Setting the scene:
Saturday 2nd November 2019, the Memphis Tigers handed the Southern Methodist University Mustangs their first loss of the season. Both teams ended the game with an overall record of 8-1. Despite the loss, SMU are home to one of the finest and most surprising offenses in college football.
Over the past 5 years, SMU have averaged a disappointing 4 wins a year, averaging less than 27 points per game on offense. The 2018 season was Sonny Dykes first year as head coach, and despite going only 5-7, the programme was clearly much improved.
The main reason for the success this year is due to the high-flying offense averaging 43 points per game. There are two main features to this offense that have been so successful:
- The Rushing Attack
Schematically, the run game is not anything special. They primarily run the ball out 10 personnel and where possible, SMU use their slot receivers to crack block interior linebackers. This opens space on the edge of the field for Jones to run into. An example of one of their key runs can be seen here:
Lead running back Xavier Jones has 905 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. More impressively, he is currently averaging 5 yards per touch. He is an incredibly special athlete who threatens to score every time he touches the ball.
The running philosophy is simple: Give Xavier Jones the ball, as quickly as possible, with as much space as possible.
Here are some highlights of Jones’ best carries so far in 2019, including this play above:
- The Deep Passing Game
Shane Buechele was the starting Quarterback at Texas in 2016 before losing his starting job to Sam Ehlinger mid-way through the 2017 season. Although his time at Texas was unspectacular, he has finally hit his footballing stride by transferring across the state to SMU. So far this season, through 9 games, he has scored 25 touchdowns for only 7 interceptions with over 300 passing yards per game.
One of the biggest reasons for this success is due to the extremely well-structured deep passing attack of SMU.
SMU have two primary types of deep passing; One-step Fades & Play-action Posts. We will explore these below
- One-step Fades:
These passes are the perfect compliment to the threat of Xavier Jones. As mentioned, they primarily run the ball from 10 personnel, a formation with 4 wide receivers, designed to spread out the defense and create more space for Xavier Jones to run the ball.
In their attempts to stop Jones, many coordinators try to stop SMU with man coverage. They put their cornerbacks on an island against the SMU wide receivers. This gives Buechele an opportunity to attack, he trusts his receivers and is incredibly accurate on deep outside throws.
Below is an example of a one-step passing concept. When opponents regularly use man coverage, SMU call a play like this. The QB takes the snap, takes a drop step, and throws a fade to one of the outside receivers.
- Play-action Posts
The other type of deep pass that you see from SMU, is the Play-action Post. Typically, they run this from either 11 or 12 personnel, and it usually involves a 7-man pass protection and 3 offensive players running a route. Although they often have three routes, the play is designed to throw to the deep Post route.
An example of this concept can be seen below:
This is excellent play design for so many reasons; Firstly, because there are 7 blockers, Buechele always has lots of time to throw, making post-snap defensive coverage reads much simpler and reducing errors resulting from a fast pass rush.
Secondly, because they always call this play out of either 11 or 12 personnel, it forces defenses to align with more players in a position to stop the run. This makes the pre-snap reads more clearly defined, as the defense is unable to hide what type of coverage they are in.
Thirdly, it’s a very straightforward throw. Although the throw is about 50 yards, the catch is almost always made by a wide-open receiver, being trailed by a single defensive back. Therefore, he doesn’t have to thread the pass between layers of defenders, he just throws it to the deep middle of the field.
Finally, it is a simple read for the Quarterback. Buechele essentially only has one option, throw to the deep Post. He’s a talented QB, but he is at his best when he doesn’t have to think about where he is throwing the ball.
See some highlights of these deep passes below, including the example pictured above:
Special Mention: The Pass Rush
There is one reason for SMU’s success that is also worth noting; this is the much-improved pass rush. Although the defense isn’t great, they are getting lots of opportunities to rush the passer, because opponents are trying to keep up with the high-scoring offense. They currently have 40 sacks through 9 games, the joint most in college football.
A great example of the success is Patrick Nelson, the former safety who has converted to linebacker. He has 10 sacks this season, one of the most in college football. This is particularly impressive for a defender so capable in coverage.
Players like Xavier Jones & Shane Buechele are excellent college football players who have learned to expertly execute this offensive scheme. But more importantly, the scheme is perfectly built around the skillsets of Jones, Buechele & their extremely fast receiving unit.
If defensive coordinators don’t respect Jones and the rushing attack, he will make them pay.
If opponents overcommit defensive resource to the run & rely on man coverage, then SMU will attack with deep passing concepts.
Right now, this offense is a nightmare for coordinators everywhere.