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Sterlin Gilbert at Texas: A Q&A

Checking under the hood of the new Longhorn Offense.

Remember this?  We want more of it.
Remember this? We want more of it.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There's been plenty of excitement over Sterling GIlbert's arrival on the Forty Acres.  With the, um, lively circumstances of that arrival alongside A&M's ongoing Bonfire of the Insanities, though, we've thusfar missed the chance to dig into some of the details around just what exactly we'll be looking to accomplish on offense next season.  That's why we figured it would be nice to roll out a little Q&A and indulge in a little X and O chalk talk.

Q:  Didn't you blatantly steal this format from BitterWhiteGuy's "Welcome to Texas Basketball" article from two weeks ago?

A:

Q:  So let's talk Sterlin Gilbert then.  The ol' resume scan turns up Eastern Illinois, Bowling Green, Tulsa...in other words, a distinct lack of P5 conference pop.  Should I be getting a "Texas Good" vibe here?

A: I'd suggest focusing less on the specific schools (although Gilbert's offenses have put up some solid numbers and impressive year-on-year improvements at each stop) and hone in on another key resume bullet.  Namely, the fact that landing Gilbert and his co-OC and OL coach at Tulsa, Matt Mattox, means that Texas has captured some of the only free-roaming practitioners of the Art Briles Veer n' Shoot/5333 offense in the wilds of college football.

Q:  OK, so this is more of an offensive system deal.  Let me check Briles' track record this decade...hmmm.  HMMMM.  DADDY LIKEY.

A:  Was that a question?

Q:  Sorry about that.  I guess the question is this - are we sure Gilbert knows the ins and outs of this thing well enough to give us what we think we're getting?

A: Well, he certainly knows all the principles.  He's installed it four times now - three times under former Briles assistant Dino Babers (twice at Eastern Illinois and once at Bowling Green) and this past season at Tulsa under ex-Baylor OC Philip Montgomery.  Matt Mattox has been in the mix for the last three of those in an OL capacity.  Also, Art Briles himself seems to think Gilbert has the goods on this system:

Q:  Does Art Briles understand how bank accounts work?

A: It would appear that there's been some confusion.

Q:  Was Briles maybe instead thinking of the safe deposit box in Stephenville where he keeps the only extant photo of his full sleeve tattoos, along with that unpublished Men's Fitness article on how young athletes can gain 30 pounds of muscle in a summer the healthy, natural way?

A: Possibly!

Q:  Anyway, back to football.  The stats tell me that there's some good stuff going down with this offense, but how do it do what it do?

A:  In a nutshell, it's a spread system that combines a lot of three- and four-wide Run n' Shoot style passing concepts with a stout power running component (hence the Veer n' Shoot moniker) while taking advantage of the entire length and width of the football field (100 yards x 53.3 yards = 5333) to stretch defenses to - and past - their breaking point and setting up big plays down the field, on the sidelines or straight up the gut.

While there have been plenty of tweaks at each stop to adapt to the personnel at hand, Gilbert and Mattox have been employing the same basic precepts that have made Baylor sheer hell to deal with for the entirety of this decade.

Q:  Speaking of Mattox, could Gilbert have come up with a more Texan press conference phrase when introducing him than, "I wouldn't necessarily say it was a cow-calf deal, but it was a huge part of us being here"?

A: Probably not without making explicit reference to the Alamo, no.  But contrary to that statement in the presser, it sounds like these two were pretty much linked at the hip and that getting Mattox on board was crucial to landing Gilbert.  Given that the offense's offseason soundtrack is basically Jerry Reed singing,

"We got a long way to go and a short time to get there"

ensuring that the OL coach was completely dialed in for a seamless install was a pretty big deal.

Q:  So you're telling me that a good working relationship and schematic harmony between the OC and his O-line coach is a good thing?

A: Yeop.

Q:  Better late than never!  In honor of Mattox, let's start with the ground game.  What can we expect?

A:  Not about to let himself get out-folksy-aphorismed by his OC, Mattox had this to say about Texas' new run-game philosophy:

We lean on some power schemes, gap schemes, some zone schemes. I had a coach one time tell me that we're going to run a play and it's going to be called "Momma;" when all else fails and you don't know what to do, your girl breaks up with you, you go home and you call "Momma." And that's going to be power, we're going to run it.

Here's a typical Power look in their system:

Gilbert_Power

Their favorite Power variant comes out of 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end, three receivers) with the wideouts spread wiiiiiide out to try and generate honest six-on-six box numbers.  The playside tackle (drawn up as Tristan Nickelson in this instance, though Buck Major could add an extra dose of nasty if he's up to speed by the Fall) blocks down to make a man-moving double team at the point of attack with (hopefully) a chance to climb to the second level and pick off a linebacker.  The tight end/h-back (who's usually more of a down-and-dirty blocker in this system than a flexed receiver or West Coast two-way threat) kicks out the end, the guard pulls into the gap to make that 230-pound Mike linebacker re-think his career choices and Downhill D'Onta gets ready to leave cleat marks on a safety.  There's nothing magical about the blocking scheme here, just good old fashioned meanness that represents this offense's most natural fit with what Texas did well last year.

Tulsa's Dane Evans probably couldn't break 5.0 flat in the 40 (which made cries of OH NOES THEIR QB ONLY RUSHED FOR 250 YARDS BAD FIT BAD FIT pretty comical,) but If you're sporting a QB who's fleet of foot it's easy to tweak that play into a Power Read:

Gilbert_Power Read

Is that defensive end determined to crash hard inside and ruin your party by squeezing that kick-out block?  Just leave him unblocked and read him.   He goes inside after the back, the TE/H-back shoots straight to the second level and your QB hits the edge with green grass and an orange road grader in front of him.

Another way to take advantage of a running QB is the use of the Inverted Veer concept that Baylor loved when RGIII was in town:

Gilbert_Invert Veer

It's a similar concept with a power-pulling guard and a read on the playside DE, but in this look a speedy runner (here depicted as Kirk Johnson, would also look nifty with Devwah Whaley) threatens the edge and if the DE ranges wide, the QB pulls the ball and heads right up Main Street behind the guard.  If Tyrone Swoopes is getting play between the 20's next season in something outside of a pure Choo-Choo capacity, this concept should get called early and often.

There's obviously more run game variety in the mix with plenty of Inside Zone, Slice Zone, Jet Sweep action and the like, and at Tulsa in particular Gilbert mixed in plenty of more Air Raid-y straight draw blocking for runs and RPOs.  But when Mattox talks about going home to Momma, these are the kinds of concepts he's talking about.

Q:  You mentioned RPOs there, and a couple of those diagrams seem to show the wideouts doing something other than manly stalk blocking.  What's going on there?

A: The Run/Pass Option represents the second major ingredient in the Briles Offense's secret sauce.  Rather than bring a seventh or eighth defender into the box with alignment or looking to get that defender blocked with a slot or flexed-out H-back, this offense likes to drag that guy out as close to the sideline as possible and give him other things to worry about.   Let's check out that first Power play again with an eye on the slot receiver to the right:

Gilbert_Power

As the back reaches the mesh point, the QB has an eye on the defender who's split out to mark the slot.  At the snap, the slot receiver flares to the sideline to set up a bubble screen behind the wideout's block.  If that defender is aligned too far inside or drifting in after the snap to get involved in the run game party, the QB pulls the ball and fires a screen throw that can turn a speedy receiver loose up the sideline.

One of Gilbert's favorite RPO concepts at Tulsa was this neat double slants deal:

Gilbert_Slants

The inside receivers drift out as flat threats while the outside guys each run three-step slants.  The QB reads one of the linebackers to make sure he's not going to drift out and Kwiatkosi the slant throw, and if he stays tight for the run then you've got a ton of room to throw the slant into space.  Baylor and Tulsa both like to pull an athletic tackle on plays like this, but the general idea from 10 personnel (1 back, no TEs)  works just as well with simple Inside Zone.  To keep the defenders on their toes, you can easily turn the same initial motion by the wideouts into a bubble screen on either side:

Gilbert_Double Screens

And and IZ look with the back in the mix as a sixth blocker also turn the whole thing into an actual play action deep shot with a Slant and Go with a strong likelihood of nobody home over the top:

Gilbert_Sluggo

Spacing and physicality are a dangerous combination - when you introduce some defensive hesitation and false steps by mixing in some unity of apparent intent, things get nasty in a hurry.

Q:  This play action deep stuff - I like it.  Can I have more?

A: Yes you can!  Consistently getting fast guys loose for one-on-one (or one-on-none) play action deep shots represents the third element of the Briles Offense's Unholy Trinity.  Here's one of their favorite deep shot concepts, the switch, that bagged Tulsa a TD against OU:

Gilbert_PA Switch

With the safeties ideally biting up, or at minimum held in the middle of the field, by play action you've got a great shot at something attractive coming open downfield.  The effective rub action from the switch is a nice bonus - on this play, it was sufficient to get OU's nickel back in a trail position from which he never recovered.

Q:  Well this all looks great - sounds like as long as we've got a QB with sufficient arm strength and accuracy, then we'll be cooking with gas!  Oh, wait a minute....hrmmmm.  If, say, our returning starter had arm strength AND accuracy issues...would that be a problem?

A: Probably!

There's no question that this O works best when your trigger man has the grip-and-rip zip to put teeth in those Field sideline and downfield shots.  If you're lacking that, you can still mitigate it to an extent by using spacing and alignment to create good one on one matchups that are easier to execute.  Here's a boundary slant/flat combo with Trips to the other side that Tulsa spammed against OU:

Gilbert Slant Flat

Now Tulsa wasn't spamming it due to deficient zip from their QB (who actually had a pretty solid arm,) but simply because it's an effective concept that the Sooners were having trouble combatting.

Baylor has also gotten plenty of mileage out of the "Now" screen as a called play or RPO that hits an in-breaking guy on a throw that covers a little less distance:

Gilbert_Now

But yes, in general you're going to be limited if you can't throw all the basic sideline screens or rifle in the deep stops and comebacks that combat a constant Cover Three press-bail technique from the outside corners.  As to accuracy, you don't have to be Colt McCoy sniping breadbox-size windows on third and eight - but if you're over-throwing open deep shots by five yards, turfing simple hitch throws or forcing guys to do a full baseball turn to haul in a bubble screen then the works are going to get gummed up in short order.

Q:  I was afraid you'd say that.  Care to handicap the 2016 QB competition at this juncture?

A: Other than "it's gonna be wide open," nary a clue at this stage.  The combined twelve inches between Tyrone Swoopes' and Jerrod Heard's ears are the program's great unknown right now.

Kai Locksley is a completely blank canvas who should get a shot to demonstrate that he can translate his tools into P5 QB talent, but his tantalizing upside as a receiver also factors into the mix.

Funny enough, greyshirt/redshirt/I honestly lost track quarterback Matthew Merrick might have the best combination of arm strength and pocket passing chops on the current roster - he tended to be a little over-generous in sharing the ball with the other team in high school, but if he gets the reads right then this offense is well set up to keep defenders from ganging up on where you want to put the ball.

Shane Buechele feels like a strong-to-quite-strong long-term fit for most of what this offense wants to do, but we finally stepped off the True Freshman Crazy Train at QB and it would be oh-so-nice to keep sticking with legit program development cycles.  With that said, if he comes out of the Spring and Summer as the best of the bunch then that notion probably won't be enough to keep him on the sidelines.

Q:  Gotcha.  Well, thanks for the overview.  I'd love to stay and chat more, but this thing is already getting a little long and I've got to go get in line for The Force Awakens.

A: That's funny - I was going to say the same thing.

Hook 'em, and may The Force be with you.