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Tulsa’s junkyard wars offense

Phil Montgomery has a lot of tricks for building a power run game from leftover parts and he’ll be getting a lot of eyeballs on Tulsa this year as a result.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Fresno State Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most likely 2017 AAC head coach to get snatched up by a power five school after next season is Tulsa’s Phil Montgomery. He was the longtime offensive coordinator for Art Briles, dating all the way back to their Stephenville HS days, which is both a major plus and a major negative on his resume for top jobs. He got out of Waco before the scandal took down the program but not before many of the alleged events took place, which will inevitably raise questions for any team that wants to hire him.

At any rate, his resume of assisting and then duplicating Briles’ offensive success is going to be too tempting for some program, even if they find some skeletons in the closet.

Tulsa’s offenses have ranked 40th and 36th in S&P+ with quarterback Dane Evans throwing for 4332 yards and 25 TDs in 2015 and 3348 yards with 32 TDs in 2016. In 2016 they were able to get their run game going with RBs James Flanders and D’Angelo Brewer combining for 3k yards and 25 TDs.

Considering that Tulsa is in one of the smallest market in the AAC with recruiting class rankings to match, these are eye catching results.

Controlling the trenches without blue blood talent

Montgomery’s offense is a particularly nasty variety of smashmouth spread, a run-centric offense in which the OL is moving downhill on virtually every snap. Smashmouth spread concepts feature running plays with a double team and/or lead blocker at the point of attack and then a perimeter option for the QB to use to punish the defense to trying to bring numbers to the point of attack. The goal is overpower opponents with the run game but with constraints attached to prevent the defense from stopping it.

The “veer and shoot” version of this offense that Montgomery employs tends to employ more vertical shots and a faster pace than the more ball control varieties that you see in other locales, but the main problems presented are the same, Tulsa just attacks weak spots harder than many other teams.

It was common for them to have a run play chosen for a given week that was designed to exploit that particular opponent. The Tulsa run game was replete with a variety of different gap schemes that were designed to allow them to block at favorable angles against outnumbered defenses.

Here’s an example against Central Michigan in their bowl game, a play with a pulling guard and a quick bubble route attached to punish the Chippewas if they kept their linebackers in the box to maintain a plus one advantage in defenders to blockers:

And then again, this time targeting the weak side linebacker from a 2x2 set:

The design of the play is aiming to keep the defense from getting more than five defenders in the box against a four receiver set, or more than six in the box against a three receiver set. From there, they have all these different blocking schemes designed to help create down blocks on the DL and favorable angles in reaching the linebackers.

The OL is at great advantage up front on this one. Everyone is blocking down, they get a guard with a short pull and crease to find the middle linebacker and either screen or drive him (whichever proves easiest), and the outside linebackers and safeties are being held by the threat of the quick screens into space.

Montgomery’s use of a diverse run scheme combined with screens, quick passes, deep shots, and play-action allows their practice time to be devoted to mastering these blocking schemes and their personnel to be chosen based on executing the main run blocks or the handful of routes. It’s perhaps the ultimate non-blueblood offensive system for the way it can turn players with limited skill sets into cogs within a masterful system.

The Tulsa offensive line is a great example of this effect:

LT: Evan Plagg, 6-3, 292. Redshirt junior from Oklahoma.

LG: Tyler Bowling, 6-6, 325. Redshirt sophomore from Oklahoma.

C: Chandler Miller, 6-3, 290. Redshirt sophomore from Oklahoma.

RG: Alex Pagonis, 6-5, 320. Senior from the Florida panhandle.

RT: Willie Wright, 6-3, 296. Redshirt sophomore from Houston, Texas.

You’ll notice that their interior OL are bigger than their tackles and their tackles much shorter than your average. It looks a bit more like a Boise State offensive line, save for the use of big heavies at the guard positions. Like the Broncos, they are using play-action and some max protections (using a TE and RB) when they need to keep their QB upright long enough to throw down the field:

Tulsa likes to have big, mauling guards inside that are hard to get through on inside blitzes such as this one and who are a load to handle up front in the run game when they have angles to make up for their lack of quickness. Their tackles still need to be athletic but because they aren’t being asked to handle premium pass-rushers without help on drop back passes too often, they needn’t have NFL size.

This system is allowing Tulsa to pick off the shorter, lighter tackles other teams pass on and still get size inside because the athletic requirements of their guards are minimal. On this clip above the left tackle gets to slide out and protect the edge without worrying about anything inside of him while the right tackle gets to help inside and leave the outside rush to the TE and RB. You wouldn’t realize these guys were limited prospects coming out of high school watching them execute their system.

Montgomery’s magic trick

Everything detailed above is great and immensely valuable to programs like Tulsa that need to figure out how to control the line of scrimmage without access to premium talent. Tulsa’s diverse run game, spread spacing, and RPO mix is masterful for accomplishing this goal, but over the last couple of weeks we’ve detailed other approaches that can arrive at the same end game.

Where Montgomery’s offense differs is in how they handle those safeties, which are dropped back in the clips above.

There are two main approaches to handling smashmouth spread and spread-option tactics like these that Tulsa employs. One way is to use your DL and a single inside linebacker to account for the interior A and B gaps while everyone else drops deep and wide to keep all the spread out receivers in front of them.

That’s what Central Michigan is trying to do in the examples above. In the first clip they use a tackle-end stunt to try and give the middle linebacker a moment to deny the quick bubble screen before filling his assignment in the C-gap, which is an easier gap to protect from his spread out alignment than an interior A or B gap which is farther away and might feature an advancing OL blocking his path.

Tulsa’s answer to games like that is to use their diverse run game with plays like the guard pull above that can complicate the process for an undermanned box by moving around the gaps they’re trying to maintain.

The other approach is to man up across the board on all of the spread out receivers and thus deny the quick and easy passes and screens while still gaining a “plus one” advantage in the box to take away the easy angles and numbers for the run game.

A different underdog offense like the Boise State system can struggle with this tactic if and when they face teams that actually have the athletes to man up their receivers. At that point they have to have receivers that can beat man coverage, a QB that can deliver them the ball, and then an additional section of the playbook to master of tactics designed to help them get open. The Broncos handle those challenges pretty well, but the Tulsa solution is more devastating.

Any time they see single coverage on one of their receivers or any area in the deep field where they have an advantage they are immediately taking deep shots. What’s more, they are regularly practicing these shots so as to be as accurate and efficient in executing them as possible:

They get a single-deep safety coverage here from Central Michigan and are taking the deep shot without hesitation. When executed, this style puts a ton of pressure on any opposing defense that doesn’t feel confident they can consistently stop these throws. The percentages on these throws add up in the offense’s favor the more often they take them, much like the three point shot in basketball. The reward is so great that if you can get away with taking a ton of them, the math will eventually work out in your favor.

Unless you’re just up against a team that you can’t find any remotely good coverage matchups against, leaving you to try and spread them wider and getting whipped up front when your OL no longer has help...

Most of the teams on Tulsa’s schedule can’t match up and pull this off, which leads them to the Central Michigan strategy drawn up above in which they are trying to play off on the passing game and hoping not to give up long scoring drives on runs. They’re hoping that if they can stop Tulsa from throwing over the top that they won’t be beat badly enough in the trenches that the score gets out of hand.

But because Tulsa’s offense is fairly simple and their execution so precise, with everyone chosen and developed precisely for their limited roles within the system, they’re typically still able to work their way down the field and pile up points on the scoreboard. Just see their two 1k yard rushers and 10 victories in 2016.

The only way that the conservative, bend don’t break strategy can work is when the defense has a decisive advantage up front, such as having a five-star defensive tackle...

This Golden Hurricane run is drawn up pretty well to overcome the fact that Houston is using their three-man defensive front to play five in the box without conceding angles and interior gaps. Tulsa has its big guards kick out the Houston DEs and then fold its speedy tackles inside up to the linebackers:

The only problem is that it’s Ed Oliver at nose tackle that the center has to keep under control without help. Montgomery threw a variety of different schemes at the Houston 3-4 front trying to make headway and was done in time and again either by the alignment of the Cougar DL or the fact that they couldn’t block Oliver.

No big knock there though, no one else can block him either.

What’s next for Montgomery and this offense?

There are two smaller questions packaged into this big picture question. The first revolves around what Tulsa is going to look like in 2017, which then sets up the sorts of opportunities that will dictate what the next stop will be for Montgomery and this staff.

Robert Griffin III was the one that really put this offense on the map and established Baylor and this system as national players, but QBs like Bryce Petty, Nick Florence, and now Dane Evans have also approached his numbers and hit the 4k yard and nine yards per attempt thresholds. The key is a QB that can hit the throws down the field that frighten the defense away from trying to man up across the board and outnumber the run game.

This offense can run the ball very effectively but you have to take away the deep throws and quick screens first because they can kill you too quickly and too easily if you concede advantages there.

The 2017 Golden Hurricane will be without Dane Evans after three years as the starting quarterback. They return back-up Chad President, but the third year player has been used mostly as a wildcat trigger-man to this point and completed just 5.3 yards per pass in their spring game. If President can’t bring enough lethality to the passing game then fellow third year player Will Hefley might get the nod. Hefley hails from Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, AR which is known for its unorthodox and explosive passing game, so he might be the perfect fit. If President gets the nod and he isn’t as proficient in the passing game we may see both Tulsa and USF looking to adopt this offense to running quarterbacks this season.

If Tulsa can pull off another 8-10 win season in the AAC then Montgomery will be in line for the bigger jobs that will inevitably come open. One obvious and strong fit would be for him to replace Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech if the Red Raiders can’t win some games this season. West Texas has made a good home for creative spread coaches that know how to maximize local talent before.

This is an ideal offense for turning a program that lacks the ability to recruit a lot of bluechip talent with NFL measurables and it tends to shred even some of the opponents that do have those kinds of players. Running the ball is typically what wins in college and coaches that can figure out how to do it regardless of where they are coaching tend to find opportunities.