Fall camp is coming to a close and game one is on the horizon. Whether the time has gone by slow or fast, the final days on the countdown clock are excruciating.
Below, I have a few note points from news and reports out of fall camp that I find intriguing and believe important. Then, I turn to some film from the Alamo Bowl to tie the last time the team took the field to the next time we will see them don the cardinal and gold (or black!!). The film observations indicate a link between scheme shifts that I believe will be utilized and expanded upon in the upcoming season.
Fall Camp Note Points
Note 1: The competition level for playing time has truly skyrocketed at Iowa State. In order for a player to make a move up the board, he must make special plays on a consistent basis. Measurements like quickness out of breaks, cut angles, pursuit, body position, or hand placement are now separators versus raw athleticism or pure experience. It is easier to win in the margins on game day when you have to do it in practice to earn the right to play.
Note 2: There is so much buzz about Breece Hall that I think I have a bee in my bonnet. Hall exhibited a “5 tool” equivalent skill set in high school as a runner (power and speed), a pass catcher (hands catcher), a route runner (from the backfield and split out), and he must be showing recognition and blocking skills for me to be hearing what I am. We will see, but a quicker emergence that what Montgomery had in 2016 may be in the cards here.
Note 3: There won’t be any discussion of the defense in the film work below. I think they are a given. Worst case scenario is similar production to 2018, which was a winning effort in all but two games. The building of depth and competition driving that depth provides the possibility of another step forward, primarily due to the front seven. The possibility exists that the front seven wins its individual matchups on a regular basis versus the scheme wins that have sparked the turnaround. Needless to say, the defense should put Iowa State in a position to win its games if the offense can hold up its end of the bargain. Bonus: I expect JaQuan Bailey to have an eye-catching season.
Note 4: Word of a bonded, competitive offensive line room and the most veteran players in the room bringing a higher level of consistency to their play is a positive sign for the offense. Eliminate the false starts from the Alamo Bowl and the unit put together a solid effort. I am to the point of expecting solid play with occasional flashes. That means that there is a five-man fit with one or two fit and drive/turns with a few multi-player finishes sprinkled in. The result will be less negative run plays and hopefully a yard per attempt average north of four.
Note 5: It hasn’t been seen on the field of play yet, but ISU has some receiving talent. DeShaunte Jones and Tarique Milton will lead, but the rotation for the balance of the snaps will reveal some capable play makers. Joseph Scates, Darren Wilson, and La’Michael Pettway may just cause a stir early and often.
Note 6: If my position on the tight ends has not been made clear, then go re-read most of my work over the last two seasons. This may be the season the fandom is introduced to the “Nasty Boys” and how they can effect a game.
Note 7: Finally, this team seems prepared to be cohesive and focused out of the gate. The UNI game is extremely important with a bye week following. Not only is it important to provide a dominant performance, but if the mistakes are marginal and play is solid, then the bye week becomes a week of polish and progression. If the game is sloppy and closer than expected, then the bye week becomes a week of searching and switching, which will be daunting for the game against Baylor in week 5.
Linking the past and future
The last time Iowa State was seen on the playing field it was against 10 win Washington State in the Alamo Bowl. A heartbreaker of a game, where the margin was within an Assalley doink.
However, Iowa State utilized some philosophical scheme variants in the game versus Washington State that portend of things to come in 2019. In addition, certain units exhibited play that indicates an upward projection in 2019. A few examples are provided below.
Clip one is a simple out route. A timing based concept that had been utilized prior to this game. However, it is illustrative of the quarterback play and used here to alleviate one of Iowa State’s largest impediments to consistent offensive performance.
First, note the quarterback. My colleague, Jeff Woody, has noted extensively that Brock Purdy has a tendency to bail and be unsettled in the pocket. He and I share the opinion that Purdy must settle himself in the pocket in order to distribute the football through a read progression.
Here, Purdy bails early, but note the flash fake. Against Kansas State and Washington State, ISU began to utilize the play fake as a timing mechanism for the stop, out, and comeback to the outside receiver. The result was calm feet and a ball delivered on time and accurately.
The larger context here is that the play is a counter to pressure. Constant edge pressure has hampered Iowa State in several of its large games. Iowa State has failed to effectively combat the pressure, which is not an easy thing to do, but plays such as the one shown above are an effective pivot. The success of this play against the pressure deployed by Wazzu, in spite of the Kolar whiff, portends of a pressure defeating package that has the dual purpose of calming the quarterback and settling his timing.
Also, if Darren Wilson is tapping these routes as Brock Purdy states he is, then there is a change he takes this throw to the house.
Players, FORMATIONS, plays. The formation here is delicious. Unbalanced left with back to the strong side and flanker wide. All three tight ends are eligible. The implications here are for the running game, but the pass game possibility is quite intriguing.
It is difficult for a defense to set in a manner where they are not outnumbered against this formation. To balance the numbers, the defensive backfield has to adjust, but they are off the ball and out of the box players. Therefore, there is a run game number imbalance in favor of the offense when a base package is used against this alignment.
The imbalance is demonstrated in this play. Blockers extend to the second level on the snap and at the end of the play there are two blockers at the third level. Unfortunately, Montgomery misses the space and only gets what is blocked — but that is the larger point here.
The offensive line, by wash and push, resets the line of scrimmage five yards down the field. Montgomery does not have to make his initial cut until he is three yards past the line of scrimmage. That is a dominant run play executed by the offensive line. There is a scheme assist, but this is an example of the dominant play that Coach Campbell alluded to in the spring. Further development by the unit, with a scheme assist, should result in optimism about the projected progression of the offensive line.
Just to prove it was not a one play aberration, here it is again. Same players, same formation, same play. This time, Montgomery makes a cut earlier to find a soft spot and picks up 18 yards. Notably, the offensive line resets the line of scrimmage at three yards and there are two offensive lineman and one tight end with the ball carrier as he is tackled more than 15 yards down field.
Second level blocks are the key to adding explosiveness to the run game package. They are the result of individual play and wins, but can be schemed as well. The two plays above give a great look at how both can work. When the offensive line plays as is shown here, it does not take David Montgomery to generate explosive yards on the ground.
If this set is used with tempo, then Iowa State gains an advantage against most Big 12 defensive packages. A similar formation was used effectively against West Virginia. In 2019, I expect to see variants of the set and an interesting passing option utilizing vertical stretch and levels concepts from the tight ends.
The play shown above is interesting on a number of levels.
First, Purdy displays his lack of comfort in the pocket by bailing early. The end result is positive, but the next step in his progression is to remain still and alert and move when necessary.
Second, the formation is unusual. The two outside receivers are Soehner and Seonbuchner — the two F backs. Purdy buys enough time to hit Seonbuchner crossing the field wide open. To the extent Coach Campbell talks about matchups, this would be an example of seeking a mismatch on the outside with the size and speed offered by the tight ends and F backs.
This is a creative use of the size and speed of the players at these positions. Iowa State has shown that they are willing to stress the defense by placing these players in non-traditional alignments. The target area, in the hole, is correct and Iowa State gets to the target in a creative manner. There are opportunities against each of the 2019 opponents to utilize this type of scheme and personnel package to exploit the middle of the field in the mid-range. I fully expect that the Alamo Bowl was just the beginning of Iowa State’s utilization of creative route trees utilizing the skills of Soehner, Kolar, and Allen.
Speaking of using the tight ends in the middle of the field, here we see an excellent example of just that.
Iowa State runs verticals. The two outside receivers extend deep and the tight end curls in the hole to provide a target in the expanding window. Purdy finds him late, but the pass protection allows for the slow read.
The play is run against drop 8 coverage, meaning max coverage. Yet, the deep midrange middle is wide open. The hole is opened up by the outside pressure leaving it open for a stop route which creates maximum distance for the recovery. A Tampa 2 type drop can thwart this play, but there are not many teams that will take that risk if Iowa State can develop a deep threat on the outside.
Against Washington State, ISU utilized the tight ends while spread wide to cross the field and from a traditional alignment to stretch it vertically. It seems apparent that a projection of an increased workload for the tight ends will not involve routes run exclusively behind the chains. There are clues here that ISU will stretch the field and use the size/speed advantage in the mid-range with an attack from multiple angles.
Finally, some would place this play in the category of a trick play. In fact, it is a simple play action slip pass using counter motion — most often referred to as a counter pass.
I love this play so much that I designed an entire offense around the concept in the offseason.
The receiver runs off the coverage and the line does an excellent job selling the play and blocking effectively without getting downfield. Purdy sells the counter well and uses excellent footwork for the drop pass.
Note that WSU brings six in a pressure package. This play uses the pressure against them as the pass is made counter to flow which out paces any recovery that can be made, only a chase down angle is left. Just like the flash fake stop route shown earlier, this play is a counter to a pressure heavy package.
In the Alamo Bowl, Iowa State opened the window for its next evolution of offense based on its players strengths. Where there was an advantage in heavy usage of Butler and Montgomery in 2018, the 2019 season brings skill and size to bear at multiple positions in interchangeable slots. With that comes an increased ability to deal with pressure packages that have been deployed successfully against them in the recent past.
If the offensive line picks up where it left off against Washington State (fewer the penalties and acknowledging that the WSU defense is similar in structure to many Big 12 defenses), the quarterback settles in the pocket via maturity or scheme assist, and the tight ends are allowed to attack in the deep middle, then the balance of the skill on the team will not only have the time to develop, but can become very dangerous pivots for an emerging offensive presence.
Fall camp has provided some interesting developments, but most importantly, reports of improvement and competition at a higher level than what has been seen in the last three years. I do not know what the season will reveal with regard to wins and losses, but I am confident that it will reveal a stout defensive unit complemented by a more creative and evolving offensive plan.
See y’all, The Sunday After.