Changes in the philosophy of a team are only useful if they are translated into action. That’s why if you want to predict the likely outcomes of Major Applewhite’s changes on offense, you have to look at how he is turning intent into practice. If you’ve had the chance to read Thinking Texas Football already, my observations from the first two open practices will really hit home.
New Offense or Just Faster?
New. Decidedly so. The running game and passing game have been streamlined and simplified. You could make the claim that there’s nothing new in this offense, but the playbook decisions we have made have a dramatic effect on how we practice, what skills we feature and refine, and how we develop advantages on the field. Coaches may be reluctant to call this a new offense because they want to avoid another public change in core offensive philosophy.
Simplified Passing Attack
If you read the Prospectus you know that this offense is setup to force the defense to commit to deep coverage and then play the inside threats of the run against the outside threats of the quick passing game. This puts a much greater emphasis on the efficiency of our Quarterback and the Wide Receivers. They need to do a few things in the passing game, and they need to do them with the confidence and precision that comes only from relentless repetition.
Major Applewhite and Darrell Wyatt’s desire to decrease new learning and increase execution in the passing game is evident in the design of the QB and Wide Receiver drills.
When I watched them on Thursday, the wide receivers started off position drills by working through a quick circuit of 4 key competencies: The Quick Slant, Blocking, The Quick Out, and Beating Press Coverage. When considering whether a wide receiver is ready to play in this offense, the majority of your evaluation should be skewed toward how well they do these four core things, especially if they are an outside receiver. Because receivers that do these things well have an easy time translating their physical talent into results and they will make the offense better on every snap, rather than only having an effect when they touch the ball. Zero. That's the number of wide receivers on Texas’ roster that currently do all four of these at a high level. Let’s hope the emphasis in practice translates into results sooner rather than later.
No where is the emphasis on increased practice reps better codified than in the QB & WR passing drills. The drill is designed so that 3 QBs and 3 WRs are all simultaneously getting a rep. This is done by having 3 different QB positions adjacent to each other (each throwing to a distinct route) and 3 different WR lines (each running a distinct route).
After each rep, the QBs rotate to throw to a new route and the WRs go to the back of their position line. So the QBs all get constant diversity of throws at a given location and the WRs each get multiple reps at the route that is designated for their particular position.
The takeaway is that we are squeezing 2 to 3 times the reps into the same amount of time (which probably puts us on par with the majority of teams in this league). You can tell that the players are still adjusting to this style. During this drill, Applewhite repeatedly yelled out, "Balls in the air! Let’s go! I want balls in the air!" trying to push the pace of the drill. What Major wants, and what the QBs & WRs will hopefully soon execute, is a drill that looks like an assembly line machine press that stamps out rep after rep after rep.
Streamlined Run Game
You can watch the offensive line in position drills and easily see a microcosm of our running game. Searels will have the first team run the key run blocking series: inside zone, power, & split zone against a defensive front while he stands directly behind them and looks at footwork and watches for running tracks as the players come off combo blocks. Then he’ll switch the defensive look and repeat. Then again. This is not new, Searels has always taught his blocking series this way, but the narrowed focus is allowing him to get more reps of the key concepts. Do less, do it well. Searels isn’t pushing the pace in his position drills to the extent that Applewhite & Wyatt are. Although you do definitely see evidence of increased pace in the full unit drill and scrimmages.
No Huddle Offense
Practice kicks off with each offensive unit getting a shot at the defense in an uptempo, no-huddle series that puts 1v1s, 2v2s, and 3v3s. This is one of the best glimpses of what the Texas coaches (on both sides of the ball) are trying to accomplish. Signals are rapidly fed in from the sideline as the ball is being reset, everyone is sprinting into their alignments, and the ball is snapped within seconds of being placed.
This same theme is seen in the scrimmage at the end of practice but the scrimmage at the beginning is new. If I were projecting intent, it be: seize control with a fast start.
Getting to see players compete in practice is a great way to get a feel for where they are at individually as well as how the units are shaping up as a whole. I’m limiting this to areas where I think there’s something to say that may not have already been said, but I’m happy to talk about other personnel that people are interested in.
Is embracing some of the key aspects of this offense. When you watch Ash’s stance, footwork and then his body motion into his throws, you see efficient motion with easy delivery. Ash is generating more of his power in his quick passes from his body motion and that allows him to take small quick steps and get the pass off. He already had a pretty quick release and the improvements he is making really feature that strength.
Probably most encouraging is that in the scrimmage portions of practice, he is seeing opportunities in the middle of the field and hitting crossing targets exactly in stride. He also displayed a great mental clock for taking off with the football when he didn’t like his passing options which happened about once per drive.
As a passing project, Tyrone Swoopes isn’t starting from a bad spot. Like most freshman QBs, he has to think a lot about his footwork and will need time to develop consistency there (and consequently in his accuracy). He tends to step hard into his throws and his release point drops lower than it should. When he starts losing accuracy, he throws harder which produces the opposite of the desired result. His release speed isn’t fast but it isn’t inhibiting. Once Swoopes develops consistency with his feet, the other aspects of his throwing motion will have a chance to improve greatly. The nature of this offense will be great for his development, forcing him to work on his short game first. I would love to see him redshirt.
Sanders is being pegged by most practice reporters to be the breakout player of the year. And while I think it’s likely that he does make some big plays over the course of the season, I’m also decidedly skeptical about his every down impact as an outside receiver in our offense.
Let’s talk about Sanders' strengths first. He is a great stop/start athlete who can create separation out of breaks, make defenders miss, and can exploit seams for big gains. In the slot where Sanders is protected from press coverage, his ability to break in either direction or simply put the brakes on would be an every down headache for the defense. However, he is not currently playing in the slot and despite his positive traits, Sanders can’t match Shipley’s value to the offense in that position.
On the outside, despite his effort, Sanders’ size and effective strength make him a net-negative blocker off the line and make him especially susceptible to press coverage. This means that teams can align a corner tight on Sanders with a deep safety over the slot and know that they can play through Sanders to bubble screens and significantly delay him as a deep threat with the press coverage.
Add onto this that our projected slot receiver, Jaxon Shipley, is also a below average blocker and the threat of the quick screen game to the wide side of the field will have a hard time drawing the attention away from the box that this offense absolutely needs it to.
We wrote in Thinking Texas Football about Johnson’s need to round out his game to complement the speed he brings to the position. In the two practices I watched, I think Johnson has made some progress in two critical categories: creating separation out of his breaks and playing through press coverage. In the Spring game, Johnson looked liked his was overly dependent on his speed to deal with press coverage and redirects. He is now starting to close the gap with defensive backs and then creating separation when they initiate contact. Progress here, not mastery. Additionally, Johnson has a much higher natural upside as a blocker than Sanders.
So while I think that there’s no doubt that Sanders is more dangerous with the ball in his hands and would probably make more highlight plays than Johnson, I think Johnson is the better 3rd receiving option for the offense because his skillset projects better to the position in need and he is more likely to set up other play makers in the offense for sustained success.
In the prospectus we talked about his potential to be an every down mismatch. Two practices make me optimistic. His quickness and size on posts combined the effective play action in this offense and Ash’s accuracy to the middle of the field shape up to be a crucial threat for the offense. When you consider the attention he will necessarily garner, it greatly enhances Jaxon Shipley’s working room on drive (crossing) routes and on skinny posts from trips sets. McFarland’s emergence would be a huge boon to the offense.
We have him playing strongside linebacker and have Hicks at weakside. In this defense, the strongside linebacker has to cover a lot of ground and is one of the most athletically demanding positions on the field. Jinkens is hyper active on the football field, often jumping up in the air at the conclusion of the play to release pent up energy. He looks comfortable in the tackle box as well as in the open field over the slot. When Texas goes nickel personnel next year, the second level of the defense with will feature Jordan Hicks, Peter Jinkens, and Quandre Diggs: all three have shown on the field that they are highly responsive, aware football players capable of processing complex action quickly. I am very optimistic here.
Looks like the 3rd best linebacker on the team right now. He’s backing up Jinkens on the strongside and playing very aggressive football. If nothing else, I expect him to rotate in at linebacker regularly to keep Hicks and Jinkens fresh.
Should be competing for a starting cornerback spot. He’s extremely difficult to separate from and uses the sideline to its full advantage. He needs to work on taking better advantage of his good positioning when the ball is in the air. Expect him to play plenty.
- Whatever your opinion of him (I believe he’ll have a good year), I think it’s unlikely that Espinosa will be replaced as the starting center. In my opinion, if the staff were looking to unseat him rather than develop cross trained depth, they would move Hopkins to second team center to start maximizing his reps at the position.
- The defense played a lot of man-free coverage in the two practices I watched (with a good amount of Palms and Cover 4 mixed in as well). Man-Free gives them an extra defender against the run and may be contributing to the perceived lack of performance from the running game in camp thus far, it’s also contributed to a lot of QB scrambles.
- It was nice to see the offense working on off-schedule plays. The offense ran a scramble drill with 4 verts on Thursday where the QBs would drop and then escape from the pocket on the rollout to either direction and the receivers would all cut toward that side of the field. Intelligent anticipation of circumstance since 4 vertical routes need time to develop. If the defense pressures and the offense can buy time, the play has a great chance to produce a big play.
- On Friday, the offensive backfield personnel spent significant time on Speed Option as well as Zone Read.
- The changes to practice are good. However, I think for this team to get in the 80 snaps/game range, that the pace of practice needs to be increased by about 20%. There’s still too much space between reps.
A Fun Play
This new offense will have significantly less motion. Motion is present, but the motion components are limited and serve a very specific purpose: force defensive dilemma right before the snap of the ball. One of my favorite plays from the first two open practices was a great illustration of how this offense will use motion and backfield personnel to create opportunities.
The offense was aligned with 2 backs (Gray & Brown) and 3 receivers. Let’s consider how the motion and subsequent screen play create a yo-yo effect on the box personnel.
The initial alignment of the personnel puts pressure on the backside of the box where Gray would be the ballcarrier Brown would serve as an extra blocker.
As Gray motions to the right the running threat shifts to the frontside of the box as Brown is now a threat to run toward that side of the formation. Meanwhile, Gray because a quick pass threat on the opposite side of the field.
The line blocks for what looks like an outside zone play. And Brown closes with Ash for the handoff. The front must respond to the threat of the outside run to the left side of the field. But as QB and RB mesh, Ash holds onto the ball.
The threat is now clearly the quick screen pass to Gray and the second level defenders begin angles of pursuit. This happens at about the same moment as Ash turns back toward Brown and floats a screen pass to him where no one is home on the backside of the defense. Brown advances for an easy big gain.
This sort of constraint play is a great tool to have in the playbook to set off the quick acting running and passing attack that form the core of the Longhorn attack and features two great running threats in space.
In a week’s time, I will begin a one year program at the Austin Center for Design. In conjunction with work, it will eat the next 9 months of my life. I will be trying to pop in and share some thoughts where I can, but it’s likely that I won’t be writing anything for some time.
As a parting gift here’s a brief visual skeleton of our run game concepts:
The staple play of the this year’s run game. This offset deep alignment of the back sets the QB up to read the defense at the QB-RB mesh point making it ideal for Zone Read, play action, and Run-Pass Read plays.
the blocker can come across the flow and open up the backside cut. This is typically called Split Zone or Slice Zone. Note that if the back is aligned directly behind the QB and the second back is adjacent to the QB (sometimes referred to as the half pod) that the offense can threaten the lead or split zone play to either side of the formation.
A natural compliment to Inside Zone which forces the linebackers to work against the blocking flow. The offset alignment is also ideal for the power play as the running back tracks directly behind the pulling lead blocker.
The Draw is technically not a run blocking series but I think it will be a huge part of the offense this year and expect some QB draws as well where the running back serves as a lead blocker.
Likely a small part of the offense, but could be key in games against powerful, oversized defensive ends or quick, undersized defensive ends.
I haven't included the speed sweep series or options plays but they will easily layer with many of the above concepts to create conflicts for the defensive ends and overhang defenders.
Until next time, I hope you enjoy.
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