Texas Longhorns assistant head coach for offense/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson feels like a new man.
Other than a brief dalliance with the spread option at Nebraska with Taylor Martinez, Watson has mostly run his favored versions of pro-style West Coast offenses during his various stops around college football. Last season, Watson's preferred offense ranked No. 108 in offensive efficiency, No. 116 in first down rate, and No. 113 in available yards. As a result, the coaching staff axed that anemic attack and made the decision to move the Horns to a hurry-up, no-huddle spread offense with an emphasis on the quarterback run game and run-pass options.
The change is a major learning experience, but as a former education major, Watson's willingless to continue his own education as a coach is still just as significant as his desire to teach.
"It's been really fun," Watson said during fall camp. "I'm having a blast. I forgot everything that I knew for 34 years, and I'm having a blast. It stretched me. I think you as a coach, you've got to be willing to change. I come to work fired up. I can't wait to see what we can do next and how we can play off of it. It's been rejuvenated. It's been fun for me; it's been fun for the staff because we've put all of our hands in it together to develop the package."
Since Watson only has limited experience running the style of offense Texas will employ this season, the additions of wide receivers coach Jay Norvell and tight ends coach Jeff Traylor helped provide direction offensively. Norvell has some experience with West Coast-style concepts, but also understands tempo and the quarterback run game due to the seven years he spent at Oklahoma. And after running the spread to great effect at Gilmer High School, Traylor honed his own coaching skills to maximize the abilities of a host of undersized athletes.
Combined, they've helped take Watson out of his comfort zone and push him in a new direction.
"They've been absolutely awesome," Watson said. "We couldn't have done it without them. They've been great. They each bring a different background to the table. We all used it differently, and we've really, we've centered our thoughts."
The first task was creating an offense that fits that skills of the available quarterbacks. While the West Coast system was a strong fit for an experienced, accurate passer like David Ash, Tyrone Swoopes was ill-suited for the role last season after Ash retired due to his continued concussion problems. So the Horns offensive brain trust set about changing that unfortunate and limitng reality.
"Our thoughts have been centered on our quarterback first," Watson said. "We've developed our system and the way we conduct ourselves on our quarterback first. Then we plug in the people around them to make sure we utilize their talents and skill sets and making match ups and using who we have. That all has added up to playing to our offensive line, and that's been fun."
Using more read option concepts was an initial step, but the staff also set about making things much more simple for the quarterback. Swoopes likes to talk about how the fast-paced offense allows him to just go out and play instead of thinking. In order to facilitate that comfort level, the coaches reduced the number of reads before and after the snap to help eliminate the mental clutter associated with each and every play in 2014. Instead of walking to the line of scrimmage with several plays, Swoopes is now getting play calls from the coaching staff on the sideline, essentially the same strategy that Baylor head coach Art Briles uses with the Bears.
"We've streamlined things. We're constantly evolving is the best way to put it," Watson said. "Where we started in the spring and where we're at today, plays are the same but the speed of how we play is different. We tweaked ourselves. We made ourselves more streamlined -- faster so that we can play faster. We minimized some of the things that were in our way."
One of the things that was not in the way for the coaches was an affinity and understanding of the system by the players, most of whom played in spread offenses in high school. As a result, the players merely had to adjust to the changes in how the offense gets communicated to them on the field.
"They've played very well in it," Watson said. "The first thing you've got to do is get it in their blood and get it in their DNA, which is a lot to do with how we verbalize our offense and how we signal our offense, and now that's there."
One of the legitimate questions raised in recent weeks is whether the Horns will employ tempo as much as the Orange-White game suggested. The reason for that is that head coach Charlie Strong, perhaps out of reflexive conservatism, still talks about the need to control the clock, a somewhat odd assertion given that most HUNH teams don't care about time of possession at all.
For defensive coaches at the forefront of the spread revolution like Bob Stoops and Gary Patterson, the need to pressure defenses with tempo outweighs the potential risks of wearing out their defenses.
According to Watson, Texas will use tempo as often promised.
"We want to go as fast as we can go," Watson said. "You'd like to get a snap, you'd want to be warp speed in that 23-24 range. You want to really press the tempo, be inside of that. Just go as fast as you can, and depending on what speed we're using we can go faster. We want our normal speed to be... that would be a minimum."
The dicussion of different speeds here is also key. Many HUNH have as many as three different tempos. In event of a long, sustained drive by an opponent that could wear out the Longhorns defense, it wouldn't be surprising to see the offense run plays without huddling, but spend more time at the line of scrimmage to allow the defense some extra rest.
Likewise with any late-game leads. In those situations, keeping the defense from substituting by avoiding huddling could still be a priority, but running clock would take precedence over snapping the ball quickly.
The rest of the time, however, the Horns will be operating at breakneck tempo, a major change for a program that intended to run a HUNH attack in 2013 before co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite had to abandon those plans when Ash suffered his first issues with concussions, but otherwise hasn't done so consistently in the modern era at all.
Aside from better highlighting the skill sets of the Texas quarterbacks, in theory the offense should put every player in a better position to succeed.
"We're playing really fast, and when you play fast it really simplifies the game because you're playing to the abilities of your athletes -- the quarterback, the receivers, the tight ends, the backs. You're helping, you're aiding your offensive line because you minimize and numb up the defense."
Adding run-pass options will benefit the offense line especially. Throughout fall camp and into preparation from Notre Dame, the word from team sources is that the run blocking is much improved from that unit, but pass protection still remains a concern at times, especially wtih junior Kent Perkins once again playing right tackle, a position at which he struggled last season. Since the offensive line will often block for running plays regardless of whether the quarterback hands the ball off, there won't be a lot of pure dropback passes on first and second down unless the Longhorns get behind the chains.
Rejuvenated by the energy created by this undertaking, Watson hopes that the new-look offense will catapult Texas up the rankings in those key advanced metrics and result in better ball movement and more scores. It's certainly his head on the line, as he's considered the architect of the Longhorns offense, regardless of whether that court in Oklahoma decides offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline is actually the one in charge.
Head coach Charlie Strong is gambling a significant part of his future at Texas on Watson's ability to bring together a number of disparate philosophies and mold them into a cohesive whole, all while dealing with some limitations in experience, depth, and talent.
The stakes are high, so the Longhorns -- and Watson, by extension -- can't afford for these changes to fail.
But no pressure or anything, Mr. Watson.