Most coaches have favorite schemes. Good coaches can adjust to the players they have on their roster, but there’s a reason that there’s a degree of challenge involved in doing so. Every coach has schemes or a system he believes in for teaching, training, and then deploying his players. Tom Herman and Todd Orlando have a few key schemes they believe in for allowing them to make the most of the players on their roster, today we’re going to start with the foundational schemes of Herman’s offense.
Herman’s love for inside zone and power
Herman believes fiercely in winning games in the trenches with the bigger, more physical brutes up front. He wants his OL to be the best and toughest players on the field and to play schemes that emphasize their superiority and allow them to mash opponents into the dirt. Whenever you hear him talk about OL coach Derek Warehime you’ll notice how Herman emphasizes that Warehime had to roll with several different lineups across the OL at Houston over both seasons with the Cougars. That adaptability and ability to make the most of the Air Raid OL that they found waiting for them clearly impressed Herman and gave him confidence that Warehime could fashion Texas OL takes into the kind of mauling unit that helped Herman win a title back in 2014 at Ohio State. Here’s the OL that Herman was coordinating back then. Ed Warriner, who along with Tim Beck is being allowed to take the fall for Ohio State’s slight decline on offense since Herman’s departure, was the OL coach for this unit but this is a good indicator of what Herman sees as the gold standard.
That bunch ran the ball 42 times on Alabama in the semi-final for 281 yards at 6.7 yards per carry with two touchdowns. You can count the number of times that a team ran the ball on Alabama like that on one hand. They followed that up by running the ball 61 times for 296 yards and five touchdowns at 4.9 yards per carry on Oregon in the final. Ohio State actually turned the ball over four times against the Ducks but it didn’t matter because they mashed them with the run and still controlled the game. You’ll notice that they were all local kids, only one was a blue-chipper out of high school and at a different position, and that two of them were converted DL that grew into the position. Much like Texas’ two best OL (Connor Williams and Jake McMillon), the best OL aren’t obvious to everyone when in their high school form.
You should also notice that they aren’t all that terribly large, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a power/inside zone based scheme. The key feature to both of these schemes is playside double teams, which are intended to drive the DL off the ball before releasing the OL into the linebackers. Here’s an example from their pulverization of Oregon:
This is a “split zone” or “zone slice” variation on inside zone. The OL leaves a DE unblocked for the H-back to trap and then take advantage of being able to ignore that DL to double team and clear out space inside of him. Oregon gets smashed at the line of scrimmage but they actually succeed in getting numbers to the point of attack. Oregon’s inside linebackers try to flow to where the H-back is adding an extra gap, the strong safety is covering down on the slot receiver which is supposed to free up the outside linebackers to be free hitters to outnumber the run. The problem is that parking their outside linebackers on the edge makes it hard for them to adjust when RG Pat Elflein manages to reach the left DE’s outside shoulder and open up a lane for Zeke. So the Buckeyes win first by drawing both of Oregon’s inside-backers to scramble to respond to their double team on the nose and the secondly by winning the 1-on-1 matchup between the left DE and their own RG. Having OL that may be shorter but who will get low, scrap, and fight like made to control the line of scrimmage is integral to inside zone because if you aren’t blowing open holes at the line then you’re just making a big pile.
Here’s one of their variations of power, run against Alabama:
Normally a power-read play features the QB reading the DE to determine whether to hand off to the RB (or a WR) on the outside sweep or to keep the ball and run behind the double team and pulling guard. However, lots of teams like to have their DE step inside to give a clear "give" read to the QB while their read-side linebacker scraped hard outside to stop the outside sweep he knew would be coming.
Ohio State would address this by mixing things up and having their QB read the linebacker instead of the DE while the pulling guard would kick out the unblocked DE like on a counter play. If the middle linebacker flew outside to stop the outside sweep, the QB would keep the ball, if not he’d hand off. It’s a brutal variation for a team that is disciplined enough to recognize and play the option in their sleep but it requires that the double team get good movement on the DT and that the pulling guard gets a good lick on that DE. So this isn’t like Wickline’s school of inside zone judo where you want big, tall, and wide OL that can turn a DL’s momentum against them. You need guys that can get low and inside on DL and get them outta the way.
On this play the LB took himself out of the play so Cardale Jones kept the ball, the double team successfully drove the DT about three yards off the ball although they weren’t able to climb up to the back side linebacker. The DE made things easy for the pulling guard by trying to chase Zeke, I’m not sure he understood what was happening on this play. Alabama scrambled and managed to get to the ball pretty quickly but Jones was able to build up a head of steam and plunge ahead for a first down.
Whereas Herman likes for his interior OL to focus on blasting DL out of the way before worrying about anything else, power/counter asks a lot of the tackles to be able to reach linebackers in space. Of course, your tackles should be the superior athletes of your line anyways but this is an important piece to the run game. Connor Williams’ brilliance in this regard was probably the biggest single reason for Foreman’s 2016 season, even above Foreman’s own skill. Go watch some Foreman highlights and you’ll see play after play in which he runs through a crease created by Williams’ blocking.
Go check out the run-centric teams in the playoffs every year and you’ll often find they rely heavily on running behind an athletic left tackle like Greg Robinson (2013 Auburn), Taylor Decker (2014 Ohio State), and Cameron Robinson (2015, 2016 Alabama). All of those guys were or will be drafted in the first round.
Building off inside zone and power
A significant portion of Herman’s playbook is built off power and inside zone. Together they form a very coherent combo for attacking opponents between the trenches. The flow is different and it’s hard for LBs and DEs to verify what they’re seeing and get into position when a team has a full complement of inside zone and power schemes to throw at them with accompanying reads and constraints attached. Since this is a shotgun spread offense the challenge is to mitigate when teams (like Alabama and Oregon above) will play man coverage to get extra defenders in the box to stop the run game. Spread formations don’t work for running the ball down mainstream if the opponent doesn’t agree to be spread out.
At Ohio State Herman relied primarily on QB option plays like the power-read scheme to regain a numerical advantage and allow the Buckeyes to run behind double teams. At Houston he mixed in a lot more RPOs (run/pass options). In my estimation it’s valuable to be able to do both. When teams lock down in man coverage and pack in during short-yardage or goal line situations it’s helpful to get an extra man up front with a QB option and bulldoze people to convert the situation. Between the 20’s RPOs are the superior option for creating explosive plays and involving your athletes on the perimeter.
Much of the 2015 Houston playbook could be described as “get the ball to Demarcus Ayers in space.” He finished the year with 98 receptions for 1222 yards and six touchdowns. This play is ostensibly a counter run for the RB but Herman was probably just as happy for the result to be a quick toss out to Ayers on the perimeter.
The QB is reading the middle linebacker who has to navigate the conflict of either stopping the run and flowing to where the pulling guard and H-back are creating new gaps to account for, or else helping to stop the quick pitch to Ayers in space. It looks like Florida State had a man/zone blitz going here that kept their linebackers in the box and required that safety Derwin James be able to handle Ayers in space. As good as the phenom freshman was in 2015, that’s a tall order for anyone, although you should take note of the solid WR blocks that allowed Ayers to put a move on James.
It’s an easy read for Greg Ward, Jr and an ideal scenario for Ayers to do what he does best, but the OL is just blocking a counter run as the foundation of the play.
So the new Texas offense will be built around…
The new Texas offense will be built primarily around the strengths of Connor Williams and co. in blocking inside zone or power schemes with all of the window dressing created to get the best skill players the ball in the stress points created by those schemes. As long as Texas is developing great OL that can execute those schemes and then grabbing skill players of whatever size or type that can make the most of the opportunities created by that execution, Texas will have a good and punishing offense. That’s where the floor comes from, the ceiling will come from quarterback play, which we’ll get to in coming weeks.