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A Tale of Two Quarterbacks: TCU Offense of the Past and Future

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A chart-based analysis of TCU’s offensive trends under Kenny Hill and Shawn Robinson reveals hope for a big-play future.

Melissa Triebwasser

The Enneagram is a popular personality test, designed to reveal a person’s general “type” and - most importantly- provide a portrait of that individual when they are unhealthy, and when they are healthy, when they are growing, and when they are stagnant, at their best, and at their worst. Now, the validity and scope of the Enneagram is of course up to debate, but its utility lies in the arrows, the directions of movements. A characterization of what you look like when you’re struggling, back against the wall, and of when you are thriving, healthy and successful, helps you diagnose your current state and provides a vocabulary and direction for change and improvement.

Today, I’d like to conduct an Enneagram-style analysis of the TCU offense in 2017, looking at their best and their worst performances, in an effort to diagnose their state of struggle and success, and comment on how the Frogs might transition Shawn Robinson into success. First, I must add a disclaimer; I was pondering how best to do this post when I stumbled across this by Richard Johnson. Johnson here creates a kind of “shot chart”, leaning on a common basketball analytical tool, to look at how Washington passes and spreads the ball. I, in turn, will lean heavily on his post and his methodology, while substituting his hand-drawn graphs for a little bit of technological savvy.

TCU’s worst offensive performance last year came in a 27-3 win in Lubbock. Don’t let the scoring margin fool you; in Shawn Robinson’s only start, the Frogs sputtered and struggled to find a rhythm to move the ball. In the Tech game, Robinson completed only 35% of his passes, for 82 yards, but did shine in the rushing game (94 yards). One of TCU’s best offensive performances came a week later against Baylor, as Kenny Hill slashed the Bears for a 45-22 drubbing, clinching the Big 12 title game in the process. Against Baylor, Hill was at his best, completing 72% of his passes for 325 yards, and adding 38 yards with his legs. Clearly, we have TCU’s offense at its worst, and TCU’s offense at its best. With these games happening so close to each other, against similar defenses (Both Tech and Baylor were in the bottom fourth of defenses last year), we have a little natural experiment to highlight how TCU ideally moves the ball, and what steps Shawn Robinson will take to move towards that ideal.

TCU 45, Baylor 22:

I’ll introduce the passing chart first. Pretty simply, diamonds are completions, and x’s are incompletions. I divided the field into four quadrants, and recorded the distance of the pass - this does not include YAC, only the distance relative to the Line of Scrimmage from the QB to the receiver’s hands.

TCU Pass Attempts vs Baylor, 2017

Against Baylor, TCU passed 39 times (including three plays that resulted in penalties),

From this chart, we can see how Good Kenny made his money - 19/38 passes were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. TCU thrived in this game by isolating their superior wide-out talent on the edge, and letting them make plays. Those completions on the far left of the field look only like two dots, but Kenny actually relied on that play - 8 passes on my record were in the far left quadrant of the field, at or behind the line of scrimmage. So, one factor we have to acknowledge is that when TCU has a talent or speed advantage, they are going to keep it simple. This bubble screen/swing pass symmetry is effectively a power run game with some added space. These short completions also serve to enhance chemistry and fluidity on the offensive side of the ball - coming back from a missed game due to injury, Kenny was put in a position to make the simple throws and let his talent take care of the rest. This was especially important, as you’ll remember Baylor took a surprising 9-0 lead, and TCU was able to regain composure and dominate by exploiting their edge advantage and sticking to their basics of speed and space.

Kenny took a few down field shots, but most of his longer completions - 18,17,16 yards - were results of the defensive backs getting sucked up into the spacing game, leaving the secondary exposed for longer post and out routes. The spread is fairly even on this, as TCU’s trademark symmetry of space took over; at their best, the Frogs are slinging the ball back and forth, keeping the defense from cheating and ever-worried about closing out space. By throwing 14 passes to the short left and 12 to the short right, the Frogs revealed no tendency other than a preference for speed. The deep threat was never really there in this game, and that’s something I’ll come back to with Shawn Robinson in the Tech game. Kenny’s three touchdowns came on shorter passes - Jalen Reagor’s 30-yard TD was a result of the track star’s YAC ability, not the deep ball.

TCU Rushing Attempts vs Baylor, 2017

In the rushing game, TCU slightly preferred the middle left of the field. The read option was a sparring contributor to the run game, and most times the QB faked the handoff to the right side, and pulled left. This perhaps speaks to the team’s - and quarterback’s- confidence in the left side of the line. The symmetry pops up again in the speed game - the wide right and wide left runs were exactly equal. The middle run game featured Sewo Olonilua; as TCU got up on the scoreboard, he was the go to back for chipping away and grinding the clock.

Takeaways: The pass game featured short symmetry, preferring to exploit talent advantages by sending speed to the open field, and the run game was heavy to the middle-left of the line, leaning on talented linemen for consistent yardage.

TCU 27, Texas Tech 3:

TCU Passing Attempts vs Texas Tech, 2017

TCU held back a little in the passing game verses Tech, as a result of two factors: first, the weather was atrocious; cold and clear, but windy and difficult to manage. The Texas Tech kicker missed two field goals that day, and both kickers had trouble on kickoffs. Clearly, the wind was affecting the path of the ball in the air. Secondly, Shawn Robinson was making his first career start, as a true freshman, on the road. That being said, and those factors accounted for, we see an entirely different game-plan for Shawn Robinson - look at the vertical spread. We see almost none of the slashing, back and forth edge game, and instead an aggressive downfield attack. Don’t let those X’s fool you - plenty of those balls were in the hands of receivers who struggled due to the cold weather. A symmetry akin to the Baylor game is still present in this game plan, but the spacing and edge advantages are subverted by an over-the-top approach, perhaps speaking to Shawn’s capabilities as a thrower. His lone TD pass was a true down the field to Reagor (Edit - a rando on twitter pointed out this was not the case. I watched 4 hours of game film today, so it’s possible I made a mistake in charting. This changes none of the conclusions or central arguments of the piece). I mentioned earlier that Kenny Hill never really presented the consistent down-the-field threat, instead thriving with precision in the short game to put wide receivers to exploit their talent and speed advantages. Those talent and speed advantages will still be there this fall, but with Shawn, if the Tech game is any indicator, we can expect that longer threat.

TCU Rushing Attempts vs Texas Tech, 2017

Here, TCU’s preference to symmetry shows itself. Spearheaded by Kyle Hicks, TCU leaned into the run game against a Tech defense with noted troubles stopping the rush. The zone-read dominated this game, as Shawn’s power running abilities presented a two-headed monster. He much more preferred to run right, and so the zone read headed left most of the game. In addition to the zone read, TCU pulled out an old-school option a couple of times, but always to the right, indicating their preference for comfort of having Shawn run on the right side of the field (and with the ball in his right hand).

Takeaways: Against Tech, TCU preferred vertical space to horizontal, still spreading the ball evenly in the passing game. In the rushing attack, the zone read and option tended toward the right side of the field.

Transitioning from Stagnation to Thriving

At Big 12 Media Days, Gary Patterson was asked about the vertical aspect of the offense that had been a feature under Trevone Boykin, and missing under Kenny Hill:

“All of our quarterbacks throw down the field,” Patterson said. “Nothing against Kenny, but I think these guys have more vertical capabilities and we’ll have more speed.”

At its best, the TCU offense hinges on the ability to use speed and the edge to isolate match-ups, and then prey upon cheating defenders concerned with that edge. Shawn Robinson’s first and only start consisted of only down-field throws and a balanced run game. To get back to where the Frogs want to be offensively, he won’t have to change a thing - the ruthless symmetry and speed of the TCU offense will only grow with Robinson’s arm strength. It may look a little different, as Dean noted in his Big 12 coverage, but the formula for success will still be the same - symmetry, speed, and space. Robinson’s down-field abilities open up an avenue for big plays that will only further muddy defenders’ perception. For Shawn Robinson’s TCU offense to move from its struggling self to its best self, the Frogs need only to continue to bring up the floor and incorporate more of the short completions, which in turn will open up Robinson’s strengths for big plays.

As a note, if you’ve read this far, I’d love some feedback; I am working on the template for these game charts, and would love to know how you think they look, how well they represent the data, and how useful they are, generally. Please let me know in the comments.