Ole Miss was truly devastated by the Laquon Treadwell injury that ruined the Auburn game for the Rebels. After a loss the previous week at LSU put the Rebels' playoff chances at risk, the Auburn defeat sealed their fate by adding a 2nd loss to a schedule that still included future dates with the Arkansas Razorbacks and rival Mississippi State Bulldogs.
As disappointing as this was, the nature of the defeat was particularly disheartening. Leading receiver Laquon Treadwell fumbled the ball perhaps a literal instant before crossing the goal line while fracturing his leg and dislocating his ankle in a gruesome injury that spelled the end of his 2014 season. The fumble robbed them of what would have likely been the game-winning touchdown and spelled their 2nd late game loss in as many weeks.
So it was that the Rebels were left to salvage their season without their best offensive player against a tough remaining slate. Further complicating the issue was the fact that Ole Miss had only the 37th ranked rushing offense of 2014 and with Bo Wallace accumulating bumps and bruises from running the option they were unable to lean on the running game to carry the load.
In that moment, tight end Evan Engram stepped up to the plate as a primary weapon to allow Hugh Freeze's crafty, up-tempo spread to continue to hum.
It was actually against Auburn that Engram's tremendous value really shone through with an eight catch, 118 yard day with a TD. He was held out the following week against Presbyterian before returning to be one of the few bright spots in a shutout loss vs Arkansas (five catches for 65 yards) and then turning in a dominant performance in Ole Miss' 2014-redeeming victory over Mississippi State that spoiled their rivals' chance at the playoffs.
Engram's five catches for 176 yards in that game went a long ways towards ensuring that playoff glory didn't come unexpectedly to the state of Mississippi only to pass over Oxford to rest on their hated rivals.
The Rebel TE's first six games saw him catch 19 balls for 292 yards and a TD while his final three featured 18 catches for 360 yards and another TD (as well as multiple plays where he was tackled inside the five). He finished the year with 10.4 yards per target, comparable to top outside receivers like Amari Cooper (10.8) or Kevin White (9.2).
That dramatic uptick in production went a long ways towards replacing Treadwell's production and makes the sophomore Engram an intriguing figure in the upcoming bowl season and subsequent 2015 Rebel campaign.
Engram and spread tactics
Hugh Freeze is one of the more cunning up-tempo/spread coaches in football right now who's brought a lot of different flavors and tactics to the Rebels' offense. In Michael Lewis' The Blind Side he's portrayed as a coach who prefers to win with as much guile as possible and has difficulty accepting that the best option is just to run behind big Michael Oher's pancake blocks on private schoolers.
Of course in the film adaptation starring Sandra Bullock, he's transformed into a doofus who seems like he should be trying to sell someone unneeded car maintenance rather than coaching a football team...but I digress.
Here at Football Study Hall we've discussed two different tactics smaller schools running spread systems have used in order to mitigate not having a "dual threat TE" who can handle a DE on one play and then attack the seam the next. Some teams get a smaller guy and put him in the backfield or flex him out where the lack of ideal size isn't a deal breaker.
Freeze is employing all of these strategies while relying on Engram's versatility to make it work. Observe!
First let's take a look at his work as a regular in-line TE:
The formation is sneaky as it presents the MSU defense with three removed receivers to one side that's seen as being the "passing strength" of the formation. Engram's set opposite the back and his side is the "run strength" so most automatic checks by the Bulldog defense are going to focus their pass defense resources away from Engram.
Then the Rebels run a variation of the "levels" concept to the field while sending Engram on a vertical route. The QB reads the deep safety and sees that the Bulldogs have rotated one safety down over the passing strength and dropped the other deep. So he flips it to Engram who is easily positioned to get inside of the corner and fast enough to get behind the LB coverage while aided by play-action.
Engram is seen here as the "Y" receiver. The Rebels effectively disguised Engram as a blocking threat in order to get him a blocking TE's pass game match-up and he exploited it in a big way.
When they bring their mega-back, Jeremy Liggins, on the field there's no need to pretend that Engram's 217 pound frame will be asked to block a DL and they can use a spread-I formation with Engram as a vertical-threat slot receiver:
In this instance they get their outside receiver behind the coverage and Dr. Bo only just misses him for a TD. Engram can be seen in the middle flying up the seam and sucking in Bulldog pass defenders like a vacuum.
It's a major challenge for a defense's underneath coverage to respect the real challenge of fitting a running play with Liggins as a lead blocker and then dropping back well enough to defend the passing lanes in the middle of the field, especially considering that at 6'3" Engram is a bigger target who creates a bigger window than your average slot receiver.
Of course, sending the necessary help to stop Engram on routes like this can open you up to one of the Rebels' outside receivers being isolated in wide open space against your cornerback.
Finally they'll use Engram as an Air Raid style flex TE with no pretense of I-formation tactics. He has the quickness of a spread passing game's slot receiver but also possess that extra length and size that makes him an even bigger and better target in the passing game.
That's not a large window nor one that would appear if that ball were being thrown to a slower or smaller receiver. What's more, Engram runs over the safety that should ideally be arriving to separate him from the ball. That size and strength also comes in handy when blocking on the perimeter against DBs.
A new type of weapon?
This is how tactics often evolve in sports:
Some coach devises a way to leverage the strengths of the players he has rather than the players he wishes he has and discovers that his team can be really effective with previously unwanted athlete type A if you just ask him to perform tasks X and Y.
After he successfully defeats teams that are perceived to have better talent, other coaches copy that strategy, starting with the other teams loaded up with unwanted athlete type A's.
Next, someone discovers that the strategy is more than a coping mechanism but a superior method and unwanted athlete type A becomes one that everyone is looking to recruit and field.
Now when evaluating players to execute the new tactic, some people realize that treasured athlete type B can actually do the same things as unwanted athlete type A if you move them from their previous roles on the team.
Treasured athlete type B is Evan Engram. A football player of his size and athleticism would find success in any era of tactics, but it so happens that he's exceptional in roles created to harness the skills of smaller players. Now when combined with the similarly versatile Jeremy Liggins, he allows Freeze to experiment with some major tactical innovations with blue chip athletes.
It's only a matter of time before other big schools are looking to stick big, exceptional athletes in the slot like this, SEC Western foe A&M is already going it with Ricky Seals-Jones. When the big blue chip athletes realize they can put up absurd numbers in these systems and big programs realize that these tactics aren't just for getting by with non blue chip athletes then a fad or gimmick will become the norm and defenses will have to adapt.
In the meantime, Evan Engram is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this Rebel offense.