run-pass package the QB will decide whether give the ball off on an inside run or throw the ball wide on a quick pass. This can be paired with pass blocking (the run play is a draw) or run blocking (usually inside zone, although outside zone and power are also possible). So part of the reasoning behind standardizing the backfield alignments and mesh points was to allow our QBs to do fewer things but make more decisions in the first few moments after the ball is snapped. We also want to deny the defense accurate run & pass reads for as long as possible on each play.

Distilled into core ideas, it’s modern day option football combined with play-action. If executed correctly the offense always has the theoretical advantage. However, as has always been the case with option football, the offense must identify the appropriate key to read, make the correct decision, and execute in order to maintain this advantage. In the Spring game we looked like a team that is very much in the learning process in these regards:

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Two years ago, I wrote about how off tackle running was going to be the central lever of our offense under Harsin, and we explored the ramifications of those ideas. In this new offense we will will leverage inside running against execution-intensive passing as our core competencies and everything is riding on the QB’s decision making. If we cannot correctly identify swing players for the defense and make the defense wrong with post snap reads, then the inside and outside components of this offense can be separated and easily controlled. We’ll be an option offense that can’t get the ball to the right player.

It’s my opinion that in order for Texas to achieve at a high level in this offense, the frequency of run-pass reads and automatic checks needs to be increased. We must also rapidly become much more comfortable in their execution. The emphasis is squarely on David Ash’s pre-snap recognition, post-snap decision making, and ability to execute in the short passing game. If those traits are quickly refined for David, it will be very near impossible for teams to account for the backfield talent Texas has without giving up easy yards whenever we want them. However, if we don’t get crisp execution in the short passing game and sharp decision making in the run-pass reads, this offense becomes reliant on our players consistently making defenders miss in order to keep the chains moving.

Check in next time when we’ll be switching our attention over to the defensive side of the ball to talk about linebacking from the Spring game.

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