It's easy to look at how many players teams have coming back, but the real key is whether teams can bring back or develop new schematic features with their players to attack opponents. If a team is returning seven of their 11 starters on offense, are they actually the ones that would work together to make the big plays? In that event, bringing back key players can be more important than returning sheer quantity.
The best teams often hang their hat on a tactical feature that they know will always overmatch their opponent. Sometimes they discover that identity in the offseason, in fall camp, or during the season. However, sometimes teams will return a combination of players that have already learned how to work really effectively together for another season. That's when the real magic happens.
The 2014 season saw a few potent combinations come together that are coming back for more in 2015. Here are some of the strongest returning combinations ready to provide their teams with a strong identity in 2015.
If you go to Pittsburgh, be wary of Panther maulings
Several ACC teams are going to have to spend their offseason looking for professional trappers because they got mauled by the Pittsburgh Panthers in 2014. New OC Jim Chaney should find it relatively easy to figure out how to incorporate his double-TE, pro-style sets with the players Paul Chryst left behind for him.
Sophomore running back James Conners, an absurdly quick 6'2" 250 pound bowling ball, is back after running roughshod over Pitt's foes for 1765 yards and 26 touchdowns on 5.9 yards per carry in 2014. Pitt also brings back his escorts: H-back/fullback Jaymar Parrish, a 6'2" 270 pound blunt edge that excels at leading through holes, and TE/H-backs JP Holtz (6'4" 245) and Scott Orndoff (6'5" 260).
Pittsburgh ran the typical combinations of zone and power that modern teams with H-backs love to utilize, but one of their best plays was a mauling version of outside zone:
The play is designed to see the RB make a cut off of the double team by the tight end and left tackle ( or potentially cut back) but generally it was most effective last year for creating a pile up in the middle of the field that would claim multiple defenders while allowing James Conner to get outside and run over defensive backs.
Have fun Jim Chaney, good luck ACC.
The Tuscaloosa Triangle
Almost every single Alabama game down the stretch of 2014 seemed to focus on one point, could Alabama's opponent run the ball on even honest fronts? If not, they were typically doomed.
The Crimson Tide D was able to sit back in two-deep coverages with little fear of getting punished inside where defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen, and Jarran Reed combined with a great LB corps led by Reggie Ragland to stonewall opposing runners.
In the Alabama hybrid fronts they're looking for a couple of two-gapping DL, another one that can get some penetration as a three-tech, and a pair of inside linebackers that can flow to the ball and have enough power to stop runners in their tracks.
The design of the defense is to force the ball inside that triangle where the big DL and sturdy linebackers are waiting.
In 2014, Ragland played both as the covered-up weakside linebacker in this front playing behind the 3-tech and flying to the football or as the middle linebacker between the two-gapping strongside end and nose tackle with a guard across his face.
With the exception of the apparently unstoppable Buckeyes, they stuffed every run game they faced, even holding the bruising LSU Tigers and Leonard Fournette under 3.5 yards per carry:
In 2015 Ragland will likely be placed wherever Alabama needs him most while young Reuben Foster takes his turn as the next triangle LB, and both will undoubtedly be running free to the football a lot with the Tide returning so many good DL on their roster.
Whether the Tide can replace Landon Collins or finally rebuild their secondary to protect the perimeter better remains to be seen, but there won't be any fall off within the triangle.
The Buckeyes' sharp edge
Where the Crimson Tide thrived at stuffing plays that were forced inside, the Buckeyes excelled on the edge in 2014 thanks to their pairing of field side "sam" linebacker Darron Lee with strong safety Vonn Bell.
Lee is an explosive 6'2" 228 pound linebacker that can change directions and run in space or blitz into the backfield, the kind of player that makes spread teams start to second guess where they actually like the match-ups they get when they create space on the field.
Similarly, Vonn Bell is a 5'11", 200 pound safety with a cornerback's athleticism and the range and coverage ability to play behind Lee and allow him to attack the line of scrimmage.
This comes into play in their base, 2-read defense where Lee is charged with forcing the edge against the run and Bell has to be able to pick up slot receivers running past him, or similarly in a blitz where Lee will come off the edge and Bell will pick up the slot receiver in man-to-man coverage:
Essentially, the Buckeyes can take away the wide side of the field from their opponents either sitting back in base defense or by sending Lee careening off the edge. The result is that offenses struggle to find space to operate in, which is problematic if the alternative is attempting to run into an Ohio State front.
The ultimate spread
In addiiton to bringing back former 5-star, true sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen, Texas A&M is returning four of their top five receivers in 2015, including number one target Josh Reynolds and arguably the two most talented, Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones, and also big Edward Pope.
Between these four receivers they are returning 177 catches for 2344 yards and 26 touchdowns. To get all of them on the field at the same time they'll need to move Speedy Noil inside to Malcome Kennedy's spot rather than putting him outside and opposite RSJ as they preferred in 2014.
The Aggies two favorite formations are a 3x1 spread, potentially with Pope at X, Noil at Y, RSJ at H, and Reynolds at Z:
And a 2x2 spread:
In either instance, there are two main goals. One is to get RSJ matched up against linebackers who can handle his combination of size and speed, and they'll use packaged plays to punish those linebackers if they look to stop the run rather than covering RSJ or another receiver.
The big key in 2015 will be whether Noil can occupy Kennedy's spot at the Y receiver, where receivers in this system have a lot of space to run around in and need to be quick and crafty to properly exploit it. Secondarily, Pope needs to dominate one on one match-ups on the outside in place of Noil to make the packaged run/pass plays work.
Each of those are reasonable expectations as Pope has really challenging size at 6'4", 180 and Noil is one of the best athletes in the entire country. SEC opponents that don't have uber-deep secondaries and/or dominant DL to protect them are going to really struggle keeping all of the Aggies' receivers covered up. There's simply nowhere to hide bad coverage players against this lineup.
Boise State is quietly bringing back a loaded football team in 2015, with more returning cast members on offense then Ocean's 12. Essentially everyone is back save for trigger-man Grant Hedrick and fourth-leading receiver, Matt Miller. This includes some young tight ends that are an essential element to coach Bryan Harsin's offense and could be much improved with another year of strength and conditioning.
However, there's an edge combo they return on defense that could prove to be their nastiest feature. Against Rich Rod's Arizona Wildcats in the Fiesta Bowl, they moved athletic linebacker Tanner Vallejo out to the nickel position where he worked opposite "stud" end/linebacker Kamalei Correa to give the Broncos a lot of flexibility and athleticism with their two "overhang" defenders responsible for maintaining the edge:
Vallejo (the "S" on the left) is 6'1" 228 pound athlete with a lot of quickness and range, comparable to Darron Lee while Correa (the "S on the right) is a 6'3" 247 pound hybrid who is comfortable in space as a linebacker, stunting into blitzes, or just lining up as a weakside end and rushing the edge. With these two versatile athletes on either edge, Boise has a lot of flexibility in what they can call to get pressure.
Both are effective blitzers by virtue of their suddenness and ability to tackle in space, but they are also great at erasing anything that escapes one of the Bronco's blitzes when playing underneath coverage in fire zones. So while either could blitz on any given play, they can also free up other players to blitz and still create negative plays either by breaking up passes and runs or else chasing the QB down if he escapes the pocket:
Lots of players in a defensive front can be effective blitzers, especially if a team fires off blitzes from wild angles. However, not just anyone can be a good blitzer but also be good at dropping into one of the three underneath zones in a fire zone blitz and playing the run and pass effectively. On this blitz, Correa has to drop and be ready to stop a quick route vs a receiver or force the edge against the run while Vallejo needs to get into the middle linebacker's position in time to potentially stop a quick route over the middle or a downhill run.
The fact that these two players are athletic and smart enough to play all of these different roles enables the Boise blitz package to be more complicated and bring all kinds of different pressures, even against spread teams.
If a Bear chases you, don't try to out run it
The graduation of Baylor QB Bryce Petty and WR Antwan Goodley obscure the fact that the most devastating pieces of the Bears' "veer and shoot" offense returns. Namely, their ability to protect their QB and give him time to throw deep down the field to burners like Corey Coleman and KD Cannon on vertical option routes.
Although most teams these days incorporate some option routes in their offensive attack, few teams are as committed to trying to take the top off of defenses as Art Briles' Bears. Much like the Houston Rockets, with their commitment to looking for either a lay-up or a three-pointer on every possession, the Bears are usually going to pound the ball on the ground behind a lead blocker, or chuck it deep to someone very fast.
They were at their best at the end of 2014 when Coleman was healthy and sharing the field with Cannon as they combined for 122 catches, 2149 yards, and 19 touchdowns. The lesser known component to this plan of attack is TE Tre'Von Armstead, a 6'6" 265 pound converted OL recruit who helps make their protection schemes very hard to attack.
Eventually opponents in 2014 realized that the only way to approach the Bears play-action, vertical passing game was either to totally sell out with a major blitz or else drop everyone into coverage.
Now the Bears return both leading rushers, the entire OL, Armstead, Coleman, and Cannon from 2014's deadly vertical passing attack. The new QB (likely Junior Seth Russell) may be a relative unknown, but then so was Bryce Petty when he took over and immediately threw for 4200 yards in his first season. Rest assured, when Baylor's QB drops back on a concept like this in 2015...
...he'll often have plenty of time and little trouble finding Coleman, Cannon, or another streaking Bear receiver running past some hapless safety.
There are doubtlessly other combinations coming back that will cause teams problems, as well as new ones that will emerge and be major factors in the 2015 season. Keep an eye on these teams though, as they already have a firm identity heading into 2015 and it's not even time for spring ball yet.