Jay Johnson: Coaching Primer

With an incredible defense, Mark Dantonio ushered in one of the most successful coaching tenures in Michigan State football history. While the highs of his tenure will almost certainly be remembered by those quarters-heavy, no-fly zone defenses, his downfall will at least be partially linked to the ineptness of the offense overall. While I don’t believe scheme was the primary issue for the 2019 Michigan State offense, fans will be interested in understanding what Mel Tucker brings in with his new staff. Due to the timing of the coaching change, Tucker heavy relied on bringing his old staff from Colorado with him to East Lansing. With Tucker comes his former Colorado offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. I’ve taken the task of watching the 2019 Buffaloes in an effort to highlight what to expect from the Spartans offense in Tucker’s first year.

MSU Athletics

There always have to be caveats and when talking coaching changes and what to expect going forward. There exist a few when it comes to Tucker and Michigan State:
  1. Colorado seemed limited, particularly with offensive depth. They had skilled WRs, a QB that struggled to make consistent reads, but was successful once plays were broken down.
  2. Tucker’s staff was only in place for one year in Boulder. While this prevents understanding the full breadth of what the offensive staff wants to go, it does give clues on what they prioritize and what they want to base their offense around.

Now, I wasn’t terribly impressed with Colorado’s offensive line. OL Coach and Running Game Coordinator Chris Kapilovic was at CU for multiple years and made the trip to MSU with Tucker. But Kailovic also has a relatively successful history, particularly at UNC, so without going into significant depth, it can be difficult to know what to take from it. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson also maintains his role on Tucker’s staff, so the expectation should be a fairly similar offense.
As far as talent, at least early in Tucker’s tenure, Michigan State should be expected to have some limitations. The QB position has to be a primary concern after Lewerke’s graduation and no one stepping up to be a clear heir. The offensive line has underperformed for years. And their best WR bolted for the NFL draft. That said, they have some promising players at the skilled positions and recruited fairly well along the offensive line. It will likely be a transition year, but the cupboard isn’t empty.

Personnel, Formation, and Pre-snap
Colorado ran 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE) probably 90% of their snaps. Outside the red zone they probably only ran a handful of snaps in different personnel groupings, favoring 12 personnel more often than 10 personnel. The red zone saw a slight increase in 12 personnel usage, but they still were in 11 personnel the clear majority of the time.

At RB, they had a clear bell-cow, who handled about 2/3 of the carriers and probably about 75% of the total snaps. Behind that they had a clear backup in former Cass Tech RB Jaren Mangham.

4 WRs rotated through the typical three WR positions on the field at a time, with a clear preference for the top two, which rarely came off the field. The CU TE almost never came off the field.

Because of the limited personnel usage and heavy utilization of shotgun, Colorado was formationally restrained. With the vast majority of snaps being split between Shotgun Near (aligned toward the TE), Shotgun Far (aligned away from the TE), and pistol. In a few game plans they featured an under center component. This was almost always to utilize jet motion and end arounds (think the Rams offense) and all with an Ace backfield.

Further restricting their formation usage was the fact that the TE aligned in a Y-Off position probably about 80% of the snaps. This means there was little to no nub type formations as a single-side WR was always split from the formation.

The two primary formations were Doubles Y-Off and X Open Y Trio.

Far Doubles Y-Off

Pistol X Open Y Trio

One of the ways they did add some formation complexity was shifting the TE out into a WR split. This happened in several ways, either as the #3 WR in a 3x1, as the point man in bunch, or sometimes as the #2 in a twins set (either aligned on the LOS or off).

Near Double Twins:

They also did utilize condensed formations, typically to run the ball, often added with the under center component. When they did pass, it was usually a mesh concept.

And as previously mentioned, they went under center at times

One way you could say they add some wrinkles to the backfield is that occasionally the Y-Off TE will cheat into what is called a "Sniffer" position, where he aligns behind the tackle-guard rather than off the tackle.

Motion was a minor part of the offense, and came in three distinct flavors:

First, they had certain game plan oriented motions, such as the RB shift to out-leverage Arizona State's 3-man front and attack the safety run fit (you'll see an RPO we'll touch on later to the bottom of the screen):

Second, they had some basic motions across the formation or RB push motion to help identify coverage, typically used on key third downs

Last, when they wanted to threaten with Jet Sweep

I had to put a jet sweep to boundary for little gain to troll Michigan State fans, sorry...

They also run it to the field, typically as a fake to hold the edge defenders.

The other time they would add some motion was after a change in possession.

Colorado did run a no-huddle offense, but were middle of the pack when it came to tempo. There were a few instances where they pushed the tempo a bit, but it is not a tool they utilize very often.

Run Offense
Colorado was an inside zone heavy run offense, running both split and weakside Inside Zone about equally (note: a ton of teams in the PAC12 run 3-man fronts, which may impact this balance a bit more)

Weakside Inside Zone:

Two regular changeups that were utilized over the course of the year were a Lead Stretch Zone play and a Belly Zone Arc Read.

The Lead Stretch Zone had a bit of a unique aspect to it. The Off-Y TE was utilized more like a FB leading to the playside LB level, rather than like a TE working a double to the second level. Watch here as the Off-Y delays his release so he can fold under the Tackle up to the playside LB.

The Belly Zone play was typically run to the strong side of the formation with the TE jabbing down to simulate the first level block before moving to the second level, though they ran it with split flow action as well.

Here was a cool wrinkle where they arc blocked with both playside TEs in one of the rare instances they went into 12 personnel:

One thing Colorado appeared to do what add a unique wrinkle each game that appeared gameplan specific, and not necessarily something that was carried forward or built upon in future games. This applies from a formation standpoint, motion standpoint, and scheme wrinkles.

Some wrinkles that Colorado ran a few times in specific games included Counter OT with a backside read (saw it in two games), and Duo (against Arizona). While they utilized jet flowthroughout the season, the leaned on it more heavily against Washington. But again, I want to emphasize that these run designs were very game plan specific and not a standard part of the offense, it was added flare that those opponents didn't spend significant time prepping for and forced future opponents to at least scout.

Pass Offense
Colorado appeared to be a “concept” heavy offense. What this means is that they utilized fairly generic two-man and three-man concepts within the offense without a lot of deviation. On the plus side, these are relatively easy concepts for the QB to execute, giving clear movement/progression keys that allow for fast processing. On the downside, defenses have many tools and experience executing against these concepts, and it often led to the Colorado offense relying on the QBs legs to scramble and make plays after the play had broken down.

One thing is clear, the offense is going to give WRs a shot downfield to make plays. One of their go-to concepts is a IZ Play Action 3 Verts (this is more pure verticals, release based on leverage, than the Houston concept or Seattle Concept). Find the single matchup, throw, and expect the WR to make a play.

The offense has a handful of core concepts that they heavily relied upon, much of the time out of 2x2 sets, where they mirror the concept on both sides. A favorite is Double Pole.

Another favorite is a double slant concept in which the inside receiver runs slightly deeper than the outside WR.

The mirror quite a few concepts, including flat-7, flat-9, Smash, etc.

They also utilize their fair share of 3-man concepts, sometimes with the third man coming from the opposite side. Typically these too are your standard concepts such as Stick, Boot, Flood, Snag.

They often also attach a pre-snap read opposite their 3-man concepts, typically a slant or a hitch. The QB will read leverage and matchup, and if it is favorable, they will attack the single receiver side.

Lastly, their go-to concept inside the Red Zone is Mesh.

I would note that their success rate with mesh was not great, but they were dedicated to it, running it with several different tags (RB wheel, corner routes, super mesh, etc.). So I expect it to continue to be a staple.

They dabble in screens a little bit, but it isn't a major part of the offense. Their most effective screen was a fake Outside Zone Tunnel Screen Throw Back.

Run-Pass Offense
Colorado didn’t show an extremely robust RPO offense, but it did exist. Most of their screen game came off “Now” screens attached as part ofan RPO.

Note, this is a pre-snap RPO based on numbers/leverage. They also utilized slants and hitches in their RPO offense for post-snap reads, but they weren't used often. As I said, it isn’t a robust RPO offense, but enough to keep the offense honest.

I did watch a little bit of the film from Johnson's time with Minnesota. The offense was very similar to the one he ran in Colorado. The primary difference is that he inherited a FB and OL that could pull. This did lead to some gap schemes being more prominent in the playbook, including regular use of pin and pull and some Power/Counter. They were still very much Inside Zone based though.

General Thoughts
Overall, I’m not in love with the offense, but it is fundamentally sound. The idea, it seems, is a simplified offense that allows players to play fast. The formations are limited, the playbook is limited, but you can tell they have concepts they feel they can rely on. Unfortunately, this led to a lot of instances of WRs not getting open and the QB having to scramble in order to make plays. Johnson will give his guys chances to make plays, but outside a few gameplan concepts, the play design doesn’t do a lot to scheme players open.

They do appear to have some ability from a scouting standpoint. In my mind, the gameplan specific plays generally made sense and worked. They were willing to borrow from a variety of areas and attach it to the existing playbook. But overall, there were very obvious tendencies based on formation, down-and-distance, and field position. Tendencies exist for a reason, fans that scream about having known tendencies don’t tend to realize you create tendencies based on the things that work for you, and in order to strategically break them, but this is a very simplified offense.

Lastly, and this is very difficult to pin-point, but there seemed to consistently assignment errors, particularly with the non-standard plays. This could be why the Buffaloes relied so heavily on a limited playbook, it could be a player limitation, it could be a position coach limitation, it’s almost certainly an aspect of a first year offense, but too many plays broke down because blockers going the wrong way, routes running into each other, etc.

I personally felt Salam had a schematically more interesting offense. He used a variety of bunch concepts, had a relatively strong RPO attack, a mixed things up from a pass game standpoint. Maybe these are things the new staff will carry over and attach to their scheme, or maybe they have a foundation they want to build based on simplicity and execution.

I do like that the offense gives guys chances. It gives the team the option of playing at varying speeds and it attacks with both the quick game and is willing to take shots down field. They relied heavily on an inside zone scheme that was mostly uninspiring, but it’s something MSU has repped a lot of and you can build off, especially for an offense that I anticipate will aim to be nearly 50-50 run-pass balanced. But overall, the scheme is going to force MSU mostly to out-execute opponents, and won't give them much of a schematic advantage from game-to-game.