A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the L.A. signing day extravaganza. Unlike the events of past years, there wasn't a lot of film and there wasn't much talk about individual recruits. There was, however, an open bar and three coaches, so overall I'd give the event two thumbs up. I wasn't able to talk to Coach Wilcox, but I did get a few words in with Baldwin and then monopolized DeRuyter for longer than I should've. In this post I'll share the fruits of those conversations, along with some supplemental analysis by me.
To prep for this event I watched EWU's upset victory over WSU, and two things jumped out at me and framed my conversation with Coach Baldwin. First, Cooper Kupp. If you're not up on your Big Sky football, that guy's pretty good, he does a lot of stuff from the slot, and EWU did a lot of things that were specifically designed to get him the ball in advantageous situations. I'd compare this most closely to what Tony Franklin did with Chris Harper in 2013. Most of Kupp's production came from crossing routes (mostly shallow, some intermediate), but the Eagles also used him in the running game with significant success against WSU, especially as part of (what I'll call) a QB Power Sweep Read.
On this play the slot receiver (usually Kupp, but not always) comes from left to right across the formation on jet motion. The QB reads the DE to the playside (the right side of this diagram) and decides to either hand it off on the sweep, or to keep it himself and follow the pulling LG up the middle. On the plus side, this play put up huge yards against WSU. On the minus side, the rest of their run schemes were essentially stagnant, so I think that they probably don't win this game without a mobile QB and a slot receiver who can be used in the run game.
A second thing that jumped out, at least from the WSU game, was a lack of a downfield passing game. EWU's big yardage came mostly on slants with a lot of YAC, screens, some hitches, etc. It was more of your typical “throw short to guys who score” kind of spread offense, which is pretty different from the offenses that we saw under Dykes, particularly with Franklin's aggressive downfield passing game in 2014 and 2015.
Before the event, then, it seemed like the offense that I saw against WSU didn't necessarily match up with the strengths of our offensive personnel. I hoped to learn either how Baldwin saw his offense carrying over to our personnel, or to get an idea about changes that he might be making to fit our personnel. As for the run game, it didn't sound like he's necessarily looking for a QB who can run things like the QB Power Sweep Read. We have at least some mobility at the position, so these comments suggest to me that he doesn't view this as an essential part of his offense, and that there are other traits (downfield passing?) that he'll value more if he can get them. He also said that he feels good about Watson and Enwere in a more traditional run game, so I wouldn't expect a full transition to an Oregon- or Ohio State-style spread.
In the passing game, he clearly is very impressed with DRob (of course). As for the slot, he emphasized that Kupp was incredibly experienced in 2016, and suggested that that kind of production would probably have to come from a variety of receivers for us. From what I've seen and heard so far, I think that Stovall will be a big beneficiary of this offense. I would imagine that we'll see him working the middle of the field at lots of different levels, and I think that Baldwin is legitimately good at using formations and other things to get a guy like him open downfield. Baldwin also had good things to say about Hudson when I asked about him, but despite the reports that we'll use a TE more in this offense, I think that it remains to be seen, at least as far as the passing game is concerned. Against WSU, it looked to me like lining up with a true TE was mostly something that EWU did to add an extra gap in the run game. I don't think that an in-line or wing TE caught a single ball in that game, and when they did run routes, they were mostly moving defenders around to make space for the other receivers. At the moment, I'd be surprised to see a guy like Stephen Anderson emerge for us this year, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong because Stephen Anderson was awesome.
I talked to Coach DeRuyter next, once the crowd around him had died down, and this was a real treat. He was really personable and was willing to share a ton of good stuff. It was great hearing about how he and Wilcox have been putting together the playbook on defense, and this gave some good insight into Wilcox' managerial style. Apparently when they started meeting, Wilcox didn't prescribe anything, but just asked DeRuyter how he likes to line up against different things, and how he likes to approach specific problems. To quote Coach, “There's not a Wilcox package and a DeRuyter package.” It's all been a collaboration from the start.
The next point was that we'll be moving toward a more physical, 2-gapping defensive line. Whereas most 4-3 defenses, and lots of today's 3-4 defenses, want quicker DL that can shoot individual gaps and get into the backfield (one-gap assignments), we're moving to a style where a bigger, more violent DL tries to control the blockers across from them rather than controlling a specific gap. This is what Azzinaro's used to coaching, and it's what DeRuyter's used in the past. When you watch DeRuyter's A&M defenses, you see the DL doing a great job keeping blockers off of the LB's. It's not clear that we'll have the personnel for this right away, but that's the direction that we want to go.
One of the most illuminating moments, though, came from a story that he told from his time at A&M. In 2011, they were going to play RGIII and Baylor. Johnny Manziel was redshirting at the time, and was simulating RGIII in practice. Apparently the defense was just getting killed and DeRuyter was going nuts, but his players said “Coach, this guy's better than RGIII.” Who knows which QB was actually the better college player, but the guys were clearly onto something. At any rate, A&M won the game 55-28, and Baylor only rushed for 50 yards.
This got us to talking about how you defend these great athletes who are at QB nowadays. DeRuyter emphasized that his approach is to beat them with scheme. Whereas some teams have a base system that they're willing to ride-or-die with (MSU might have done this the best recently, and there are plenty of good defenses in this mold), DeRuyter's defense will be more gameplan specific. He doesn't want you to see the stuff on gameday that you've been practicing against all week. I would add that to do this, however, we'll have to have more defense installed, and so it's a question of finding the sweetspot between being predictable on the one extreme (Kaufman in 2016), and having more defense than your guys can mentally handle on the other (maybe some of Pendergast's defenses).
He also emphasized that with all of these read options and RPO's that offenses are running, you have to be able to confuse the reads for the QB. There are a lot of ways that this can work out, but to find an example I went and looked at that Baylor vs. A&M game from 2011, and I found a nice example on two back-to-back plays. Here's the first one:
Baylor's just running a classic spread-style RPO here. This is a simple zone read to the left, with a bubble screen packaged on the backside. For the zone read part of this, RGIII is reading the OLB that I've labled “SO,” to the right of the diagram. We've probably all heard this a million times by now, but if that OLB stays wide, then the QB will hand the ball off to the RB. If the OLB crashes down the line, then the QB will keep it and take it around the edge. On this particular play, the OLB stays wide for the QB, and so RGIII hands the ball off to the RB.
On the next play everyone lines up in basically the same way, and Baylor runs the exact same play. A&M looks the same pre-snap, but they're actually running something slightly different:
RGIII is still reading that SOLB on this play, but unlike the last play, the SOLB squeezes down the line of scrimmage with the TE. When the QB sees him coming down the line of scrimmage, that tells him to keep the ball. This is a trap, however, because the SILB is scraping to the outside to contain the QB. The defense has effectively switched the assignments of the SOLB and SILB. This play intentionally gives the QB a “keep” read with the SOLB, but then puts another player in position to make the tackle once he does keep it. This kind of thing is going to be our answer to all of those spread offenses that we're going to see in conference.
So that's what I was able to get out of our coaches at this event. There was a very nice turnout, and everybody was in great spirits. It was clear that there's a lot of energy around the program. It's the kind of thing that makes it hard to wait for the fall. Go Bears!