The discussion about if and how we're going to use tight ends in the passing game has become something of a yearly ritual for Mountaineer fans. It's something that we've been collectively pining for ever since the idea of a pass-catching tight end first began fading into obscurity with the rise of our Power Spread. This isn't to say we haven't been using tight ends, mind you, just that we haven't been using them as, ya know, tight ends. Guys like Sammy Morrone, Tyler Urban, and Cody Clay developed cult followings as they dutifully slogged their way through year after year in the trenches, but for the most part they didn't provide much more of a threat through the air than the tackles they lined up next to.
Consider that Urban's 20 receptions in 2011 were BY FAR the most by any of our tight ends since the turn of the century (seriously though, nobody else has caught more than 10 balls in a season since 2000). There are probably a couple of things that we could point to try to explain why things have been the way they've been, but regardless, that's a fairly disturbing trend, especially considering that we haven't exactly been pass-averse since Dana took over.
However, with a legit Heisman frontrunner at QB, Trevon Wesco's apparent leap as a playmaker, and the addition of guys like Jovani Haskins, TJ Banks, and Mike O'Laughlin, the consensus seems to be that the "if" discussion might finally have a positive answer in 2018. The part that hasn't been talked about as much though, is the "how" - how exactly are we going to use these guys? And because it's an accepted cliche that football is a copycat game, I thought it'd be interesting to take a look at how Penn State and Oklahoma deployed two of the 2018 NFL Draft's best tight end prospects (Mike Gesicki and Mark Andrews) to see if there's anything we can learn (read: ideas we can steal).
Two quick notes before we begin: First, a big part of what makes these guys who they are is their ability to split out and basically do David Sills things. Since it's not clear that we have any TEs that are capable of that I'll be focusing only on situations where they're attached to the line for this piece. Second, I obviously don't know what Oklahoma or Penn State's plays are called. My play names are simply trying to describe what's happening. On to our first lesson.
Oklahoma actually runs a couple variations of this play, but there are two in particular that I think fit in with what we try to do offensively. Here's the first..
And the second..
The key difference between the two is obviously the jet motion in the second clip, but in both cases Oklahoma utilizes play action to force the defense to attack the line of scrimmage, with Andrews helping to sell the fake by pretending that he's blocking on the edge. When executed properly, he's able to simply "slip" off the block against the flow of the play and find space behind the defense, creating an easy pitch and catch. It's an extremely simple play design that's not really unique to any one team (here's Penn St running something similar), but it feels like Oklahoma has always been particularly good at it due to the quality of their offensive line (teams have to respect the run). Considering the weapons we have on the outside and the space they'll create in the middle, you have to figure that we should have no trouble finding similar success with this type of play from any number of formations.
All 32 NFL teams run some variation of this play down around the goalline. It's generally more of a designed pass, but Penn State's take on it is to incorporate the RPO, giving McSorley the option to handoff or throw based on how the defense reacts. You'll notice the low hats along the offensive line that traditionally indicate run blocking, and Gesicki sliding across the formation as if he's going to kick out the edge rusher in the event of a handoff. Except that the handoff never happens. McSorley sees the edge rusher sitting on the handoff (and ignoring Gesicki), so he correctly pulls the ball out and dumps an easy pass to Gesicki, who, with the field-side corner vacating the flats to cover #3, has a clear path to the end zone. Another very simple pitch and catch, and another play that would fit right into our playbook.
Trips RPO Wheel
This is a sneaky little play that could technically be called in any area of the field, but I really liked the combination of situation and alignment that they used in the red zone here. Wheel routes can be tough to run on the short side of the field simply due to the lack of space, but by deploying trips to the wide side Penn State forces the defense to shade that way, effectively giving them that extra little bit that they needed. There are things happening on the trips side (and you can be sure that they have a whole package of plays that look a lot like this one that are designed to go that way), but McSorley's primary read here is the backside safety. Does he attack the run or sit back on Gesicki's release? When the safety attacks, the decision is made. Gesicki engages his man briefly to sell run before releasing, and with everybody else locked up on the other side of the field there's nobody left between himself and the endzone. Easy pitch, easy catch, easy money. I don't think that kind of overload should be too difficult to replicate if we were to trot Sills, Simms, and Jennings over to the wide side, right?
Goalline Pick Play
Another classic goalline play - the pick. No need to overanalyze here - Gesicki lines up like an H-back and simply angles to the pylon while running his defender into the slot receiver. You'd have to think we could slay with this concept with the big bodies we have at receiver.
Empty TE Angle
We'll finish up with a nice little man-beater that could help us in any area of the field - it's just as easy to imagine this play being called to open a drive as it is to imagine it being called on 3rd-and-5 in enemy territory. Man-beater, by the way, simply means a play that's designed to beat man coverage. Oklahoma goes empty (no RBs) with Andrews attached to the right side of the line and trips split to the left. The idea here is simple: isolate Andrews on a linebacker, clear everyone out of the middle of the field, and trust Andrews to win 1-on-1 in space. That's child's play for someone of his quality, and if Haskins and Wesco are anywhere near as good as everybody's saying they are, it's something that they should be able to do, as well.
The hardest part of the equation is how will offensive coordinator Jake Spavital use all of our playmakers. David Sills and Gary Jennings will likely dictate they play every down. Marcus Simms provides a homerun threat needed to keep safeties from sitting on intermediate routes. Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway definitely need touches at running back. And if reports are to be believed, TJ Simmons will force defense's hands, as well. It's a great problem to have with too many playmakers. Now Dana and Jake just need to figure out the best way to use them all.