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Checking in on the spread-option’s future in Texas

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One year later, Texas title-winning QBs Charlie Brewer and Shawn Robinson are taking over at Baylor and TCU. Here’s how these two divergent streams of offense are progressing.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Christian Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Last year in this space I broke down two diverging streams of spread-option football represented in the 2016 Texas 6A high school football championship games. The two champions included a squad that was incorporating all kinds of routes and motions to the spread-option offense and then another that was expanding on the combination spacing, traditional run game concepts, and then an athletic QB to build a potent run-centric unit.

The first team, Lake Travis, produced 3-star QB Charlie Brewer who went on to play as a freshman at Baylor this year and seems to have locked down the starting job there for perhaps the next three years. Incidentally, Lake Travis has also produced scrappy four-year starters and spread QB champions Todd Reesing (Kansas’ most successful QB this century) and Baker Mayfield. The second team, DeSoto, produced 3-star QB Shawn Robinson who got some spot duty this season as a freshman at TCU spelling Kenny Hill in blowouts or when Hill was out with a concussion against Texas Tech.

Next year the Big 12 is losing Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph, Jesse Ertz, Nic Shimonek, Kenny Hill, Kyle Kempt, and potentially Will Grier from the ranks of starting QBs. That’s seven out of 10 for y’all keeping count back home. The last time the league was devastated to that extent at the position was 2013 when (again) seven senior starters moved on including Collin Klein, Landry Jones, Geno Smith, Nick Florence, and Seth Doege. Two of the younger QBs that might be near the head of the pack in the next crop are our two state title-winners.

Here’s how these two players and their varying skill sets have been plugged into the Big 12 thus far:

Shawn Robinson and the athletic Frogs

Robinson checked in this season at 6-2, 225 (listed at least) and played immediately as a true freshman for the Frogs. The word on Robinson coming out of high school was that he was a great athlete and dangerous runner with a strong arm but some “accuracy concerns.” Interestingly, those accuracy concerns seemed to become more pronounced in the eyes of evaluators after Robinson committed early to small market TCU and he was bumped down from a four-star prospect to a three-star guy.

At 225 he’s well built to handle being a featured part of the run game, which is naturally what happened in his first collegiate start at Texas Tech. He got 10 carries against Tech that he took for 84 yards and likely could have done a good deal more damage if needed.

Before the 2017 season began, head coach Gary Patterson elevated Sonny Cumbie to play-caller and OC while co-OC Doug Meacham found a landing spot as the OC at Kansas. The Frogs also hired OL coach Chris Thomsen from Arizona State, a coach with greater familiarity running gap schemes from the spread where TCU had previously been an outside zone focused offense. Against the Red Raiders we got a glimpse into how all this might come together in the Shawn Robinson era.

The Frogs ran one of their favorite Trevone Boykin plays with Robinson, the speed option, on an early third and five:

It’s nothing special, just an effective play if the QB is good at attacking the read defender. In this instance Robinson also shows a nice ability to fall forward and reach the sticks that is no doubt a virtue of being as big and strong as he is. His size and running reminds of J.T. Barrett here but later in this drive he and the staff showed something else:

It’s a standard zone-read play except that TCU isn’t playing along with Tech’s odd front and trying to have the QB read a linebacker. Instead they leave the bigger DE unblocked on the interior and Robinson pulls the ball if the big man doesn’t totally commit to taking away the outside keeper. The outside linebackers that would normally have been well positioned to stop this get picked off by the left side of the OL climbing up to them and then Shawn Robinson does the rest with some “plant and go” burst that is faster than Barrett or most college dual-threats can go.

The questions about Robinson’s future are in the passing game. Robinson went 6-17 for 85 yards and a TD against Texas Tech and has a long ways to go before he’s mastered the TCU Air Raid passing game to the level necessary to really make the most of his well above average running skill. Here’s an example of both one of his more successful plays and where he needs work:

TCU is running a “four verticals” play from a double tight end set. Tech actually has it matched up soundly with quarters coverage but the TE to the trips side pulls help away and isolates the strong safety against Kavontae Turpin on the seam. All-22 would help here but it appears that Robinson actually threw the ball late relative to when the play was open but he gets away with it because his placement and velocity are good and the TCU OL kept the pocket really clean. The issue isn’t accuracy it’s making quick reads and getting the ball out on time.

His arm strength and ability to be accurate with a clean pocket will become deadly as he grows in making quicker reads and getting the ball out. All of this will be aided by how nasty their run game is going to be with his legs as a component. When teams are loading the box to handle the run game, it doesn’t make it harder for guys like Turpin to get open down the field.

TCU will be a simple offense moving forward but that doesn’t mean they won’t be very hard to stop with athletes like Robinson, freshman WR Jalen Reagor, and sophomore RB Darius Anderson involved. No need to be overly complicated with athletes like that on the field.

Charlie Brewer and the multiple Bears

Baylor didn’t totally move away from the Art Briles offense this season but maintained a heavy emphasis on RPOs (run/pass options) for their QBs which easily blends with head coach Matt Rhule’s desire to be a team that can run the ball.

One of their many issues this season was at QB where they played three different players but only got really standout play from one, our freshman Charlie Brewer. The Lake Travis champion ended up throwing 204 passes for 1562 yards at 7.7 ypa with 11 TDs to four INTs. That’s pretty solid production for a true freshman, particularly one playing behind a shaky OL like what Baylor fielded this season. He also added 273 rushing yards (adjusting for sacks) and was able to run some option for them, no surprise to anyone that watched him in high school.

The Bears have expanded on their offensive concepts beyond the more narrowly focused approach of the Briles boys’ “veer and shoot” and are now more of standard spread team that also has a heavy 22 personnel package for trying to pound the ball on the ground. They are becoming a team that looks to use versatile personnel and multiple concepts to create matchups for the QB to exploit, which will no doubt be lethal when Brewer is an upperclassman surrounded by players developed by this staff.

At this point some of the nastier capabilities they’ve shown are found in their spread run game. To begin with, Brewer is unquestionably going to be described as “deceptively quick” in the future if he hasn’t already and he’s more than capable of punishing even athletic DEs that don’t play the zone-read with enough discipline.

But that speed is more typically put to use scrambling for time and Brewer is excellent at slipping pressure and finding targets on the move:

It’s really hard to stop offenses with truly athletic QBs serving as feature runners like what TCU is looking to build on, but the most deadly offenses feature QBs who always know where their athletes are and can distribute the ball to them. Brewer has shown flashes of great potential here, such as on this RPO read:

Brewer had already hit the Frogs a few times with the quick bubble off the zone run out to the trips side and TCU was trying to roll a safety over to help stop that option. But here Brewer catches them and hits star sophomore WR Denzel Mims in the hands coming from the weak side on the glance route. The TCU CB Ranthony Texada manages to knock the ball out of Mims’ hands before he can secure it but the placement and timing on the throw was excellent. Brewer also hit Mims on a slant earlier in the game that went for a TD only to have it called back because the LT slipped too far downfield run blocking.

Executing a multiple spread-option attack with lots of pass options and dropback schemes asks a lot of the QB in terms of making pre-snap reads, post-snap reads, and then delivering accurate balls from a variety of different places. Brewer had quite a bit of that on his plate in high school and has already shown a high degree of competency doing so at the college level as well as salvaging plays ruined by the incompetency of Baylor’s OL.

These teams will presumably hand the keys to their offenses to Shawn Robinson and Charlie Brewer this coming offseason. Their true breakthroughs will probably come in the 2019 season when they are upperclassmen, although Brewer will be working with the sensational Denzel Mims for perhaps just one more year (2018), but 2018 should be a fun year watching these diverging styles develop and watching the resulting clash between two bitter rivals.