It was a little more than two weeks ago that a relatively calm and optimism-tinged Fall camp (from the average Longhorn fan’s perspective, anyway) was hurled into a state of higgledy-piggledy by the report that Tyrone Swoopes was leading the QB competition and was the likelier of Texas’ two viable signal callers to take the first snap against Notre Dame.
Detailed info coming out of camp since then has been on as close as you can get to lockdown in the Social Media Era, but that hasn’t prevented the emergence of some widely divergent storylines. When you sift through the chatter with a sense of who to listen to, though, a picture starts to emerge. It seems that while Swoopes and Buechele have very distinct skill sets, they’ve been fairly even this August. And even doesn’t mean that the freshman is leavin’ - at least not yet - as the senior is still hanging around.
For the moment, let’s set aside aside pay-site source-offs that beg for David Bowie adjudication and armchair psychoanalyses ranging from the ridiculous to the...well, OK, not much a range here as they’ve all been pretty ridiculous. The bottom line (by all appearances) is this: Swoopes is likely to see the first action on 9/4, Buechele is a near certainty to play significant snaps unless Tyrone starts ripping the guts out of the Irish D...and after that, it’s anyone’s guess.
While it’s possible that Swoopes only sees a couple of series before a permanent reversion to Lead Engineer of the 18-Wheeler, it’s also plausible that the 5333 offense can do a sufficient job of highlighting his strengths and mitigating his weaknesses to make him a viable between-the-20’s option all season long. It’s also possible - nay, probable - that despite a sterling Spring Game showing, young Buechele is currently relegated to executing within certain spheres of competence rather than sitting primed to unleash the full fury of this O as a true frosh.
For a moment, let’s imagine that Sterlin Gilbert has cottoned to the notion of a division of labor that lets both his QBs execute the elements of the 5333 to which they’re best suited. If he’s gotten in touch with his inner mad scientist and conceived the Swoochele Offense for 2016, how do the Swoochele do? Let’s take a look at a few options, featuring some LonghornScott-approved graphics from Thinking Texas Football 2016 and other illustrations from the less-beloved companion volume, Nobis60 Blunders Through PowerPoint:
While the merits of big arm versus accuracy and processing speed can be debated a bit in this offense, there’s little doubt that Tyrone Swoopes offers a significant advantage in the run game over Shane Buechele. That’s not to say that Swoopes is truly elite as a runner - Jerrod Heard is much quicker and scarier in the open field. Swoopes isn’t even necessarily superior to Buechele on all kinds of runs. Let’s say, for example, that you run your garden-variety Zone Read and leave the defensive end unblocked. If said end is reasonably athletic and well coached (i.e. keeps his shoulders square to the LOS while bouncing inside to deny a cutback lane to the tailback) I honestly like Buechele’s odds of beating that end around the corner better than I do Swoopes’ as stop/start lateral quicks just aren’t a component of Tyrone’s game. But while every lick on Buechele should be managed with care, Swoopes is a nigh-indestructible tank with plenty of power between the tackles while sporting solid top-end speed once he’s taken his third or fourth step in the same direction.
The staff will almost certainly be judicious with the sub-200 pound Buechele as a runner, but they’ll have few qualms about using Swoopes as a straight-up bludgeon. The 18-Wheeler has highlighted his straight-ahead skills, but when the “regular” offense is on the field then Swoopes’ signature run play figures to be the Power Read:
Combining elements of the base Power play with the Zone Read, the Power Read is a version of the old Inverted Veer concept that allows for quick-hitting runs up the gut behind overwhelming force. The back (depicted here as sophomore speedburner Kirk Johnson, though any of Texas’ top four tailbacks has the requisite wheels to run this look) aligns outside Swoopes and sprints for the edge. The left tackle fires straight to the second level, but rather than engage the defensive end the TE arcs around him to go find a target in open space. Swoopes reads the now-unblocked end, giving the ball to the back if the end crashes but keeping and heading straight upfield behind the pulling guard if the end elects to stay wide and string out a handoff.
Of course, we all remember the frequent “Swoopes can’t read” laments from his sophomore season, when seemingly dozens of Zone Read handoffs saw the back get the ball and subsequently get crunched. My pet theory is that when a DE would hedge and bounce inside with his shoulders square, Swoopes instinctively knew that he couldn’t beat that dude around the corner and so he gave the ball. The DE continued to flow inside and by the time that the runner got hit the edge looked absurdly wide open - even though it had been a muddier read (for someone with Tyrone’s lateral speed, at least) at the mesh point of the handoff. Swoopes should have fewer reservations about charging up the middle if the end chases the back wide on Power Read, giving this play a chance to be a foundational component that can truly make one defender wrong each time while giving the other ten a headache.
While Swoopes’ big arm attacking downfield figures to be the foundation of the Swoo passing game, some pulling guard action can also help free up a shorter play that was a foundation of the Baylor offense while RGIII was still finding his way as a passer:
Let’s say a team is confident in their ability to make a mess with their front four while aligning to choke off the passing game and counting on additional run support from a split-out linebacker and strong safety from the boundary side. The action of a pulling guard and a runner attacking the outside edge (with the added prospect of Swoopes keeping and diving up the middle) has the benefit of either getting the Mike and Sam linebackers to step towards the run action or at least hold in place to watch things unfold. That leaves them ill-equipped in reacting to the momentum of the boundary slot receiver (here Armanti Foreman, who’s looked deadly on the short stuff in camp,) who gets to slant inside and run to open space. This hopefully results in a fairly easy read and throw into a big window with space to turn the ball upfield and rack some YAC.
After slicing up teams with the slant, another favorite of Briles’ early-era Baylor teams that took advantage of Griffin’s live arm was the good old Slant N’ Go (Sluggo) play:
The back comes across for a play-action fake and then settles in as a blocker to set up a six-man protection and provide time for the downfield dynamite to go boom. This time the boundary slot takes a three-step slant and then turns it directly up the seam right about the time that the strong safety realizes that he’s been had. With the boundary wide receiver running a hitch to keep the corner up close, the strong safety is all by his lonesome to turn and run with the go route - personified in this instance by Devin Duvernay and his 10.27 100m time. A savvy safety may be able to turn in time and stay stride for stride with Duvernay for twenty yards...or thirty. But how about fifty or sixty? This is the type of route that plays into Swoopes’ laser cannon arm, as he can air the ball all the way out and give a guy with Duvernay’s wheels the chance to walk away from the safety and run under the ball.
Swoopes’ gun can also aid the offense when it seeks to make horizontalism something more than its own reward. While concerns about Buechele’s arm strength in this offense have been overblown in some circles, there’s no question that you’d prefer as much zip as possible when you’re trying to fire the ball outside the numbers from the far hash.
While post-snap reads haven’t exactly been a Swoopes strength, this offense’s spacing should make it reasonably simple to isolate and attack a single defender. Here, Swoopes is looking at the strongside linebacker who’s split out to control the field-side C gap while also droppinginto the underneath hook zone in the passing game. If the backer hangs out in space, Swoopes gives the ball and Foreman enjoys running behind five-on-five Inside Zone blocking. If the ‘backer drifts in towards the run action, Swoopes fires a “Now” screen outside to John Burt coming in behind blocking from the interior receivers. Now Swoopes’ outside screen throws, while not Heardian in their utterly fluttery randomness, haven’t always been things of beauty. But the beauty of the Now Screen action is that the receiver is actively moving towards his QB and attacking the ball, giving him the chance to haul in a throw that’s not precisely between his numbers (or in the middle of his “1,” in Burt’s case) while still maintaining his momentum with a shot at turning upfield fast and making hay.
That’s a look at some features of the 5333 that could be well suited to helping Swoopes’ strengths play up.
The run game figures to look significantly different with Buechele under center, as Gilbert is unlikely to send him up the middle (or even outside) with reckless abandon. You’d like to feature Buechele’s accuracy and quick decision-making by spreading the field with three and four wideouts, but Gilbert and Matt Mattox still love getting an extra guy at the point of attack to overstress a light defensive box. One solution that hits all the elements in that equation is the Tackle Lead play that Baylor loved to run with the athletic Spencer Drango at LT:
Connor Williams gets to show off his plus feet by pulling around and through the A gap to lead the run. The left guard just has to make sure the defensive end gets sealed away from the party, while the center and right guard have to stick their base blocks long enough for the back to get through - a tougher task against Notre Dame, but things should get easier in what looks to be an overall down year for Big XII d-lines. Immediate screen action from the boundary slot can also add a nice RPO element to keep the weakside linebacker from joining the party.
While the run game won’t enjoy much in the way of the QB as an extra option, the offense will certainly benefit from Buechele’s advanced accuracy and decision-making in the short and intermediate passing game. One key play that can take advantage of tight placement and a quick trigger is the Shallow Cross:
The outside receiver to the boundary runs an immediate switch with a speedburning slot, often resulting in a natural pick that gains him a step on a trailing man-coverage corner. He’ll drag across the formation with the quarterback looking to deliver the ball in the first open window. A blitz from a box defender tends to open up that kind of window in a real hurry, but if the linebackers are staying home and tight to the line then the QB’s eyes naturally move to the dig route from the field-side slot. A sharp break from the slot should give him a big window if the linebackers aren’t dropping to proper depth, and if the centerfield safety has dropped down to defend the dig then it’s an automatic throw to the field-side post route - you don’t need a huge arm to drop that in the basket at 45 yards or so when the receiver is breaking into wide-open spaces.
Another play that takes advantage of Buechele’s quick processing is the stick/out concept, or as we’ll probably be calling it in 2016, “The Oliver”:
The wide receiver to the trips side runs a go to clear space while the #2 (second innermost) receiver runs a sharp out in the 5-8 yard range. Jake Oliver must have run a dozen of these between the Spring Game and the first open practice of Fall camp, with he and Buechele connecting on at least ten of them. The inside receiver runs a Stick route that sits down for an immediate quick hitch throw, with the option to pivot outside depending on the coverage. This play only works if the QB immediately diagnoses the defense and knows where to go with the ball on time, but it’s a combination that’s very tough to stop when the passer is on his game - if you don’t believe that, count Tom Brady’s rings. The main danger of this concept against Notre Dame is if Brian Kelly has done his scouting and makes an automatic Palms/Two-Read call whenever Jake Oliver is in the slot - that allows the outside corner to jump the out route while the safety takes over the deep shot from the widest receiver. I’m guessing that some of the reports of Buechele’s practice Pick Sixes have come on something very similar.
Finally, of course, is the signature element of the 5333 air attack - the deep shot down the sideline. While Buechele’s arm won’t make anybody forget about Matt Stafford or Chris Simms, he’s got the mustard to get the ball where it needs to go downfield if the offense and the receivers tee him up. He demonstrated that fact time and time again in the Spring Game by virtue of a very simple approach to downfield passing:
I’m honestly not sure what to call this concept other than “Triple Stretch,” though it easily becomes the old Air Raid staple Four Verticals if you add...well...a fourth vertical. Texas may err on the side of maximizing the threat of a run (and the QB’s health with a seven-man protection) this season with 11 personnel. Even so, this concept still highlights the most basic value proposition of this offense – the constant opportunity for outside receivers to tell their cornerback, “I’m better than you, and no one else gets to play.”
It’s essentially a pair of fade routes from the outside receivers and a seam from the slot with a couple of comeback options depending on the play call. While it doesn’t feature any dazzling route combinations or other design elements, it highlights one simple fact – when you stretch the field horizontally to this degree, you’re able to target at least one outside receiver with an accurate 35-45 yard throw that will never, ever see a safety get in the mix. That puts a premium on the wideouts winning immediately off the LOS and creating quick space on the vertical, but that’s why it’s nice to have a technician like Charlie Williams showing the youngsters the ropes.
Another concept that was a favorite of Gilbert’s at Tulsa was a boundary switch off of play action:
As the fake to the runner is taking place (and ideally holding the safeties in the middle of the field), the outside and slot receivers switch off the line to throw an immediate wrench into any man coverage concept. Similar to the Air Raid’s use of Four Verticals, the new outside receiver has a win deep/hitch up option depending on the corner or nickel’s position while the guy going inside can head up the seam or break to the post based on what the safeties are up to. The tight end blocks to effect a six-man protection while the back carries on past his play-fake to threaten a (usually deserted) flat for a quick check-down.
Well, folks, that’s 2700 words on a hypothesis that could be detonated by the second quarter against Notre Dame...or could make for interesting viewing throughout 2016. For even wordier ruminations on the factors that could make Charlie Strong’s make-or-break season...oh, hell, you’ve heard the pitch by now. Just buy the book!
***UPDATE: Per Charlie on the Big XII Conference Call this morning, he’s not planning on naming a starter until “the team runs out on the field against Notre Dame.” Swoo’chele FTW.***