"Coach Kingsbury, how do you replace everything that Jace Amaro brought to your offense in the screen game as a blocker, in the quick game, and even downfield?"
Kingsbury: We'll be a faster wide receiving crew, which will help...a guy like that, 6'6" and 250 and can dominate blocking and has 100 catches, I don't think you can replace him."
Texas Tech's freakish tight end finished the 2013 season with 106 catches, 1352 yards, and seven touchdowns. He was essentially the backbone of the Red Raider offense and allowed them to rotate walk-ons and freshman QBs without missing a beat.
Now he's gone and there's no one else remotely like him on the Texas Tech roster. They'll have to move on and find new players and concepts worth featuring. Kingsbury suggested that the deep passing game to speedy receivers would become the new foundation of the system.
Meanwhile, everyone else in the Big 12 is looking at Amaro's departure and responding in two ways. First was to say "phew!" because no one in the Big 12 had a great answer for how to account for the massive and reliable receiver. He was too big for DBs, even guys like OSU's 6'3" Lyndell Johnson who could play man coverage, were unable to erase him from games.
Linebackers were similarly helpless and he made solid players like OSU's Ryan Simmons look hopelessly slow with his ability to cut over the middle of the field. It's a good bet that Big 12 DCs will be willing to live with a faster Tech receiving corp rather than figuring out how to stop Amaro on 3rd down.
The second response to seeing Amaro carve through defenses and allow a team with inexperienced QBs to finish 23rd in offensive S&P and 10th on passing downs was to say, "granted we don't have an Amaro, but how we can we mimic that?"
There will be a few lessons that teams will learn from Tech that are applied both in 2014 and in the future:
1). Keep the tight end on the field
Many teams have realized that there's an easier way to have a steady, quick passing game that provides a ball-control element to the offense than to practice a complicated, precision and timing-based throw game.
Instead, teams will use either packaged plays or a handful of passing concepts to take advantage of the easy match-up wins that can be created in the "2-hole" or "3-hole", meaning the slot receiver positions that are lined up against inside linebackers.
Flexing out the tight end when a team wants to use a spread set can still create match-up opportunities by placing that player where he is covered by a weaker defender. Perhaps more importantly, it really helps the screen game by allowing the team to use that player to block nickelbacks, safeties, and corners who are responsible for stopping the bubble screen.
As Jimmay Mundine, a 6'2" 240 pound Kansas TE, noted from practicing in the Jayhawks' new spread system:
"Going up against guys that are 6'5" 290 is a big task for me to have to drink and swallow...now I'm going up against guys that are 5'10, 190, I blocked a few in spring ball and I'm out there laughing and enjoying myself...running them five yards off the line. It's pretty cool for the roles to change."
Mundine is not even a prototypical tight end. He lacks Amaro's fantastic length or size but when you're going up against DBs that doesn't matter as much.
There are match-up advantages available both in the run and the pass game when these players are on the field and defenses don't yet have many answers for teams that can throw a screen pass to a player like Tavon Austin or even Tony Pierson on the perimeter with a mobile, 240 pound lead blocker running in front of them.
2). Teach them multiple roles
Big 12 teams have already realized that they can build a smashmouth run game from the spread by putting a fullback on the field in a three-WR "spread" set to create stress points for spaced out defenses. The role of fullback or H-back in a spread set is one that can be mastered by many tight ends.
Blocking from the backfield is easier than blocking on the line as a true TE because the player can now build up a head of steam before running into a defensive end or linebacker. A player like Mundine, or Iowa State's EJ Bibbs, can be taught how to play in the offense as an H-back, in-line TE, or flex TE and open up a world of hurt for defenses. Bibbs:
"I'm going to move around so much, confuse the defense. That's what I love about this offense...it's going to be a great season."
At 6'3", 261 pounds, Bibbs is a little on the shorter side for a prototype TE. However, he's still long enough to block on the line, he's fluid and quick enough to use his size to be a hard cover for linebackers and safeties, and he's wide and powerful enough to knock people backwards as a lead blocker from the backfield.
Worried about stopping the Iowa State run game? Perhaps a defense lines up with three linebackers on the field to load the box and control the run game. Wait, now Bibbs is flexing out? Better hope that 3rd linebacker can hang with him in coverage. Shoot, I guess not. Welp, let's get a DB in there then. Oh no, he's moving back to H-back...
Defenses can only substitute personnel to match an opponent if there is an break in action or the offense substitutes. If the offense doesn't have to substitute and can use Bibbs both in tight or spread formations then a defense doesn't have any answers except to hope that their defenders can be as versatile as Bibbs.
What's especially important is that Bibbs doesn't have to be a great lead blocker, a great in-line blocker, or a great receiver to make this work. He just needs to be good enough at each to take advantage of the defensive player that's across from him in a given role.
This position on the field, called the "B" player by Florida's Kurt Roper, is becoming a sought-after athlete for spread and HUNH teams across the nation.
3). Go find them!
Many of these players aren't necessarily that difficult to find, although they don't necessarily draw a ton of attention in the recruiting game.
A few examples of players that are likely to have their number called to fill the versatile "B" position for various Big 12 teams.
Blake Bell: 6'6, 251, OU: Bell was a four-star QB recruit and his time spent at that position has prevented him from developing all the skills to learn these roles but he will at least be given every chance to become a flex TE and match-up nightmare for opponents in 2014. He has similar size, fluidity, and hands to Amaro. This is as close as the B12 is likely to see for a few years.
Dimitri Flowers: 6'1", 244, OU: Flowers is their next Trey Millard, he can be a lead blocker out of the backfield or a slot receiver from play to play thanks to his solid speed, soft hands, and hard-nosed attitude. Even though it was known how this obvious versatility would be utilized in Norman he was only a three-star recruit.
Aaron Ripkowski, 6'1", 261, OU: That's right, OU has quietly accumulated several versatile bludgeons that will undoubtedly be useful in forging an identity as a smashmouth, hurry-up offense in 2014. Rip can block in-line or from the backfield but isn't a common target in the passing game. That's still pretty good find considering he was a walk-on.
Glenn Gronkowski: 6'3", 234, KSU. Gronk fills many roles in the KSU offense and, despite his family name, only got two-stars from Rivals.
E.J. Bibbs: 6'3", 261, ISU: Bibbs was rightfully acknowledged as the 1st team All-Big 12 tight end. He was a three-star JUCO transfer for Rhoads' Cyclones.
Jimmay Mundine: 6'2", 240, KU: Jimmay was a three-star player who will have every chance to shine in Reagan's new hurry-up spread at Kansas.
Besides Blake Bell, who was deemed a QB, none of these players were rated higher then three-stars by the services. Finding thickly built players who can catch, block out of the backfield, and abuse defensive backs with blocks is not one of the hardest tasks for a college scout to perform. Nor is it exceptionally difficult for a recruiter to convince such a player to come to his school...yet.
The tremendous success Tech had with Amaro was largely due to him being a rare athlete with exceptional size and skills, yet there were ways in which Tech utilized him that will have staying power in the Big 12 and college football. Look for teams to apply these lessons with smaller, versatile players while everyone turns over rocks looking for the next freakish athlete to change how things are done.