The great advantage of the spread offenses entrenching themselves in classic locations such as the SEC and B1G is that they make it easier for offenses to isolate and hammer mismatches.
This has traditionally been the game played by NFL coordinators, whose playbooks have long been similar, but who have differentiated themselves with their ability to make the most out of having Spectacular Player X on the field. Great college teams have often just kept things simple and battered opponents with superior talent.
When he arrived at College Station in 2012 with Kevin Sumlin, Kliff Kingsbury found himself in charge of an offense led by one of the most uniquely gifted athletes in the country, one who had spent the previous year in obscurity wearing a red shirt. Kingsbury and Sumlin geared their spread offense around Johnny Manziel's gun-slinging QB skills and impossible quickness and produced a Heisman trophy.
When Kingsbury arrived in Lubbock, there were no Johnny Manziels waiting on the bench. However, there was a 6'5, 260-pound tight end named Jace Amaro, who was recovering from an injury that ended his 2012 season before the wider world got a full revelation of his gifts.
After an injury to presumed starter (and fellow Lake Travis alum) Michael Brewer, Tech opened the season with a walk-on freshman named Baker Mayfield as the starting quarterback. After Mayfield was injured, the Red Raiders plugged in another freshman named Davis Webb. Through 11 games, Tech is currently the 19th-ranked offense in Offensive S&P, thanks in large part to being ranked 22nd in passing offense and eighth on passing downs.
Tech is murdering people in obvious passing situations alternatively with either a freshman or a walk-on freshman? How is this possible?
Jace Amaro is how this is possible.
That's him, the massive number three receiver from the sideline. On third downs, Oklahoma St. matched a 6'3 safety on him in press coverage in an attempt to cover up Tech's favorite target. They struggled, allowing him to catch 15 balls for 174 yards and a touchdown.
You may notice that's a rather large number of catches for a tight end in a college football game. In fact, Jace Amaro is tied for first in the nation of all receivers with 127 targets, which accounts for about 24% of Tech's targets in the passing game. When they aren't throwing the ball to Amaro, he's still the basis of their entire offense.
Texas Tech doesn't often line Amaro up as an inline TE, preferring to avoid granting the defense an opportunity to hit him at the line and delay his ability to get going in his passing routes. Instead, they generally deploy him as either the number three receiver to the field side, or the number two receiver to the boundary side.
In the instance of the former, he's the responsibility of a middle linebacker in a Cover-2 scheme. When he's on the boundary, he becomes the responsibility of a weakside linebacker. These are matchups most teams have been keen to avoid, and opposing defenses have frequently played dime packages in order to get matchups they feel more comfortable with.
Tech also plays tricks on teams with motion:
On this play they motion the running back out wide, so OSU has to switch from having its favorite anti-spread linebacker Shaun Lewis on Amaro. Instead, the 'Pokes turn to capable but overmatched mike backer Caleb Lavey.
Had the quarterback been more aware, he might have hit Amaro running up field past Lavey, but instead he throws an errant pass to another inside receiver.
Tech will also motion out the RB in order to create a reduced box for quarterback draws, or to utilize Amaro's size out wide for blocking.
If you choose to play along with Tech's motion in order to get the matchups you want against Amaro, you run the risk of asking players to defend other Tech concepts or players at a disadvantage.
How Tech gets him the ball
For the most part, Tech doesn't do a great deal with its passing game. When the Red Raiders run concepts that call for high-level route-running and progressions by the QB, it's generally a play for Amaro.
The real genius of #22 is in his route running over the middle. At 6'5, 260, he's a massive target for the young Tech throwers to find. However, he's also lightning quick and has the ability to change directions over the middle in a hurry.
Tech takes advantage of this with the "Dallas" concept that Florida State makes heavy use of:
Even TCU's base nickel and fantastic underneath pattern-matching coverages are unable to prevent Amaro from finding space with the TE option route for essentially an automatic first down whenever it's called.
Tech also likes to use his quicks to hit him on an out in "follow-pivot."
With the "H-option" over the middle, he uses his change of direction and shake isolated on a linebacker to create both an easy pass for the Tech QB and an opportunity for yards after catch.
His start/stop speed is completely beyond what OSU's weakside linebacker, Ryan Simmons, is capable of responding to properly.
Executing these timing-based, ball-control passes is difficult at the college level and carries great risks of deflections, interceptions, or third-and-longs. However, it's also difficult to stop when the offense can execute it at this level. When an offense can deploy someone inside to the boundary or the field, as Tech does with Amaro, it guarantees matchups that will allow the Red Raiders to run these ball-control concepts as a main part of their offense despite their youth at QB. They can do this because they can count on Amaro regularly being open.
How Amaro is used in the run game
Many spread offensive teams have employed similar strategies by fielding receivers in those positions (boundary receiver #2, field receiver #3), but if you use your shifty slot receiver who can torture LB's in coverage, what happens when you want to run the ball?
At 260 pounds, Amaro offers different possibilities for Tech in helping the run game than your typical standout B12 slot receiver.
First, he can help the run simply by virtue of his alignment drawing linebackers out of the box and giving them more ground to cover laterally in order to fill inside running lanes:
Since the KSU middle linebacker has inside leverage on Amaro, it's hard for him to reach the backer with a block but he often manages to slow people up in their pursuit of the run on plays such as these.
Tech also throws "WR" bubble screens to Amaro paired with their inside run game so that defenders have to choose between maintaining good position to stop the run or chase the screen to Amaro:
Perhaps most importantly and distinctively, Amaro assists the "peripheral run game" of the spread offense: WR and RB screens to the flats.
Watch carefully on top here for the matchup between Amaro and TCU's star strong safety, Sam Carter. Carter, #17, is looking to maintain outside leverage on Amaro and "force" the play inside to pursuit. However, Amaro takes him on a ride to the sideline and creates space for the Tech back to make a move on the Frog defenders coming in pursuit:
You see the same effect here against Kansas State's quality nickelback Randall Evans:
Sam Carter is 6'1, 215 pounds, while Randall Evans is a sturdy 6'0, 190. Both play the nickel role for their teams because they can combine toughness to play the run on the edge with the ability to cover slot receivers.
However, against a slot receiver of Amaro's size and strength, they are outmatched. Most teams don't have ultra-quick possession receivers who can manhandle smaller defenders like this:
Creating opportunities for others
Given his high number of targets and the exceptional difficulty in covering him, teams often devote a lot of attention to trying to keep Amaro under wraps with their pass coverages. This happens either with lining up to get their best matchups for him and choosing to live with the consequences elsewhere, or effectively doubling him.
A concept that has been very useful for Tech as a result is "Levels" which sends Amaro up the seam before bringing in another receiver into the zones vacated underneath Amaro's route:
Not everyone would have their middle linebacker try and carry the receiver as far as OSU's Lavey does with Amaro here, but fear of what the big man can do in the passing game vacates space for another receiver.
Third-down hot route
Many teams don't blitz Tech much because of what it means in terms of matchups against Amaro. TCU forsook its assortment of man-blitzes, preferring to focus on coverage and soundness against Tech's attack.
Oklahoma brought pressure. When the Sooners did, this often left strong safety Quentin Hayes matched up with Amaro.
In this instance, Mike Stoops had cleverly baited Tech into throwing the quick hot route over the middle to Amaro and dropped a defensive lineman back to help Hayes. Unfortunately for the Sooners, Amaro's massive frame and soft hands enabled Tech to fire the ball in regardless.
On other occasions, Oklahoma was even less prepared to deal with the consequences of blitzing and leaving Hayes to handle Amaro:
In all of these examples, you don't even see what could be possible if Tech had a run game and play-action that could help Amaro get loose. On the few occasions in which they've run effective play-action, the results have been catastrophic for coverages:
You can expect to see a lot of that on NFL highlights shows in the coming years. Amaro is sure to cash in his genetics lottery ticket in the 2014 NFL Draft for a chance to be the next Jason Witten.
How many spread offenses in the history of modern college football have been built around a flex TE as the primary possession receiver and anchor for the rest of the concepts in the offense? Not many, but Amaro's unique skills have allowed Tech to field a shockingly efficient offense with neither a great running game nor an experienced or even distinct quarterback!
That makes him an exceptional talent and a largely unsung hero in the 2013 season.