About a month ago we discussed the progress of the Tulsa Golden Hurricane offense, an offshoot of Art Briles’ offense led by his longtime offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery. The Golden Hurricane have been doing very well and their run game blossomed in year two of the system, setting up 2017 as a year in which they could contend for the AAC crown and perhaps catapult Montgomery into a bigger coaching job.
Montgomery represents one of two main stems in the Art Briles coaching tree which is slowly starting to spread across college football:
Despite Art Briles’ amazing success on the field at Baylor at producing extremely explosive offenses, there hasn’t been a major proliferation of his staff just yet in part because they are somewhat limited in number. Briles only ever had two OCs during his time, Montgomery and then his own son Kendal.
Dino Babers was with Briles at Baylor for four seasons as a wide receiver coach and then left after the 2011 breakthrough to take a head coaching job at Eastern Illinois. He took Sterlin Gilbert from Temple HS, a coach who’d absorbed the Briles offense both as a GA at Houston and then with access to the staff, and initiated his own branch of the coaching tree.
Gilbert would later go on to work with Montgomery at Tulsa before striking out on his own with Charlie Strong at Texas in 2016 and then USF for 2017. Perhaps due to his time with Montgomery in Tulsa, Gilbert runs a more pure version of the offense that Art Briles invented out in Stephenville, Texas. Dino Babers actually runs what’s become his own version of the system and it has differences from what Briles and Montgomery have utilized.
Stressing ‘em out with the passing game
The wide splits of the Briles’ offense were always intended for the benefit of the run game. The offense was built around RPOs (run/pass options) with burning fast receivers waiting out on the numbers to turn screen passes into easy gains if defenses didn’t get enough numbers out wide to stop them and then to punish man coverage with deep shots.
The 2016 Tulsa Golden Hurricane ran for 3392 yards while the 2013 and 2014 Big 12 champion Baylor teams ran for 3376 and 2802 yards respectively. However, those offenses were look to score and they'd content themselves to run it down your throats after you conceded the box to prevent quick-six plays.
Dino Babers’ teams haven’t worked quite like that. His 2013 Eastern Illinois Panthers are his only team to reach 5.0 ypc and his Bowling Green teams never quite established the run with the ferocity of Briles’ Baylor squads. It’s no doubt challenging to build a downhill run game, even with arguably the best downhill run scheme in college football history, and Babers hasn’t stayed in any one job long enough to have coached OL that he hand picked and developed over multiple seasons.
It’s also possible that his background as a receiver coach has resulted in him having greater familiarity with how to attack teams at the skill positions rather than up front with the line. There’s no doubt that Babers has been able to quickly build explosive passing attacks that do exactly that. Jimmy Garappolo may well end up being better known for his NFL career than what he did with Babers but his 2013 season (year two with Dino) saw him hit 5213 passing yards with 55 TDs and 10 interceptions. At Bowling Green they got rolling in 2015 (year two) when QB Matt Johnson got healthy and threw for 4946 yards with 46 TDs and eight interceptions.
Babers is a big fan of utilizing a wide variety of four-wide and empty sets, including FIB (formation into boundary) formations to try and over stress opponents with the passing game. The wider splits limit the route variety but they also make slants and hitch routes more difficult to cover for teams trying to keep numbers in the box.
With concepts like double slants and all hitches the Orange can force opponents to spread out their defense much further than they’re used to, all the way out to the hash marks and beyond. The only trick is that they need to be willing and able to punish teams over the top with the deep, outside throws that keep teams from sitting aggressively on the simple, quick throws to the hash and perimeter. Of course, Babers understands this dilemma and they are willing to do exactly that:
The ‘Cuse were pretty aggressive and willing to attack deep and wide with their passing game in 2016, taking deep shots and embracing the challenge of making difficult throws down the field:
On this play QB Eric Dungey sees the boundary safety (the VT Rover) rolling to the trips side, theoretically leaving the backside corner all alone in man coverage. In reality, the Hokies have dropped their boundary end to create a cover 2 bracket between the end and the corner, but they fail to handle the spacing together and the ‘Cuse still get the ball through for a first down.
But that was a tough way to win games in the ACC
At some point, you face opponents that will dedicate the necessary resources to eliminate your favorite plays and areas of the field. If there’s an area of the field where you can’t hold up to honest numbers and there’s another area of the field where you can’t beat numbers, then you’re going to do down.
For Syracuse, they were vulnerable to teams that were willing and able to embrace their spread sets and dare them to win up front against a depleted box. Florida State and Clemson both went this route, mostly playing 3-3-5 looks with their boundary DE sitting on underneath routes while their nickel and middle linebacker spread wide to take away the easy throws to the field:
Both teams were good enough up front to get pressure with a three-man rush and to survive against Syracuse’s run game. The Orange threw for 172 yards at 4.3 ypa with three INTs against Clemson and 196 yards at 5.3 ypa with two INTs against Florida State.
Syracuse ran for 105 yards at 3.8 ypc while giving up two sacks (and a huge blow to Eric Dungey) against Clemson and then only 35 yards at 1.1 ypc against Florida State, in part due to the ‘Noles getting eight sacks. They were simply outmanned in the trenches and those opponents knew how to make the most of it.
Max coverages that dare Syracuse to beat opponents mano y mano in the trenches are a big problem that they didn’t have great answers for in 2016.
The Art Briles or Philip Montgomery offenses put a much greater focus on smashing teams in the box with a variety of run schemes that allow their OL to work with either favorable angles or double teams. When they want to give their QB more time to throw it deep, they’d mix in play-action with max protection.
Most of the OL that Baylor has put in the NFL over the years have been big, interior guys and they were able to regularly make hay without requiring NFL tackles (although they did have one in Spencer Drango) to build their pass protection around thanks to their run game and play-action.
The best Baylor teams were massive up front, it made it exceptionally difficult to withstand their downhill run game or to get around them in pass protection, particularly when they were hurrying up and down the field. Dino Babers’ shares Art Briles’ appreciation for using lightning tempo, often making the most of it when opposing teams struggle to line up as wide as their receivers before the snap to collect free yardage on quick throws.
The 2017 Syracuse roster returns four OL that got a lot of starts in 2016 and they have some big guys emerging such as the 6’6” 330 pound right guard Evan Adams and 6’7” 338 pound right tackle Jamar McGloster.
Syracuse showed glimpses of being able to get downhill year ago, occasionally mixing in two-back “spread-I” formations that could allow them to mix a smashmouth run game with outside throws:
This is where Baylor’s offense became particularly explosive, using the wide splits to make it difficult for linebackers to move downhill to the point of attack, instead forcing them to move laterally and then getting shoved aside by massive OL and lead blockers.
As the defense became more conscious of the need to get moving towards the line with momentum then the deep throws off play-action or even actual run blocking would eviscerate opponents over the top.
Syracuse averaged 7.4 yards per pass last year and Babers’ most explosive passing attacks at Eastern Illinois in 2013 and Bowling Green in 2015 each averaged 8.6 yards per attempt. Meanwhile the 2013 and 2014 Baylor Bears averaged 10.4 yards per attempt and 9.1 while the 2015 and 2016 Tulsa Golden Hurricane averaged 8.8 and 7.7.
Dino Babers’ charges have always worked to master a greater variety of passing concepts and quicker option routes underneath then these other versions of the offense. That’ll probably always remain true but the Orange will need to get better up front either in pass protection or in run blocking in order to overcome tactics like what Clemson and Florida State utilized to shut them down a year ago.
Whether Dino Babers continues to use an evolving, almost Air Raid-like system that puts greater emphasis on the passing game or whether they focus on getting tougher in the run game, Syracuse is a team to watch out for in 2017 and this branch of the coaching tree is one that could emerge in a major way in seasons to come.