One of the biggest black eyes coming out of 2014 for the Irish defense was their performance against uptempo offenses (and at the latter part of the season, offenses in general). In their game against North Carolina, they were exposed when they couldn't complete their usual substitutions and complex blitz calls due to the speed of the opposing offense.
In 2015, the Texas Longhorns are looking to move more uptempo, if their spring game is to be believed. With the preparation time they have had for the Irish, and the trouble Notre Dame had with tempo, I would be surprised if Texas didn't push the pace.
Texas will come out in a pretty standard spread offense, featuring the zone read as the base run play. They sprinkle in a lot of pistol like most spread teams, and appear to be a mostly straightforward operation. They will likely lean towards the run, unless their QB Tyrone Swoopes has taken a big step forward in the passing game over the summer.
Let's take a look at one wrinkle of the spread offense that the Longhorns are using that may prove advantageous against the Irish -- a common addition to many offenses that has recently taken a little shift in the spread offense, the H-back.
The H-back has long been a part of the game of football, but is showing up in the spread offense in a slightly different form. Often called a "sniffer" given his alignment directly behind the tackle's rear end, the spread H-back is primarily used as a lead blocker, misdirection/trap blocker, and passing option out of the backfield. His alignment in a "sniffer" position behind the offensive tackle allows him some extra flexibility when compared to a more traditional H-back alignment, outside of the tackle's shoulder. Lining up near the interior of the line makes trap blocks much quicker, allows the sniffer to lead block on dive/sprint plays, and generally keeps the defensive alignment much tighter (if that's what is desired).
Let's take a look at a few play designs taken from the Texas spring game where the sniffer/H-back was used to a strong effect:
The Wham play is one of the most common plays you will see a team using an H-back run. Instead of pulling an offensive lineman, the H-back is already in prime position to make the trap block on the end. This allows the other offensive linemen to downblock, and have advantageous blocks man-for-man. Oftentimes, the running back will press the hole behind the H-back, then cutback through the huge hole created by the end crashing down and the offensive line downblocking successfully.
The sweep play is another of the standbys of the running game for most offenses, allowing for an effective outside run. The H-back provides another advantage here, as the inside seal block is MUCH easier for a detached H back than it is for a pulling playside guard (commonly used in a regular sweep). The H-back is responsible for the first defender coming from the inside, which leaves the pulling center and tackle on pure seek-and-destroy missions. Oftentimes, the only block the running back will really need is the seal block from the H-back, which lets the RB get outside the defense very quickly.
One of the original constraint plays, the counter trey is great at punishing over-aggressive linebackers and secondaries. The backside guard pulls to make the pivotal kick-out block on the end, and our H-back is left to head up through the hole which he just created to seal the first player he sees. In an ideal world, the RB will split these blocks and have a long run to the end zone. This is the play that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Le'Veon Bell made a TON of hay on last year, and is something that the Irish will need to react to strongly this Saturday.
The H-back is often used the same way as a fullback, and one place that shows up is in the short passing game. There are several route combinations that involve the H-back, and the triangle concept is one of the simplest but most effective. The combination of these three routes gives the quarterback a vertical stretch, between the deep post and curl routes, and a horizontal stretch, between the curl and the H-back's flat route. It often results in one of the three wide open and ready to make a solid gain. In addition to the triangle concept, arguably the most dangerous H-back passing route is the wheel route. After consistently attacking the flats all game, a well-timed and well-executed wheel route can spell doom for a defense that has fallen asleep on the threat.
Texas's version of the spread will utilize the H-back to full effect on Saturday, and it is something that ND's defense has to be prepared to stop. What will the Irish defense see this weekend? Here are a few observations from watching some tape on the Longhorns:
- Texas's offense is most similar to 2014 Syracuse or 2014 Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl. I expect to see almost a mirror offense this Saturday from both teams.
- The major differences:
- Passing: ND will focus down the field, while Texas will utilize the short passing game
- Running: ND will be much more power-oriented, running right at the Longhorns, while Texas will likely try to use their speed and misdirection to get around the Irish defense.
- Tempo: I expect Texas to play very fast in this game. I expect the usual pace from the Irish, with the occasional speed-up.
- Texas will use plenty of waggles, rollouts, and sprint draws off those motions to try and make life a bit easier on their quarterbacks.
- Texas wideouts will go deep with double moves, fake bubble screens, and the like. Corners will need to stay disciplined.
- Contain the Quarterback: Specifically, this is for the defensive ends of the Irish. Against the zone read, it is up to the end to make the decision very difficult for the quarterback. I'm looking for our DEs to attack the quarterback's upfield shoulder and force the handoff, towards the strength of the defense. If the QB is able to get outside and get running, it could be a long day.
- Strong Line Play: Interior line play will be a big part of the day. Texas is starting two true freshman OL, and if the defensive line is able to take advantage of their relative experience, it will take a lot of pressure off of the linebackers and secondary.
- Deal With Tempo: In what may become a recurring theme throughout the year, I will be interested to see what the coaching staff has in store against an uptempo team. Limited substitutions will be likely, and I'd like to see that the Irish defense can still make play calls/changes despite the speed.