When I'm at the game on Saturday, I will be there purely as an excited fan. Everything will be scored on the awesome or not spectrum. But later, in the dark cave where my computer whispers its soft nothings, I'll be re-watching for much, much more.
No, no, my bearded dragon.
You don't need sustenance or human interaction!
Just me and the soft glow of cut up game film.
As I struggle toward the daylight of a new season, here's some of the stuff bouncing around my head.
Vertical displacement on combo blocks
A lot has been made this offseason of the question of how Espinosa performs when he's covered in the run game. And while I am higher on Espinosa than most observers seem to be, there are a few things in the Wyoming game that should be good indicators of whether Espinosa is in better shape and will serve as baselines for the overall viability of the run game. The biggest is on inside zone combos between the guard and the center there should be strong vertical displacement of the defender. While pushing Wyoming around on a double team isn't going to prove we can push around the conference, If we aren't getting good movement on our combos against Wyoming then the running game is not ready for primetime. Another block to watch is the down block from Espinosa on the power play: no penetration against a smaller defensive tackle is what we should see. And generally speaking, hopefully we see very few run throughs by Wyoming defenders in the run game... that would indicate good awareness during the play from our starting five.
Tight Ends in the run game
There's a number of things to watch here. Last year our tight ends started out horrible in the run game and progressed to sporadically mediocre. The biggest question is if there has been progress in setting the edge on the Pin N Pull and dealing with covered alignments on the Power play. The hidden question is whether we have decided to make some schematic adjustments to address the struggles at the position. In our bowl game against Cal we had our tight ends use an arc release against some alignments on the Pin N Pull with success. I am hoping that we have included this adjustment on some of our other run plays including the Power and Lead plays. What the arc does is plays really well off of our speed sweep and option/read ideas because it allows the tight end to attack the safety or overhang defender in space. The trade off is that you still need to deal with that defensive end with either a full back, pulling guard, or read play. Additionally, the arc release feeds in the play action game since secondary players will have hard time picking up pass/run blocking by looking at the tight end. So I'll be looking for arc techniques and alternate alignments (like flex alignments) from the tight end because although they probably won't have a big impact in the Wyoming game, they would herald some different approaches to a likely problem area for this team.
I don't expect Wyoming to physically challenge us but they will ask our protection a lot of different questions and that's a great way to start off the year. They are going to blitz heavily and I would expect a lot of pre-snap movement and games in the pass rush. I'm looking for confidence and calmness in the protections from our starting five and I'm looking for decision making from the running backs on correctly fitting into the protections. In other words I'm looking for linemen who keep their base, don't overextend, and deal competently with unexpected defenders. This is our first opportunity to see Hawkins first step in a game and to see how Cochran responds to playing on the right side. Do we look foolish against repeated blitzing as we have in years past or are we able to protect and make some plays to punish the defense?
Recognition and execution from the QBs
This starts pre-snap. The first thing to look for are plays where the defense is overloading an area and see if our QBs can recognize and adjust at the line (i.e. get out of a bad call), I cannot overstate the importance of this step forward. The second thing to watch is if we are able to attack a 1 high coverage structure in the passing game. Ash should get some wide open opportunities in this game. Can he recognize and capitalize? This is another critical factor for the overall heath of this offense. A subplot here would be whether Ash can avoid bad decisions when he gets a different coverage structure after the snap than he saw before it (which is a bit more difficult). And a final indicator would be to watch for what Ash does in the protections. Does he have a feel for where he should be able to step up in protections to give himself a passing window or running lane?
How much are we cutting?
This probably matters to me more than most but I thought we used cut blocks too often with a pretty low success rate last season. Was this a desperate measure for a desperate situation or a philosophical approach that will continue? The reason that I don't like cutting (especially at the point of attack) is because it's hard to build technique in outside of games, it creates traffic jams that often generate just as much of a problem for the runner as a defender on his feet and it doesn't go hand in hand with a physical mentality on offense at every position. So I'm hoping we see more players staying on their feet (especially wide receivers) and finding their defenders in the run game. If our running game is going to be great, every single player on the field needs to take pride in their role in the run game.
Alignment and audibles
Wyoming is going to put a lot of different alignments on the field searching for easy candy in the form of an alignment bust. This will be a nice pop quiz for our unbalanced spread adjustments in our defensive looks. Hopefully we don't give up anything cheesy. The other thing to watch for here is how comfortable we are in the defense at this stage. If we see them make an alignment based call, will we be able to counter and change the defense as we did so often last season?
Wyoming is going to require an extra man against the run to account for the QB. Will we use spy techniques from underneath defenders, put a corner on an island, or put a safety in run/pass conflict? And over the course of the game how does our front look against the run? Last year we took half the season to really settle in against the run where our defensive line was correctly attacking blocks and our linebackers we playing with good leverage. Will there be a similar learning curve with some new personnel?
Wyoming plays a lot of spread sets. Will that mean limited appearances for Edmond? When he is in the game there's a good chance that we will only have a 5 man front... how will he do in space and where's he at right now as a blitzer? We should get a baseline for those two in game one. I'm expecting one or two dominant plays and one or two plays where he over runs the ball carrier or tries to run under a block. No big mistakes from the big man would be a huge positive.
Physical Dominance on the line
If this defense is going to become what I think it will, the Wyoming offensive line should look like a shanty town in a flood. They are going to try to spread us to create lanes... we should see offensive linemen's head and pads snapping back and clogging their own running game regularly and forcing the ball carriers off schedule.
Reaction on the throw
This failure to generate anything between the tackles should force them to focus on the short passing game. What to watch here is reaction to the 3 step pass. We need our corners and overhang players to close on the ball while it's in flight and make open field tackles. We shined in this area last year and it was an important part of what made our defense so good. How will Cobbs, Hicks, and the young linebackers and corners who get playing time fair in game one against the quick passing game?
That's the big stuff for me. What will you be watching for?