After a brilliant run at Ohio State paired with early success away from Urban Meyer's oversight, Tom Herman is a head coach on the rise.
Herman's initial climb through the ranks was quick and local. While working for several teams in Texas, Herman was recruiting and coaching Houston athletes, which would undoubtedly made UH an attractive job offer later.
"I learned football from (then-offensive coordinator) Greg Davis at the University of Texas," he says. "That was back in the I-formation days, and they were handing the ball to Ricky Williams 35 times a game in iso and power. That's what I believed in.
"(At Sam Houston State), I had some experience with a shotgun spread offense."
That changed everything.
Herman took his spread know-how and Texas ties to Iowa State, where his career almost stagnated. After improving Iowa State's Offensive S&P+ rank from 105th in 2008 to 42nd in 2009, the Cyclone offense crashed to 83rd in 2009 and 101st in 2010. Meyer plucked Herman from the wreckage, and they combined to guide the power spread offense that just won a national championship.
Houston showcased Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin and Dana Holgorsen before Herman. His strategic philosophy is better suited to maximizing talent at a place like Ohio State than generating advantages for a program like Iowa State. While that part seems a strange fit, Herman was uniquely experienced to know what might be possible at UH. Two games in, the team is 2-0 with a 34-31 upset at Bobby Petrino's Louisville.
The situation at Houston
Herman has explained his staff philosophy as being about finding coaches who shared his philosophy, knew how to recruit, and could build strong connections with players.
This consisted of snatching up assistants from previous stops, rescuing a few from Texas and landing one of the top up-and-coming defensive coordinators, Utah State's Todd Orlando. Picking up where now-Wisconsin DC Dave Aranda had left off, Orlando's defenses finished sixth in Defensive S&P+ in 2013 and 32nd in 2014.
"I wanted to base out of a 3-4, because I knew it was always a big challenge for me game-planning against teams that were really good out of that," Herman said of Orlando.
Much of the talent produced by Texas comes from the Houston area, the Southeastern "Golden Triangle" and East Texas. Since Houston is in the middle of one of the richest grounds in the country, the level of athlete who will accept a Cougar scholarship is pretty high. Every year that region produces dozens of athletic players who are overlooked because of size, academics or some marginal flaw.
With a hard-working staff that knows the state well, Houston can eat well by simply snatching up two- and three-star players it's carefully evaluated in its own backyard.
Early in the 2016 cycle, UH landed commitments from the state's two top-rated defensive tackle prospects, Ed Oliver and Jordan Elliot. While Elliot has decommitted and no one is sure Oliver will stick, the national press and excitement these verbal pledges generated were invaluable. However things go down, it's looking like Houston will gain a talent advantage over most of its non-power peers.
Herman also walked into a talented roster. The Cougars settled on QB Greg Ward Jr. as the man in 2014, when he threw for 2,010 yards and ran for 537 after taking the job midseason. Ward is small at 5'11, 185 pounds, but his skill set is perfectly suited to Herman's smashmouth spread offense. The team is also loaded on defense with what is arguably one of the better secondaries in the country, led by lockdown corner and likely NFL Draft pick William Jackson III.
Herman's smashmouth spread and accompanying D
Despite his membership in Mensa, Herman isn't really trying to outsmart anyone on the field. His strategy is about putting athletes in position to make plays through simplicity and repetition.
The offense is geared around inside zone and power-O, run schemes that look to get downhill and plunge the ball through the A and B gaps. Herman will sprinkle in play action and run/pass options to punish defensive tactics for sneaking run defenders into the box. Herman looks to do less with more, emphasizing execution and mixing concepts in different formations to give his QB answers.
The 2015 Houston passing game gets mileage out of a snag concept. UH runs it either as play action or as a quick, three-step dropback pattern:
The Cougars prefer to use Demarcus Ayers (H on this diagram) to run bubble screens, sweeps and flat routes, as his speed and change of direction make him difficult to cover on quick routes. However, they'll move players around and use different positions to run different routes within the concept, while the read is still largely the same for the QB.
Like at Ohio State, Herman prefers to have a sixth blocker in the form of a tight end/H-back, who can allow the Cougars to run two-back power or get another double team blocker on a run. But he'll also use Ayers and quick passes as options attached to these runs, in lieu of trying to smash faces all the time.
Like most smashmouth spread teams (Auburn, Clemson, Ohio State, etc.), Herman has some vertical play action designed to allow the QB to either read for a deep throw or scramble if everything is covered.
Herman's defensive coach has a similar strategy. Orlando's Cougar defense lines up in a very flexible 3-4. It can form either a true 3-4 or a 4-3, depending on the call. The Cougars have the ability to play either in a variety of different ways.
First is their base quarters (four deep defenders) defense, which they often run with eight defenders in coverage. That makes them pretty sound against pass options and play action by giving the defense enough numbers to control the edges without committing safeties as run-first defenders.
If the Cougars want a four-man pass rush, they can blitz the R linebacker, or really anybody, while still using the outside linebackers as edge defenders. When they want to bring more pressure, they'll mix things up with single-deep man blitzes, such as this strong safety edge pressure:
Blitzes like this allow the Cougars to use their talented secondary to great effect. But the scheme is very versatile, and by teaching different players to play multiple roles, they can disguise things while still playing mostly the same defense.
If Herman can load up the roster with Texas athletes, these playbooks allow his staff to put them in position to rely on their speed and ability, all while still playing sound schemes with built-in answers for most opponents they face.