For several years now, offenses around the country -- and especially in the Big 12 -- have been terrorizing opposing defenses with packaged plays that are now finding their way into NFL playbooks as well.
In the past, cutting-edge spread offenses made their living hurting defenses with the zone read series, as some teams like Florida under Urban Meyer even added a second read to run true triple option plays that eventually led to a whole subset of spread offenses running the triple option, like 2012 early-season opponent New Mexico.
But as successfully as those plays work, offensive coaches eventually realized that they could exert even more strain on defenses by packaging run and pass plays -- the offensive line blocks for a draw or inside zone as normal and the quarterback reads a swing defender, often a linebacker or nickel back, to decide whether to hand the ball off or throw a pass, typically a wide receiver screen or stick route, though some teams also add another read to the split end, as Oklahoma State did with Justin Blackmon when they were pioneering some of these concepts several years ago, though zone read-bubble screen packages had been around for some time previous.
As with any option offense, the issue presented to defenses is that their defender is always wrong, all while the offense is creating a horizontal stretch that should leave defenders outnumbered in the box or on the perimeter. Combined with uptempo, no-huddle attacks, this series has proven extremely dangerous for defenses and is one of the main reasons why defenses in the Big 12 can no longer hope to dominate opponents running these schemes, but rather merely hope to slow them down.
There is one challenge, however -- even as tempo offenses force defenses into less complex looks, the quarterback still has to make the correct read, first in identifying the swing player he's reading and then making the correct decision. Without being able to review any recent film of quarterback David Ash in team work this fall, it's difficult to assess where exactly he stands at the moment, but during the spring he was having some issues both in identifying the defender and making the right read.
Fortunately, since defenses have less ability against up-tempo offenses to disguise those players and coverages, with the repetitions from fall and perhaps even some dry reps during the summer should have Ash feeling more comfortable making those decisions.
The other significant challenge is receiving strong blocking from the wide receivers. The inside zone/bubble screen may be the most used of the packaged plays the Longhorns run this season, along with stick/draw, which means that the outside receivers will have to do a strong job of allowing their teammates to pick up the yardage that should be there when defenses crash inside to take away the run game.
The bottom line is that Texas will have some serious issues offensively if defenses can provide those numbers to the run game and rely on beating perimeter blocks to avoid committing numbers outside to stop those plays. And, unfortunately, Texas doesn't have ideal personnel at this time to do well in those plays -- Jaxon Shipley is typically a willing blocker, but not altogether effective, though John Harris is a strong possibility to emerge in that role and see playing time. Kendall Sanders is in much the same boat as Shipley.
Co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite noted that blocking at the position is basically non-negotiable and the Texas coaches have to make that the case because the result of poor effort or results would be a significant decrease in offensive production compared to what most teams achieve with these packaged plays.
There are also counter plays that can be put in that most teams have, like a double move route for the outside receiver on the bubble screen action, faking the block and then running a go route. Fresno State used the play on Thursday night and it produced a touchdown after they had been finding success on the perimeter with their inside zone/bubble screen look.
It's also not clear at this time how much Texas will incorporate a third read as Oklahoma State did with Blackmon, though the routes typically have to be rather short to avoid the offensive linemen getting too far down field on their run blocks, which is not a problem on most plays since they happen so quickly. Given that the Horns don't have a strong, physical presence like Blackmon, the guess here is that Texas won't add that extra option to their plays.
So just how much of a difference can these type of plays make for an offense? It's a little bit simplistic to pin all of Syracuse's success last season on the installation of packaged plays, but the Orange did manage to jump up to 35th nationally in S&P+ after finishing 77th the year before. Perhaps more telling, Syracuse jumped from 79 to 19 on standard downs and averaged nearly a yard more on every play than they did in 2011, in part because the offenses produced 30% more plays over 20 yards (from 49 to 64).
Texas actually finished 22nd nationally in yards per play last season, so the same increase isn't likely given that a similar leap would put the Horns at about 7.2 yards per play, which would have been good enough for tops in the nation in 2012, though there have been a number of offenses reach that mark in recent seasons.
However, a jump in big plays would make sense given the level of stress the new offense will put on defense -- a 30% increase in plays over 20 yards would put Texas right in the mix with the most explosive offenses in the country.
Even if Texas doesn't quite manage to improve to the same extent as Syracause, if Ash can make the right reads and the wide receivers can execute most of their blocks, the explosive upside of the Texas offense should be greatly increased by using these plays. And given that Syracuse put them in place without the benefit of spring practice, there's no reason Ash shouldn't be able to make the reads consistently.