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Stats O’War: So You’ve Got Yourself a 5 Star Running Back. What Now?

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Talent is nice, but adapting your offense to maximize that talent is nicer. What can TCU’s offense do to go from a mediocre 5-7 to nationally competitive?

My feelings towards TCU’s 2019 offense are no secret. The Horned Frogs posted their worst passing numbers of the Patterson era, falling to 115th nationally in SP+, Bill Connelly’s metric of efficiency and explosiveness. TCU’s passing offense has fallen in status from their glory days of 2014 and 2015: The Frogs ranked 100th or worse in three of the last four years, compared to in the 20s for 2014 and 2015.

What do you do when you have an offense that struggles to this magnitude?

  1. You can continue to run the offense the same way, blame it on your players, injuries, and bad luck, and hope to improve next year.
  2. You can adapt that offense to your players’ strengths.

I’m not here to suggest that TCU has only chosen option one. But I’m not here to suggest that TCU has chosen option two to any sufficient degree. Much of TCU’s struggles in the passing game stems in part from poor quarterback play - Kenny Hill’s first year was rough, and 2017, when Hill was better, the passing offense ranked 69th nationally in SP+, the highest-ranking of the last four seasons. TCU has started a new quarterback in three of their previous four seasons, and the only first-year starter to succeed at TCU was junior Casey Pachall in 2011, who finished the season 29th in QBR. Aside from Pachall, no first-time starter at TCU has registered a QBR higher than 62 in their first season: Boykin (2012: 55.6), Hill (2016: 61.6), Robinson (57.1), and Duggan (58.6). It takes time to learn Sonny Cumbie’s offense, without a doubt, but Cumbie also shares the blame with his reluctance to take risks, adapt, and cater to his players’ strengths.

It’s worth noting that in that same stretch, TCU’s rushing offense has flourished. Much to this author’s chagrin, the run has been established: since 2016, TCU’s rushing offenses have ranked 36th, 29th, 86th, and 37th in rushing SP+, on average 52 spots better each year than the passing attack. TCU’s rush game is an end unto itself, though, and the relative rushing success has come at the expense of developing a weaponized, modern, passing offense.

TCU’s recruiting is improving - whereas TCU once had to rely on heart, grit, and player development to succeed, the playing field is literally leveling as Big 12 membership and the efforts of the coaching staff have expanded TCU’s reach in recruiting. Just yesterday, highly-touted five-star running back Zach Evans signed with TCU as part of the 2020 class, boosting the Frogs’ class ranking up to 23rd nationally and a convincing 3rd in the Big 12: besides Texas, Oklahoma, and TCU, no Big 12 team even cracks the top 35 nationally.

So we have a clear problem - an offense that can’t pass to save its life and, in fact, prefers to run early and often - and a clear increase of human capital - a 23rd ranked recruiting class, the gem of which is the 5-star Evans. How can TCU’s offense reconcile a struggling passing game, inconsistent and raw quarterback play, offensive line instability, and a richness of talent never before seen by the program?

Change in college football, especially dramatic change without significant staff turnover, is challenging. Coaches have learned and perfected principles, philosophies, playbooks, and preferences for years. Change doesn’t require reinventing the wheel, and it doesn’t require going back to the drawing board. Instead, it requires evaluating what works and what doesn’t in light of your on-field talent, seeing what has worked elsewhere with similar talent, and incorporating those adjustments into your game plan. Most of the changes I offer below (besides the first) are small wrinkles, rather than life-altering transformations. In this article, I detail five principles to fix the offense and maximize TCU’s talent.

Five Principles to Maximize TCU’s Offense

These five principles all elaborate on the one change TCU’s offense needs to make. TCU’s offense sits at a critical juncture, a fork in the road. Sonny Cumbie, an Air Raid Man, through and through, has been burdened with what is increasingly becoming Gary Patterson’s consuming obsession with “giving the defense time to rest,” and as a result has paired all the worst parts of the Air Raid - constant screens, deep fades - with early-down runs and playing to not lose instead of playing to win. Sonny Cumbie faces a difficult task, and I don’t begrudge him struggling with the situation - life would be much easier if the QB room had panned out as planned, or if the 2019 TCU WR corps hadn’t come down with a severe case of the drops, or if Lucas Niang’s injury hadn’t left the offensive line in shambles. Cumbie, though, faced with a difficult task, has mixed and matched his philosophy with Patterson’s preference poorly - on the scale of “Air Raid Coaches,” his passing playbook, frequency, and success approach nothing near the level of a Leach, and on the spectrum of “Rushing Offenses” in CFB, his is one of the blander approaches in FBS today.

The one change TCU needs to make to compete nationally: Become an option-centric offense. This change does not require an abdication of the Air Raid, and nor should it. This tweak to the running scheme will embrace the run as a powerful tool for punishing pass-heavy defenses and putting your play-makers (a competent runner in Max Duggan, and a comically-deep running back quartet of Evans, Darwin Barlow, Demarqua Foster, and Emeri Demercado) in a position to maximize their value. This change requires abandoning inside zone as your base run play, perhaps the tallest ask in this entire list. Time and time again, we see TCU run inside zone on first and long, or on second and long after an incompletion. Not only is this frustrating in the sense that it’s simple and repetitive, but it’s also frustrating that inside zone is effectively designed to move the ball two to three yards and hope for a break in the defense. It’s like a slot machine - TCU keeps pulling the lever, desperate to have that next turn be the payoff. It has to stop - a five-star RB talent will slightly increase your odds of payoff, but your base run cannot be a play destined to fail more often than not. Switching run concepts from a measly inside zone to an option-based offense will be difficult, but it could be the difference in TCU’s ceiling being 7-9 wins and TCU’s ceiling being 9-11 wins.

And now, to detail the five principles TCU needs for their modern offense:

1. Embrace Motion and Play-Action:

TCU effectively ran four formations last year: 2x2 shotgun, 3x1 shotgun, 2x2 pistol, and Ace (2 WRs, a TE, an FB, an RB in the gun). There were some variations on these, but they were slight, and they were small. TCU also came out in these formations and rarely motioned. Motion serves a lot of purposes in an offense - it can move the defenders to exploit matchups; it can give a player a speed advantage to the outside; it can confuse the defenders. The essential purpose of motion, in the grand scheme of a game, is to see how a defense responds to different looks and to set up later plays. The same can be said for play-action.

Running play-action automatically inserts an option into your offense, forcing defenders to decide to commit to defending the rush or the pass. The more decisions a defense has to make, the more potent your offensive attack can be in exploiting those decisions. A lack of motion and play-action indicates a paucity of adaptivity - if you’re not motioning into different looks, you’re more concerned with a static, fixed, game plan and hoping it works than finding the competitive advantage, whatever that might be. Motion is a vital indicator of a healthy modern offense, and it can be a robust tool in attacking a defense. For example:

Motion in these play sets up a wrinkle - the defense must consider the jet sweep rush, the wheel, or play-action, the dive, and the quarterback run. By motioning often, the defense must consider multiple dimensions of the offense. A modern offense builds its foundation on motion and play-action, which in turn set up multiple looks. See here for how the LA Rams build off their run concept with play-action and anticipate the defense’s reaction:

As it stands, TCU’s motion concepts include infrequent shifts of WRs from 3x1 to 2x2, with the occasional jet sweep. Motion is so scarce, though, that the times it’s used are effectively moonshots - the play either fails or succeeds, and it offers no future value because TCU doesn’t build off the motion. Some may argue that TCU runs play-action often, and they certainly do. I enjoyed, for instance, the play against Baylor where out of the pistol, Duggan faked a handoff to Olonilua and the found Barber out of the backfield. Those plays, few and far between, indicate that TCU has the capacity to run some modern offensive concepts, but not the desire. It is worth noting the in play-action section that much of TCU’s play action is technically play-action, but in effect is no more than the QB going through the motions, a ball-fake, designed more for timing than it is to confuse defenders or set up a sequence of plays.

2. Design Quarterback Runs:

You can say many things about Max Duggan: he’s a competitor, he’s mature, he had a few big moments, and he has a lot of promise. You can’t say that he’s an elite passer without some serious mental gymnastics, and even then, you’d be on tenuous ground. Our friends over at the Tape Doesn’t Lie Podcast recently did their 2020 Big 12 quarterback roundup, and it’s worth a listen for the whole thing, but I was especially intrigued by their Max Duggan takeaways:

  • Duggan is “beyond his age in terms of maturity.”
  • Duggan “really progressed as the season went on.”
  • “All his mistakes seem like they’re correctable with experience.”
  • Duggan “[i]s legit fast... [a] Legit mobile threat.”

I’d like to zero in on that last point. Duggan is a mobile threat. His legs were easily the most impressive part of his game in 2019: although Duggan finished ninth in the Big 12 in QBR (69th nationally), but second in Rushing EPA among QBs (9th nationally), behind only Jalen Hurts in the Big 12. Duggan brought so much value with his legs, but there was a severe flaw in his rushing game, no fault of his: with the exception of some brief moments, Max Duggan’s rushing value came from scrambles in passing situations. TCU ran virtually zero designed quarterback runs in 2019, and Duggan still managed to create tremendous value with his legs. By incorporating a designed QB rushing threat into an option-centric offense, TCU could put Duggan in a spot to succeed with his strengths that also enhances the rest of the offense. That is to say, if Duggan’s legs could provide value because of, rather than in spite of, TCU’s offensive design, that would free up all kinds of options to spread the ball downfield, confuse the defense, and strengthen play sequencing. A designed quarterback running game is a key facet of modern college football offenses, and TCU has the raw talent to use it aggressively.

3. Get the Offensive Line Involved

One of my favorite games in TCU’s history is the 2017 trip to Stillwater, where TCU stunned an Oklahoma State team that seemed unbeatable. I recapped that here for a series a while back, so I won’t spend too much time in the gory details. What I’ll recall for our purposes was the quality of that offensive line in the run game. Between Patrick Morris at center and Austin Schlottman at guard, TCU had a fierce a pulling duo as they’ve ever had in the run game, and used traps and GT liberally to their advantage. In the two seasons since, their run game has incorporated the offensive line in a lesser fashion. Whether this is due to schematic commitments, fear of injury, or perception of talent, I cannot say, but the fact is, while TCU in the past has embraced a flexible and active offensive line, in the present, they restrict that line to basic pass protection and simple zone-step blocking. Strategically employing the offensive line to create space and force defenders to account for multiple gaps can free up an offense in a way that makes the run game, again, a weapon, rather than a clock-grinding tool. TCU has talent at RB, they’ve had talent at RB, but a running back is only as good as his scheme and his offensive line. If Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua can put up highlight reels running inside zone on first and ten 25 times a game, imagine what the ceiling on TCU’s rushing offense would be if they were to rely on space and purposeful offensive line movement to gain yards, rather than individual effort and running back elusiveness. Some example of simple run-blocking tweaks:

And for fun: an entire thread of great GT/Counter plays. Offensive linemen are weapons to be deployed, not speed bumps to obstruct defenders.

4. Involve the Tight Ends

TCU’s wide receiving core had a rough year. Aside from some special moments (Reagor’s TD vs. Tech, Hunt’s Catch vs. Baylor, Barber’s Arrival vs. Texas), the unit was thin, inconsistent, and uninspiring. As a result of injury, as well, running back Sewo Olonilua and tight end Pro Wells ended up splitting out wide much of the time last season, severely depriving the TCU offense of short and mid-range passing options out of ace or bunch formations. (And providing some dangerous avenues for drops. Wells’s first-quarter TD drop versus Baylor might haunt us for years to come.)

If I had a Pro Wells, an Artavious Lynn, and an Al’Dontre Davis, coupled with an unexpected starting freshman quarterback who needs some passing polish, I would do everything in my power to find short, effective passing opportunities. TCU effectively ignored the seam last season, favoring fades, deep corners, and outs. With a more robust TE passing offense, TCU could’ve minimized the absolute distance required for a completion, given Duggan some confidence, and most importantly, opened up yet another dimension of attack for the offense. The Frogs ran a couple of pop passes in the red zone against Oklahoma, but largely ignored the concept outside of that. TCU has some talented tight ends, and it’s a waste of an opportunity to force them to split out or serve as just another body, instead of a chance for short, quick passes that gain chunk yards.

And here is an entire thread.

This is saying nothing of the vast opportunities that incorporating TEs open for RPO plays. TCU should absolutely be incorporating these - most of TCU’s threadbare RPO game includes a bubble screen tag on a zone dive - but you can understand the reluctance of an offense to force an inexperienced starter into too much decision-making too soon. Going forward, though, maximizing Duggan’s legs and taking into account his maturity, relying on more of these “scheming players open” techniques and less on “precision QB passing” could greatly benefit TCU’s offense, for Duggan and beyond. RPO Thread.

5. Multiplicity: Get Weird!

The fifth and final principle speaks for itself. TCU’s innovation on the football field has been reduced to the abhorrent goal-line Wild Frog and the occasional jet sweep. At the risk of sounding cliche, TCU needs to make their offense fun again: let’s see some diamond formation, let’s see some pistol, let’s see some jet sweep, some speed option, some inverted veer. If you’re going to be bad, at least don’t be boring. Would it kill for TCU to run some bunch with their big tight ends?

I don’t mean that TCU should get cute with trick plays - although we do all love the occasional Josh Boyce pass or Kenny Hill TD reception, we too remember all two well the miserable Liberty Bowl full of reverses. I mean that TCU needs to throw a bevy of looks at a defense, isolate favorable matchups, and give their players the tools to play football! Was there a better moment in 2019 than when Max scored that rushing TD against Texas, popped up and threw up the Frog in the end zone? Steer into that. TCU has a unique leader in sophomore Max Duggan; the coaching staff should take advantage of that by reinvigorating the offense with an aggressive weirdness. Some examples, including our beloved diamond formation, and some truly weird shovel passes:

Concluding Thoughts

TCU’s offense has been struggling for a few seasons now, and this comes with unfortunate timing: while innovators from Lincoln Riley to Neal Brown to Will Hall are developing bizarre and successful new college offenses, the Frogs have stuck to their early 2010s guns and found themselves left in the dust. TCU’s offensive staff faces a balancing act, between Cumbie’s offensive principles and Patterson’s football philosophies, and that act is quickly falling apart. To save the TCU offense, to raise TCU football’s ceiling from the Alamo Bowl to the Playoff, the Frogs need to embrace a modern, option-centric offense with these five principles:

  1. Motion and Play-Action
  2. Designed QB Runs
  3. An Active and Weaponized Offensive Line
  4. Attacking the Seam with Tight Ends
  5. Getting Weird

TCU’s offense will undoubtedly improve in 2020 as a result of Max Duggan’s natural progression, and better luck in close games, and if TCU wants to sit back and settle for 8-5 with an occasional Alamo Bowl as the new norm, they can ride Duggan’s progression over the next few years, continue to increase their talent stock marginally, and hope for the best in the waning years of the Patterson era. If the Frogs want to compete at the national level, they’ll have to take a long look in the mirror and adapt accordingly. Sure, 2020 might give us definitive answers about staffing and philosophy, but wasting another season to prove what we already know is inexcusable. By incorporating these five principles, TCU’s offense can be born again.