Yesterday I decided to turn a series of Twitter arguments into a post about Michigan’s relative talent level. My argument was that Michgian’s overall talent level under Jim Harbaugh has actually been plenty high, but they haven’t been strong enough in the box to win with the run game and their aggressive defensive strategy and they should have been aiming to win on the perimeter anyways.
You win on the perimeter as a blue blood by employing your recruiting advantages to develop the best space force. The space force positions are ones where you need elite athleticism to win because you’re going to be isolated in space as a matter of course. Offensive tackle, particularly left tackle, receiver, cornerback, and edge-rusher. It’s hard to replace high level athleticism at those positions.
That lead to this question from Matt:
What’s your take on how Clemson has dominated when they haven’t had elite tackle play? How do they compensate?
Believe it or not, this is something I’ve considered very carefully for the last year while I’ve been developing the “space force” theory. Which is essentially that spread passing is the highest level of football strategy and the teams best equipped to get it right have top level space forces.
One of my bigger (and truly more painful) realizations was that the 2009 Texas Longhorns, long decried for their strained performances against Oklahoma and Nebraska and lack of a great running game, were way ahead of their time. They relied VERY heavily on spread passing concepts, some of which they shared in common with the 2019 LSU Tigers, and probably should have relied even more heavily on them.
At left tackle they had Adam Ulatoski, a 6-5 and 300 pounder that was a part of the Southlake Carroll Dragon dynasty that I discuss in my book…
A 3-star recruit, Ulatoski “greyshirted” in 2004, meaning that he took a year off to grow before attending college, then redshirted in 2005. For 2006 and 2007 he was the starting right tackle and he took over on the left after an injury to the other tackle at the end of 2007 and held that spot for 2008 and 2009. He went undrafted after 2009 and signed with the Houston Texans but didn’t stick and moved on from football. However he was a freshman All-American in 2006 and All-Big 12 in 2008 and 2009.
You can go find tape of Von Miller torching him but for the most part he offered Texas very reliable play with his experienced and technically savvy play. What did him in for the NFL was a lack of reach (33.25″ arms) and quickness (4.99 shuttle). For the college game though? He was pretty dang good and he played in front of a highly mobile quarterback in Colt McCoy.
Dabo Swinney’s Clemson
Dabo Swinney’s specialty is wide receiver play. Even when “Clemsoning” was a popular internet term for showing promise before failing when it counted, the Tigers were cranking out future pro receivers every single season. Fielding the receiver component of a space force has never been an issue for Dabo and the 2016 National Champions also had a “space force dreadnought” in tight end Jordan Leggett.
Cornerback and defensive end have also been positions of strength since they hired Brent Venables to oversee the evaluation, development, and deployment of their defense.
The 2016 draft took edge-rusher Shaq Lawson, cornerback Mackensie Alexander, and cornerback T.J. Green. Then their national championship team the next season sent cornerback Cordrea Tankersly after them. Since then they also saw the NFL snatch up defensive end Clelin Ferrell (2019), cornerback Trayvon Mullen (2019), defensive end Austin Bryant (2019), cornerback A.J. Terrell (2020), and a whole bunch of wide receivers and defensive tackles. They have not had a left tackle drafted in that entire period.
So what gives? How’d they get away with that?
I could give two answers. Mitch Hyatt OR “they didn’t.”
The 2019 Clemson Tigers plugged in a former 5-star sophomore named Jackson Carman from Ohio. He’ll likely be drafted pretty highly as soon as he’s eligible after the 2020 season and while he didn’t protect for a championship, he did neutralize Chase Young in the semifinal. He’s a 6-5, 330 pound dancing bear that will probably test very well in the combine.
From 2015 to 2018, the left tackle position was manned by Mitch Hyatt.
Hyatt has a similar profile to Adam Ulatoski. He was a high school All-American as a senior and a three-year starter for a school that won a state championship in Georgia his junior season and were runner-ups when he was a senior. He was a 5-star recruit from that resume and after those three years of experience, he took over the Clemson job immediately and was a four-year starter and a senior for the 2018 National Championship win.
At the NFL combine he measured 6-5, 303 pounds with 34 1/8″ arms and a 4.52 shuttle. That arm length made for a wingspan of almost 82 inches, or that of a 6-10 man. The NFL deemed him a touch weak and limited on the edge and he went undrafted before signing with the Cowboys, where he’s recently been activated on the roster. I haven’t studied his film extensively but he definitely kept Trevor Lawrence clean against Alabama, Notre Dame gave him a little more trouble. My suspicion is that the concerns centered more around his lack of weight and strength in the run game rather than his pass protection ability.
The Clemson offensive line for each of the last six years has actually been somewhat modest in its composition. It’s always included a former 5-star at left tackle (Hyatt or Carman) but then to his right have often been a cast of highly developed 3-stars that they molded into winning units. This of course buttresses my central thesis, that you really only need the elite athletes that tend to garner the big time recruiting rankings at the space force positions. Elsewhere depends on development and system fit, although elite athleticism is always useful at any position. Useful, but not essential.
That’s basically a long way of saying that Clemson actually has had pretty elite tackle play. Mitch Hyatt was good at what mattered most when it mattered most. Who cares if he was a great run blocker in the playoffs? Clemson didn’t win the playoffs by running the football with a dominant O-line. They did it mostly by throwing or else by running with an advantage garnered from using the quarterback. Also, don’t close the book on his NFL career either. Jackson Carman is the real deal for sure.
So once again, when you’re evaluating a team’s chances for a championship, check out who’s manning the space force positions. And at left tackle, an elite talent is valuable but teams have been able to get by with marginal NFL talents that were ultra experienced/skilled. What matters at the end of the day is that that guy can protect your quarterback reasonably well without needing a ton of help, everything else is gravy.
Good stuff, thanks for the insight!
Space force theory is something that’s very interesting and I’ve been reading most of articles with it. Wonder your thoughts about it in terms of the NFL
How can it correlate w the NFL ? It seems a trend of late is that pressure up the middle is more important due to QBs getting the ball out quicker. There is also ppl who believe you don’t need great WR’s to win SB and it’s worse to pay them a ton. While I see some of this going through the last handful of SB winners most have a good WR and TE who can be a mismatch as you’ve talked about in recent posts.
have read alot of the this website and the space force idea is fascinating. How does it correlate with the NFl do you think ? It seems more and more people talk about pressure up the middke being more important than on the edge due to QBs getting rid of the ball so quickly. There is also talk about maybe not necessarily needing a great WR to win a SB and how not to pay him. While I feel there is some truth if you look at the past SB winners most still have a good WR and TE whos a mismatch nightmare which you’ve touched on in the past
It’s hard to win in the NFL without an elite spread passing game, if you don’t have one it’s hard to beat the team that does. That’s been true for a while now, it’s new for college ball to be determined by that same dynamic. Spread passing is the hardest thing to defend and the easiest way to overcome other factors to secure a win.
This is the reason Tom Brady and Pat Mahomes are so relevant every year and why KC is paying the latter half a billion or whatever.
To that point, Ian, how close to that Mahomes/Brees/prime-Brady tier do you think a QB needs to be for a team to feel confident in them to be competitive in the league with the pro-spread passing game? And is there a cutoff skill-level below which it is more feasible for a team to build more of a “traditional pro” style offense, a la Shanahan wide zone/play-action?
For instance, guys like Garoppolo in SF, Tannehill in TEN, and Goff in LA probably wouldn’t be able to out-battle Mahomes/Brady in a spread passing game (and I might not feel confident in some of those guys airing it out that much vs a decent number of NFL defenses either), but their teams have still been remarkably competitive the past couple of years.
Conversely, does the scheme matter more, and would some of these guys look more akin to HOF-ers if they played for Andy Reid and Sean Peyton?
That’s a lot of good questions.
It’s hard to know what those guys would be capable of in a pro-spread offense, it seems like Belichik liked Garoppolo. Certainly he and Goff both failed against New England in the Super Bowl but was that a failure of their training and system or a true mark of their future potential?
I think you can definitely make a great case that the Shanahan offense, run by a high level OC, is a really good way to build a competitive offense when you don’t have pro-spread tools and an experienced quarterback. It’s just that it can’t beat the higher level.
There’s a lot we don’t know, but I think executing the pro-spread is more about intellect, timing, and accuracy whereas the Shanahan system or it’s nephew the smashmouth spread in college, is much simpler and rewards arm strength and sheer physical talent.
There’s also a question of whether some of these guys can graduate to a pro-spread system later on. For instance, Russell Wilson got going in a Shanahan system but at this point many believe that it’s holding him back from what he could accomplish. Has that always been true of Wilson? Or did he grow into it? I don’t know. I think these are all the right questions though.
That’s pretty much where my thinking is at.
With the success of Mahomes and the (pending) success of Kingsbury and Kyler in AZ I suspect we will find out before too long what happens when lesser QBs at that level get the chance to air it out more. I’d also imagine that Russ will get the chance to graduate before Goff or Garoppolo simply by virtue of Pete Carroll being a dinosaur. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way for us to definitely answer those questions except by waiting.
If the pro-spread does begin to take hold and become the dominant style in the league, how soon until we see the proliferation of college-style defensive thought (match quarters, flyover defense) in the NFL? And do you think the pros or the college blue-bloods will mainstream the pro-spread first?
The pros have been using the pro-spread for a while now. The Patriots 2010s run was accomplished with that system.
Match quarters isn’t a great answer for the pro-spread. It feasts on the matchups that system is designed to protect on defense when you have a “space force dreadnought” tight end and whatever I end up calling receiver-first running backs. At best, it needs some tweaking.
The pro-spread is taking hold in the college game now. LSU used it last year, Clemson has mixed it in a lot, Ohio State has mixed it in, USC’s Air Raid is basically a pro-spread, Oklahoma has dabbled in it. Iowa State is actually using a lot of that now.
What’s interesting with the “old school” approach such as Shanahan’s system is teams still find success and winning games with the approach. Would it be wise to think of this style (burly man ball as BIll C calls it) although less efficient than spread pass still effective but you almost are starting behind the eight ball ? Had SF beat KC i wonder if it still would be viewed as an aberration due to differences in offensive schematics
With Russell Wilson there are some who believe that him not throwing so much is what helps him and essentially saves him from himself. I’m not sure i buy it or not but it seems as this may be one factor why Seattle does what they do.
The new Shanahan school guys are getting really good at combining the wide zone system with HUNH tactics and tighter marriage between run and pass. Also, you can do it with a younger QB, then you save money under the cap that doesn’t go to paying a QB and you can spend it on Ndamukong Suh or whoever and have a deeper overall roster. This is the approach that everyone is praising right now.
However, it predictably struggles against teams more oriented around the dropback spread passing game. I barely watched the NFL until the 2020 playoffs and I’ve been able to get the last two playoffs and Super Bowls right (as well as the CFB playoffs) by applying this sort of reasoning.
I think Seattles does what they do because they’re bought in on winning with the run game and defense and neither their roster nor their thinking can evolve quickly. But once you have a QB under contract for big money you need to focus on winning with spread dropback passing or else you’re limiting your roster. Paying a QB top dollar to execute the Shanahan style is a waste, the run/pass conflicts that system creates can boost a lesser QB.
Watching the Seahawks offense in 2015, they switched to more spread after losing Lynch and the backup running back. I believe Wilson was always capable of running the pro spread, though I doubt it would have made a better transition from Wisconsin.
It’s also worth noting that the Seahawks coordinator at the time had West coast roots, with most of the Shanahan type stuff coming from The on-line coach/run game coordinator, and Carroll himself.
I think the injuries justified the more spread out drop back passing they leaned on later that season
Absolutely, and they should be continuing to build their offense in that direction. Stop trying to run so much.
Those are all fair points, Ian. My question was poorly phrased, haha. To my understanding, while the pro-spread is the primary NFL passing style (hence “pro”-spread), there is still a significant portion of the league that doesn’t really base their offense around it. SF, LA, TEN, MIN, OAK, WAS, GB just off the top of my head.
Obviously those teams will lean on it in the 2-minute drill, but outside of that situation either the prevailing thought is that it’s not the optimal way to move the ball or perhaps it goes back to what we talked about earlier and they don’t believe their QB can pull off the pro-spread with consistency. My question then was more to do with whether we’ll see a mass movement towards the KC, ARZ, NE level of pro-spread utilization with only a few holdouts from the old guard, or will there continue to be large portions of the league that lean on more smash mouth styles of play.
Regarding defense, I think part of the solution for those matchup tight-ends and slot receivers will be an emphasis on developing more hybrid defenders in the vein of Isaiah Simmons. You had an article a little while ago on that topic, I’m looking forward to seeing how he plays this year (if he gets to play).
You’ve pretty much answered my pro-spread questions, this was more of a crap shoot, “what do you think will actually happen” kind of question.
On a different topic, do you have any insight into Larry Fedora’s offensive system? I can’t find any all-22, so I’ve mostly just looked at the run game and formations, which look to be fairly smashmouth spread 11/20 personnel standard. Do you he’ll be able to get more out of the Baylor offense than Jeff Nixon, or is it primarily the talent holding back that side of the ball?
I think the scheme will be really similar, the issue with baylor seemed mostly to be development along the OL. They were really struggle-bussing there.
Mixing in RPOs and play-action off a power run game from 11 personnel has been the thing there for a while now. Rhule just wasn’t as good at it as Briles or fedora.
Don’t remind me about our OL… I still have nightmares from the 1-11 season.
Hoping that Fedora can improve the offense back to a consistent strength, if not the level of Briles, and Aranda can maintain a strong defense as well. I’m just worried about Aranda’s penchant for man coverage with the lack of LSU caliber athletes in our secondary.
Yeah we’ll see what Aranda gets up to. I would have that concern, that his emphasis is on attacking offenses rather than defending the end zone.
I do think that if the Arizona project goes well that we’ll see a lot more of that across the league.
Defenses have a lot of work to do in order to adjust.
Slightly off-topic by one of my favorite Chris Brown posts was on installing an offense in three days. I was curious as to what your thoughts were on how one decides how many formations and concepts you really need in an offense.
I dunno, I guess more formations is better if there’s overlap elsewhere. You want to be able to attack the structures of opposing defenses in as many ways as you can.
To further Ian’s point, remember that at the lower levels of football (youth, highschool, and even college to an extent) the players have restraints on how much time and information they can devote to football.
Typically you’ll find a couple schools of thought: either lots of plays (concepts) from just a couple of formations, a few core plays adapted slightly to lots of formations, or somewhere in between. You won’t usually see the extreme of lots of plays from lots of formations until the professional and/or high-level college programs.
As far as concepts go though, Ian is right. You have to carry enough to attack every part of the field as well as whatever ways a defense is most likely to defend you. So at the most basic level, a coach is going to want to carry an inside run (IZ, Iso, power/counter, etc), an outside run (wide zone, pin & pull, toss/toss sweep, etc), a few quick game concepts (stick, Snag, fade-out, etc), several dropback concepts that attack the full field (mesh, levels, drive, etc), and then deep shots/play action concepts to really stretch the defense vertically (flood, mills, Yankee, deep choice routes, etc).
A playbook with all of that will offer enough selection to beat most zone teams you’ll face, but the players still have to execute their concepts better than the defense can defend them, which is why a lot of lower level coaches (the more successful ones at least) prefer to focus on a small selection of concepts that they can drill repeatedly and build up reps for kids to be able to execute at a relatively high level – “fear more a man who has practiced one kick 1000 times rather than the man who has practiced 1000 kicks once”, kind of thinking.
Beating man coverage requires either better athletes than the defense, double moves, rubs/picks (formations like bunches/stacks help with this), or option routes.
The very best offenses mesh all of this into one cohesive system where each play complements and builds off the others and overstresses a defense by threatening to attack each and every part of the field on almost every play. That’s why an offense like the Wing-T that isn’t on the cutting edge of offensive theory can still be wildly successful at the lower levels; the offense has a structure that allows them to attack a defensive front at every point with backfield motions that cloudy where the ball is actually headed, and then when you finally think you’ve got them stuffed, the QB keeps the ball and they have Waggle (a PA concept) called and you get torched over the top.
Idk if this answers your question, and I’m no coach, but hopefully it helped a little, haha.
Good stuff, thanks!
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