COLUMN: Examining the layers to Sark's offense
1) A coach who actually lives by players > plays...
“At what point is it about you or is it about your players?” asked Steve Sarkisian in late January 2020 at a Nike Coaching Clinic in Atlanta. “And I am I'm a firm believer in our job, our responsibility is to do put our players in the best position to be successful.”
If you needed proof new Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian talks the talk and walks the walk, Monday night’s CFB National Championship spoke louder than any words Sarkisian could say at a clinic, press conference or in a recruit’s home.
With a dazzling – and for the Ohio State defense dizzying – exhibit of motion and pre-snap positioning, Sarkisian helped Heisman winner DeVonta Smith amass an insane 215 receiving yards on 12 catches with three touchdowns. And he did it in basically one half. When Smith wasn’t torching man-to-man across different spots on the field, which his quarterback often easily recognized because of pre-snap looks, he was burning linebackers down the middle of the field because the safety was manipulated into the wrong spot.
And when Smith wasn’t getting the ball, the nation’s best running back, Najee Harris, was the bellcow against two-high safeties, scored the game’s first touchdown on a unique power call near the goal line, and showed why Sarkisian believes the running back is the least defended player in the pass game. Oh, and Mac Jones threw for 464 yards and Alabama averaged 7.5 yards per play against Ohio State with its foot off the gas for most of the final quarter.
Clearly, the Jimmies and Joes matter. A lot. As simple as it sounds to build an offense around maximizing the quarterback and getting the best players the football, it’s not that easy. Not long ago another head coach said players mattered more than plays. A few months later, Bijan Robinson still went into hiding during parts of the Alamo Bowl after averaging what felt like 49.7 yards per touch and the receiver rotation could star in a new episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
Part of the process, perhaps the most important part, is approaching offensive design, game-planning, and play-calling with a clear mind fixated on understanding what an offense wants to do to best fit and make its personnel consistently comfortable, how the defense will counter, and how to devise ways to get the best players the ball. Although Sarkisian could fairly be labeled an offensive savant upon arrival at Texas, he could more importantly be labeled as the play-caller and coordinator who got more out of his players than anyone else in the country.
How does he do it? This won’t cover it all, and is based mostly off Sarkisian’s 40-minute segment at the previously mentioned 2020 Nike Coaching Clinic. But I hope it provides a solid understanding of Sarkisian’s offense.
Make no mistake, Sarkisian wants to run the football. As fun as it is to watch DeVonta Smith fly down the field catching bombs, if a defense lines up in cover-2 with two high safeties, Sarkisian’s offense is going to run the ball until the defense adjusts to stop it. The Sarkisian offense begins with RPO and the above play is a staple.
“At any point, we can put other routes on here on the backside. And the hard part with this as an offensive coach and a guy who believes in running the football… I've never had a year calling plays in college football where we did not have 1000-yard rusher. So, I believe in running the ball [and] if you give the quarterback too many options, all you do is throw the ball."
“Well, at some point in my opinion, you lose the identity of your program, and you lose the identity of physicality and toughness, that this game is built upon; like this a physical sport,” said Sarkisian about throwing the ball constantly and not running. “That's the truth. Right, so we all want to throw it and it's fun, but a lot of times we put more blocking on our RPOs than most people would think.”
Sarkisian refers to the throws presented for a QB out of RPO as opportunity or advantageous often giving the quarterback a free completion. For example, safety rolls down to play the run, corner plays off in zone with inside alignment, easy pitch and catch to the outside...
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