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Steve Sarkisian describes his offensive evolution and RPO-based attack

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During a clinic in 2020, the new Texas head coach spoke extensively about how his offense has changed over the years and how it now all builds from run-pass options.

Southern Miss v Alabama Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Between new Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian’s first stint with the USC Trojans, his second stint with the Trojans that ended with his termination in 2015, and his time as the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive coordinator that landed him the job in Austin, he hasn’t just matured as a person. His offensive approach has also changed significantly.

Now an attack based first and foremost on the run game and the run-pass option and then building from there, Sarkisian started out as the quarterbacks coach running pro-style offenses under head coach Pete Carroll at USC for quarterback Matt Leinart and running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White. The emphasis was on running the football and then using play-action passes to create favorable matchups in the throw game.

When Sarkisian became a head coach at a young age — even though it was years after being offered the Oakland Raiders job that Lane Kiffin eventually accepted — he was still running a pro-style offense, but adjusted to Washington’s previous zone-read based attack that featured running quarterback Jake Locker because he didn’t want to change everything the Huskies were running.

After two years with Locker, Keith Price took over the starting quarterback job and didn’t provide the same running ability, prompting Sarkisian to start adopting RPOs for the first when those plays were still relatively nascent in the college football world.

Since then, Sarkisian has made adjustments based on his available talent, from pro-style passer Cody Kessler at USC to a bigger running threat like Jalen Hurts at Alabama to a pocket passer in Matt Ryan with the Atlanta Falcons to Tua Tugavoiloa with the Crimson Tide, a passer that Sarkisian described as highly instinctual.

“He can make our signals work — he’s the best signaler I’ve ever been associated with,” Sarkisian said during a 2020 coaching clinic. “I mean this guy will signal things that we didn’t even practice, but he’ll signal it, and it works.”

In 2020, Sarkisian handed the keys to his offense to Mac Jones, a much more linear, detail-oriented quarterback was comfortable with the pure progression reads in Sarkisian’s concepts.

“It is an attacking style of offensive play, but a physical brand of football. We believe in running the football and that in turn creates things in the passing game. I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve had a 1,000-yard rusher every year I’ve called plays in college football, so there’s definite belief in running the football. But the balanced attack I think is what makes us go,” Sarkisian said of his offense during his introductory press conference at Texas.

“We’re not just a quarterback-driven system, but we definitely need a quarterback that can play at a high level, which we’ve been fortunate enough to have — I think it’s five or six top-10 NFL draft picks that have played quarterback in the system with me.”

Sarkisian has several key philosophies that influence how he marries the emphasis on running the football with RPOs and then how he builds the passing game off of those concepts and how defense typically try to defend them.

One point of emphasis is that Sarkisian wants to get his wide receivers the ball on the run, especially since defenses that prefer to play zone coverages are typically forced out of them quickly by RPOs. After punishing defenses that want to play zone and getting them into man coverage, Sarkisian wants to run crossing routes to create picks and get his wide receivers the ball on the move and in space to take advantage of their athleticism.

In 2019, he said he didn’t think he called a single curl route.

“Why would I?” he asked.

Curl routes, he explained, are a Cover Three beater and most modern defenses don’t play that coverage because RPOs force the read defender to trigger on the run and allow easy passing lanes.

“You have to be prepared to beat man to man and you do it that way with people on the move,” Sarkisian said. “And in my opinion, with your people on the move you can create by putting your best players as the ones that are on the move to catch that ball to go create explosive plays.”

A handful of Texas players should benefit from this approach, including Joshua Moore, Jake Smith, Jordan Whittington, and Kelvontay Dixon.

From week to week, one thing that doesn’t change is how Sarkisian runs a particular play. He mentioned that sometimes players point out to him how another route used in a certain concept could create a big play, but Sarkisian doesn’t believe in that approach.

“Our reads remain the same, over, and over, and over, and the kids would be like, ‘Coach, if we adjust...’ I don’t want to hear it. It’s not what we do,” Sarkisian said.

On RPOs, Sarkisian illustrated the glance concept that Texas began to run more frequently under offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. In fact, Yurcich called a variation of it on the first play from scrimmage, resulting in a 78-yard touchdown for Joshua Moore.

Sarkisian emphasized that he doesn’t like to tag backside routes to make it a progression passing play if the defense takes the glance route away. Instead, Sarkisian wants to maintain an emphasis on the running game and use the backside wide receivers as blockers. It’s a true two-read play — hand it off or throw the glance route.

“What I believe in running the ball is if you give the quarterback too many options. all you do is throw the ball,” Sarkisian said. “Well, at some point, in my opinion, you lose the identity of your program and you lose the identity of physicality and toughness that this game is built upon — this is a physical sport.”

As part of what Sarkisian calls a progression passing game — quarterbacks are reading progressions instead of coverages — the built-in answers for stopping the glance route are hard play-action fakes and then the drop-back passing game.

To make things more difficult for defenses, the quarterback can use what Sarkisian terms a “purple tag.” The purple tag means that the offensive line blocks for a gap or man play like inside zone or power, although not typically outside zone because of the free backside defensive end. It’s not an RPO, however — it’s one of Sarkisian’s passing concepts, except with the front blocking just like a running play.

Targeting the running back out of the backfield is also an important part of the passing game, including a concept similar to what Texas ran to put away the West Virginia game, when Bijan Robinson caught a 35-yard pass out of the backfield.

It’s a point of emphasis Sarkisian — Alabama’s Najee Harris has 63 catches for 650 yards and 10 touchdowns in the last two seasons.

“The least defended player on the field in the pass game is the running back,” Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian doesn’t want to just use flat routes to the running back — he wants to run wheel routes to get his running backs up the field and into space to let them make plays, too. It’s an approach that should suit Robinson extremely well after the Arizona product had 15 catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman.

What Sarkisian doesn’t believe in at this point is the quarterback run game, although he has used it in the past and the personnel currently on campus — redshirt junior Casey Thompson and redshirt freshman Hudson Card — are both dual-threat quarterbacks who would lose a key part of what makes them special if there aren’t any designed runs or read options.

“We are not a running quarterback team, will not ever be that way,” Sarkisian said. “We believe in throwing the football and protecting the quarterback.”

So that’s an area to watch moving forward, but during the clinic, Sarkisian seemed emphatic about that belief.

Even though Sarkisian’s attack is RPO-based, it all starts with success on the ground, something that the new Texas head coach won’t move away from until defenses can stop the run.

“We’re an RPO team that runs the football. If you’re gonna let us run the ball, then we will continue to run the ball. The moment you say we’re gonna take away the run, our system is built to throw RPOs,” Sarkisian said.

“Okay, how do you take the RPO? You take them away with leverage, in my opinion. You play man, you play with really hard inside leverage, you take away those throws. All right, so now what do we do? Okay, we have to make you defend throws down the field, so we’re gonna hard, play pass you and take our shots down the field. Okay. Well, now you’ve got to block them a little longer. Do you have options for the quarterback to let the ball get out of his hands and play a little quicker? Now we’re going to run crossers at you. Everybody is catching the ball on the move over and over and over.”

At Alabama, the approach produced the No. 2 offense last season and the No. 1 offense this season. Wide receiver Devonta Smith won the Heisman trophy, the first wide receiver to earn that honor since 1991, while Jones and Harris both also finished in the top five. The offensive line was recognized with the Joe Moore award as the top group nationally.

So the formula works. And since Sarkisian believes that Texas already has championship-level talent, the expectation is that the Alabama offensive coordinator and his offense will make have a smooth transition with the Longhorns.