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The Texas Longhorns Offense: Rising From the Post-Ash Ashes

How Watson and Wickline can keep the ship afloat.

Ronald Martinez

Welp, here we are.  A mere four quarters into the season, everyone's favorite 2014 Doomsday Scenario came to pass with the loss of David Ash to concussion symptoms.  While he's currently being reported as day-to-day, it's almost impossible to imagine that as anything but lip service to allow David and his family to move forward on their terms.

Ash is a fantastic young man, and his actual on-field ability is likely to be forever underrated by a large portion of the Longhorn fandom.  But he'll have to stand pat on the legacy he's built to this point, as his football career is almost certainly over.

So what now?

Charlie don't surf, and Charlie don't pack it in and start making excuses after being dealt a tough hand, either.  The entire staff will be working as a unified entity to put out the best version of this 2014 squad that's geared to the realities of our, um, amended set of offensive capabilities.

Watching the ways in which Watson and Wickline adapt the offense will be fascinating if potentially hairy viewing over the next few weeks.  Just sitting around gnashing our teeth and rending our garments is no fun (ripped sleeve polos aside), so let's whip out the crystal ball and try to predict some of The Watline's adjustments to our new reality.  In order to pull that off, though, we'll need to understand exactly what we've lost, what we've gained and what it means for our offensive goals.

What We've Lost

Short and Intermediate Accuracy: In other words, the defining hallmark of a high-functioning West Coast offense.  The WCO thrives on short/intermediate route combinations that get two defenders stuck between three passing options and the QB firing a dart to the best read.  The benchmark completion percentage used to be 60%+ back in the early 90's NFL (which was a pretty salty number in those days), and if you're not hitting those throws at a high clip you're just not going to keep the ball moving in this style of offense absent a dominating show on the ground. The core aerial concepts that we've been implementing since Spring are almost certain to change.

Decision-making Over the Middle: Young QBs are prone to missed reads and interceptions, and you're more likely to throw a pick when there are more defenders in the area.  The abundance of slants, crossing routes and skinny posts we saw in the Spring Game and against UNT will be converting at a lower rate and carrying a higher degree of pick potential - again, a serious shift in emphasis is likely coming down the pike.

Processing Speed: Whatever Swoopes' and Heard's ultimate ceilings as field generals look like, they aren't anywhere close to them right now.  Transitioning from a 4th-year guy who'd gotten 70% of the practice reps to a soph or true freshman who's been fighting for the scraps means a serious reduction in short-term capability.  That pain will be felt pre-snap as we try to get into a good play based on what the defense is doing, as well as post-snap as our guys try to work through their reads before the avalanche comes.  Keeping things smartly directed from the sideline and as simple as possible post-snap becomes a paramount concern.

What We've Gained

It's not ALL bad news, right?  Well, OK, it's largely bad news.  But the offense does pick up a couple of key enhancements with Swoopes or Heard under center that we'll need to exploit to the hilt.

Read Option and QB Run Potential: The QB as a run threat is back on the table, and it's likely to be a centerpiece of the meal.  All that unblocked-defender-freezing goodness of various Read Option schemes will help us gain free yards with the QB and should also provide a boost to our regular Zone run game as we'll have much more freedom to leave a guy unblocked and get hats on the rest of the box defenders.

Scarier Bootlegs: OK, I'm reaching here, as our accuracy and processing speed on the throwing portion of the proceedings probably takes a hit.  But a guy with Swoopes' power and straight-line speed or Heard's open-field quicks will demand backside attention from the defense and should translate into bigger gains when the throw isn't there.

What It Means

Based on what we've lost and what we've gained, what are the most critical implications for the offense?

Stay Ahead Or You're Dead: Getting behind the chains will be death for this offense, as we simply won't have a consistent ability to rescue ourselves with accurate downfield throws on 3rd and 8 or more.  The "no penetration" mantra of the Wickline O-line will be of paramount importance (and would have been a handy guide for Sanders and Meander, come to think of it) and our backs will need to have "get what's there" drilled into them - leaving a few yards on the table to get to 2nd and 7 will be preferable to faled outside bounces that put us in 2nd and 12.  If we have to get John Lithgow in here to prohibit dancing in the backfield, then that's what we need to do.  Throws on first and second down will probably be of the 1-step/3-step variety or have the QB on the move to mitigate the chances of drive-killing sacks.

Secure the Edges: We had a few pass pro snafus against UNT, but Wick is an accomplished teacher of protections who should keep us sound from C gap to C gap.  Any time the offense presents an open edge (one with an uncovered tackle), however, it invites the potential of an unblocked edge blitzer who's generally the responsibility of the QB.  When your QBs are still ramping up their processing speed and decision-making, making a lot of flat-footed Read Option keep-or-give decisions and emphasizing boots and rollouts in the passing game, unblocked edge pressure becomes scary as hell.

Smart Shots: Taking no risks is the most unacceptable risk of all, and even average defenses will be able to choke the life out of us if we're not able to credibly stretch the field and punish packed boxes and reckless blitzing.  Since our QBs could be vulnerable to defensive disguise, though, we'll likely try to pick our spots and work to manufacture down-field throws where single coverage is the only defensive option.  And, hey - if you're going to throw a pick, you're a damn sight better off doing it 45 yards down the field than getting a 10-yard out jumped and run back to the house.

How We'll (Probably) Respond

From a personnel standpoint, any time we're in a remotely friendly situation vis a vis the chains you're likely to see two big bodies who are capable of sealing the edges.  Swaim probably never leaves the field, and M.J. McFarland will have the chance to earn 70+% of the offensive snaps if he can pull down throws up the seam and function as a versatile blocker.  If he can win a credible share of in-line blocking battles while also trap blocking from an H-back alignment or arc blocking the edge defender from a Diamond formation or offset-I look in the backfield, he'll become a terrific chess piece.  John Harris could also fight for a similar role - he won't be doing much backfield blocking, but if he can motion in and hold an edge against OLB-types then we'll enjoy a good bit of diversity.  The ability have one of those guys bounce between effective receiving and screen-blocking from the slot and motioning in to secure an edge will be huge for this offense.

If you're looking for a signature play for this offense, my money is on the Outside Zone with bootleg action away, run from a two-tight end set.  A TE/H-back on each edge threatens the D with being out-leveraged in either direction and should force them to play pretty honest in terms of alignment and edge-blitzing shenanigans.  With Swaim's blocking prowess and the athleticism of a Harrison/Estelle tackle combo, the defense will need to consistently honor the threat of getting sealed inside and turning a back loose on the edge for a 20+ yard scamper.  The resulting pressure to get wide and keep the backs inside should open plenty of cutback lanes as Wickline's charges continue to gain fluency as zone blockers, particularly if the backside edge defender is held by boot action.

That 2-tights OZ was traditionally run from under center during Alex Gibbs' heyday in Denver, but the modern Broncos love to run it from a Pistol look and I hope we'll do the same.  If Peyton Manning has the mobility to step laterally to the mesh point and then execute a boot turn from the Pistol, I hope our guys can do the same.  Running out of the Pistol also optimizes our ability to run various Read Option and packaged play elements from the same look, so I hope that's an alignment hallmark for us.

We should also see some Pin n Pull to take advantage of our OL's relative strength in lateral movement versus straigh-ahead pounding (especially against the 3-4 pluggers that BYU and UCLA bring to the table), but I'm a big fan of Outside Zone's ability to keep the cutback on the table while minimizing the threat of negative runs.  Of course Power, Inside Zone and Slice Zone with a F-back/H-back arcing across to hit the backside edge defender will also serve as crucial components.

To really make our ground game hum, though, we'll have to make heavy use of the QB as a run threat.  The boot action fills that role nicely on zone/stretch runs, but we'll likely run the gamut of plays that have our guys making decisions at the mesh point of the handoff.  Heard's superior quicks likely make him a better option for attacking the edge with regular Read Option things, while Swoopes' sturdiness and power could make him a prime fit for some Colin Klein-style Power Read and designed QB draw action.  We won't be completely haphazard with these guys' health as we aren't trying to set up the Myles Onyegbule Vince Coming Out of the Booth With A Fake Beard Show, but we'll likely try out plenty of Option options to see what clicks.

Here's hoping that Watson and Wickline are currently putting together every RB and WR screen pass they've ever run, some they've only heard of and a few that have been freshly looted from Bill Walsh's tomb.  Anything we can do to give our guys simple throws and threaten to punish blitzing and overloads with long gains up the other side of the field will stand us in good stead.  Harris and McFarland will have to make hay blocking for screens to Ship, Marcus Johnson and (maybe?  someday?  plz?) Daje, and the OL's mobility will again come to the fore on tunnel screens and more traditional screens to the RBs.

We'll hopefully be able to link the run and short passing games together with some OSU-style packaged plays, either hitting the TEs on some stick/stop routes or firing out the receivers on screens or smoke routes.  Those plays aren't all free upside, though - they require lightning-fast and correct reads, or you'll find yourself firing the ball to a defender who's heading full steam for the house.  Getting fluent in those plays will significantly up the offense's ceiling and put outside 'backers in jail, but it may not happen overnight.

When we go downfield, it's likely to be on some heavy-protection play action shots or on boot/roll/waggle action.  Wickline's OL do a great job of selling play action and pass protecting when pulling a guy in a Power look, so we should see some of that with chances for Swaim or McFarland to do damage up the seam.  We'll probably live or die by our QBs' ability to throw on the run on the edge, though - that kind of action keeps things safe with a "high, low, time to go" read while letting our guys' legs play up.

Make no mistake - we are about to enter the Grindhouse.  Mission One will be to avoid turnovers and short fields, maintain possession and look to win games in the low 20's (or hell, high teens) until one or both of our QBs gains the proficiency to open things up.  We're not going to be throwing out slick, smoking sex on offense for a while now, but if we can hit "brutal and reasonably efficient" then we'll be able to hang tough.

And srr50, if you're around, it's time to suggest bringing in every surviving member of the '83 defense to lecture our D on the proper way to pick up this kind of gauntlet and preferably bludgeon someone with it.