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Shawn Watson's Out, Jay Norvell's In - Now what for the Texas Longhorns?

Charlie makes the right call, but does Texas have the right mix to right the ship?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When you write a piece like this...

OK, just kidding.  Shawn Watson's succinct and stormy tenure as Texas' Assistant Head Coach In Charge of Offense (we see you, bolo-tie Oklahoma State lawyers!) doesn't warrant a deep, insightful, Speaker For the Dead-style assaying of all his faults and virtues like this one, and I couldn't pull it off, anyway.  It's still worth sparing a moment for Watson.  He's a fundamentally good dude who was looking at a fundamentally bad hand by Game Two of the 2014 season, but his efforts to re-tool a primarily West Coast approach for a post(concussion) David Ash world and work some QB Whisperer magic on Tyrone Swoopes came up sadly and badly lacking.

The Longhorn interwebs have featured some cogent thoughts and plenty of...less cogent thoughts about Texas' specific game plan and playcalling for ND, but the fact is that it's not terribly clear what we were trying to do last Saturday.  Once you go below a certain baseline level of execution along the offensive front (one-on-one whippings, missed handoffs on combo blocks, blown pass blocking assignments and a good ol' smattering of "I thought you had him!") and at QB (airmailing simple hitches, self-pressurization and enough overall regression to fill a first-semester Stats course), the game plan goes out the door and play-calling rhythm turns into a simple search for survival.  This wasn't a one-game knee-jerk reaction by Charlie for poor in-booth execution, but the execution of a contingency plan whose existence was clear from the moment Jay Norvell and Jeff Traylor stepped on campus.

The offensive section of TTF 2015 (Still available!  Still a great read!  We should probably discount it or something!) was a tough write, owing largely to the fact that unity of theme was tough to come by.  Was the lede Swoopes v. Heard?  West Coast v. Spread?  Watson and Wickline - Frenemies?  Scheme and design v. fluency and execution? Watson's retention for 2015 was premised on his ability to meld a very diverse set of offensive inputs into a cohesive whole, but its specific shape was tough to divine.The Spring Game revealed a reasonably wide variety of offensive concepts and next to nothing about what one or two things we were planning to do well enough to force defenses into reaction mode.  The final plan seemed to be hoping that something old, something new and something borrowed could coalesce into a flavor of "ball-control with a little vertical pop and some spread-O Easy Buttons," but the results blew and blew badly.

Now Jay Norvell stands as Texas' sole play-caller and, presumably, the primary architect of what we'll see on offense moving forward.  Unfortunately, the architecture phase is more or less complete right now - you don't rip up the entire playbook and start over after Game One with twenty practice hours a week.  Norvell's immediate job is about paring down and coaching up, and as the season goes on he'll be tasked with figuring out where and how the Longhorns can develop some real on-the-fly fluency in concepts that can salvage bowl eligibility and serve as a solid and sane foundation for a 2016 offense that has "make or break" written all over it.

A reset at offensive coordinator offers a good chance to re-examine the key components of the OC's role with an eye towards what Texas can be right now and should be going forward.

Scheme, Design and Emphasis

While play calling gets plenty of play in game threads, no one can out-guess the defense well enough to thrive if they aren't standing on the firm foundation of an overall scheme and offensive design that matches and elevates the talent on hand while posing a standing set of tough questions for the opposition.  Setting aside a Navy/GaTech option attack or some old-school Air Coryell approach, there are essentially five major flavors of offensive scheme in the college game.  Here's a wildly simplistic but hopefully-handy and stage-setting snapshot of each:

West Coast Offense (Mack Daddy Bill Walsh Style) - Precision-oriented short and intermediate passing game, typically associated with 21 (2 backs, 1 tight end) and sometimes 11 (1 back, 1 tight end) personnel, attacks the defense with passing "triangles" that create a 3:2 advantage against a pair of defenders.

WORKS BEST WITH:  A savvy and accurate QB who can get through 2-3 reads quickly, a quality two-way tight end who causes defensive headaches in the run and pass game, polished receivers who can run great routes and rack the YAC, a capable receiving back and a balanced OL that keeps the run game on the table while consistently allowing unmolested five (and occasionally seven) step drops.

Air Raid Spread (Pirate Mike Leach Style) - Wide-open passing game that attacks all areas of the field with a relatively limited number of passing concepts that still confuse the defense thanks to the window dressing of multiple formations.  Typically associated with 11, 10 or even five-wide personnel, attacks the defense with a ton of horizontal stretch/zone flooding/some deep shots like Four Verticals, forces non-coverage guys into coverage and out-executes you thanks to the massive reps racked up in a few core concepts.  The ground game can be anything from a significant irritant to an outright afterthought, and the OL tend to be pass-block first, pass-block second types who frequently benefit from wide- to super-wide splits to increase the distance from DE to QB while making it easier to spot potential interior blitzers.

WORKS BEST WITH:  A well-schooled upperclassman at QB who makes second-nature throws to the guys he's seen spring open a thousand times in practice, OL with the smarts and savvy to hold up against twists, stunts and just about any five-man pressure with just five dudes, Welkers, Amendolas and big bonus points if a Crabtree makes an appearance.

Holgo-Raid Spread (Skullet Style) - Stripped-down version of the Air Raid playbook that's quickly installed and repped to a fare-the-well.  Contains a more vertical emphasis, constant use of packaged run/pass or screen/quick throw options geared towards making the defense wrong post-snap.  Uses a diversity of formations with anywhere from zero to three "backs" in the backfield.  Emphasizes a few simple zone running concepts that get polished through a high degree of repetition and mix in some canny tricks like draw blocking from a tackle on zone runs to further muddle the D's run/pass keys and mesh up with all those packaged passing concepts.

WORKS BEST WITH:  A maestro QB who can make the right choice from a few key concepts and get the offense into the proper call against any defensive look, an experienced and highly-repped zone blocking OL, one-cut speed backs with solid hands, a good mix of scary-in-space waterbugs and Dez Bryant deep threats.

Deeper, Wider, Meaner Spread (Art Briles Style) - Ramps up the aggression of the Air Raid with extreme horizontal and vertical stretch using primarily 11 personnel with extremely wide splits from the wideouts to make the game a series of simple reads and 1:1 matchups for the offense.  Prioritizes deep speed on the outside and presents a constant threat to air it out up the sideline and uses to resulting space to match up speedy slots against linebackers and safeties and also allowing zone- and gap/power oriented runs to rip up 5- and 6-man boxes.  Will press the tempo turbo button relentlessly once a defense is on its heels.

WORKS BEST WITH:  Speed everywhere, powerful runners, a mauling OL, QBs who can quickly make a simple read and have the arm to gun deep - RGIII running ability a bonus but not required.

Power Spread (Gus Malzhan/Chad Morris Style) - Spreads the field with 11 and 10 personnel with the foremost aim of running the ball against spaced-out and highly conflicted defenders.   Revives the triple option concept with one-read run/pass option calls taking the place of the old pitch out to the halfback.  Keeps things simple in the passing game by emphasizing a range of WR screens and plenty of play-action bombs when the D bites up.

WORKS BEST WITH:  A powerful, durable and fleet QB with a live arm and reasonable accuracy who consistently nails his keep/give/throw decisions, a powerful and versatile OL that can execute zone and man/gap blocking with aplomb, speedy backs who can threaten the edge while the QB powers up the middle, a TE/H-back/F-back who can block from multiple angles or split out to offer credible threat while springing screens/RPOs.

Do you see the obvious answer that cleanly meshes the staff's skill set while allowing the on-hand talent to play up and play loose?

Me, either.

Norvell's background is somewhat diverse, but it's probably fair to say that the bulk of his experience has come in adapting West Coast approaches to work with more of an Air Raid flavor.  The strengths of the post-Sam Bradford passing game at Oklahoma were getting guys open for quick throws with simple route combinations and a bevy of WR and tunnel screens as well as adapting (reasonably) well to 12, 11 and 10 personnel depending on the talent at hand.  The Sooner ground game was nothing to write home about during his tenure as co-OC, bouncing between 23rd and 103rd in the nation in Adjusted True Rushing Yards Per Attempt (until managing a stellar #9 ranking in 2014 right as the Trevor Knight passing game fell apart,) but the air attack was a consistently efficient operation that tended to hang out in the high teens/low 20's in Adjusted True Passing Yards per Attempt and Adjusted Passing efficiency while racking up the counting stats with relentless tempo (again, until the 2014 collapse).

Wickline comes more or less from the Holgo school, and wants his charges running Inside and Outside Zone all day.

Traylor's Gilmer offenses were built in the Power Spread mode, using plenty of gap blocking and creative H-Back/F-Back blocking angles to spring QB and RB runs while hitting a constant array of one-read RPOs to get playmakers the ball in space.

We've probably reduced the number of cooks in the kitchen by one, but there's still the potential for a scattered and every-which-way-but-loose approach unless Norvell takes things firmly in hand.  I'd guess that our immediate identity plays up the OU-style quick screen/quick pass approach while cutting the run-blocking variety down to 90% Inside/Outside zone to build vital reps and counting on Read and Run/Pass options as well as plenty of Daje jet sweep action to add some meaningful constraint and variety.

As we build from there, we'll layer in whatever pass-game complexity the QB(s?) can handle and try to resolve the tension between adding gap-blocking variety versus building zone-run fluency.   The ideal shape of the Texas offense relative to who we recruit and who we contend with is a vitally interesting question, but for the moment the future is subordinate to save-the-season triage.

Tempo and Playcalling

Tempo - we has it!  Probably!

While the Spring Game moved at a rocket pace with surprisingly few procedural foul-ups, allowing the final 14 seconds to tick off the clock at the end of the first quarter was a sure sign that tempo hadn't been fully inculcated into the Longhorn DNA.   Norvell's deep experience in up-tempo and a hopeful streamlining of headset input should allow us to go as fast as we'd like - though tempo doesn't matter if you can't get yourselves ahead of the chains.

That same streamlining should set the actual art of playcalling up for more success, though Norvell's track record in this area is extremely limited.  Whether he's got the innate feel to successfully build plays off one another, counterpunch and keep DC's guessing is an open question, but one that's pretty subordinate to heading into each contest with enough functional plays to matter.  Let's see some D1-level execution and some successful concepts, then worry about whether the calls our optimally leveraging our capabilities.


Last but far from least, Norvell is now making the call on who's under center and how best to tailor the offense to his strengths.  Fairly or unfairly, the perception exists that Watson was so emotionally invested in Swoopes' development that he couldn't accurately assess the young man's possibly fatal flaws.  Given that those in the know are near-unanimous in the reports that Swoopes dramatically outplays Heard in most practices, though, it's hard to figure that giving Tyrone the first shot at 2015 was anything other than a reasonable decision.

It's a near certainty that we see plenty of Heard against Rice, and while Charlie said that nothing's been decided it's probably better than 50% that Heard starts.  In the short term we'll get to see if Heard has that James Brown Gamer gene, exactly how many Read Option/RPO calls can be made in a single game, and as the season rolls along whether Heard can get to Read #2 - which will be pretty key for Texas getting to Win #6.

The Bottom Line

Making an early call on Watson was the right move after the ND debacle, but the move to Norvell doesn't represent a Just Add Water Spread Offense Magic panacea.  Far more unknowns than known still dot the Longhorns' offensive landscape, but we've removed one variable from the equation.  Time to start testing and see where this thing can go.

Hook 'em.