2016 College football trends and predictions with Kyle Jones from Eleven Warriors

Kyle Jones is a regular contributor of X’s and O’s and scheme breakdowns for Eleven Warriors, an independent site for Ohio State fans. I got the chance to pick his brain about the upcoming CFB season, new concepts, and Ohio State’s main challenges for 2016. Kyle also drops a bombshell. He picks the player who is flying under the radar, but who will win the Heisman.

You’re working at Twitter with brand strategy and dive into X’s and O’s for Eleven Warriors – that’s one unusual combo?
Working in the Tech & Advertising worlds always interested me when I was in college, so working at Twitter for the past four years has been a great blessing for me. Oddly enough, though, it was my gig at Twitter that connected me with the guys at Eleven Warriors. I had been an avid reader of 11W for years, and after exchanging a number of conversations via Tweet & Direct Message with their team about how to maximize their presence on the platform, we developed a strong relationship. Not long after, they asked me to come on board and contribute to their scheme analysis pieces. Writing about Xs and Os is a total passion project for me, though, and provides a great escape from the corporate grind.

Ever thought about coaching?
I got the coaching bug in the summer after my first year in college, when my high school coach got me a job coaching at Cleveland Browns youth camps. Right away I realized that the void of not playing could be filled by simply being around the game in this new capacity, so I was hooked. I continued coaching throughout college, but couldn’t find a way to continue doing so once I graduated and moved from Ohio to Chicago. Luckily, around the same time the information boom on the internet was just taking shape, with sites like SmartFootball, BrophyFootball, and CoachHoover all popping up to give me my football fix and stay close to my favorite part of the game. After a few years away from the game, Eleven Warriors fortunately allowed me to join the fray as contributor, and I can never thank them enough for giving me the chance to do so. To answer your question though, I think about getting back into coaching almost every single day. I haven’t found a way to make it work with all the travel required by my day job, but it’s certainly always on my radar.

The coming season, which game, from an X’s and O’s standpoint, do you look forward to most?
Selfishly, I can’t wait to dig into the film of Oklahoma as I prepare for their matchup with with Ohio State on September 17th. I love the way they incorporate both backs into their strain of the Air Raid, and given how similar Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars are to the Buckeyes, their opening week matchup with the Sooners should give us a great preview of what’s to come two weeks later. Outside of the Big Ten, there should be a lot of interesting matchups in week one that I’ll have my eye on, including Clemson vs. Auburn and Alabama vs. USC. However, I think with so many returning starters for both offenses, the Florida State vs Ole Miss matchup might be the most interesting to me. Jimbo’s expansive pro-style and Freeze’s Uptempo-Hurry Up systems are very different philosophically, but should execute at very high levels that night. Lots of points could get put on the board, but by very contrasting means.

Walk us through your process of breaking down film?
If I’m watching a game live, I like to watch it on a TV and tend to focus on one area (Such as run-blocking schemes or secondary alignment), and simply make notes of when important or unusual things happen so I can go back later and review. From there I’ll re-watch the game as many times as I need to, just like I did as a coach, to make sure I understand what all 11 guys are doing on a particular play. I always take lots of notes during these second viewings, either a pen and paper or a blank word doc on my computer, to help organize the information dump that tend to take place. These later viewings often take place on my laptop, since I take countless screengrabs, much the same way coaches and players break down photos on the sidelines of NFL games. Those still-frames are invaluable to me. I tend to spend the most time in the first quarter, as you can start to see patterns emerging within a team’s game plan early, and then know that they’re going back to a particular concept we’ve already seen later in the game. Finally, I look for the counter and constraint plays, as those are often the most interesting part of play-calling in my opinion, and often give me the most interesting angles to write about.

New concepts on offense you are excited about?
I’m most interested to see college teams build RPOs that don’t include a QB run component, allowing traditional pocket-passers to take part. A bunch of NFL teams have been playing with this idea, but there is so much more freedom with the different rules in college that I think we could see much faster development of ideas at that level. To me this is the evolution of play-action, as the threat of an actual run is never truly taken away. I think the first offense to master the downfield RPO will be looked at as the next Oregon/Baylor-type of innovator.

New concepts on defense you are excited about?
A potential shift away from ‘Quarters’ looks against spread teams. Virtually every defense in America runs this coverage now it seems, meaning every offense has answers for it. Obviously, if a defense executes properly it should be fine, but everyone knows the weak points in the system, and even average offenses are capable of abusing them now (like Western Michigan did to Michigan State last fall). There are obviously lots of ideas out there for how to defend the spread, like what Don Brown did at BC and is bringing to Michigan with his ‘sight’ technique, but I’m most curious about what becomes the next big trend, because I think we’re due for a shift. Information moves too quickly now for the reign of Quarters to stay on top in college football.

In your crystal ball, what’s next after RPO’s?
Given that football strategy is mostly cyclical (with new window dressing), I think we’ll see a market correction in the form of complexity giving way to simplicity. Defenses will get so caught up in worrying about defending everything that there will be windows for teams that can execute simple 3-step passing games or strong inside run games to tear them up. In that regard, I think we’ll see a shift in focus from expansive strategy to fundamental execution, much as we did in the 90s when everyone went to what we now refer to as ‘pro-style’ systems after tinkering with Wishbone or Run N’ Shoot offenses the decade or two before. This trend may take 5 years to fully come to fruition in college, and even longer at the high school level, but it’s coming.

credit: Jeremy Birmingham/Eleven Warriors
credit: Jeremy Birmingham/Eleven Warriors

Spotting any trends on defense? Like hybrid linebackers/safeties – will this evolve?
As the game becomes more focused on safety, the push for ever-bigger athletes will begin to diminish, leading to more of these hybrid ‘space players.’ More than ever, the game is being played on a three-dimensional plane, getting stretched both horizontally and vertically. That means defenders have to do more in a greater area. The era of specialization on defense is behind us, as safeties and linebackers have to cover wide receivers, and both cornerbacks and defensive linemen will have to tackle in space. That shift of doing everything will lead to that exposure of basic fundamentals I spoke about in the last question.

Favorite play on third and short on offense?
Maybe it’s because I’ve watched too much of Urban Meyer’s offenses, but on 3rd and 2 I’m running a 4 wide set to spread the defense, then running a simple tight zone-read. I’m letting my big guys up front execute and giving my QB an easy decision. In those situations, the non-measurable parts of the game tend to make the biggest difference, so I’m not going to to over-complicate things.

Favorite play on third and short on defense?
Having said that, I’m going to dare the offense to do something they don’t want to by bringing an extra body or two in the box from the get-go. I still admire what Bud Foster did to Ohio State in 2014 by playing a Bear front with straight-man coverage behind it, daring the offense to either recognize it and audible out to something they don’t really want to run OR run right into the teeth of a front with a clear numbers advantage.

Only one play to run on offense for entire game?
As things stand today, I still love the flexibility of an RPO with different passes on each side with a zone-read in the middle of the field. The Ole Miss Hitch/Bubble/Inside Zone combination is a good example of such a look.

Only one play to run on defense for entire game?
If I’ve got the horses, I’m stealing Pete Carroll’s model and just playing Cover-1 with a safety in center field. The Corners will take away your passing game and my strong safety gives me an extra body in the box. We don’t see it much in college, although DJ Durkin had some success with that look at Michigan last year.

Positions that evolve most over the coming years?
I think what LeCharles Bentley is doing with training offensive linemen will change the way we evaluate and develop that position. The idea that you can just stick your biggest, most athletic guy at left tackle and eventually his physical traits will win out is seeming more and more prehistoric by the day. Defenses are moving their best pass rushers all over the place, and now coaches have to make sure all five guys on the line can pass block against stud rushers. So, developing their solo pass pro techniques in the offseason the way skill players train for 7-on-7 will become the standard expectation for high school OL prospects. Like it or not, academies like Bentley’s will begin popping up all over the place. Coaches may not like it because some of what they teach is counter to what will be taught once fall camp begins, but the overall benefits of working on stance, footwork, hand placement, and so forth will be a net positive in my opinion.

Any CFB head coaches you would like to see in the pros?
Given the style differences between the two levels right now, though, I’m not sure if there is another shoe-in beyond guys the obvious names like David Shaw, Jim Mora, or Nick Saban. I’d still love to see Saban give the pros one more crack (for a lot of reasons), but mainly because he seems to have adopted an agnostic approach to offense while still running such a relatively advanced defense. I think he just needs to find the right OC for that level and he’d succeed. For the same reason, I could see Mark Dantonio succeeding, simply because he’s shown an ability to win with multiple defensive systems (Cover 3 at OSU, Cover 4 at MSU), but isn’t tied to any specific ideology offensively.

Call it- this year’s Heisman goes to?
I think the preseason hype won’t allow the front-runners like Watson, Fournette, or McCaffery to have a single misstep (as unfair as that may be), leading me to lean towards someone like Dalvin Cook or Nick Chubb. Those two are both incredible players that are a bit in Fournette’s shadow, and (assuming Chubb is 100% healthy) will get tons of touches on teams that should be in enough of a spotlight for people to take notice. My longshot is Royce Freeman from Oregon though, as I think he is a phenomenal back that doesn’t get the credit he’s due on the east coast. He’ll put up some silly numbers in that offense, where he’ll be the focal point.

Players that we will be talking about this year?
Besides the guys I just mentioned, I think JuJu Smith-Schuster becomes this year’s IT receiver, the way LaQuon Treadwell was in 2015, and Amari Cooper the year prior, and will be a sure-fire top-10 pick next April. I’m not bullish on Texas A&M’s chances as a team, but Myles Garrett will still garner a ton of deserved attention for being such a freak. Along those same lines, though, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett might play himself into that same conversation and may well be a household name by year’s end playing for new DC Bob Shoop, who has a track record of developing pass rushers. The final guy I think we’ll all hear a ton about, but for different reasons, is Jabrill Peppers. Simply because he’s being labeled a ‘linebacker’ now, the move will create controversy if the Michigan defense isn’t absolutely dominant, although I don’t think the criticism will be deserved. Either way, it will be a talking point all year long.

credit: Jeremy Birmingham/Eleven Warriors
credit: Jeremy Birmingham/Eleven Warriors

What’s your take on Ohio State for this coming season- how will they evolve schematically? What are their main challenges?
Last year they seemed to be handcuffed by their desire to get all their playmakers touches on offense. They lost balance by forcing a jet sweep to Braxton Miller, and they ended up behind schedule on countless drives that ended prematurely. Make no mistake, there is still plenty of talent on this team, they might just not be household names besides J.T. Barrett yet. But, the keys are in his hands and they’ll be much more agnostic in their approach to spreading the ball around, letting the defense’s weakness dictate where the ball goes instead of forcing it to Ezekiel Elliott or Mike Thomas just because they’re there. Defensively I think we’ll see more of the same, with a deep defensive line that causes problems. Malik Hooker seems like the heir apparent to Vonn Bell as the playmaker on the back end, and Raekwon McMillan should contend for the Big Ten tackles lead. The biggest question is who/how they replace Darron Lee as the SAM linebacker in space. Chris Worley looks to be the starter, but Lee was such a special player that he gave the defense so much flexibility by wearing to many hats at once. It remains to be seen if Worley can do the same, but if he can, this unit should pick up where it left off last year despite losing eight starters.


 

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