I have a confession to make...I was really on the fence about Darren Hiller coming into the 2015 season. I wasn't sure that the schemes that he favored in 2013, a mishmash of divergent schemes and philosophies. The lack of cohesion up front was noticeable from the start of the season. The Running Game started out slow, and never really caught back up to the passing game. Eventually the Bearcats stopped trying to run the ball all together, becoming a spread exclusive attack that made the Bearcats so efficient from mid October on.
That malaise in the running game carried over to the start of the 2014 season. The Bearcats ran pretty well against Toledo, but they struggled against Miami (OH) and could do nothing at all against Ohio State, Memphis and Miami (FL). At the end of five games the Bearcats were running for under 100 yards per game on an abysmal 3.62 yards per carry. At that point the Bearcats were in possession of one of the 20 worst running games in the country according to Football Outsiders S&P+ ratings. Then everything changed, and the Bearcats became rather good on the ground.
We already touched on the running back part of that transformation earlier in this series. The tl:dr version of it is simply that the Bearcats unexpectedly benefited from injuries to Tion Green and Hosey Williams. When Green and Williams were lost to the injury gods Eddie Gran had no choice but to turn to Rod Moore and Mike Boone. Both Boone and Moore turned out to be better fits for the offense the Bearcats were drifting towards for most of the first five games.
The scheme that the Bearcats were drifting towards was the inside/outside zone. The reason why Darren Hiller had to more or less abandon his preferred gap scheme for the zone really had nothing to do with the who the Bearcats had in the backfield, it was just a happy accident that the zone scheme was really a perfect for Moore and particularly Boone.
The package of running concepts that the Bearcats showed for roughly 18 games in the Gran/Hiller era is really, really complicated. They have a little bit of everything in that playbook; there is some of the Chris Ault Pistol schemes that Hiller picked up during his one year in Reno. There is some power and counter trey that Gran picked up from Al Borges back when both were at Auburn. They had a dash of the outside zone that became one of the hallmarks of the Florida State offense after Gran left Tallahassee to come to Clifton. That' something like 14 blocking schemes that the Bearcats had to master to make each part of them effective. Needless to say the Bearcats never really got close to the "mastery" stage. To get to that point what you really need is time and repetitions with the same guys in the same roles. Continuity matters more to the offensive line than it does to almost any other position group.
In The Blindside Michael Lewis described the play of a good offensive line as being vaguely socialist and he has a point, particularly in the running game. The players have individual skill sets that differ slightly from position to position, but to be an effective unit all the pieces have to fit in some sort of coherent way. It makes no sense to try to run a zone based scheme if you have five road graders up front. In the best of cases the skill sets of the players directly influence the kind of concepts that the offense uses to run the football.
The Bearcats for most of 2014 were not the best case scenario. The sheer volume of the offense when combined with Hiller's preference for rotating eight and sometimes nine offensive linemen* created its own problems. The familiarity and the comfort that the guys up front need to transcend the sum or their parts just wasn't there.
* The 2014 rotation as of the Toledo game:: Starters -- Eric Lefeld, Kevin Schloemer, Deyshawn Bond, Parker Ehringer, and Cory Keebler; Backups Tyreek Burwell, Dominc Mainello, Ryan Leahy, Justin Murray
When ACOLHG started to smite linemen left and right taking Schloemer, and Keelber out for the year it did two things. It forced Hiller to shorten his rotation, because he didn't have any more guys that could play. At the same time it forced him to really simplify the playbook. All the guys who stepped into new roles as starters (Leahy, Burwell and Mainello) were doing so with new partners. UC didn't really have time to muck about with getting the timing and the rhythm of the schemes down in the midst of their 8 games in eight weeks stretch. They had to turn to something that everyone knew, and that everyone would be on the same page with.
Enter the inside/outside zone. Of all of the popular blocking schemes in football the zone is the simplest to teach and the easiest to understand. Power, counter trey etc are complicated, almost balletic in nature, and like a ballet they require the mastery of a set of techniques that have to be executed in perfect time for the play to be a success. Here for example is what the pulling guard on a power play has to do.
- What's the defenses alignment (4-3? 3-4? eight man front? over? under? stack? showing blitz?)
- At the snap take your first step*
- Read your key's (Is your target where you expect him to be? is there a stunt on? Any free blitzes at the point of attack? etc)
- Beat the much faster running back to the hole so that you can lead him through it
* FYI There is more than one way for a guard to pull; favorites for the UC offense are the fold pull and the skip pull
By comparison zone blocking is simple. How the defense is aligned doesn't really matter, how many guys they have in the box doesn't really matter. Whether or not they blitz doesn't really matter. The zone is a great scheme because it is simple and adaptable and easy to teach. There are really only two techniques that everyone needs to be fluent in to make the zone work*. This is basic stuff, but it's perfect for a team playing new guys, in unfamiliar spots with unfamiliar partners to either side.
*If you want to tell the difference between the inside and outside zone watch how the line steps. If it is an outside zone everyone will step laterally to try and reach across the face of the defender nearest them, even uncovered linemen. The inside zone is akin to an old fashioned drive block.
I don't know that Hiller wanted to become a strictly zone team in 2014, but that is what they were from the South Florida game on. The running game was simply too good in that form to mess with it.
The sneaky thing about the coming season for UC is that they will bring back four starters from last years bowl game. Yes Eric Lefeld and his enormous trophy case is gone, but Leahy, Bond, Ehringer and Murray all return, and the Bearcats added a pair of JUCO linemen that I am really excited about. The Bearcats got back to the standard of years past in 2014, and with the talent they have coming back I see no reason why they can't take a step forward like the passing game did this year.