The good folks at Pistol’s Firing did some nice media interviews recently with the OSU staff. If you’re an OSU fan you should consider supporting them because they offer a lot of really good, free content. The site’s owner, Kyle Porter, is also a guy that met me for coffee one morning in Dallas back in 2013 and encouraged me with his process and approach to sports writing and blogging. Great guy, great site.
Anyways, they’ve got some YouTube video interviews with some of the OSU staff up that were pretty interesting.
Let’s start with Jason McEndoo
Now the hire of Jason McEndoo was something I found VERY interesting back when it happened. McEndoo came from Montana State where he coached OL for a team that would play a lot of double TE shogtun sets and run power. I was curious if they were bringing him aboard to allow them to develop a similar double TE philosophy on offense, which would be a fairly different approach from what Oklahoma State had been employing, or if they were hoping to groom him into the next OL coach.
The answer proved to be more of the former, and perhaps more interestingly, the Cowboys have only signed two TEs (unless I miscounted) since McEndoo took over coaching at that position. What he’s really been is more of a “creative solutions” coach that in 2016 fashioned their “cowboy back” position in a major advantage for their team out of walk-ons and position changes that he coached up into versatile and useful ancillaries.
For the coming year I’m sticking to my prediction that OSU spends most of their time in 20 personnel with either Britton Abbott or the Polynesian kid he mentions in this video, Sione Finefeuiaki, at H-back. Then perhaps we’ll see 12/21 personnel making its return the following year when 6-3, 250 pound converted wideout Keenen Brown is a senior and no longer competing with all these talented WRs for a role on the field.
Of course that said, it doesn’t take as much for a double TE set to be useful in the Big 12 because opposing defenses don’t spend a lot of time or recruiting building squads that can hold up well to a pounding from bigger sets.
Glenn Spencer and the defensive philosophy
Over the three-part interview that Pistol’s Firing posted, Spencer comes across as slightly defensive (no pun intended) about the performance of his squad and their philosophy on defense. By his standards, they’ve played pretty good defense, by most other standards (including Bill Connelly’s S&P+ adjusted stats) they’ve been less effective.
I like to split the difference, I think they’ve been pretty solid and it’s clear watching them that they’re always well coached and well prepared for every opponent. However, they’ve lacked great cornerbacks outside that can allow them to get away with some of the stuff they’ve run which leaves those guys on islands. It’s pretty hard to be a great D in the Big 12 if you don’t have at least one cornerback that can play on an island, virtually impossible even.
Spencer gets asked here about the 3-3-5 and he doesn’t like that term and prefers “three-down” as opposed to being identified as some kind of system defense. I’d say that’s pretty fair since OSU runs a lot of different schemes under his direction. He also takes a shot at the “pick a base scheme and master it” school of defense, which is what his predecessor Bill Young was doing before he was deposed and replaced by Spencer.
Interestingly, OSU’s defenses under Young were consistently ranked by S&P+ as better than Spencer’s. That’s also the style preferred at K-State, which played better D a year ago than OSU, but overall the Cowboys fared well in comparison to most of the rest of the league.
OSU generally plays really sound football, so while I think that K-State or Bill Young may be on to something philosophically, it does seem that Spencer knows how to make his approach work. My only question is whether the wide variety of coverages they play makes it harder for them to turn 3-stars into lockdown corners than if they allowed those guys to nail down a smaller range of techniques.
McEndoo’s creative solutions seem likely to help OSU continue to run the ball well enough to make their offense go this coming season, if the team fails to win the Big 12 it’ll probably be because their creative solutions on defense weren’t effective enough.
Big daddy Gundy
On this “creative solutions” theme, I have to note Gundy’s brilliant comment at Big 12 media days where he suggested that his mullet had generated millions of dollars’ worth of free advertising for the university. I’ve always had the sense that this was more or less the reason he’s kept the mullet, Mike Gundy is one of the cleverest coaches in the entire Big 12. If Texas hadn’t been able to secure Tom Herman than I was hoping they’d make a go at either bringing back Bryan Harsin or trying to snatch up Mike Gundy.
All three of those coaches have shown a high aptitude for building an organization that takes a creative approach to making the most of available resources and building sound, physical football teams.
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich
Yurcich and McEndoo were both plucked from the FCS ranks by Mike Gundy, he grabbed Yurcich based on some YouTube clips he found of the coach finding creative ways to run spread-option schemes and to teach what he was doing.
My question a few years back of whether OSU was going more pro-style proved to be the wrong framing, as I laid out this offseason in discussing what “pro-style vs college-style” really means today. Using and developing blockers at the TE and H-back positions is more of an emphasis in the college game than in the pros because it’s essential to play-action and good RPO offense, which are a bigger part of college offense while the NFL is more about straight drop back game.
Yurcich suggests that double TE personnel is probably not the plan for much of this season, for obvious reasons. Keenen Brown may be a solid blocker and a physical receiver, but you want to get Jalen McCleskey and Tyron Johnson on the field as much as possible. He also had an interesting comment about Ramon Richards, who’s apparently been doing a great job in spring of disguising coverages and showing up in unexpected and unpleasant places in coverage.
That would suggest that the plan with Richards at free safety is more about disguise and building a strong pass D than it is a total shift in defensive philosophy such as using more “Aztec” 3-3-5 scheme with a topper in the middle of the field. That free/boundary safety position is often the post-snap key that tells the QB where his receivers are going to be at advantage.
So defenses are facing a really tricky situation these days. On the one hand, that position is one of the easiest and safest to use to get an extra man to stop the run. On the other hand, if you have a really good and versatile coverage athlete back there then you can move him around in a variety of ways that makes it difficult for offenses to key in on a weak spot.
TCU really upgraded their pass coverage effective when they converted cornerback Nick Orr to that weak safety position. Richards has a very similar skill set, he can be an extra man in the run fit and not get you killed but he won’t be Jordan Sterns in that regard either, but then he can upgrade what you can do in terms of disguising coverage and getting safety help to different areas of the field.
Some creative solutions on how to help their young and oft-beat cornerbacks would sure make a difference for OSU this season, potentially the difference between another nice 10-win season and a Big 12 championship. Hard to bet against Big Daddy Gundy and his staff figuring something out.