Apologies that its taken so long, but we’re back this offseason to take a long look at the X’s & O’s and philosophies that we’ll see this fall when our Dawgs return to action. With my breakdown of the defense taking longer than expected, I decided to pivot to the offense to take a look at what DeBoer, Grubb, and the offensive brain trust bring to a roster that is loaded with talent and experience.
By all accounts, the offense that we will see on Saturdays will be the Ryan Grubb Show, and I am ready for the fireworks. The 2021 Broyles Award nominee, much like DeBoer, doesn’t have the name recognition that he might deserve, but he’s a talented offensive mind that understands how to piece together an offense that suits the talent on hand and can orchestrate them to perfection on game day. He might not have his name associated with one of the flashy offensive systems like the Veer Option, Air Raid, or Run ‘N Shoot, but in college football’s copy cat landscape, being flexible and astute enough to build around your talent by cherry picking from the best is the path to sustained success.
Elevating the Quarterback
I’m an offensive line proponent through and through. I played OL, coached HS OL, and I firmly believe that you build your roster from the line of scrimmage outward. However, in today’s game, you need to build your offense around your QB. A small swing in QB performance makes or breaks an offense, so elevating QB play through offensive scheme is paramount when building an offense.
Last year under John Donovan, Dylan Morris played in what could be described as the simplest yet least QB friendly offense we’ve seen in years. At times he’d be burdened with too many options and succumb to paralysis by analysis, and at other times he’d be handcuffed by overly simplistic and predictable play calling that didn’t provide him with answers to the defense. It’ll be up to Grubb to balance the two for whichever QB wins the job.
Passing Efficiency Through “Layups” & Scheme
With a shape shifting offense like DeBoer/Grubb’s that doesn’t hang its hat on any single concept, it can be tough to look back and identify how Grubb might choreograph the offense to suit UW’s roster, but looking back at Fresno’s 2021 tape, there are a few clues. The first I honed in on was his frequent and creative usage of the Mesh concept. By now, Mesh has been around for decades, and it’s a core concept within the Air Raid offense, but it’s also a concept that is flexible enough to be tailored to fit every offense and offers an easy progression for the QB.
Taking the Mesh play above, while not directly out of Grubb’s playbook, you can see the natural progression for the QB. In this case, the Z with a 3-route option might be the only read the QB needs to make depending on the CB’s leverage and how confident the QB is in the match up (more on that in a bit). In most cases, the Z will occupy the CB by pushing him upfield and drawing him towards the sideline. This opens up space between the numbers and the hash for the backside crosser (J) to attack, and if the OLB doesn’t immediately widen and get depth, its an easy pitch and catch for easy yards.
From there, the Mesh progression could be taught a number of ways to similar effect. Typically the progression would continue right to left (Z to J to H) where the H might help chip in protection before releasing in order to time up better with J’s crosser and step into the middle void. Alternatively, if you prefer to have the Z take the corner route and the J to get a little depth on the far side of the formation for more of a vertical stretch, you could teach the progression to be deep to shallow (Z to J to B) like a Sail concept.
Another benefit of Mesh is that, with minor tweaks to the formation and alignments, the offense gains a ton of multiplicity that was often lacking in Donovan’s offense. Bumping the H into the slot could widen the OLB out enough that he has to take an inside shade on the H, who could then hold the OLB inside long enough with his release where the running back becomes the 2nd read in the progression. You could also run this out of a 3x1 formation, add a hook curl over the middle to emphasize attacking the middle void, run a RB wheel as the first read, and layer additional sight reads for the crossers against zone coverage. The countless ways Grubb can mix and match the routes of the other three eligible receivers are why Mesh is a key piece of his offensive scheme.
While this might seem like a lot of information for the QB to process, even an average QB recruit coming out of HS these days is capable of processing a 3-man read like Mesh or a “triangle” read like Snag (which has spacing patterns similar to some versions of Mesh). These types of plays where 3 or more routes work together to create vertical and horizontal stress on a defense are much more effective at providing options to the QB than the more simplistic 2-route concepts that we ran last year, such as China (see below).
A QB without options is a QB that is likely to panic, which leads to more forced passes, turnovers, and sacks, all of which we saw from Dylan Morris last season. Leaning on concepts like Mesh that combine easier routes to throw and quick progressions should reduce the amount of pressure the QBs feel, offer opportunities for additional yards after the catch, and elevate the efficiency of the drop back passing game, much like how the screen game can bolster a passing game in certain situations.
Option Routes & Sight Adjustments
Circling back to option routes and sight adjustments, Grubb’s teams make use of both to great effect. Stealing a page out of the old Run ‘N Shoot “playbook”, sight adjustments make the offense right no matter the coverage, and this schematic/tactical wrinkle is something that we didn’t use enough under Donovan and Adams. Instead of trying to call the perfect play on every snap, Grubb delegates more responsibility to the players on the field to modify their routes to their advantage.
At its core, option routes give receivers (TEs & RBs included in some instances) 2 or 3 ways that they can modify their routes depending on how the defense is aligned. Typically the routes are dictated by leverage or coverage technique. For example, if a CB has inside leverage on a WR, then the WR would transition into an out-breaking route if he has it as an option. Conversely, if the CB is playing outside leverage, the WR might take an in-breaking route like a slant or dig. This can be applied to vertical route options. A WR with a primary fade route assignment might break off his route and convert it into a comeback route if he sees the CB playing off coverage.
We’ve already touched on one application of option routes within the Mesh concept, but for those that are less familiar with option routes and sight adjustments, a better example to illustrate these is within the Four Verts concept.
Four Verts is all about applying vertical pressure on the defense, but rarely does its base combination of fades and seam routes maximize spacing downfield. In the diagram of Four Verts above, you can see a few basic options that can maximize the stress on the defense and offer the QB with better options. Against a hard Cover 2 where the CBs stay shallow in the flats and the FS is sitting at or inside the hash, the Z might throttle down once he’s past the CB to present the QB with a “hole shot” on the sideline before he runs himself into the FS’s coverage. Its an tough throw that needs an aggressive QB, but it adheres to the option route principle of run/throw to space or where you’re open.
Alternatively, if the offense sees the safety alignment favors one side and will need to flow hard post-snap to cover the soft sidelines, then the Y might bend his seam route off the hash away from the strong safety, and run to the open grass between the deep safeties. If the strong safety bites on the Y, then that opens more space to rifle a shot down the sideline to the X. The adjustments all flow together if everyone is on the same page and reading the spacing correctly.
Even against a Cover 4, one of the best coverages against Four Verts, the adjustments laid out above offer excellent options for the QB to make a play. At a fundamental level, Cover 4 matches Four Verts man for man downfield at the expense of the underneath coverage (typically only 4 underneath defenders), and coverage assignments convert to man-coverage on routes beyond ~12 yards deep. Taking advantage of both the light underneath coverage and the man-coverage deep, the staff could coach the Y to convert his seam route into a ~12 yard dig in the hopes of finding a window in the underneath zone, as well as occupying the strong safety at a relatively shallow depth. If the H is a great athlete (maybe Culp or Moore), or if instead this is a burner slot receiver like Odunze or Jackson, then the Y occupying the strong safety leaves the FS in a 1-on-1 match up deep with the entire middle of the field to work with (much like a Yankee Concept).
Sight adjustments and option routes require a lot of practice to master since there are so many moving parts, but selectively integrating them into the framework of a staple concept like Four Verts and Mesh can offer our QBs better, safer options and an greater degree of security in the drop back passing game despite some additional complexity.
Integrating Running Backs to Help the QB
Another area that I’m excited to see how Grubb improves is integrating the running backs into all facets of the offense. I had hoped to see Donovan get our RBs involved with the passing attack, but it took us until late in the season (and after an OC change) for us to see any sort of uptick in RB production in the receiving game. This shouldn’t be an issue for Grubb. Last year under Grubb, Fresno’s Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims both had 300+ yards through the air, and a large portion of it was on designed plays for them.
Going back to the Mesh concept, one version that Grubb dialed up rather frequently had the RB running a wheel route out of the backfield to replace the perimeter WR.
Against man coverage, especially against a defense where the LBs aren’t respecting the RB threat to both the perimeter and vertically, this could be a killer.
Another way that Grubb gets the RBs involved in the passing game is through RB screens. Under Donovan, we leaned heavily on smoke/bubble screens that were quick passes to the perimeter, but we didn’t really use the RBs in the passing game other than as blockers or safety valves. At Fresno, Grubb utilized those types of screens as well as RB screens like swing screens and slip screens as an extension of the run game to capitalize on their athletic OL and to punish aggressive pass rushers. Set plays like these manufacture explosive plays while taking pressure off the QB on traditional drop back passing plays.
Play Calling & Other Tricks Up His Sleeve
While all of the aforementioned items are things to get excited about, a lot of what we discussed isn’t too dissimilar from Bush Hamdan, John Donovan, or Junior Adams’ offenses. What I’m most excited to see, but have the least understanding of at this point, is Grubb’s play calling and game planning. From what I can tell so far, he integrates both deep shots and safe underneath throws on almost every play, and by doing so he empowers his QB to play as aggressively and as efficiently as possible.
He also tries to minimize the number of pure drop back passing situations that his QB faces by leaning on play action, moving pockets (bootlegs, roll outs, etc.), screens, and a healthy run game. If the defense knows you’re going to pass, then they already have an advantage. By masking the true outcome of the play call on a majority of snaps, the QB is put in a far more comfortable position.
Grubb also tries to utilize as many personnel, formation, motion, and alignment tricks as he can to identify the defense through out the game. While he’ll lean on his best players, his offense isn’t a one-trick pony that’s stuck in 2 or 3 personnel groupings or formations, and when he finds something that’s giving the defense fits, he hammers the advantage. Against UCLA, Fresno identified that putting numbers into the boundary (i.e. trips to the boundary) threw off the defense’s run fits or left them the field WR in a 1-on-1. That came in handy throughout the game and directly yielded them a number of big plays.
Like I said before, Grubb might not have the flashy resume or name recognition of other Pac-12 newcomers, but he looks like he knows what he’s doing and is ready to deploy a modern offense that will surprise many.