One storyline since the loss in the national championship has dominated the off-season discussion above all others -- how the Longhorns will attempt resurrect a running game dormant since the second half of the 2007 season when the zone read returned with a vengeance and Jamaal Charles ripped off 200 yards in the fourth quarter against Nebraska.
That zone read, the staple in the halcyon days of Vince Young, looks ready to go the way of the dinosaurs with Garrett Gilbert behind center and the Texas coaches have spent a great deal of breath talking about the need to run the ball consistently to take pressure off of the sophomore quarterback who has yet to start a game in burnt orange.
The adjustment? Besides going under center more often and allowing the running back to come downhill from seven yards deep, Texas looks ready to play with more two-tight end sets, utilizing a traditional tight end and an H-back lined up off the line of scrimmage who can motion from one side of the formation to the other and also slide into the backfield to work as a lead blocker on traditional I-formation plays.
There have been several requests for an explanation of the difference between an H-back and a tight end. A quick primer: Joe Gibbs is often credited as coming up with the modern two-tight end set to force devastating 3-4 pass rushers like Lawrence Taylor wider along the line of scrimmage and to provide more versatility in blocking schemes.
As mentioned earlier, instead of lining up along the line of scrimmage, the H-back lines up a step or two off the line, normally either behind or just wide of the tackle and can provide both interior blocking and blocking along the edge. Normally smaller and more agile than a traditional tight end, coaches do not normally ask H-backs to block defensive ends one on one as tight ends often do when they stay in to block.
The presence of two tight ends on the field helps the offense have gain even numbers in the box (7-on-7 against a typical 4-3 defense) and forces the defense to consider bringing the strong safety into the box, opening up the downfield passing game, particularly with play-action passes, a major point of emphasis this season for the Longhorns.
To deal with the extra gap provided by the second tight end/H-back, defenses often commit a linebacker to the line of scrimmage. Many teams play a two-deep shell behind that to take away the deep seam routes that are dangerous against Cover One looks. In that case, the offense should be able to run the football effectively if the blockers can win their individual battles and that's more likely with three double teams along the line.
With the H-back in the game coming across the line of scrimmage on the inside zone to block the backside defensive end often unaccounted for in previous years and with the running back coming downhill, the cutback lanes that weren't there in the past will now be available. As shown in the spring game, the H-back moving behind the formation on play-action passes can open up the pass to the flat, a play the Longhorns used to score a touchdown in that game.
Let's take a step back for a second and consider the realities of the rushing game in the Colt McCoy-centric spread the last several years, when the coaching staff admittedly did everything short of completely abandoning the running game. When the Longhorns played in 10 personnel last year (one running back and a flex tight end), opponents playing a nickel defense with only two linebackers still had a 6-on-5 advantage against Texas when the Longhorns wanted to run the football. The flex tight end could have evened those numbers, but Dan Buckner consistently showed himself unwilling to block.
Even with the tight end on the field, Texas still struggled against nickel defenses, as demonstrated by Nick Saban, because the alignment of the running back indicated the direction of the favored inside zone and the complementary outside zone play was not used often enough or effectively enough to keep backside linebackers honest and from relentlessly pursuing the football with an easy pre-snap read.
By contrast, the H-back/tight end combination (a 12 personnel grouping) from under center allows Greg Davis to do much more with disguising the direction of the play -- because there is no giveaway from the running back's alignment -- and allows a greater variety of running plays, as well as the misdirection that could help break big plays and sow that eliminate of doubt in the minds of defenders that creates hesitation.
It would be easy to say that the Texas offense will therefore be more "pro-style" than in the past, but it's such a throwaway term that it simply doesn't have much meaning at this point. Much more accurate is the description of being "multiple," much like the Boise State offense the Texas coaches studied this spring. And let's be real about that -- as much as the coaches talked to the media about wanting to hear about the trick plays and gadgets, this staff is about base plays and execution and the theory here is that the coaches want a base personnel package with the flexibility to morph from a power-running team to empty sets.
As a result, the scheme asks for a lot of versatility from both the tight end and the H-back -- both must be equally comfortable as physical blockers in tight spaces and lined up out in space to take advantage of mismatches against linebackers. Basically, the offense wants to punish defenses for playing with bigger personnel groupings by spreading the field and smaller personnel groupings by running the football. Ideally, the defense is never correct.
Three players trained at H-back during the spring -- Barrett Matthews, the leading candidate to receive most of the snaps at the position, Greg Smith, the Extra Blocking Surface and a player more likely to spend most of his time at tight end, and Dominique Jones, the redshirt freshman who moved over from the crowded defensive end position. Chris Whaley, the beefy former running back, is the newest addition and Mack Brown hinted at his introductory press conference several days ago that Cody Johnson may get some looks there as well.
In all likelihood, the Texas coaches will look to Matthews as the savior at the position, while also giving him a look at the traditional tight end position in hopes of getting more athleticism on the field. At under 6-2, Matthews will try to make up for his lack of size when playing tight end with his tenacity and mean streak as a blocker and those attributes make him extremely appealing as an H-back.
A good track athlete in high school, Matthews can stretch the seam vertically and showed himself a threat as a check-down receiver in the flat with a big play on third down in the spring game. The concern with the coaches is that Matthews isn't a natural pass catcher and sometimes fights the football. More repetitions in the passing game after coming from a run-based offense at Galena Park North Shore should help Matthews show some improvement in that area.
The ubiquitous Extra Blocking Surface is the second-most likely candidate to earn snaps at the position after cross-training at H-back during the latter half of spring as the coaches sought to build depth. Reportedly slimmed down and now two years removed from his time on the offensive line, Smith is probably as mobile as he has been since entering the program and beefing up, but whether he can be a threat in the passing game is still a major question mark. He's also not a mobile as Matthews and will probably make a bigger mark at tight end blocking along the line.
Dom Jones is a bigger presence on the field at H-back, but lacks the quickness and pure athleticism of Matthews and must adjust to the position. A tight end in high school as well as a defensive end -- where he began his career at Texas before making the move during the spring -- Jones has some experience at the position, particularly in blocking and the perspective gained from being blocked so often. In his only opportunity to make a mark on the spring game, Jones disappointed Mack Brown when he dropped a pass and though it's not fair to judge his hands on one play, Jones faces an uphill battle to earn playing time this season.
Moved to the position after only two days of practice, the newest addition to the group is former running back Chris Whaley, long tagged by many observers as bound for the position due to an inability to keep his weight down. Despite his size and need for several steps to accelerate, Whaley may have the best top-end speed of the group, but needs experience as both a blocker and as a receiver -- Whaley gained little experience in either facet in high school when he carried the ball virtually every play. Given that lack of experience, it's hard to see Whaley contributing this season and his main value will be providing an emergency option in case of injury or extreme ineffectiveness from the player who will get a look in front of him.
More than any other position, the introduction of the H-back to the offense signals that the Texas coaches are not simply paying lip service to improving the running game -- and the only help provided the last several off-seasons was indeed lip service -- but actually want to take some tangible steps in that direction. If Barrett Matthews can provide a strong blocking and receiving threat for Texas, he will enable the scheme versatility that Greg Davis desires in the new multiple offense and the Longhorns will be able to force defenses into a tough choice -- stay in a two-deep look to take away the downfield passing game and leave themselves susceptible to the downhill running game or commit another player to the box and dare Garrett Gilbert to show off his ability to launch the deep ball.