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UWDP Roundtable: Fixing the woeful Husky running attack

Coach B and Brad Johnson agree: It was more about the X’s and O’s than the Jimmys and Joes in 2021

ASU v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

98 yards per game. 3.19 yards per carry. That’s how bad the Huskies were at running the football in 2021.

It was only the second time a Washington Huskies team rushed for under 150 yards per game since 2012. The other was 2019 (147 YPG). So, basically bad to worse the past two full seasons. Not really fantastic in shortened 2020 either, where they were 8th in the conference at just over 175 YPG.

To break down what they have seen the past couple seasons, I bring in UWDP’s resident Film Study royalty Brad Johnson and Coach B.

What happened in the running game under Jimmy Lake? Why couldn’t they run the (damn) ball?

Coach B:

It’s tough to pin the failures of the run game last year on any one issue, but I think that the over simplified run scheme had a lot to do with it.

In concept, the power run offense that John Donovan wanted to implement can still work in today’s CFB landscape. Stanford has done it in its purest form for over a decade. Michigan just got to the CFP with a slightly modified version. Sound football will always work. That was the problem though. Donovan’s version of the ground and pound power run offense wasn’t schematically sound.

Where’s the adjustments?

Offensive systems are more than just collections of plays and formations. Good systems have concepts and formations that fit together to keep the defense off balance. For every counter that the defense will have for a base offensive concept, the offense will have its own constraint plays that will punish a defense that cheats ( That was missing last year.

While we will probably see a lot of the same core concepts as last year (inside and outside zone, counter action, split zone), I’ve already seen enough from open practices to know that there is a better collection of constraint plays. Split zone runs will set up PA zone slice concepts that will prey on overzealous backside defenders. Outside zone might open up some pin and pull or counter run action when the defense over pursues the offensive flow. Simple additions to the offense should help the offense avoid being as predictable as last year.

Brad Johnson:

Biggest thing I think some fans miss is how genuinely stupid much of Washington’s offense was last season. Almost impossible for anyone to thrive, with the exception of a Derrick Henry-type running back. Reminiscent of the Tim Lappano/Willingham error offenses.

Second major takeaway, this group is going to look a lot better for two reasons. First, the run game in 2022 is schematically going to look a lot more like 2019 than the 2021 version. Second, and maybe more importantly, the Huskies culture was at least a little bit rotten last year. The Dawgs were maybe more aggressive under Jimmy Lake than they were under Petersen, but they weren’t very disciplined. They didn’t play very smart, and at times, not even very hard. They weren’t very cohesive, and I think this showed up a lot in two major areas - assignment discipline in the front 6 of the defense, and the poor play of the offensive line.

In regard to the offensive line: Same dudes, same coach; what changes?

Coach B:

As far as what we can expect from an OL group that has the same coach and many of the same faces as last year, I think it’ll be an improved group with a return to fundamentals and a scheme that better suits the talent. Huff has gotten flak over the years for supposedly not developing the talent that he’s recruited to UW, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. It might’ve just been a square peg, round hole situation.

The last few years under Bush Hamdan and Donovan have seen us move away from the outside zone and pulling run schemes that Jonathan Smith ran to great success early in Huff’s tenure. Huff has always recruited solid athletes that could move and execute those schemes but who might struggle in the downhill schemes that require maulers in the trenches. A good portion of Grubb’s called runs in the open practices have been outside runs that got our OL moving, thus utilizing their athleticism.

Troy Fautanu and Matteo Mele are good athletes as bookends (if they are the OTs this year), and Corey Luciano is as well. We might be able to get some traction on reach blocks on outside zone runs. Kirkland is good enough of a mover to also run those wide runs with him at OT.

I think we’ll get a lot better next year with a better set of core plays that play to our strengths. This group has the talent.

Brad Johnson:

I absolutely agree with two of CoachB’s overarching points: One, this was a square peg, round hole situation with the o-line roster and staff, and the offense that Donovan wanted to run. A lot of times in a coaching transition you’ll see existing players trying to change their bodies to adapt to a new scheme or philosophy until the new staff can recruit to the new ideal. It’s not that the current group of linemen can’t be downhill maulers, but they were recruited more for their athleticism first over sheer power. Add to that the passing game was simply not adequate, and we had a situation that put a premium on the things that the line was least adept at doing, with very little help.

Scott Huff might not end up being “the guy” for DeBoer here at Washington, but I don’t think his recruiting or development were anywhere near the biggest issues with the line last year. And I think the whole program can look improved simply by improving the health of the culture.

Would you agree that the current offensive linemen are not suited to a downhill, mauling run game, but one that emphasizes continuity and athleticism, like a zone scheme?

Brad Johnson:

I wouldn’t say “not suited” to playing downhill near as much as “better suited” to a zone scheme that can utilize space better. These are pretty much all highly talented, high recruited guys that make up the roster. Regardless, I’d say Coach’s point about the design of the offense is a much larger factor.

And I know we are talking run game here, but while on the subject of the Offensive Line and the old staff..

I was not a fan of the short set, zone slide pass protection of Chris Strausser, and I hoped it would change to a pro-style protection scheme under Huff. But it became pretty clear that what we saw was what Chris Petersen wanted, and what Jimmy Lake was content in keeping - probably in no small part to Huff being a pretty good recruiter. Kalen DeBoer is now the third Husky coach that has sought out and/or retained Huff. I’m sure he understands how to coach vertical set pass protections and more sophisticated blitz pickup schemes, so I hope that’s what we see under DeBoer. Because frankly, I’m going to lose it the next time a defense dekes the Husky line with a high school-level “fake overload left, then blitz right” play. That is on the scheme.

Coach B:

I’d say that our OL talent is pretty talented and versatile, but isn’t well suited to purely downhill schemes. Our guys can move laterally in a zone scheme, can pull or at least pin opponents in a power scheme, but our guys just aren’t the types of athletes that we can rely on to uproot 320 lb DTs in a straight 1v1.

Just clarifying, the Donovon scheme asked the OL to do a lot of straight 1v1?

Coach B:

Donovan loved inside zone but without many change ups or constraints. Inside zone can work for smaller OLs if you can get double teams on the DTs, push them off the LOS with numbers, and then peel off to get the LBs. However, if the offense doesn’t do anything schematically to keep the defense honest and not just tee off at the snap, then the OL can’t get those double teams on the DTs before the LBs are in their face. That’s why we had so many instances of our OL getting 1v1 blocks last season.

Regarding the running backs: So many unknown players and so few were healthy for spring. What do we make of all these guys?

Brad Johnson:

It’s interesting that most of the returnees on the roster are listed about 10 pounds less than they were in 2021. It makes sense that with the downhill design of the running attack under Donovan that there’d be the same priority placed on bulk with the backs as there was on the offensive line. That said, I don’t really think anyone knows what the Huskies have at running back for the most part. Including the coaching staff, since no one was really healthy for the spring.

I’m not sure I can separate the backs from the line from the scheme from the coaching in terms of apportioning blame for what we saw last season, but I don’t think it really matters. Mostly, I just hope the staff was being overly cautious with the abundance of injuries both small and large within the group, and that there’s a lot more competition when fall practices start.

Coach B:

I like the roster moves that the staff made in the RB room. They felt that the RBs lacked depth of playmaking ability and well rounded skill sets. Cam Davis and Richard Newton have some of that, but the addition of Aaron Dumas and Wayne Taulapapa gives them a much more complete rotation. Dumas has shown that he can be a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands, and Taulapapa is an excellent pass protector with solid short yardage rushing and decent receiving abilities.

Each of the hypothetical top 4 RBs is a legitimate rushing and receiving threat with some pass blocking ability. As we saw with Pleasant, having baseline abilities in all three areas can help elevate an RBs production beyond what is expected from their talent because the defense has to respect them even if it’s not a run play, and I think that every one of these guys can outplay fans’ expectations.