Texas Tech parted with one of the most well respected and impressive offensive minds and QB coaches in the nation when they fired Kliff Kingsbury, opening up a huge opportunity for whoever can offer the QB King the best package. Now Tech is aiming to find a coach that won’t field lopsided, incomplete teams that can’t stand out from the middle of the pack in a league of dominant offenses.
Matt Wells got the job because he was finally able to do that in his last year at Utah State, finishing 10-2 two years after he hired a new spread OC to bring a more potent offense to pair with his perennially stingy defenses.
Matt Wells at Utah State
|Recruiting rank (247 consensus)
|Recruiting rank (247 consensus)
Well’s ability to field some balanced teams that could compete for MWC championships without recruiting at the same level as the regional powers surely drew Tech AD Kirby Hocutt’s attention.
Breakthrough in northern Utah
Utah State’s 2018 season got off to a promising start when they came within a possession of beating Michigan State on the road in the season opener. In fact, had it not been for their typically stout defense’s struggle with the classic Spartan speed option to the short side of the field that has been responsible for so many game-winning drives in for the home team in Lansing, they probably win that game.
Following that contest, Utah State went 10-0 with wins over BYU (45-20) and ultra-explosive Hawaii (56-17) before losing the de-facto Mountain division championship in the season finale on the road against Boise State (33-24).
The impressive dimension to the 2018 season for Utah State was the way they combined an explosive, HUNH spread offense with their Gary Andersen-style of defense. They moved pretty quickly with 72.1 plays per game, sometimes at the sort of “blur” tempo that is common in the Big 12, and other times at a more deliberate pace. Combining a spread offense in which the QB (Jordan Love in 2018) can throw for over 3k yards at 8.6 ypa (28-4 TD to INT) with an effective and physical defense is not a trick that many teams across the Big 12 have been able to pull off.
The big question now is how they pulled it off in northern Utah and whether that can translate in the rough and tumble Big 12.
Standing out in the Big 12
Most of the Big 12 recruits at a comparable level to one another and most of the Big 12 tends to recruit the same areas. When people discuss the Texas Tech job they often mention the need for hiring an ace recruiter that can win battles within the ultra talent-rich state of Texas. This is largely a misnomer in trying to describe the path to victory in this league.
For starters, the state of Texas contains nearly 30 million people and its football culture is very different than other places around the country. Whereas the similarly talent-rich states are often dominated by private schools that make football a greater priority, within Texas there’s an “athletic period” and the communities and Texas High School Football Coaches Association fight to make the public schools the place where high level development takes place. Consequently, there’s an overabundance of highly skilled “3-star” players to go around.
In the 2018 class, the 247 composite rankings included 50 Texas HS players that garnered a 4-star blue chip ranking and 352 players that had a 3-star ranking or better. In a related story, in 2018 the Big 12 replaced five senior starting QBs and still had five QBs throw for 2500 yards or more and six receivers go for 1k yards receiving with another six or seven more that could hit that mark after the bowl season.
Texas HSs love the spread offense and many of them will play their best athletes at QB or WR and give them high level instruction and practice in developing rep-intensive skills that make for devastatingly effective spread passing attacks. Winning battles for the top QB and WR talent in the state of Texas is, quite frankly, a highly overrated pursuit. EVERYONE has fantastic skill talent in this league, even Kansas had a WR in Steven Sims and a RB in Pooka Williams that would be starters or prominently involved in most offenses around the country. Across the Pac-12, Mountain West, and AAC you often find highly effective QBs (and other players) that were passed over by the Big 12 and SEC programs recruiting the state.
Big 12 offenses in 2018 by S&P+
Oklahoma has been blistering teams since Bob Stoops took over and brought the Air Raid with him back in 1999 and have only taken things up a notch since then, particularly with the hire of now-head coach Lincoln Riley in 2015. This year Oklahoma State replaced a school legend in Mason Rudolph along with two 1k-yard/NFL receivers in James Washington and Marcell Ateman...they plugged in a DFW WR named Tylan Wallace and a RS senior, walk-on QB named Taylor Cornelius and kept on scoring.
Understanding how to score lots of points with Texas recruits isn’t the strategy for winning this league, it’s just the starting point. There’s too much depth of talent and skill and the landscape is also not particularly favorable to Texas Tech.
What makes playing exciting, Big 12 football way out in the ocean of West Texas a better sale for Texas kids than doing so in Waco, Ft. Worth, or Stillwater? To say nothing of Texas, Oklahoma, or the dozens of top programs from around the country that regularly raid Texas for talent. Kliff Kingsbury built offenses as effective as anyone in the league while recruiting at a middle tier and it did nothing for Tech in terms of standing out from Oklahoma State, West Virginia, TCU, Baylor, or any of the other non-Texas/OU schools.
Matt Wells’ path to differentiation
Step 1: Giving the QB a leg up
While a spread offensive coach himself, Wells made a big adjustment in 2017 to try and give his moribund Aggie offenses a boost and hired spread QB guru David Yost. The floppy-haired coach has a rich resume that includes learning under Gary Pinkel and coaching up Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert at Missouri, teaching inside receivers with Mike Leach at Washington State, and then coaching Justin Herbert for a year at Oregon before joining Wells in Utah.
Yost understands how to use spread tactics to help his QBs attack defenses and, perhaps more importantly, is excellent at teaching his QBs to understand how to use those tactics. The middle tier of the Big 12 often sees exchanges between six or seven teams from year to year depending on which squad has a QB that understands how to read defenses and attack them while protecting the football. Even Texas and Oklahoma are not immune to periods of underachieving (2015 for OU, 2010-2017 for Texas) when they lack a QB that can attack defenses with efficiency. Gary Patterson’s TCU is well known for playing great defense but when they don’t have an experienced QB that can at least protect the ball and manage a spread offense, their D has not been able to save them from some tough seasons.
Yost’s technique for helping his QB involves the normal tricks of spread spacing, tempo, a simplified attack, but then also a hybrid TE and a downhill run game. They run the typical “smashmouth spread” formulas, combining inside zone, power, and counter running plays with perimeter screens to speedy little slots to create multiple stress points for defenses.
Even out in northern Utah they can still find water bugs to throw quick passes to that are a nightmare for defenses to tackle in space. Boise State and Michigan State both yielded 300-yard passing games from Love because they were concerned with the smashmouth rushing attack that had Darwin Thompson running for 951 yards and 14 TDs at 7.2 ypc and Gerold Bright hitting 785 yards and eight TDs at 6.3 ypc.
Then in the passing game they’ll flex their TE out and move him around to manipulate matchups in the secondary and clear up the read for the QB.
Even out in northern Utah they can find big, skilled receivers that are difficult to cover when facing one-on-one matchups with the QB throwing to a spot that’s been repped in practice a hundred times. This simply isn’t an issue for a team that knows how to evaluate and develop within a spread concept.
The TE is primarily a blocker and he needs to be a good one that can take on DEs, but as a receiver he mostly just needs to know what routes to run and have solid hands. They’ll tend to throw to that guy primarily when defenses ignore him or shift their defenses to try and get coverage to the main threats. This is the position that really matters for this offense.
By using the TE as a blocker with perimeter pass options attached for the QB, the defense is left in a position where if they want to outnumber the run game they need to be able to beat perimeter blocks and tackle in space OR play some tight man coverage and risk getting spread and shredded in the passing game. It’s essentially the same spread philosophy that Tom Herman and Matt Campbell have utilized since they joined the league.
Step 2: Attacking the opposing QB
The defense Keith Patterson will be bringing with Matt Wells to Lubbock is a multiple front, quarters-based unit that deploys multiple hybrids across the lineup. The philosophy is to muddy the read for the QB so he doesn’t know where the ball should go, stop the run, and then bring precise and economic zone blitzes on third down to get off the field.
The way they handled Hawaii should be encouraging for Tech fans unused to watching effective, anti-spread defense:
You can see two parts of their solution to the spread in this clip. For starters, we begin with Cole McDonald stepping up to the line to make sure that the OL is well instructed on picking up a pressure that isn’t real and then trying to force a quick slant against a max coverage when the outside hitch was an automatic gain. Additionally, although he hits his WR in the hands there are some gator hands at work here with the safety coming down. The Aggies were very good at leveraging the ball and delivering punishing blows to teams trying to find space:
They tend to utilize the safeties pretty aggressively against the run in general but they move them around and don’t show the coverage when the QB is surveying for the pre-snap reads that will allow him to drop back and quickly throw to a spot to his best WR. The LBs move around as well, showing deep drops or overload blitzes from snap to snap. On passing downs, they bring all kinds of bizarre fronts and packages. Overall it’s a similar approach to what Todd Orlando has done at Texas and indeed Orlando’s last stop before joining Tom Herman at Houston was...Utah State, where he learned this style under Matt Wells.
Step 3: Roster construction
The challenge at Tech is that Kliff Kingsbury wasn’t recruiting TEs to Lubbock, nor was he assembling the greatest defense known to man, and the cupboard will be bare at a few key spots for Wells. They’ll have to aim to address the bald spots immediately with transfers but it can be pretty difficult to get a “dual-threat” TE, pass-rushers, or safeties and backers that can play with great fundamentals and toughness in a single offseason. Texas had major growing pains on offense in 2017 because they lacked a TE that could make the run game work, the OL fell apart due to injuries, and they had to rotate QBs all year.
Part of the appeal of Matt Wells for Texas Tech had to be that he was so successful at building teams that were competitive in the Mountain West without being able to recruit at a level competitive to Boise State or other programs across the league. Part of that process included high level development of players with redshirts but another significant factor was their embrace of being a destination for transfers, JUCO or otherwise. The 2018 roster included four transfers along the OL, two up front on defense, and three in the nickel secondary.
There’s a good argument to be made that a better path to winning in the Big 12 at a school like Texas Tech is having a knack for choosing “the right” 3-stars, developing players well, and having a chance at high level athletes that are harder to win over coming out of high school in the transfer market.
If you’re coaching up players and can offer a spot in a fun, competitive P5 league to a talented player that didn’t fit at his previous program or had to seek out a second chance for various reasons, you can field teams with a lot more talent than your rankings would suggest. Dana Holgorsen has shown a similar knack at West Virginia but he has struggled to find a balance between defensive and offensively oriented teams in Morgantown, ditto Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State.
If Matt Wells can come close to matching their offenses while fielding top 40 defense then Texas Tech could ascend as a primary, annual contender to Texas and OU for the Big 12 title.