The 2017 season was not a particularly good one for the “veer and shoot” offense Art Briles built and unleashed at Houston and Baylor before having to resign in disgrace. The offense itself remains on the cutting edge of modern spread offense and some of its vertical, spread-iso components are still likely as not to prove immensely influential on the direction of the modern game.
Baylor’s zenith, from 2011 when RG3 won the Heisman trophy, through the 2014 season when Bryce Petty led the team to their second (ever) and consecutive Big 12 title still looks more advanced offensively than much of the rest of college football. Their mastery of RPOs was at a very high level while they had worked out how to use their wide splits to not only make their run game a nightmare but also to create predictable coverage responses from defenses which would allow the offense to work the vertical, iso routes that really made this offense lethal.
But in 2017 the coaches of the Briles veer and shoot tree didn't have a terrific year and aren’t quite in position to seize hold of the college football landscape. Here’s how things look currently for that tree in the college football world:
Art Briles’ tribal and closely guarded nature limited the number of coaches that worked for him so while there are bits of his influence scattered across the world either from coaches that visited his programs or that just studied his team’s film, there aren’t a large number of coaches that have run the veer and shoot under one of the original masters.
What’s more, while Dino Babers studied the offense under Briles at Baylor and took off with it on his own while spawning new adherents, he also gave it his own spin and made it much more of an Air Raid-style passing offense. It hasn’t fully taken off at Syracuse in the ACC although they were able to give Clemson fits a year ago.
The left side of the tree include coaches that actually coordinated the offense under either Briles’ direction (Kendal or Montgomery) or under the direction of someone else who had (Gilbert, who coordinated under Montgomery and also Babers). The teams on the left side put a greater emphasis on the run game. There will likely be more coaches that emerge in the future who learned and implemented the offense at the Texas high school level with input from Briles or one of his disciples that get a shot in the future but for now, this list is basically it.
Here’s a rundown of where everyone is at entering 2018.
Dino Babers and the Orange-raid
The Orangemen are entering the 2018 season with five returning starters on the OL (four from 2017 plus a 2016 starter that missed 2017 with injury) and also return their starting QB Eric Dungey after a solid junior year in which he threw for 2495 yards and added 749 on the ground before missing the season’s final three games with injury.
On the other side of the ledger is a defense that hasn’t put it together (99th in defensive S&P+ in 2017) and the departure of their top two receivers, Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips. That could loom considering that Syracuse wasn’t terribly effective running the football in 2017 unless they were running it with Dungey (who was then hurt after only 117 carries) and the more passing extensive nature of Babers’ version of this scheme.
The best Dino Babers offense was undoubtedly the final one of Jimmy Garappolo’s tenure at Eastern Illinois in 2013 when he threw for 5k passing yards. Or perhaps the Matt Johnson Bowling Green offense in 2015 that approached that 5k number and stopped just short at 4946 in a 10-4 season. At any rate, we haven’t seen anything quite like either at Syracuse yet with Eric Dungey struggling to break through even the 3k yard marker.
It may be that they’re just looking to get by until former 4-star Tommy DeVito can take over a fully Babers-built offensive program. At any rate, their experience at QB and OL may allow them to reach bowl eligibility but they aren’t knocking any doors down yet in the ACC.
Sterlin Gilbert and Philip Montgomery and dual-threat conundrums
While the veer and shoot’s sole Heisman-winner, RG3, was a dual-threat QB, the offense isn’t designed so much to rely on a running threat at that position. Really it’s designed to push the extremes of how a QB can constrain the defense with his arm, even flipping the script such that they attach their passing game to their run game so that defenses have to play the pass first and then worry about the run game.
The most misunderstood nature of this offense is that their goal is to pass to set up the run, they want to score points first and will settle for pounding you with handoffs after you back off and look to secure the end zone from deep shots.
But in 2017 Gilbert and Montgomery both found themselves with running QBs at the helm of their offenses and struggled somewhat as a result.
The USF offense that Sterlin Gilbert inherited was the “Gulf Coast offense” of Willie Taggart’s design, which basically meant that while it also utilized spread sets and wide splits for the receivers, it was much more of a QB-run scheme. The design of that offense was largely to create two-man option games such as the bubble screen attached to a QB iso run, a zone or power option scheme involving the QB and the RB, and then occasionally the more typical RPO involving the QB either handing off or throwing a quick pass.
After running for 1609 yards and throwing for 2812 more in Taggart’s O, USF QB Quinton Flowers ran for 1181 and threw for 2911 in Gilbert’s veer and shoot. While the conventional wisdom was that Charlie Strong and Sterlin Gilbert were in great shape because they were inheriting an experienced spread QB and personnel, this was only partially true because the nature of the veer and shoot is so pocket oriented and Flowers was not a pocket passer. They still had a solid year but couldn’t win the AAC East division.
For 2018 they could turn to former five-star transfer Blake Barnett or roll with one of their younger QBs. At any rate, most of the experienced playmakers that either coach was looking to feed in space have moved on now. This will be Sterlin Gilbert’s seventh year as a college coordinator and only the second time that he isn’t installing the offense at a new destination so it will be interesting to see how he adapts to this different experience of building on core concepts and reaching higher levels of proficiency rather than figuring out how to get a new group to execute the offense at a workable level in year one. If it goes well he’ll probably be back in a year one install situation in 2019.
Montgomery faced a similar issue in 2017 although it was more of his own creation. When he left Baylor for the Tulsa job back in 2015 he took four-star recruit Chad President with him and installed him at QB for the 217 season. President’s fit at either Baylor or Tulsa wasn’t always obvious and there was some question about whether he’d convert to wide receiver or stick at QB. He got the nod at QB and threw for only 921 yards and five TDs at just 5.3 yards per attempt while Tulsa went 1-6 in the games where he took heavy snaps. He did run for 480 yards at 7.7 ypc but again, this offense isn’t built to use the QB run game to clear space for the backs.
Gilbert’s main back at Texas, D’Onta Foreman, ran for 2k yards while paired with a freshman QB (Shane Buechele) who played because he was the only QB on the Longhorn roster that was a legitimate pocket passer rather than a running QB.
When Tulsa mixed in freshman QB Luke Skipper he threw for 1141 yards at 7.3 ypa but took 17 sacks and also only won one game for the Golden Hurricane. The win came against Houston when he only threw 18 passes but hit one of them for 70 yards and managed to keep lanes clear for their RBs DeAngelo Brewer and Shamari Brooks to combine for 258 yards and two TDs on 41 carries. Presumably they’ll turn back to Skipper in 2018 but they’ll also have Baylor transfer Zach Smith running the scout team and hoping the coaching staff can last until 2019 when he’ll become eligible.
In the meantime, neither coach has really been able to showcase the full capacity of the offense that everyone saw at Baylor in the golden era of the scheme and coaching tree.
Kendal Briles emerges from Last Strike U
Not too many coaches or programs were lining up to be the first to give Kendal Briles a shot after the Baylor fiasco but Lane Kiffin, who’s been collecting fellow anti-heroes around himself at FAU, took the opportunity to bring him aboard.
Technically Kendal wasn’t pegged with any wrongdoing at Baylor but it’s just been difficult for anyone to believe that he (or Montgomery for that matter) could have been oblivious to the system of player discipline (or lack thereof) that took place in Waco during that period of time. The optics of hiring him certainly aren’t great, even after his year at FAU, but he’s managing to climb back up the ladder and his star is somewhat on the rise as a guy that can give a team access to the full Briles offense and who had real success in 2017.
However, it’s hard to tell how much of FAU’s success was really Briles and how much was Kiffin. On the surface it looked much like another veer and shoot install, the Owls started running lots of spread sets that had the effect of loosing a star RB (Devin Singletary) to run for nearly 2k yards while his back-up (Gregory Howell, Jr) added another 740.
If you watch the FAU game film though you’ll find that earlier in the year they looked more like a Baylor offense and later in the year when they hit their stride it'd come after replacing pocket passer Daniel Parr with dual-threat Jason Driskel to run something that looked much more like Lane Kiffin’s spread offenses at Alabama.
So technically we’ve not yet seen Kendal Briles successfully install and run the veer and shoot without either his father being prominently involved or another spread offensive HC overseeing and masterminding things.
Nevertheless, Kiffin was undoubtedly able to absorb some of the knowledge and tricks of the trade from the veer and shoot system for his own usage while Briles got his foot back in the door in the college coaching world and had a successful season that catapulted him into the Houston OC job.
This is where things should really get interesting. Major Applewhite just struggled through his first year as the HC at Houston after the Cougars had to land on him to replace Tom Herman after they didn’t bring Lane Kiffin aboard for one reason or another that hasn’t fully seen the light of day. The major issue for Houston was a Kiffin/Gulf Coast O-type spread scheme that had been dominant when Greg Ward, Jr was the QB but struggled when pocket passer Kyle Allen was at the helm.
After a 4-3 start with Allen and Kyle Postma, Applewhite finally turned to Ward-Facsimile D’Eriq King and subsequently defeated South Florida while finishing 3-2. King ran for 417 yards on the year at 6.6 ypc while reaching 1260 passing at 8.3 ypa and would have seemed to be positioning Applewhite and the offense perfectly for year two. Instead, Houston hired Kendal Briles and subsequently brought in transfer pocket passer Quinten Dormady of Tennessee. It was a suspicious chain of events in Houston and given the reports that have long floated around about the desire of some Cougar boosters to bring Art Briles back you have to wonder if this isn’t part of a plan to try and get that offense and perhaps Art himself back in Houston over and against any wishes on the part of Applewhite.
Meanwhile for 2018 it’s one more season in which a coach from this tree has to navigate the fact that most other “spread to run” programs involve QB runs and run options rather than the more pocket-orientation of the pure veer and shoot offense. If Briles can get Dormady up to speed in a single fall or otherwise figure out how to make the most of D’Eriq King’s not inconsiderable skill set within his father’s system, then this offense and coaching tree should be well positioned to continue to be a major influence on the game heading into the next decade.