College football offenses have never been more diverse or fun than in 2014. And the Longhorns are getting a new offensive scheme. It’s like having Christmas in late December!
Without the benefit of inside information, I cannot report exactly what kind of offense the Longhorns are going to be running next year. But with Shaun Watson coming in to coach quarterbacks, and former Oklahoma State offensive line coach Joe Wickline being promoted to offensive coordinator and play caller, there are two main issues to address. First: what kind of offense will be installed (i.e. what kind of terminology will Texas use)? Second: who is going to be in charge of building the gameplans during the season. Both of these factors will come together to determine the broader principal we call the offensive scheme.
Texas has run the spread the last three years, but they never did ditch their pro-style roots. That could change a bit this year. Shawn Watson, who was offensive coordinator for Charlie Strong at Louisville, runs pro-heavy offense. He’s going to be coaching quarterbacks. Les Koenning, the new hire at WRs coach, was with Dan Mullen the last five years at Mississippi State. That offense has been spread-to-run straight from the Urban Meyer tree. Mullen is the more pass-happy side of the Meyer tree, however. That’s the side more likely to work in a dropback quarterback and use the pistol-spread and downhill running rather than a ton of the option game.
It’s hard to justify the hire of Joe Wickline as offensive coordinator if Texas wasn’t going to commit to spread tactics. I don’t think it would be quite fair to characterize him as an “Air Raid aficionado.” He’s coached the offensive line in an Air Raid offense under Mike Gundy. He was also OL coach under Ron Zook at Florida. It’s more evidence that Texas is planning on expanding on the offense they have been running without giving up the pro-style play on the line.
Spread to Run Tactics and Texas
Former offensive coordinator Major Applewhite played quarterback for Mack Brown, and took over the post from Bryan Harsin, who was the guy who molded the spread with Texas’ pro style offense. Applewhite, like Harsin another college quarterback, has adapted somewhat to modern offensive trends, opting to play full time with a third receiver. Harsin is probably more of a spread-to-run guy than anything else (he’s tough to categorize, and is known for very efficient passing attacks), and Applewhite did lean heavily on his personnel, which was run-first. Under him in 2013, Texas was a pretty generic three receiver offense without strong tendencies. He adapted to the no-huddle, hurry up in 2013, but the plays were fairly nondescript.
It is very possible that Texas might go back to using a huddle under Strong and Wickline. College football as a whole is moving away from huddle offenses, but if Texas is going to win because of it’s defense, it might benefit from slowing down the tempo. Wickline and Oklahoma State was also up-tempo last season. Watson and Louisville was traditional. Koenning and Mississippi State changed it up a lot, but their base offense was no huddle. While it seems pretty certain that Texas is going to be Urban Meyer style spread-to-run, at least in 2014, I’m not as certain that they’ll commit to be up tempo. You can put a wager on it, I suppose.
Every coach ever wants to do nothing but run the ball. The coaching and player personnel that Texas has assembled suggests nothing different. Texas’ personnel is slanted run-heavy, and until Wickline gets to coach the line for multiple weeks, there could be some early season protection issues. Now, one of the benefits of the Oklahoma State Air Raid offense the last couple years is the passing plays build in places for the quarterback to go with the ball in the case of quick pressure, so that pressure on the quarterback doesn’t limit the offense entirely. They also use wide receiver screens to get the ball to guys who can make plays after the catch and to limit the number and type of blitzes that the offense will see. This helps out the pocket style passer a lot.
We can assume that Texas is going to lean slightly more pass heavy than they’ll plan to. Running the ball on first, second, and third down seems like a great idea when you are out there pummeling your opponent. When you’re playing good defense, you have to work a little bit harder for points, so run, run, play action isn’t a viable game plan. With the kind of quarterback that Wickline, Koenning, and Watson all have the most experience with (pocket-based quarterbacks), up-tempo spread option tactics will be used as a change of pace if not a completely unique package. Wrinkles such as packaged plays (passing options off run calls) are much more common. The playcall is going to come from the sideline the majority of the time in this offense, which means a lot of run/pass balance will be dictated by the defense.
The way the staff was pieced together, the best way to describe the kind of offensive approach I expect Texas to take is as follows: they will play a version of the singleback spread offense. They will not huddle. The quarterback is the centerpiece of the offense. Option tactics will be simplistic and ingrained in the base offense. All running backs will be built into the game plan, and sometimes two will be on the field at the same time. There will be very little under-center offense. Playcalls come from the sideline. Coaches watch the defense and try to attack where they are weak. The offense should be friendly to offensive lineman and running backs, but demanding of the quarterback and receivers. Short passes, such as screens, will be utilized to help protect the passer. In terms of modern offense, this is closer to pro-style than what a lot of the spread-air raid guys are doing, but Texas is walking a line somewhere down the middle. I don’t know if they will go up-tempo, ultimately, coach Strong might have the last say there.
This could all be proven wrong come the fall, but Texas is already most of the way down this road, and the offensive coaching hires do not obviously suggest that they will be doing something drastically different on offense this year.